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Main concern: I am looking at PhD programs in Germany and the UK (vs US programs). Ideally, I would like to end up at a small liberal arts college (I got my BA from one). So I know I want a program with teaching requirements. I think this rules out France and Switzerland, but I believe many German PhD programs have teaching requirements. I also think the UK has teaching opportunities as well.

Are there other factors I should be thinking about?

Specific Concerns I've thought of

First, am I wrong in my assumption that there are only small liberal arts colleges in the US? Or are there places in Europe, where you can get the same research, teaching, and mentorship balance?

I know that liberal arts departments are smaller. Should I be worried that a foreign school that is good in my field might not be known in the department that I am applying to?

Also, I had a friend at Oxford, who said that she would need to do a postdoc (in a field that doesn't normally require them), because US universities will not see her 2 year masters + 3 year PhD, as equivalent to a master + 5 year PhD in the US. I'm in the sciences and my field doesn't normally require a masters. Should I also be concerned?

Reasons I am currently a Master student in a European program that allows us to do research in multiple countries (theoretically anywhere that will take us, but we have specific connections to France, Germany, and Switzerland). So far I really like the science culture here. I like how easy it is to collaborate with and even work in different labs. In my experience, PhD students in the US just don't have the mobility that EU students. I have an interdisciplinary focus, so this is very attractive to me. I also am interested in a very specific topic and there is better funding for it in Germany and (I think) in the UK.

In the US, it is hard to find a school with more than one lab working on the topic, I'm most interested in, so I like the idea of applying to the lab rather than the school. I am willing to consider working on related areas, but I'm not sure if I can spend 5 to 7 years working on something that is only tangential to my main interests. On the other hand, my Master program has a general focus and I would be interested in taking more classes that are specific to my main interests.

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    Are you ruling out France and Switzerland because you do not speak French? Because I did my PhD in France, and I was teaching 60h per year. – user102 Feb 25 '14 at 18:58
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    No, I was just worried that there would not be teaching opportunities. Actually, the way my master program works I'm actually living there now. I came here without knowing any French and my knowledge is still very basic, but I've gotten by. – neuroexpat Feb 25 '14 at 19:03
  • It used to be called "monitorat", and now it seems to be integrated in the contract doctoral. Most people I know who did their PhD in France were teaching, so it's quite common. If you talk with the staff at the university you're currently at, they might give you more specific details. – user102 Feb 25 '14 at 19:12
  • If you can speak french, you can do a certain number of hours per semester of teaching during a PhD. If you cannot speak French, you can ask endlessly, but nobody will find you enough hours to justify giving you a teaching contract. Source: I'm the second person in that story. – la femme cosmique Jun 6 '18 at 20:31
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It's hard to get a job teaching in America unless you do the degree in America. This is because so much of getting an academic job, especially at a small teaching college is going to depend upon personal connections.

Think about it from their point of view. The hiring committee wants somebody who is a good scholar, a good teacher, and a good citizen of the department (in some order, which factors are more important differ from school to school). It's really hard to evaluate somebody in depth along all three of those axes. It's even harder when you have a pile of three or four hundred applications for one job. So you use shortcuts.

One quick shortcut is no Ph.D. in hand, or a Ph.D. from a place that has a bad reputation. That cuts your pile to 200 or so applications. Then you look and see who doesn't have any good publications or presentations. Now you're down to 100 or so candidates, all of whom are very strong, but you're only going to be able to interview about 20 or so. So the next thing you look at is letters of recommendation. The way you get from that pile of 100 to the pile of 20 is by having letters of recommendation from people that members of the search committee have heard of. There's a chance that they've heard of your famous german mentor, but there's an even better chance that they haven't. Take two scholars X and Y of equal ability, but where X is an American and Y is a German. Let X and Y have equally good publication records and so on, it's still far more likely that the search committee has heard of X than that they've heard of Y, because they've got to conferences with X and heard X's papers and been impressed by him over drinks, etc. This matters hugely in terms of getting hired in the ultra competitive world of academic hiring, and so doing a degree abroad is always going to handicap you.

