Tuesday, April 24, 2007

PhD: UK or USA?

Correspondent Zerihun Dula asks about the respective advantages and disadvantages of PhD programmes in the UK and the USA. I have some experience now of the USA via Duke University, and more experience of the UK via the University of Birmingham, and other universities where I have studied (Oxford) or examined (Glasgow, St Andrews, Aberdeen, Surrey, London), and this brief sketch is based on that limited experience.

Each country has its own advantages, and I can see why individuals prefer one over the other. The major difference between the two countries is the presence of course work in the American system. Each Duke PhD student has at least two years' course work under their belt before they embark on their dissertation. This contrasts radically with most British Universities, where there is no course work requirement. The typical British PhD student in Religion or Theology will spend most of their time as a PhD student on intensive work for their dissertation. I am convinced that the American system is superior here, especially with respect to preparing students for employment as academics. They have a much better grasp of a greater range of materials, and the necessity for the submission of papers to individual course tutors means that graduate students are often preparing research-quality work that is outside their ultimate dissertation topic. It is now common for the best PhD students in America to get pieces of course work accepted for publication in major journals. This provides a major leg-up in the hunt for jobs. By contrast, I had published nothing by the time I had finished my PhD thesis in 1994. I had still published nothing until I got that thesis published in 1996. And of course that broader range also helps with preparation for teaching -- American PhD students are not getting launched into course preparation in subjects they have never studied.

One of the down sides, though, with the American system is that the two or so years of course work can seriously prolong the business of getting your PhD. Let's say you leave school at 18, take a standard American four year degree, a two year Masters and then at least four years PhD, and you are at least 28 before you can even get started on your career. In the UK, your BA is three years, your Masters sometimes only one year (sometimes two, depending on the programme) and your PhD can be done in three years. If you left school at eighteen, you are now 25 or 26. Those couple of years you have on your American counterparts you could use to travel the world, or to get some experience doing something completely different, and so improve your career prospects that way.

One of the things that has happened in the UK over the last generation is realization of the importance of PhD students getting a bit more grounding in the subject outside of the area of the PhD dissertation, which is why most universities now insist, as far as possible, on students coming in at least with a Masters. This did not used to be the case. And incoming PhD students will rarely jump straight into the PhD programme but will instead begin on "probationary" status and only be upgraded when the department is persuaded that the candidate has the ability and application to complete successfully.

Another major difference between the USA and the UK, as I have experienced the different systems in the two countries, is the presence, in the US, of the "committee". All the way through the American graduate student's life, s/he has the guidance of a three or four person committee. This committee has to approve the dissertation proposal, provides differing degrees of advice throughout the process, and is the ultimate examining body. In the UK, your supervisor is the ultimate authority until you get to the submission of your thesis, at which point you will be examined by an internal examiner and an external examiner. The internal is recruited from within the university and the external will be someone recruited from outside specially to read your thesis.

Both systems have strengths here. The involvement of an external is a strength of the British system, ensuring quality control across the different universities and providing expert comment in a way that can be greatly to the candidate's advantage, especially if s/he is looking to get a version of the dissertation published at some point in the future. It is perhaps worth adding, though, that American universities seem sometimes to recruit academics from outside the university to sit on dissertation committees, e.g. I am sitting on two committees at different universities in the US.

Having spoken in favour of the British external examiner system, I should add that I am very impressed so far with the committee structures here in the US. While it can mean that everything is all rather "in house", it has the advantage of exposing the student's ideas and writing to a greater number of a people at a much earlier stage. More pairs of eyes, more guidance, extra wisdom can greatly help the student to refine his or her project, and problems can get picked up earlier. The system feels rather more community based too; several faculty members in a given area have stakes in a given individual's research, and among other things that can also help in the process of scholars providing strong and informed references for job applications.

The big question, though, is the one about finance. There is a major differences here between the two countries, not widely understood. Many American PhD programmes come with money attached, so if you apply to somewhere like Duke, you are applying not only to be accepted into the programme but also to receive a scholarship. And the scholarships can be generous, paying not only your fees (which are massive) but also a stipend. As far as I understand it, it is not universally the case that being accepted equates to getting a scholarship, but the two things are closely linked. By contrast, this sort of thing is rare in the UK, and one should think about the process of application for a place as quite different from the business of getting financial help with the place.

For British PhD applicants, the process is in fact twofold. You apply to the university course and, if successful, you get your place. At the same time, you apply to the AHRC (Arts and Humanities Research Council) for funding. This is highly competitive, something like as competitive as getting a place to do a PhD at an elite American university. It used to be the case that anyone with a First would get funding, but that is no longer the case. (A "First" is a first class degree, received by only a fraction of students. Most students get a second class degree, either a "2:1", second class upper division, or "2:2", second class lower division; a minority get a third class degree). Now you need an exceptional First and exceptional references to get the AHRC funding. AHRC funding is only available to British citizens, so if one is applying from abroad, the big questions about funding remain, questions that are sharply focused given the current exchange rate, which is not at all favourable to American travellers.

