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 costs when applying to US programs I am interested in comparing the pros and cons as far as career opportunities go.

I have already a MS from a major US university and I will turn 31 soon. My career goals are to pursue a teaching/research position. I am 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 (at least for the programs I am considering):

  • 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


  • I am under the impression that a PhD from a top US institution is well-regarded internationally and it 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 in the US is very low 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.

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


4 Answers 4


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.

  • 4
    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 ;-) Nov 11, 2012 at 14:41
  • I did not know anything about my topic when I started my doctorate, and I could have finished in 3 years. I think how much background knowledge you have is also significant. Also, my general impression is that graduating from Oxford versus Tuvalu does help when applying for post-doc, although less so after that I think.
    – Jessica B
    Jan 3, 2016 at 18:26

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.

  • 2
    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. Nov 12, 2012 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, 2012 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. Jul 24, 2014 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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    Are you in Academia? People wouldn't say Tokyo University and think, oh yeah is a University placed in Tokyo, people know about Tokyo University because is a top 20 world University. Jul 17, 2015 at 22:21
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    The reason I asked you, is because I actually have asked the same question. I did my PhD in Tokyo University, and a prof from U of Hawaii came once and told me to better switch Universities to even U of Hawaii, because people just didn't know about Tokyo U and I wanted a job in the US. I was worried, but then I talked with many people in the US (Stanford, USC, Yale, UCLA) and in Europe (Oxford, Cambridge) and they all told me he was quite wrong, most people would prefer a degree from U of Tokyo than a degree from U of Hawaii any day. (Of course is area dependent, but in general). Jul 19, 2015 at 21:43
  • 1
    That is only ratified by the numerous recognition rankings (not based on research, but on how well known the University is ), where U of Tokyo is consistently a top 10 University. forbes.com/sites/jacquelynsmith/2012/03/14/… Jul 19, 2015 at 21:44
  • 1
    Interestingly, your little survey seems to be limited to anglo-saxon countries, where university rankings such as THE seem to be traditionally quite well-known. On the other hand, I do not see your example as a strong counterexample. Both Tokyo and Hawaii are globally known places; and true or not, at least in parts of Europe, Tokyo commonly has the reputation of being a huge, highly-developed high-tech city, whereas Hawaii is usually associated with images from a primitive holiday island paradise. With that in mind, people who know neither of the two Us would likely prefer Tokyo U. Jul 20, 2015 at 8:04
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    @O.R.Mapper I don't know where do you work, but most people in academia actually read books, papers, goes to conferences and if see many well received research from a university, generally recognize that place. Most researchers who work outside of the field of hula dancing and ukulele manufacturing have seen much more high quality research from UTokyo than UHawaii. So you argument is rather misguided.
    – Greg
    Feb 15, 2016 at 0:48

It depends on your subject, interests, and future career goals, IMO. The US presents the best educational services all around the world, especially in graduate levels (almost all agreed on this); on the other hand, the student life in the US is relatively hard, mainly due to low rates of stipend and scholarships and high rates of life cost. Unlikely, PhD students in the Europe are usually enrolled as if they are employed by the university. A high value of salary and no additional works, such as teaching and etc.

However, keep in mind that future job opportunities in the US are definitely higher than that in the Europe and Oceania. Studying in the US is similar to mountain climbing; when you conquered the crest, the remaining of the way is downhill, hopefully :).

  • 5
    almost all agreed on this [citation needed]
    – Davidmh
    May 6, 2016 at 13:13

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