The only exception I can think of are Oxford and Cambridge. American scholars tend to know the names of those folks, and those two universities have such a strong reputation that you might not get penalized in this way having the degree from them. Everywhere else is a danger zone.

  • Thank you for the concise response! Followup questions: What is a bad program? Can I use rankings as a rough guide? I had not thought to apply to anything below 50, in my field, but I noticed many of the Professors at my alma mater, which is well ranked, have PhDs from institutions that aren't in the USNWR top 50. However, they all did post docs at "name schools". Does institution reputation matter more for the PhD or the post doc (required in my field)? – neuroexpat Feb 25 '14 at 19:31
  • Followup Question for Science Faculty: Would NIH Graduate Partner Programs be seen as equivalent to US schools? – neuroexpat Feb 25 '14 at 19:38
  • USNWR isn't that great, outside of say the top 5 or 10 schools, because which school has an amazing department really just varies depending on discipline. In philosophy, for instance, Rutgers is absolutely one of the best departments in the world. It's not that great of a college in overall USNWR rankings, but you'd still have an easy time getting a philosophy job from there. So, you have to ask around in the field. Also, reputable departments will have recent grad placement info. Look at that carefully. Where do grads get placed? Research jobs, or small teaching schools? – shane Feb 25 '14 at 19:48
  • They don't rank some fields (mine included). What I do is look at the ranking of other science fields, especially those related to mine. If it is in the top 50 in one of two related fields, it seems ok. Then I look at other factors. They don't rank philosophy, but for history (a department I imagine a philosophy person might collaborate with) Rutgers is 20. – neuroexpat Feb 25 '14 at 20:00
  • I think that when answering these kinds of broad questions, it's helpful to indicate your own field of expertise (and nationality/region if it's unclear). Maybe what you're saying is true across different values of these variables, maybe it isn't: either way it helps to know the values. – Pete L. Clark Feb 27 '14 at 15:17
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I have not lived or worked in Europe, so discount accordingly, but my understanding is that, yes, "liberal arts college" does not really exist there. Also higher education in Europe is (at least in many parts; less so in the UK) already significantly more specialized than most US undergraduate education: the "Diplom thesis" that Germans write to get what is chronologically closest to an American bachelor's degree is often of a greater depth and sophistication than an American master's thesis (in mathematics, anyway). I am not really making a direct comparison, but one key to your question is that American liberal arts colleges and American research universities lie on a certain axis with respect to educational philosophies, and on this axis a European university would not lie between them but on the research university side.

Liberal arts colleges look carefully at their applicants for their familiarity with the issues of the above paragraph: they want their candidates to have had some direct prior experience with the liberal arts side of things. Candidates who have gone only to American research universities have real work to do to convince liberal arts colleges that they understand and value the liberal arts college product, to the extent that I think they should be doing some teaching-related activity which is above and beyond standard graduate student teaching. With this kind of additional work and attention, research-university candidates can still be successful...but I have still found that liberal arts colleges pay a bit more attention to pedigree -- i.e., where you got your degrees -- than research universities of the same quality.

So I think that doing your graduate training in Europe would be a strike against you, yes. If I were at a liberal arts college, I would worry that the culture of teaching in Europe is so different from that of the US that some of the acquired teaching experiences could actually be detrimental to acquiring good American liberal arts teaching practices. That's my general answer. The fact though that you went to a liberal arts college yourself is a huge point in your favor: that seems to be the best possible way to show familiarity with the liberal arts college ethos.

Overall I would say: if you know that your goal is to end up at a liberal arts college, doing graduate work in Europe is not the best preparation for that, no. But since you have liberal arts college experience, it shouldn't absolutely exclude you; rather, if for other reasons you find a European graduate program very desirable, you should be thinking from the beginning about how to keep yourself attractive to liberal arts colleges while doing so (e.g. a summer teaching opportunity in the US).

  • The US summer teaching opportunities are a great suggestion. Thank you! – neuroexpat Mar 1 '14 at 15:07
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While my answer is pretty close to Pete Clark's, I'd like to put it a little differently: by doing a Ph.D. In Europe, you are taking a huge risk; there's a reasonable chance (not surety, probably not even balance of probability, but real chance) that you will end up with a record that will make you completely unhireable at a liberal arts college. Similarly, no matter what, you will be closing off the possibility of some liberal arts schools who are not going to consider a foreign Ph.D. Keep in mind, no matter where you're applying, there are going to be people with strong teaching records from institutions in the US in the candidate pool, and it's going to feel much lower risk to hire one of them rather than someone with a foreign Ph.D.