I spent two years as Post-Graduate Admissions Tutor in the Theology and Religion Department at the University of Birmingham and during that time the most common question I received from international applicants was "what about money?" It was always pretty depressing because I was rarely able to give any good news about scholarships or financial aid for international students. The only good news is that the fees for a standard PhD programme in the UK are substantially less than their American equivalents, in spite of the fact that international fees will be double the home fees. Let me try to put some actual figures on this. When I was in Birmingham, international students paid roughly £8,500 a year in fees. Even at the current exchange rate, that is $17,000, much less than the $30,000 plus you will pay in top American universities. But if it is $17,000 a year you don't have, that is not exactly good news, is it?

I should underline that this is just a sketch based on personal impressions of what I have seen so far of the two different countries, and no doubt others' experiences and reflections will differ.

Update (7.48): Christopher Spinks comments on Katagrapho, adding some useful reflections from his experience at Fuller, in PhD: UK, USA or hybrid?.

Update (14.07): Kevin Wilson comments in Blue Cord.

20 comments:

jbyron said...

As an American who completed a Ph.D. at the University of Durham I believe your contrast between the two systems is quite accurate. One other aspect that has its positive and negatives is that the UK system allows a self-starting student to begin research and move ahead quickly. The problem, however, is that some students are not prepared for that stage and, depending upon the level of supervision they receive, can waste valuable time. I think the American system has a slight advantage here. I also wish that the UK system had something similar to the comprehensive exam requirements in the USA. Such a program helps to serve as a valuable gate keeper to the dissertation stage. For me, the UK system worked brilliantly. I was also careful to prepare for conferences and publication while writing the thesis which made more marketable.

Tim said...

Can I just add a further complexity, the New Zealand system is similar to the British (though usually candidates are supervised by a small team 2-4 people either a lead supervisor and advisors or co-supervisors). The other difference is cost, since overseas PhD students pay the subsidised local fees, and since living costs are low this is a great deal.

PS the two NZ Universities that teach Theology both got in the top 100, and Auckland in the top 50 there is also Tyndale Carey Graduate School which combines researchers from the two institutions.

Colin Toffelmire said...

This was a great post Mark, very helpful. The question of time-to-degree is particularly important for students like me who are moving into the academic world after time in other vocations earlier on in life. For instance I'm already 29 and will be 30 before beginning a PhD anywhere. In the process of researching various potential schools I've also found that gaining admittance into a strong school is far more difficult in the states. Schools like Duke and Notre Dame (I'm hoping to apply to both) take only a very small fraction of their applicants. Though British schools of comparable caliber are also competitive, the competition does not seem to be quite so unforgiving. This may be an inaccurate assessment, and please someone correct me if I'm wrong here.

Nijay K. Gupta said...

Very interesting post, Mark. I am a PHD student at Durham (UK) and I would agree that the US academic work is appealing. However, a major factor is in what arena one is interested in working. If it is in a university, then the USA university-based system is ideal for doctoral work. If it is a seminary, from my knowledge, UK PhDs don't seem to be at a disadvantage. Beside, those of us with 2 Masters (MDIV+ThM = 4 years) feel adequately prepared for the research project. I agree with jbyron (hi John) that UK students need to be very intention about publications and paper presentations.
In the end, as I have been told, getting a job is as much about networking as about your CV.

For those of you that are interested, I have a lengthy essay on my blog about preparing for a PHD in NT, whether US or UK. See
http://nijaygupta.wordpress.com/phd-advice/

JC said...

As a current USA doctoral student, I agree that the value of the coursework element. Over the past two years, I have been able to focus research and writing on topics that interest me, point me toward my dissertation topic, and have the potential for conference presentation and publication. The PhD seminars have been a helpful arena to learn from one another and to gain experience presenting a paper or research data to a group of peers.
That said, I do, at times, find that the required readings for a given seminar meeting do not correspond to my research area and it becomes easy to dismiss. Nevertheless, meeting with and learning from fellow doctoral students has been a valuable experience for me.
J.C. Baker
www.jcbaker.info

Carl Mosser said...

You contrast British and American Ph.D. students with respect to publications very differently than I would. My impression has always been quite the opposite--good Ph.D. students at British institutions are more likely to have a couple of journal articles published prior to completing the degree than American students. That was certainly true in my experience at St. Andrews. Nearly everyone working on a Ph.D. in NT had at least one journal article published before the viva. Many students working in OT and theology were also publishing in good journals. That was not the case at Fuller where I did a Th.M. prior to St. Andrews, nor was that the experience of friends who completed their Ph.D.s at good American universities, including Duke. In those contexts Ph.D. students sometimes published, but it was not the norm.

I have found that many Ph.D. students in American institutions (as well as relatively recent Ph.D.s) don't consider themselves scholars who should publish. The reason is that American programs tend to socialize students to continue a student/teacher relationship in which they are students study and the teacher is the scholar who publishes. It often takes several years of teaching before someone begins to break out of this way of thinking. Moreover, many associate publishing with tenure. As a result, they don't think publishing is vital until a few years after completing the degree and begin thinking about their tenure and promotion applications. In contrast, at St. Andrews we were treated as junior colleagues engaged in research from day one; publishing is just part of what a scholar does and so we did it. But perhaps St. Andrews was atypical.

