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.