I'm an American citizen and a Junior at a US institution and I've recently been compiling a list of graduate schools to apply to. I'm mostly interested in differential geometry and geometric analysis. In addition to domestic institutions I have been looking at institutions in the UK such as the London School of Geometry and Number Theory, Cambridge, Oxford, etc...

Are there any fundamental differences in the way UK PhD programs admit and train their students? As an international student would I also be able to obtain funding for my education the same way I would be able to in the United States? Finally, how are UK PhD's looked upon in the American Academic job market? I imagine there shouldn't be much difference but there could be some politics I'm overlooking. Thank you.

  • Hi, and welcome to Academia! I took the liberty of editing your question to be a bit more specific, since you apparently do not ask about anywhere outside the US, but the UK in particular. – Stephan Kolassa Jun 3 '15 at 14:28
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    There are many separate questions in this post. It would probably be better to split the main ones into separate questions. – Roger Fan Jun 3 '15 at 14:31
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    This question about PhD in the US compared to Europe highlights some of the differences between US/Europe Phd including UK. – gman Jun 3 '15 at 14:45
  • The London School of Geometry and Number Theory has a similar setup to PhD positions in the US - it has a first year of coursework, after which you choose an advisor. By comparison the coursework in a Cambridge or Oxford PhD is rather little. I imagine because of this it is easer to obtain a place in the London School without a masters, whereas this is quite rare for Oxbridge maths PhDs. – R D Jun 3 '15 at 14:59

I am a first-year PhD student at Oxford, having done some graduate work (and my undergrad) in the US. My answer might be a bit institution specific as Ruadhai Dervan suggested above, but it appears there are some trends across the UK that are quite different from in the US.

"Are there any fundamental differences in the way UK PhD programs admit and train their students?" - Most students seem to enter a PhD program in the UK with a fairly specific field of study in mind. For my applications to Manchester, Warwick, and Oxford I had to write a research proposal for a fairly specific topic for each application, as well as have an idea of who might supervise this research. Many students deviate substantially from these ideas, but almost all students here work in a very similar area to what they applied for. In contrast, I know many US students who started out doing pure mathematics preliminary exams and found themselves finishing a thesis in a very different area, such as Numerical Analysis or Mathematical Biology. These things happen much more infrequently in the UK, in part because the programs are much shorter. The Oxford PhD is designed as a 3 year course, though many students take 4 or more years in practice. Some institutions are starting Doctoral Training Centres where a first year of training and project mentoring occurs. This is similar in flavour to US institutions having preliminary or qualifying exams, but these are often much more directed than in the US. I have not heard of any UK program where anything like preliminary or qualifying exams takes place, so that appears to be a US component of graduate school not present here. I would suggest looking at specific institution overviews of their PhD courses to get an idea of how they compare to US PhD programs.

Another important difference is the emphasis here on research as opposed to teaching. Most students in my program do some teaching, but it is frequently less than three hours a week. In comparison, my MS program in the States had me teaching 10+ hours a week, often with 10 or so hours of prep and grading. I also began doing research the week I arrived, whereas a US student may spend some years deciding on a specific topic to study. PhD students here also spend less time attending classes, and coursework requirements seem to be incredibly minimal compared to most programs in the US.

"As an international student would I also be able to obtain funding for my education the same way I would be able to in the United States?" - Probably not in general. Most US students in my experience are funded as Teaching Assistants, and they spend a lot of time teaching. Students are paid for their teaching services here, but the quantity is so much less that the funding from teaching is nowhere near enough to cover tuition and living expenses for most students. Exceptions probably exist, but most students here seem to be funded from grants their supervisors have, grants or scholarships they have gotten (e.g. Fullbright, Marshall scholarships), or similar things. You can apply for loans subsidized by the US government as well, just as you would for a domestic program. Many students are now funded through the Doctoral Training Centres, but at Oxford the funding for these is almost entirely for UK/EU students.

Your third question is a bit difficult for me to answer without any experience, so I will refrain from conjecturing. Most people have suggested to me that other factors, such as quantity and quality of publications, conferences and connections made, etc, are more important than where you obtained your PhD.

I would suggest finding a copy of Steven Krantz' book4, and read through it as soon as you can. It is directed almost entirely at students applying for or entering US programs, and is useful just to get an idea of what the whole enterprise of a PhD is about.

