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I am quite baffled by the undergraduate studies in the UK as well with their graduate studies. In Argentina (where I am from) and in other countries like Spain and Greece (as well as in Equador for example), the undergraduate education lasts between 4 and 6 years. In Argentina doing a BA degree in Physics takes 6 years, in Spain it was until last year 5 years and now 4 and in Greece 4 or 5 years depending on the university. Then, in order to do a PhD you need to study another 2 (for 4 year degrees) years or another 1 year (for 5 or 6 year undergrad degree).

If you sum up you end up having between 5-7 years of pre-PhD education. In other countries e.g. in Germany, Italy, Holland, France you study a 3 year undergrad degree and then a 2 year Master's degree before you begin a PhD. Therefore in the whole continental Europe a pre-PhD education requires between 5 and 7 years of education. The PhD then lasts around 3-4 years usually.

Now in the UK a Bachelor degree lasts 3 years (i.e. like in Italy or Germany or France) but the Master's is only one year long. Additionally if you get a good mark in your Bachelor you may enter to a PhD program directly without any Masters. Thus in UK you begin a PhD with a minimum of 3-4 years of pre-PhD education. Then a PhD never lasts more than 3 years (most typically).

So, my question is how do we explain these differences? Why would a university look at a UK PhD graduate on the same standards as an Argentinian one? I am asking this because in my group in my university in Argentina we welcomed a UK postdoc this year. He started studying physics the same year as I did. Despite that he now has a PhD after 7 years of studies and I am just beginning my PhD. In our conversations I am amazed sometimes by the fact that this person has been awarded the title of Doctor by a rather prestigious university since he seems to lack very basics of my area of research.

To summarize we have the following facts: PhD time per country is UK ~ 6-7, USA ~ 8-10, Germany ~ 8-9, Argentina ~ 9-10, Spain ~ 8-10, Italy ~ 8-9, Greece ~ 9-10, Holland ~ 8-9, and so on. How do we explain (or they explain) this difference between the UK (England and Wales basically) and the rest of the world?

marked as duplicate by ff524 Mar 12 '15 at 1:56

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  • 4
    A point touched on by others is the UK education system (ex. Scotland) specializes very early. Between ages 14 & 16, there is a small core of only 6 or 7 required subjects (sadly excluding languages, history, etc). Between 16 and 18, a university-bound student typically studies just three subjects in reasonable depth; usually all directly related to their subsequent degree subject. UK undergraduate degrees rarely include study of any subject outside the degree subject. A “well educated” Brit will likely know a small number of things very well. We value deep rather than broad knowledge. – Chris Mar 12 '15 at 12:29
  • How do we explain (or they explain) this difference: They don't need to. Degrees from British institutions are recognised all over the world (evidently including Argentina) - they wouldn't be if they were of a lower standard than those from other countries. – DividedByZero Aug 21 '18 at 18:08
  • Of course they are recognized. Their quality is usually much lower though compared at least to degrees from other continental European countries such as Germany or the Netherlands. – Marion Aug 22 '18 at 7:08

I can only speak for my area, mathematics. In the UK, there is a very clear division between which degrees include coursework and which are strictly research. A Masters degree in math consists of approximately 10 (very intense) months of course work, and only on extremely rare occasions research. A PhD consists of 3 years of very intense research, and only very rarely coursework. This allows students to focus on one specific task and complete it faster. Here in the US, Masters and PhDs include both coursework and research. The research for the Masters degree means that it takes more time, and the coursework included in the PhD means that it takes more time.

In theory, these two systems are supposed to be equivalent, and both countries produce excellent mathematicians (we currently have two postdocs who were educated in the UK who are both quite brilliant). In practise, I would theorize that more years working on essentially the same level (an advanced grad student and a postdoc are both expected to be independent researchers) would of course give someone more knowledge. However, the PhD is supposed to be evidence that a person is a capable independent researcher, not that they are familiar with X number of the main methods in the field. As long as UK PhDs satisfy that requirement, I believe they have earned the degree.

