What is Involved in Getting a Ph.D. Abroad?
||Anna has met Professor Stephen Hawking several times throughout her time at Cambridge.
One of the beauties of physics is that natural laws are the same everywhere. Equally, we expect physicists to have comparable knowledge of physics and ability to conduct physics research in laboratories around the world, whether they were educated in the US or abroad. For most complex problems, there’s more than one solution, and the challenge of educating a physicist is no exception. The US and UK education systems are quite different from about age 16 onwards, so it is reasonable to expect that physics Ph.D. requirements are different in each country. Here I’ll briefly summarize the US and UK education systems, with special emphasis on their physics Ph.D. requirements, and touch on how to decide if you are academically prepared to move from the US to the UK system for a physics Ph.D.
US vs. UK Education Systems: Context for Ph.D. Requirements
A major difference between the US and UK educational systems is when subject specific specialization happens. US students begin specializing during their undergraduate education but are still required to take many general education courses in addition to physics. Undergraduate physics research is quite common, with many physics students gaining up to several years of research experience before graduating. Full physics specialization happens in graduate school, where the US Ph.D. begins with a year or two of advanced physics coursework, for which a physics student may be awarded a Master’s degree, followed by an additional three to five (or more) years of thesis research, culminating in a Ph.D. at a median age of 32 years (AAPT-APS Report on Graduate Education in Physics, June 2006).
In contrast, UK students begin specializing at age 16 with what are called A-level qualifications. A student is free to choose four or more subjects to study for one to two years. Typically, an A-level student who wants to pursue a physics undergraduate degree will spend two years exclusively studying math, advanced math, physics, and chemistry and perhaps a year of arts/humanities. Usually, a UK undergraduate physics degree takes three to four years and exclusively consists of physics courses and some supplemental, related training (mathematics, computer programming, etc.). A student may do a research project in her fourth year but undergraduate research experience is not as common as in the US. After four years of intensive physics training, a UK student enters a physics Ph.D. program where she will conduct three to four years of thesis research, culminating in a Ph.D. at about the age of 26 years.
Major Differences Between US and UK Physics Ph.D. Programs
Looking closer at the Ph.D. programs, a few key differences between US and UK physics Ph.D.s come to light when considering the Ph.D. length disparity between the two systems. As I’ve pointed out above, the earlier specialization of UK students explains why there is no advanced coursework requirement for a UK Ph.D., as they have already completed US-graduate level coursework as undergraduates. This shaves about 2 years off the US Ph.D. timeline.
At least another year or more can be accounted for by considering how a student chooses a thesis topic in each system. In the US system, a student does not usually have a thesis supervisor, let alone a thesis research topic, in mind when starting a Ph.D. so a student must spend time finding her footing. This is not the case in the UK. When a student is accepted to a UK Ph.D. program, she is nearly always accepted by the department to work on a specific project with a specific supervisor. She can begin working on her thesis research from day one and the thesis project is well-defined, meaning that from the beginning she has a clear idea of what has to be accomplished to earn her Ph.D. Of course the down side to the UK approach is that if a student is dissatisfied with her thesis project or thesis supervisor, she doesn’t have too many options for changing things up.
One final reason for the physics Ph.D. length disparity between the US and UK is the funding model employed by each system. In the US system, initial funding is through a student’s department and then later directly from her research supervisor. Therefore, the major time pressure on a US Ph.D. comes from the amount of funding available in the supervisor’s grant, which can often be quite enduring. On the other hand, UK (and European Union) students are nearly exclusively funded by studentships from the government which only fund the student for usually three, though sometimes four, years and are completely inflexible with the thesis timetable. This creates an enormous time pressure on a student to finish her Ph.D. within this strict funding window. Some universities, such as Cambridge, add their own pressure to this deadline by removing Ph.D. students from the student roster after four years. The funding situation is similar for US students doing a Ph.D. in the UK; I’ll talk more about funding an international Ph.D in a later post.
Academic Preparedness For and Employability After A UK Physics Ph.D.
There were two refrains I kept hearing when deciding whether to apply for a Ph.D. in the UK: "you don't have enough physics coursework under your belt to survive, let alone be successful, in a UK physics Ph.D. program" and "you'll be at a disadvantage when applying for jobs since a UK Ph.D. is so short and you won't have the graduate coursework training of a US Ph.D." As you'd imagine, this made me very nervous about doing a Ph.D. in the UK but, with a few years of hindsight, here's how I now think about these two points.
Whether you're academically prepared for a UK Ph.D. depends on individual circumstances. Personally, I think that the real strength that US physics B.S. students bring to a Ph.D. is their research experience. At the end of the day, I think it is your research ability that will determine the quality of your Ph.D. so being a strong researcher really helps your case when applying abroad, particularly if you are a little short on physics knowledge compared to other applicants. Speak with your physics professors about how your physics B.S. program's content compares to others. Don't be shy about asking the departments you're considering applying to for their admissions standards (or doing some web sleuthing). Network with internationally-based physicists you've met through your research or conferences to get information about the Ph.D. program at their home institution. Don't be shy as asking questions is how you'll be able to make the most informed decision!
Speaking to my own circumstances, I felt prepared for my UK Ph.D. because I'd completed both the astronomy and honors extensions of the Pitt physics Bachelor's degree and I had several years of undergraduate research experience in my physics sub-field, both of which gave me more astronomy training than most incoming UK Ph.D. students. To extend my astrophysics knowledge as a graduate student, my UK department offers several seminar-style astrophysics courses for graduate students, the option of sitting in on advanced-level undergrad courses, and three department-wide colloquium/seminar lectures per week. I don't know how typical these offerings are so I encourage you to ask the departments you are interested in attending about the physics content support they offer to Ph.D. students.
While I've not tried to find a post-Ph.D. job yet so I don't have first-hand knowledge, it doesn't seem as though my colleagues who have a US physics B.S. and a UK physics Ph.D. are disadvantaged in the job market. When applying for post-doctoral research fellowships (post-docs), a strong research record is key. I don't know if a lack of experience with US graduate physics courses may cause problems down the line when applying for upper level academic positions, but it is my suspicion that a strong research record and things like teaching experience will factor quite prominently in these applications. Of course if you're applying for post-Ph.D. jobs outside of academia, the content of your Ph.D. is often irrelevant and what's really important are the skills you've picked up during your Ph.D. (programming, analytical thinking, problem solving, tenacity, written and spoken communication, etc.). Speak with the physicists you know to see how employable they view people who have a BS from the US and a Ph.D. from the UK to be.