I feel like I wrote this rant somewhere else, but at the danger of repeating myself, let me just say: going to the UK (or Europe more generally) for a Ph.D. after a Bachelors in the US is not a very good idea. The philosophy about what a Bachelors degree is is so different in the UK vs. the US that only the best US students are really ready to start a European Ph.D. program and complete it in a timely manner before their funding runs out. Most European Ph.D. programs start from the default assumption that you will finish in 3 years (though I think in the UK especially, there's been a recognition of the flaws of this system, and move toward getting students a 4th year), and have a fairly hard deadline. Most US programs will guarantee you 5 years of funding, with a 6th often being possible in practice (and sometimes a 7th, though this depends a lot on the university situation). European students are starting having done much more serious coursework, which in theory makes a shorter Ph.D. with minimal coursework and starting a thesis problem instantly more reasonable (though it's still a struggle for a lot of people; theses don't necessarily come on deadline).

I think it would be more reasonable to join a European program after doing a serious masters (note that Andrew Krause who answered above already had a masters before starting at Oxford). However, there are still other concerns: the funding situation in most EU countries is not all sunshine and rainbows for local students and usually heavily biased against non-EU students. LSGNT (which sounds like a more reasonable option than most) says that funding for non-EU students is "limited," for example.

Of course, it would be silly to say it's never a good idea, but going anywhere outside the US and Canada is making it harder for yourself in a number of ways, without it being clear what the payoff is. In terms of reputation, a few places in Europe have very strong reputations in the US (Oxbridge and Imperial in the UK, some of the Paris's in France) but beyond that, the situation is basically like going to a respectable but not especially prestigious school in the US: if your work stands on its own, it will take you places, but the name of the school is unlikely to even help get you a second look except through the reputation of your advisor.

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    I'd add to this that supervisors matter far more in the UK than in the USA, certainly outside lab-based PhDs. Your relationship with your supervisor is individual and crucial, you rely on them far more and their reputation will matter post PhD. – ctokelly Jun 4 '15 at 18:29
  • @ctokelly I think that's a hard thing to adjudicate, but your comment doesn't ring true to me. I'm sure it's harder in the UK to be some what independent of your advisor because there's so much time pressure, and you have less of a chance of "shopping around" with different advisors in the department. But the relationship is still crucial, and their reputation is still going to matter a lot. – Ben Webster Jun 5 '15 at 0:58
  • I might well be misrepresenting American academia or extrapolating incorrectly from the social sciences and humanities in the UK, so correct me if needs be! When a doctoral student walks into my school, he or she is assigned a supervisor, say me, and then I am in effect their sole reviewer, mentor, network introducer and viva organiser for the duration of their studies. They don't have a cohort, just me and their project. Of course we try to ameliorate the risks by having 'second supervisors' and by organising training events etc, but still, it all hangs on that relationship. – ctokelly Jun 5 '15 at 6:32
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    @ctokelly I guess I think of the difference as being that in the UK you start roughly where a US student would expect to be 2 years into the program. (In my experience) at the start of your Ph.D. you're taking classes and trying on different advisors for size (in some disciplines, they even have a formal rotation system), but once you choose an advisor and get into the research, you are essentially totally dependent on your advisor (exactly how much depends on discipline, etc.). Maybe the dependence is even greater in the UK; I can't rightly say. – Ben Webster Jun 5 '15 at 10:07
  • Point taken @BenWebster. – ctokelly Jun 5 '15 at 12:15

Here are some points on UK PhDs:

  • Most Uk PhDs are 3 (up to 4 years) and applicants have completed a masters when they start.

  • Applications are generally directly for a particular project and done directly through your proposed supervisor.

  • Little or no coursework is included as part of the PhD, focus is entirely on research.

  • The London School of Geometry and Number Theory is a Doctoral training centre (DTC). These are more similar to the American system. They are 4 years and only require a bacholars. The first year involves taught course and results a Masters, then you choose a PhD project for the next 3 years. Admissions are generally done centrally.

  • Funding, if available, will generally cover tuition fees and a stipend ~£12000 per year. Some additional income can be made by teaching/marking. Although generally the time spent on this is small.

  • A large amount of funding comes from EPSRC and other research council grants. These are generally limited to UK/EU students. However, other sources of funding do not have these restrictions. You probably need to enquire on a case by case basis.

  • An additional issue is that non-EU students generally have to pay higher tuition fees. This makes them harder to fund than EU students.

  • There are various scholarships and funds that provide funding to international students. For US students I know of the Fullbright commision. Although I'm sure there are others.

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