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    @Marion Like I said, a PhD is supposed to produce a researcher. Not someone with a certain set of knowledge, someone with a certain skill. Different systems consider different amounts of knowledge necessary to be able to demonstrate that you have that skill. That doesn't make one system worse than the other. Also, I went from the UK to the US, and I'm on the same level (even above in algebra) as the other grad students in my top 20 university.. – Johanna Mar 11 '15 at 19:24
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    @Marion Like I have repeatedly said, the PhD is awarded to someone who is capable of independent research. Not someone who has a certain set of knowledge. That one can obtain more knowledge by studying for more years is irrelevant, because that's not the purpose of the PhD degree. – Johanna Mar 12 '15 at 0:08
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    @Marion And I have acknowledged that spending more time doing a PhD obviously leads to more experience and knowledge, Hell, let's just make everyone spend 20 years doing their PhD and then we'll produce the most knowledgeable PhDs ever. Or maybe you can just realise that in a system where no coursework is required, of course one can complete a PhD faster than in the US system, where 2-3 years of coursework is required. This does not (contrary to what you claimed a comment to Calchas) make the UK PhD "too much of a business" without focus on "quality". – Johanna Mar 12 '15 at 1:43
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    @Marion Easy. There is no required coursework, so the grad students can focus on learning to do research instead of taking required courses for a few years and then learning to do research. Again, I have said this repeatedly. No courses means that one can focus on developing research skills. As for your speculation that UK degrees therefore are a "business", you don't have any evidence to support it. Present evidence or stop saying it. UK graduates are hired for academic positions all over the world, so clearly major academic institutions disagree with your speculation. – Johanna Mar 12 '15 at 12:32
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    @Marion I have repeatedly tried to explain to you that there is no universally agreed on norm for when someone is an independent researcher and thus deserves a PhD. So have the other two people answering your question, and everyone who answered the question this is a duplicate of. For the last time: universities all over the world seem happy to hire UK PhDs. That you can't wrap your head around how they graduate s quickly is irrelevant, since the rest of the world think they have sufficient knowledge for a PhD. – Johanna Mar 12 '15 at 17:39

What do you want us to say? That Argentina has unequivocally a better system because people are students for longer?

Well I could cite the number of Nobel prize winners per capita or something, but that doesn't seem useful.

The point of a PhD student is that she is able to do research, not that she already knows everything. If you force people to be students for fifteen years while their equally intelligent classmates are busy getting promoted to $200k/year positions, my guess is that you probably are going to discourage the brightest from applying.

And actually, this is a relevant point. In many countries a PhD student will go on inevitably to fulfil an academic position. In the UK something like 75% of science and mathematics PhDs get picked up by industry and financials. That side of things does not want to be hiring 35 year olds.

Back to your detailed point, certainly I remember all the courses you quote (Galois theory, Lie groups, algebraic geometry) were available in the second and third years of my UK undergraduate degree programme.

We were simply expected to learn fast.

