No D-Day in the UK

Posted: April 19, 2011 in UK Academia

Female Science Professor recently had a post up about the date of April 15th. This is both the dreaded tax filing deadline (unless you live overseas, then it’s June 15th :p) and “Academic D-Day”  with respect to graduate students having to decide on their graduate school choices by this day.  This graduate student decision date, however, is not universal.

In the UK they do things quite differently for recruiting graduate students. Students do not apply to a university or program for graduate school, but they apply for a “PhD studentship” (go ahead and check out Nature Jobs, you’ll see them advertised). Thus, a student applies to work for a specific professor and is funded by one particular grant to do a clearly defined project. This method gets around the issue of an academic D-Day because the whole process is treated much more like a job interview. A particular PI interviews several candidates for the position, and offers it to someone. In some ways this seems like a good deal, particularly for the PI. There’s no messing about with how many students one will get, and the PI has a lot more control over the entire process and is not reliant on the department to set things up.

One of the problems I see with this system is on the side of the graduate student. It doesn’t appear that there is much recourse for the graduate student if they find that their lab or PI is not quite what they expected (although I could be wrong about this, please correct me if I am). The issue seems to be that most PhD studentships are funded by a particular grant to do a particular project. Thus, as far as funding is concerned, most students are tied to a specific grant/project and appear to have very little flexibility. As far as I can tell, the idea of rotations here is quite foreign. This is in contrast to many students in American universities that have some financial support from the specific department through teaching or research assistantships (although I realize there is a lot of variability here from school to school and department to department). This is coupled with the fact that grants in the US appear to have a lot more flexibility in how money can be spent. Grant money seems to be able to be spent on a PhD student or a postdoc, or it can be spent on supplies or equipment. As best I can tell, in the UK money is allocated specifically for salary for a student and it can ONLY be used for that. If a student doesn’t come along to fill the position the money can’t be spent on anything else without a mountain of paperwork to be filed (again, if anyone knows different please correct me if I’m wrong, but this is the impression I get from my PI).

So with respect to “academic D-day” it appears that the UK system solves many of the problems that the US system has, at least from the perspective of the PI. Whether or not this is better for the training of the student will be the subject of a future post. I need to do a little more snooping around here before putting such a post together so as to not misrepresent the UK.

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Comments
  1. Bashir says:

    I can never quite get my head around the UK system. Though I’m sure that’s just me being used to the American system(s). The UK just seems less flexible in general.

  2. funkdoctorx says:

    I agree, I’m still working to figure out how it all works despite some discussions with fellow post-docs. I think my issue is that I’m always comparing it to my experience in the US, but the philosophy behind it is very different than that in the states. Overall, from “high school” to University the whole system seems to be much less flexible with considerably less opportunity to explore various subjects and find what one is interested in. It seems like students are rushed through the system. Nonetheless, the UK does produce excellent scientists and is only second to the US in the quality of its University system, so clearly the system works.

  3. Worm Pilot says:

    I think that the US, in some regards, is going toward the UK system. There are high schools in the US that have students pick a ‘track’ that they’ll go toward-it could be as specific as a medical track, or as broad as STEM in general. But I think this is a pity because what 18 year old, let alone 14 year old, knows what they want to do for the rest of their life!?! I’m 30 and I don’t know what I want to do! It’s that old joke: why do adults always ask kids what they want to be when they grow up? Because they’re looking for ideas!

    Anyway, this is not exactly what your post is about, but I think the more flexible the better! I know SO MANY people who ended up in labs after doing rotations they never thought they’d end up in. But they had the freedom to explore options. But, that being said, the PhDs in the UK finish in 3 years (right?) and they seem to be just as successful as us US PhDs who’ve toiled away for 5-7 years.

    One thing I think they’ve got right (maybe you can post about this sometime) is the tiered tenure system? Aren’t there more research associate type professors that come straight from their postdoc who work in a tenured PI’s lab before being handed the keys to a new empty lab themselves? Seems to me the way new tenure-track PIs get thrown in is rough…

    • funkdoctorx says:

      I agree with you about the flexibility. My educational path simply would not have been possible in the UK. I studied a physical science plus philosophy as an undergrad, then switched to a life science discipline in graduate school. It wasn’t until the past couple of years I’ve finally figured out what exactly I want to study!

      I will definitely be posting more on some of the different aspects of academia here in the UK vs the US. My primary concern is making sure I don’t misrepresent the British system so I’m slowly working to build up my understanding of it before I put together some posts…but keep an eye out!

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