I want to emphasize, I'm not saying all, but some number will. I would only consider staying in Europe if you see a benefit that outweighs that risk, which I am not seeing in your current question, but I don't know the whole situation.

(Of course, you're taking a reasonably large risk by getting a Ph.D. anywhere and hoping enough liberal arts schools are still hiring by the time you finish. Nothing in life is sure.)

One good experiment: look at the CV's of young faculty at the sort of schools you're interested in being hired at. See what you find on them; that will probably be more valuable than whatever we're telling you.

You should also know, a lot of American academics think that in Europe, quality teaching is valued even less than in the US (I'll note, I'm not making a judgement about whether this is true, but simply that this is a widely held bias), so even if you have considerable experience with teaching in Europe, it may not actually help much. Schools are going to look not just at quantity but quality. They like to see class evaluations and reports from classroom observations, for example, so look carefully at what you'll be able to get those wherever you're going in Europe, and whether the courses you'll be doing are at an appropriate level.

tl;dr: it's possible that one could make this work out, but it's a big risk, so I would only consider it if you see a big benefit on the other side.

  • "You're taking a reasonably large risk by getting a Ph.D. anywhere and hoping enough liberal arts schools are still hiring by the time you finish" This was part of why I wanted to study in Europe, because here I get the impression that it is easier to propose an original project earlier in your career. This is, at least, how it works in France. I have this fear that I will end up spending 10-15 years in PhD + post docs, working on a small part of projects, without the opportunity to develop my own theories and interests. Anyway, that was a very good point about the evaluations. Thank you! – neuroexpat Mar 1 '14 at 14:56
  • @neuroexpat Of course, that all depends on your discipline (which you don't specify, but which one can guess something about from your username). It's not my experience at all that Ph.D. students in math have more independence in Europe (probably the opposite, since they tend to be on a much tighter time table, and thus are given less time to smell the flowers), but that doesn't carry over to other disciplines where more money is needed for independent work. – Ben Webster Mar 1 '14 at 17:22
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It's not impossible to get a PhD in Europe and then get hired in the US. I got my PhD in the Netherlands and a couple of years later got shortlisted for a tenure-track job at Stanford, no less. One of my grad school advisors got his PhD in Belgium and then got almost immediately hired at a SLAC (he then decided to return to Europe after a few years), as did a girl who was in a cohort a couple of years behind mine.

The reason why these stories are relatively uncommon is because the structure of graduate programs in Europe and the US is quite different. In Europe, there tends to be a disproportionate emphasis on producing a dissertation. I've met a number of people who have spent their entire time in graduate school (three or four years) working on their dissertations to the exclusion of everything else. In contrast, in US programs, the dissertation is just one requirement among many; before you even start to write your dissertation, you have to spend a couple of years taking courses, write one or two qualifying papers, and/or pass a qualifying exam. As a consequence, students with a US PhD tend to have a breadth of knowledge that students with a European PhD typically lack. Unsurprisingly, the European students that get hired or shortlisted in US institutions are invariably those that make a deliberate decision to delay writing their dissertation until their last 12-18 months, so that they can have a couple of years to take the kind of courses and do the type of research that gives them a breadth of knowledge comparable to that of their US peers.

So, if you want to study in Germany, what you want to look for is the kind of school and the kind of advisor that will push you to get out of your narrow topic of research and dabble in other subfields. If you can't find this much, you'll be better off going to a US graduate program of comparable standing.

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There is no specific requirement in the UK for teaching as a part of a PhD. The exception is when a University grants funding on the proviso that teaching work is undertaken - however, this is a separate contractual issue to the academic requirements of obtaining the PhD itself.

Having said that, most departments in the UK rely upon their PhD students for teaching (normally running tutor groups) and the available hours are handed out as evenly as possible. All you can do is to ask the department to which you are thinking of applying if teaching hours are available.

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