Archive for the ‘Getting your PhD – UK vs US’ Category

In addition to differences in the time it typically takes to complete a PhD in the US and UK (as discussed here) there also appear to be some important differences with respect to funding. In many cases (although not all) when you apply to obtain a PhD in the UK you actually apply to do a “studentship” with a specific PI. In other words, a PI gets a grant that includes funding for a PhD student, and they then advertise that they have a position available for which they conduct interviews. The department only seems to be tangentially involved. It seems to be much more like applying for a job than applying to PhD programs in the US where you typically apply to a department and also perhaps to work with a specific PI.

This being said, there is some variability here depending on where funding comes from. From what I’ve heard there are some places in the UK that may offer support via the department or institution. However, I suspect this is more the exception than the rule (please do leave a comment if you know otherwise! These posts seem to be the most popular of mine thus far and I’m sure there are numerous future PhD students that would appreciate as much insight as possible). In the US there seems to be a lot more potential for departmental support, particularly given that graduate students are usually requested to be teaching and/or research assistants whilst in graduate school in return for support.

There are two significant drawbacks that I can see for the UK PhD funding system as I understand it: 1) Because funding is typically tied so tightly to an individual investigator, it appears almost impossible to switch labs at some point during the PhD program. If your funding comes from either a self-obtained grant/fellowship or the department, you may have more flexibility in case you find yourself in a bad situation. 2) You may not get paid a stipend whilst you are writing up your dissertation/thesis/viva in the UK. In many cases the PIs request/require that you work in the lab until funding runs out, but this gives you scant time to do all the necessary writing. Thus, you may very well spend several months living off savings or working another menial job to support yourself  while you finish your writing. While this does not always appear to be the case, it’s worth having a conversation with your PI and/or other members of the lab about this before embarking on a PhD. Needless to say, I find this practice to be extraordinarily unfair to the student.

With respect to graduate student support in the US, I think the biggest concern is that a considerable amount of time can be taken from classes/research by being a teaching and/or research assistant. This can significantly hamper progress towards getting up and running in a lab, particularly right at the beginning of the program and can significantly increase the time it takes to get the PhD. Other than that, knowing that there may be multiple sources of support can lend some marginal sense of security that is otherwise lacking in the rat race quest for enlightenment that is the pursuit of a PhD.

As far as the amount of compensation is concerned, it appears to be fairly equal in the US and UK. Your stipend is likely to be paltry either way. The biggest issue with compensation in the UK is if you are doing your PhD in London. London is a very expensive city, and although most schools appear to offer a sort of “London allowance” it is probably quite difficult to live comfortably on the stipend alone.

For anyone considering embarking on the road to a PhD at a particular institution or with a PI, the best advice I can offer is ASK A LOT OF QUESTIONS. Particularly about the pragmatic details as there is a lot of variability out there. You want to remove the blinders of undergraduate ignorance as best you can and delve into the real world of research with your eyes wide open.

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There are a number of differences in the graduate school experience between the  US and the UK. One of the most prominent differences is the amount of time it takes to get a PhD:

Time to completion:

In the US the time it takes to get a PhD in the biomedical sciences varies widely based on the program, the adviser, the student and the research progress luck. Usually it takes anywhere form 4-7 years. In my PhD lab, most students graduated in about 5+ years. Here in the UK there is much less variability: it takes either 3 or 4 years; and you know how long it will take from the beginning. This is because most PhD positions are offered as studentships that are funded from a specific grant for a specific period of time to perform a (usually) well defined project. Once your time is up, well you better be done because there may not be any cash around to support you!

There are some obvious advantages to having a set time limit on the PhD experience (although I think 3 years is too short; I’ve been told there is been a trend towards having more PhDs take 4 years…). Having a clear deadline for when funding runs out may help keep a student focused on making brisk progress. It is not entirely uncommon in the US to find graduate students that sort of meander about and don’t get their ass in gear until 2-3 years in. Having a set time limit also cuts down on the potential for advisers to abuse graduate students by forcing them to stick around longer than necessary to continue to work on a project.

However, I also think there are some significant drawbacks to this approach.

The primary one is that students don’t come out as with as much professional experience as I think is more typical in US programs. Given the amount of time it takes to really get going in a lab and get a handle on the literature in the particular sub-specialty, there is limited opportunity for giving talks or multiple poster presentations. In addition, I also think graduates from UK programs are less likely to publish as much or have as much opportunity to generate multiple first author publications or apply for their own support. Given the time constraints, they also appear to be less likely to have the opportunity to dabble or go after more high risk or exploratory research if they are only working on a small piece of a much larger project, as the cost of failure is much higher when the time frame is more limited.

Thus, at the end of the day, I think a student is likely to be more competitive overall and have more professional experience/knowledge about the scientific process with respect to publishing and grants after graduating from your “average” PhD program in the US than the UK. Given the 1-3 more years it typically takes to get a PhD in the US, there is significantly more opportunity to develop a CV. However, if one were to control for the total number of years being in science, I think many of the differences may very well vanish as I don’t believe there are any significant differences in overall quality of the PhD programs between the two countries.