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I have applied to PhD programs in ecology in Europe (Germany, Denmark, UK) and Oceania (Australia/New Zealand). Now the deadlines for US programs are coming up and I am debating whether I should apply there as well. Aside from the exorbitant cost to apply to US programs I am interested in comparing the pros and cons as far as career opportunities. I have ready a MS from a major US university and I will turn 31 soon. My career goals are to pursue a teaching/research position.

Assuming that the potential advisors satisfy my requirements (good publishing track, personable, successful students, international connections) and that there will be funding. I will consider "rest of the world" and USA.

Rest of the world: - can be completed in three years, in this case I will have gained two years for a possible Post Doc, and also make use of my Masters - I will be able to just focus on research without being a teaching assistant, from what I understand publications would count more than teaching assistant experience even for a 50%/50% research/teaching position - it might be harder in case I want to find a job in the US, especially since I will not be located within the country - there are no obligations to complete courses - pay rate is generally decent compared to cost of living

USA: -I am under the impression that with a PhD from a top US institution is well-regarded internationally and would be easier to find a job in Europe or Australia - the teaching experience could be useful to me as I would like to also be involved in education alongside with research - there is more time to explore and think about research questions and goals, as opposed to Europe where you join to develop a certain project - the stipend and the US is very low also compared to the living costs especially on the West Coast. It would mean five years of financial sacrifice - more chances to perhaps be involved in other projects, it seems there is more of an open research community within departments - it might be productive to take some classes that are taught by top profile professors

Are the extra time spent and the financial sacrifice for a US PhD worthwhile for my career goals and my preparation has a successful educator/researcher? Will my international mobility be limited based on where I graduate?

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Your statements about rest of the world are not generally true. PhD studies may be four or even five years, may include teaching duties (for me in Sweden this is up to 20%) and courses (officially another 20%). –  gerrit Nov 10 '12 at 13:08
This is true for Australia/New zealand. –  M. G. Rashed Nov 10 '12 at 13:46
It definitely depends on a lot of factors, however all the programs I have applied to are 3 years, and don't involve any teaching. At least in Ecology that's the case in all the countries I have mentioned. I have even been told by a couple of prominent professor that US PhD are somewhat inadequate as they have to resort to have students teach but if the department had really enough money they would only want the students to do reasearch. In fact in places such as the U of Chicago students are highly discourage to teach. –  user4050 Nov 10 '12 at 13:48
Does it cost money to apply to a PhD in the US? How much on average? –  Jase Mar 13 '13 at 8:28
@Jase - That's not really related to this question; I suggest you ask it as a separate question. –  eykanal Jul 25 '13 at 3:21

3 Answers 3

up vote 8 down vote accepted

I think the key question is: What do you want to do after the PhD?

There are some points that you may consider to choose a programme if you want to stay in the academia. The advantages or disadvantages of the length of these programmes depend on your training/background.

  1. Your background. If you are familiar with the topic you are planning to work on, then you can probably start checking the relevant literature immediatly, in this case a 3 years program may be what you need. But if the topic is unfamiliar to you, then you would probably have to attend lectures and to read textbooks, in this case a 5 years program may be better.

  2. Your CV. A work in the academia usually involves teaching and research. If you have teaching experience, then you can focus on developing your CV in terms of research. In this case I would go for a 3 years programme and get involved full-time on research. If you do not have teaching experience, then you might want to consider a 5 years PhD where you have the opportunity to teach and develop your CV in both lines.

  3. The topic. Some research projects by their nature itself require different amounts of time to develop. For instance if you are going to work on modelling a specific data set vs. having to obtain the samples directly in the Amazon.

Regarding the mobility, I think after the PhD what really matters is your CV. Either if you graduate from Oxford or the University of Tuvalu.

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You have made some very good points. And regarding those points I am still in the grey zone. I do have knowledge of some methodologies and tools, but I want to expand that. And I already have some experience as a TA and one year of adjunct faculty. Although since I am soon turning 31 I am starting to feel the breath on my neck, and I think I could use those two years to my advantage. I feel I already spent too much time bouncing around jobs. But I do see the advantages of the 5 year program. However in the long run might not make a significant difference. PS: I had to look up Tuvalu ;-) –  user4050 Nov 11 '12 at 14:41

I think PhD programs differ in three main aspects: duration, teaching, and coursework. I would prefer not to try and generalize how these aspects vary amongst different countries. That said I think a PhD program with limited coursework and teaching are beneficial, especially if you already have an MS. Some teaching might be useful if your personality is such that at job interviews there would be questions about your ability to engage students. Picking up teaching experience is relatively easy and I would not consider the ability to gain teaching experience as positive in deciding on a PhD program. Similarly for coursework; the ability to take courses is not a positive.

Duration on the other hand is a big factor. The longer the duration the better. As hard as it is to be a PhD student, it only gets harder. Putting off becoming a postdoc, and then again the tenure track, for as long as possible is a good thing for your research output and will help you eventually get tenure.

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You made some good points, however I don't agree with the lenght. It depends what you are doing within that time. If you are teaching you are not investing enough time in research for example. And PhD stipends really stink the more I think about it, the less time I want to be a student. –  user4050 Nov 12 '12 at 23:18
@user4050 I was trying to be clear that a long PhD with lots of teaching and course work is not as valuable as a long research only PhD. I was also trying to highlight that most people who get to the tenure application stage would have loved an extra couple of pre-tenure years even if they came at the cost of a stinky PhD stipend. –  StrongBad Nov 13 '12 at 12:50
@user4050: "the more I think about it, the less time I want to be a student" - Whether you will be considered/feel yourself as a student (in the sense that you were a student before your Bachelor's and possibly Master's degree) while being a PhD candidate depends a lot on the country where you're doing your PhD and the way academia and PhDs are structured there. –  O. R. Mapper Jul 24 '14 at 8:58

I can talk from experience there, because 3 years ago I had the same conundrum.

I also did my PhD outside the US, in Japan, where it also lasts for 3 years (usually).

AS long as you do your PhD on some University "with a name" outside its country is ok for your future if you wish to move away from said country.

Example, here in Japan everybody knows what Keio and Waseda Universities are, and for sure you'll get a nice paid job in the japanese industry if you finish on either one of them, but if you wish to go out of Japan, outside of Tokyo Univ, Kyoto, and maybe Osaka, nobody knows of other universities.

If you wish to pursue a career in US, it helps more to do your PhD over there than overseas, but if you do good work overseas, you have a very good chance to pursue an Academic career as well.

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