  • So other learn in a slower pace? The PhD program itself in a good UK university I believe has the same quality as in any good university. I am not trying to degrade the value of the Doctorate itself. I am wondering though why in some countries in order to start a PhD people need a minimum of 5-7 year education and in the UK only 3-4 year education. It cannot be that the average UK student (of any nationality obviously) learns faster.Being able to do research as you and @Johanna says is the point of the PhD indeed. To do it you need the skills. How can it be in UK to get the skill faster? – Marion Mar 12 '15 at 1:23
  • Counting Nobel prizes is not a good measure. Also, the fact you mention about the 75% of the new PhDs going to industry shows an "industry" of production of PhD holders rather than actually trying to form a good researcher. I.e. it is certainly hard to obtain a PhD but even harder to become a good researcher. This is true everywhere, not in the UK alone. As I understand correctly you are from the UK. Do people ever consider there that education in this country (as in the USA too) has become too much of a business without taking into account the important facts, i.e. quality graduates/doctors? – Marion Mar 12 '15 at 1:32
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    @Marion UK graduates are regularly hired in both industry and academia, all over the world. Clearly, industry and academia find the UK doctorate quite satisfactory. You are calling it bad based solely on the number of years they send in school, and a bad experience with a postdoc in your lab. Please realise that different doesn't mean bad. You are just making a whole lot of unsubstantiated claims about UK degrees now, without listening to anyone's argument. – Johanna Mar 12 '15 at 1:39
  • Look again in my previous comments. I did not mention that a UK PhD is bad, quite on the contrary, in the end of the day it is a PhD. I mentioned that compared to other PhD programs though it requires to some extent less effort. Even if we do not consider this as a bad thing, I am wondering how and why the UK students that BEGIN their PhD have gotten the required skills so much faster than compared to the rest of Europe. Additionally, if you look the numbers (whch I do not have now) around half of the PhD students in the UK have completed undergrad and masters elsewhere. – Marion Mar 12 '15 at 8:47
  • Btw, again, I am not saying that the PhD title from UK does not contain quality. I cannot understand the system that leads you into there in so small time though. – Marion Mar 12 '15 at 8:48

The answer is essentially a mixture of tradition and the indepence of the British universities from both Europe and their own goverment.

Firstly, note that if you get many qualifications translated into British equivalents, for example the German Diplom, it will be recognised as a Master's degree, equivalent to taking a Bachelor's and Master's degree at a British university, so comparing it directly to a Bachelor's is not quite accurate. There is also an issue of the irregularity of the British system, Master's degrees are not a fixed length, some are aimed at professional rather than academic qualification, but this is probably more than is useful to discuss here.

The real question of course is why do British students 'get away' with not having to complete a Master's degree before starting doctoral studies?

Once upon a time, this was not possible. The British system in its modern from has evolved from the medieval system (although 'system' might be overstating how organised it was) where a students (mostly bound for the clergy) would spend 3 or 4 years getting a Bachelor's degree, then after a non-specific amount of time and additional work might have a Master's degree conferred upon them. This then finally allowed them to study theology, law or medicine and receive a Doctorate (again the time requirement was unspecified). Note that this Doctorate is not really equivalent to a Ph.D., it more akin to a professional qualification in the modern sense.

Starting in the late 18th, early 19th, century, Germany began to reform its universities and in particular brought into existence the Ph.D. as the standard qualification for researchers. This spread very quickly around Europe. However the other reforms of discarding the Bachelor's and Master's in favour of a single, longer degree was not introduced in the UK, and the old approach to entry into the degree was still applied - that being that the student was judged by academics to be good enough to do it (note also that until about 1830 there were only two universities in England, and a handful more in other countries in the UK, none of which were regulated by the government - they were explicitly independent). Over time, as the university system in the UK grew, this was codified as having at least second class division 1 honours (though a first is of course better).

Meanwhile most of the rest of Europe adopted the German style system, resulting in first degrees that typically cover a lot more ground.

Of course with the Bologna process, the German system is being discarded in favour of a stricter version of the medieval system (in short, 3 year Bachelor's, 2 year Master's, 3 year PhD) to assist in comparing qualifications and making studying anywhere within Europe more feasible.

The U.S. system is more of an anomaly, and I would take care comparing the length of their degrees to other systems. The U.S. has a very large degree of variability in the quality of its education system at every level, so each step has to include the ability to correct for the deficiencies of the prior step. On top of this, the U.S. undergraduate system typically involves a breadth requirement, so U.S. students have an additional year that doesn't normally expand their knowledge of their major field of study, so if you focus on only the major, their degrees are effectively 3 year degrees. Following this, their graduate programs include a significant coursework component to ensure the candidates actually have an education in their chosen field before they start research.

Whether you then consider a British PhD equivalent to any other is a complex matter of examining the precise course of the student's education, which universities they attended and so on. Without naming names, there are systems which are more rigorous than the British system and take more time, there are also others which are much less rigorous and still take more time, so just looking at the time-til-PhD is an oversimplification.

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