The Sceptical Chymist | Transatlantic Tales: The PhD question

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Posted on behalf of Nessa


I’m now getting used to the US, having been around for a month — stopped being hyper-aware of the accents and looking the wrong way when crossing the road and such. Urbana-Champaign is a pretty place with strong historical foundations and lots going for it scientifically. Already I’m starting to think about how gutted (but a bit relieved) I’ll be when I have to leave in September!

The one matter that keeps coming up when talking to my co-workers here is about the PhD system. The postdoc:PhD student ratio in most groups is a lot lower here because of how the funding works — although maybe that makes sense, as chemistry PhDs take an average of five years to obtain in the US, and often longer. Everyone here advises me to apply for my PhD in America, whereas scientists at home in England are saying stay in Europe…

The US system is a lot more structured than the British ‘turn up and do some research, then a bit later put Dr in front of your name’. You have to take classes in all kinds of things, even including inorganic and/or physical chemistry if you’re specializing in organic like me. Then there are other classes on hilarious topics like how to write reports or give presentations, which to me sound like general studies at A level, i.e., about as practical as a chocolate rotovap. Teaching classes and labs is expected, which is nice as it means your supervisor can’t say no if you want to do it, but also means that no one can get the upper hand for later life by making sure they get in the extra experience. You also seem to see a lot more of your supervisor in general here (decide for yourself whether that’s a good thing or not!), and as people keep pointing out to me, the three best universities in the world are US institutions (although I reply that they could only get there by copying Oxbridge).

So if American PhDs really are better respected and better for your career — why does anyone do their PhD in Britain? Well apart from obvious additional factors like Brits wanting to stay close to home, the truth is that most of my lecturers in Oxford scoff at the idea of a 7-year PhD. I admit I’m not sure I like the sound of years and years, flitting about from project to project. The overwhelming mood in Britain is ‘why bother? When you can get the same qualification in half the time’.

At the end of the day if you’re in this dilemma, the best path is to try and get into somewhere where you can do the best science for you. And that includes factors such as funding, the culture of the place you live in, and how close you are to friends and family. PhDs: they’re not just black and white.

Nessa (you can find me on G+ here)

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