Ben Blackwell said...

What's up with all us Durham people writing about this? But I thought I'd throw in my two cents that I didn't think about until I got here.

With regard to the breadth that you receive through course work in the states, you also receive more here in the UK than I expected and than you note. One is basically expected (though not required) to sit in on modules here in Durham, though no writing is done. At the same time, you have the weekly NT, OT, etc. seminars (which, to my understanding, US schools don't have) that provide an avenue of discussion around a broad range of topics throughout your time of study. So there are opportunites to gain more breadth here if you avail yourself of them.

While these two options--modules and seminars--do provide more breadth than I expected, I think ultimately one studying in the UK has to take those extra steps personally to broaden their expertise, as well as fit in conferences and publications. One other thing about breadth: the international experience definitely gives you some both academically and personally.

Also, Colin from discussions here in Durham (UK) acceptance rates here are much higher than in the US for a top school. I believe roughly 1/2 to 2/3 of applicants were given acceptance here last year, though some were only offered the MA program first. Plus the range of fees at different schools in the UK is quite broad.

JC Baker said...

Ben,
In the states, some programs do require a weekly seminars throughout the semester. At Brite Divinity School, where I study, we are required to take two methodological seminars, one on NT and the other Hebrew Bible. The remainder of our course work may be special topic seminars, lecture classes with Master's students (in which PhD students are expected to contribute and lead a class), and independent studies with a particular faculty member. Also, our divinity school in associated with a major university, so we are able to participate in many university opportunities.
The challenge of working while doing the PhD is another matter. For the past year, we have been trying to make it with only my wife working. We have two small children and our budget is not working. So, i will be looking for employment over the summer break.

Anonymous said...

I began my Ph.D. in the U.S. and my experience in course work was valuable for helping me begin learning serious graduate research skills, as well as getting my French and German ready for research. I switched to a British university based upon who my superivsor would be when my U.S. advisor left the U.S. school. I'm glad that I did not have to go through comprehensive exams and my expenses were much much smaller than at the U.S. school. However, as an American seeking employment in the U.S., I have run into the problem that my school, the University of Bristol, is virtually unknown to many people over here. The chair of a search committee at a major research university said she'd never heard of the University of Bristol. So while my experinece of getting a U.K. Ph.D. was very positive, my experience trying to market it in the U.S. has not been. I'm guessing as an American that if one wants a marketable U.K. Ph.D., it had best be from Oxford or Cambridge, places everyone has heard of. This is solely a matter of name recognition in my view. The fact that people over here in the U.S. don't know about Bristol or other U.K. universities potentially says nothing about their quality.

Nijay K. Gupta said...

As per the comment from 'anonymous' above, I sympathize with your situation. It is sad that sometimes hiring committees are only looking for university prestige (like Oxbridge). But, I think many US seminaries and universities are also looking for recs from respected people - so, yes, a rec from Morna Hooker (Cambridge) is good, but so is one from Andrew Lincoln at Gloucestershire or Howard Marshall at Aberdeen. IMHO I think a good rec goes a long way.

Zerihun said...

Thank you Dr. Mark. This is neat road map for those of us who are ready for graduate study. I have another concern too. Which particular university have strong program (Pauline? Synoptic? Etc...)? Is there any one with comments?

Zerihun

rachel said...

I'm currently doing doctoral studies in Argentina. As someone who has studied in the UK and the USA previously, it seems the 'system' here is a bit of a mismatch between US and UK expectations. The programme is advertised as three years in length comparable to the UK, but jams in language studies and initial courses/ field exams that compare more to the US system. It feels like it's still trying to work out what kind of programme it wants to be. That said, I can't bring myself to tell you all how low the fees are.

Ben Blackwell said...

JC, one clarifcation on my part... The 'seminars' in the UK are not associated with course work as the term 'seminar' in the US would be. Seminars here are a weekly opportunity in a research area to hear a paper from an external guest or someone at the school. Typically, each research area (OT, NT, etc.) will have their own weekly seminar, and the expectation is that you will attend all the way through your studies to discuss current topics and interact with others in your field.

John Stackhouse said...

Two useful data: acc. to the Chronicle of Higher Education (USA), the average age of the recipient of a PhD in humanities is 34, and the average age of a recipient of a PhD in religious/theological studies (incl. biblical studies) is 37.

This is because many students pursue the latter PhD after pastoring or some other religious work.

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jerry said...

This is a great post. I just had one of the ‘Doh!’ moments and ran back to correct my own site before publishing my comment. You see my own comment form did not match what I’m about to advice. I get less comment than you, so never noticed any problem. I’ve changed it now anyway so here goes.

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Emmanuel Taiwo said...

Thank you so much for this brilliant post, but I'lld like to know whether the disparities highlighted herein only apply to Theology programs in the two countries or to most other PhD programs as well. Thanks again.

Mark Goodacre said...

Well, many of the things I say about PhDs in the area of Theology and Religion, which I know best, would also be relevant to other areas in the humanities. That would be my guess.