I am currently an undergraduate in Canada, but I am interested in math/comp sci PhD in the US. I heard that an academically supporting environment(the environment of the school? of the department?) in PhD study is very important. Also, I heard in some schools, PhD students don't like helping each other, because they think they are competing, which is a sign of bad experience. In some other cases, the adviser might be unhelpful or even selfish. So how can we choose a university/department/adviser to ensure a good study experience? If you are a PhD student, do you like your department? I like any personal experience or examples.

  • 4
    It feels pretty much the same, just a bit more south. However, this is way too broad.
    – Jon Custer
    Nov 17, 2019 at 22:51
  • Sorry what you meant by south?
    – Daydream
    Nov 17, 2019 at 23:32
  • South of the US-Canada border. Unless you're studying in Alaska.
    – JeffE
    Nov 18, 2019 at 0:01
  • @JeffE Or in Detroit, which is due north of Windsor, Ontario. Nov 18, 2019 at 0:15
  • But there is no direct entry to PhD in Canada.
    – Daydream
    Nov 18, 2019 at 2:50

2 Answers 2


This is not really an answer but a (somewhat) relevant anecdote that's too long for a comment. About 20 years ago, I chaired my department's graduate admissions committee. The college had a requirement that new graduate students whose undergrad degree is from outside the U.S. must participate in an orientation before the start of their first semester of enrollment, to acquaint them with various aspects of life in the U.S. and, in particular, university life in the U.S. We could apply to an assistant dean to have specific students exempted from this requirement. We had admitted a student who did his undergrad work at the University of Waterloo (Ontario, not Belgium), and I requested that he be exempted form this orientation requirement.

I thought (and I still think) this was a no-brainer, but the assistant dean wanted evidence, meaning information from people who had taught at the University of Waterloo. So I had to write (with some embarrassment) to a few of this student's instructors, asking them for the necessary information about similarities and differences between Waterloo and Ann Arbor.

One of the responses ended with a sentence that, I think, summarized the situation very well: The only thing the student will have to get used to in the U.S. is the absence of Tim Horton's.

End of anecdote.

We now have Tim Horton's in the U.S. So I suggest you think about U.S. universities the same way you'd think about Canadian ones.

  • 2
    Hmmm, I have to question this anecdote if there was no mention of poutine. Doesn't compute. Or is Ontario exempt?
    – Buffy
    Nov 18, 2019 at 0:55
  • @Buffy - I’d say that poutine is getting more common these days in the US, particularly at brew pubs. So, Canadians don’t even have to abstain from it for the duration...
    – Jon Custer
    Nov 18, 2019 at 17:46
  • @JonCuster, ah, but is it the real thing? To be or not to be (poutine). That is the question.
    – Buffy
    Nov 18, 2019 at 17:49
  • @Buffy - if the beer is good enough, does it really matter?
    – Jon Custer
    Nov 18, 2019 at 17:50
  • @JonCuster, Hmmm. I'd have to think about that, though I wasn't born in Canada. But I am descended from both Jean Guyon and Zacharie Cloutier of the Percheron Immigration. But beer resonates as the other half of my family is from western Germany.
    – Buffy
    Nov 18, 2019 at 18:04

I think this depends a lot on your advisor. Some will be very helpful and supportive and others not. I had both experiences.

The first part of a doctorate in the US is normally a lot of coursework, giving you access to several faculty members. You will also probably be assigned an advisor, but you don't need to stay with them for the dissertation phase. They are there mostly to watch over your progress and see that you get ready for comps. At this stage I had an advisor who was not yet tenured and spent all of his time making sure that he got over the line. He wasn't very helpful and I was lucky to eventually leave him behind. However, I stayed too long with him even knowing we weren't going anywhere.

Later in my studies (long story) I wound up in a better situation with a better advisor. It wasn't that he gave me more support, actually. It was just that our mathematical interests were more alined and he had a wealth of experience to give me the support and helped me with new ideas when I needed them.

But, had I switched out my first advisor (much) earlier for someone that I knew would be better for me, my journey would have been much shorter.

So, your experience can be good or bad. There are horror stories on this site. But the good stories don't get mentioned here. But, look around at the options and hook up early with an advisor who has a good reputation among students and is aligned with your research interests.

Some of the best advisors will run a formal or informal seminar series in which a few faculty and a few more students meet regularly to discuss ideas and/or papers. These tend to be more senior faculty, I think. People share ideas openly, though each works on their own stuff more or less independently.

And, I'm pretty sure that the advisor is more important than the school in almost all cases. The exceptions would be for those advanced students who can carry on research with minimal help from an advisor.

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