Grad school: UK vs. USA

Even though I am from the midwest, and went to a small undergrads-only college thereabouts, I ended up going to graduate school in the United Kingdom (through having no shame about asking a random professor if I could do a summer project in his lab as an undergrad, surprising them there that I was not an idiot, and then being asked to come back for a Ph.D. when he found himself with an extra scholarship). Details of how that all happened aside, the differences between the systems affected my experience of graduate school immensely. For one, my thesis and Ph.D.-project papers are all written in the passive voice and use spellings like "tumour" and "aluminium." But more importantly, my experience was very structured and the department held me, my advisor, and themselves accountable for expediting my productivity and progress and keeping it to a 3-4 year limit--something that I have never, ever heard of for science Ph.D.s in the US.

I'm thinking about how to take advantage of some of the other, more advantageous, differences when I am a graduate advisor. I had a conversation with a future senior colleague about what that might be able to contribute to my mentorship at my second interview, and he was positive and encouraging--making a point to mention that constructive ideas would be at least welcomed in principle in the department. I'm still young enough to think optimistically about that.

Here are the key things that differ in general between typical grad programs (as I have perceived and experienced) in the respective countries:


  • Timeframe: 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 years?
  • Projects: are chosen/developed after rotations, so you try out a few advisors and projects before you settle on something
  • Funding: is plentiful, stipends are a living wage for the area (oh yes, you Ph.D. students may think you have it bad at ~$20-25K/yr but try living off half-the-poverty-line-level money (~$11K/yr at the time) in a city where everything is New York-level expensive)
  • Classes: you spend the first year or two catching up on advanced study you missed out from enjoying the typical liberal arts focused undergraduate education
  • Teaching responsibilities: are medium-high. You often have to participate in a good bit of teaching/TAing to support yourself (one of the sources of that plentiful funding)
  • Departmental structure beyond classes: is minimal. Your committee and advisor decide the success of your progress, there's little truly formalized setup for goal-setting, there's almost no tracking and accountability about meeting those goals beyond what you decide to tell your committee and what they manage to remember about you.
  • Endpoints: are absurdly subjective and vague. Since there's almost no formalized goal-setting or formalized accountability (of you or your committee/advisor), when you're "done" is decided in a different way for every person, leaving students at the mercy of decision-making that is often based on the advisor's needs in the lab, or the committee's political problems.
  • Thesis: is a record only of the final, successful story and related significant issues.
  • Defense: is mostly a formality, particularly the public part


  • Timeframe: 3 years mostly, 4 max.
  • Projects: are assigned to you by the advisor who takes you into his/her lab (i.e. you get little choice at first, but it does mean you start working on it the day you show up)
  • Funding: is SPARSE making spots harder to get, and the timeframe shorter
  • Classes: aren't really worried about, since the UK undergraduate system gets people to approximately a Masters-level of focus
  • Teaching responsibilities: are minimal. You have to do some TAing in labs, but really it mostly involves keeping the kids from setting things on fire with their bunsen burners.
  • Departmental structure beyond classes: is more involved. HOWEVER you have no committee. The department head is often responsible for assessing quarterly reports and yearly checkups from each student, along with the advisor. This means you write up your progress every three months in thesis format. The 1st-year assessment involves writing a big review on your topic (thesis-intro-style), so you have essentially written a third of your thesis within the first year.
  • Endpoints: are strictly defined by the 3-year timeframe. You can get one more year to write up if you need it, but you are normally not financially supported during that time. If nothing you did worked, despite your best efforts (or otherwise), you are still done after 3-4 years.
  • Thesis: is a record of whatever you did that significantly contributed to the outcome of the 3 years. If it has to be a record of all the things you tried to do that didn't work, that's what it is.
  • Defense: is pretty different. You submit your thesis to an internal and an external examiner. The internal is someone from the department who has nothing to do with your project and has never mentored you about it. The external is someone from anywhere, literally anywhere, who your advisor contacts to read your thesis. You meet with those two in a room for 2-3 hours where they can grill you about anything at all to do with your subject, whether it is related to your thesis or not. Usually the external is chosen carefully by your advisor as someone who would be interested in your research and sympathetic to its particulars. But sometimes they judge wrong and this person expects too much or too little which can screw you in various ways.

Personally, I thrived in the UK style environment, where the combination of my procrastinatory nature and my organizational OCD tendencies did well with the quarterly report thing. I also lucked out at having a mild-mannered, supportive advisor who let me do whatever I wanted, and a project that had enough backstory to provide a successful base of work and an opportunity for innovation. I ended up with three first author papers and a thesis that was just as solid as a 5-6 year USA thesis, as did most of my classmates. HOWEVER what I missed out on was that extra scientific maturity level and wherewithal that is gained by struggling through something for an extra two years. I had to develop those in my post-doc, and I was lucky to have supportive post-doc mentors (and an NRSA fellowship) to allow me that space to grow up.

Would I have "woken up" to my real potential, drive and obsession with this during my Ph.D. if I had gone to grad school in the US? Who knows. I do hope, though, that I can offer my grad students some structure by adapting the more frequent reporting and accountability aspects of my experience, which were so essential to getting me out the door with a full, published project in 2.9 years from my start date.

5 thoughts on “Grad school: UK vs. USA

  1. Nice comparative analysis! Did you feel, as a US undergrad arriving in a UK PhD program, as though the missing classwork hurt you at all? Or were you able to get the extra background you needed during your earlier time in the lab?

  2. It certainly made things harder at first, but I'm someone with no shame so I wasn't afraid to tell people when I didn't know something and ask them to explain it. I had very friendly, smart, helpful people around me. We had biweekly synthetic chemistry problem sessions (informal "learn about this type of chemistry" given by each other in the student and postdoc group of the dept) and Clayden, Greeves, Warren and Wothers' textbook to teach me what I needed to know. There was a broad range of types of chemistry being done in my dept, so I got exposed to a lot of good stuff.So the extra background was part catching up on the fly, and part getting my friends' opinions on what you really needed to know in my field. I have to say I probably learned it better that way than the formalized way, anyhow, but it did depend on my not being afraid to look dumb at first.

  3. "typical liberal arts focused undergraduate education"I would contend that the typical US liberal arts undergraduate education is anything but focused when compared to undergraduate degrees in the UK...

  4. I really like the comparison. I think I would really really thrive at the UK. If your could combine the better aspects of both continents, you would do great!If could move I would take you up on your offer to come to purdue 🙂

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