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.