As I check forums to compare top UK schools (specifically: Oxbridge and Imperial College) v.s. top US schools (MIT, Stanford, Caltech, etc.), most of people have mentioned the subjects, just like stuffs below, to consider higher priority for electing US schools:

  • The UK academic system is archaic, as the yearly system of examination has a very important role in the students' studies.

  • Students must choose their major, at first, and continue to the end.

  • ...

But, all of these cases are about the undergraduate studies.

In the case of graduate studies, one often consider all top ten schools in the same level, roughly, where the most important factor could be the coherency between the graduate student and her supervisor.

If we confirm above argument, there is no real difference for an international student, in view of the academic system. Actually, the remained factors would be the whether, funding and stuffs like that?

Is there any important factor (except supervisor) for an international graduate student, to opt between potential offers the top universities in US and GB?

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    I don't get what having annual exams has to do with being archaic. The US system has so many exams there's no time for learning in between them. Annual exams allow for assessing whole areas rather than just small subtopics.
    – Jessica B
    Commented Oct 22, 2016 at 9:09
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    @DavidRicherby: I suspect the OP is just repeating what they’ve been told — I’ve heard lots of people in the US who do believe that about the UK system. (Just as lots of people in the UK have equally dismissive prejudices about the US system.)
    – PLL
    Commented Oct 22, 2016 at 9:51
  • I'm working on a PhD in electrical engineering at a high ranked school in the US engineering and there are qualifying exams for the first two years.
    – jodag
    Commented Oct 22, 2016 at 16:13

2 Answers 2


I'm not sure about master's degrees, but there are a few important differences between US and UK doctorates.

Duration. UK doctorates can be (and most often are) as short as 3 years. There are now 4-year degrees (the so-called 1+3 degrees), which combine master's degree and doctorates much like the US programmes, but normal 3-year doctorates are still the norm. US doctorates take at least 5 years to complete, and you can often exit with a master's degree. One of the downsides of the shorter doctorates in the UK is that the number of papers you publish during your doctorate will be typically less than the number of publications of someone who had 5 to 8 years to complete their doctorate.

Funding: Unlike undergraduate and master's degrees, which have been turned into a business, where universities are all too happy to accept international applicants who pay exorbitant amounts of money (at least 2 times the fees of UK/EU students), the situation in the UK with doctorates is quite different. Since doctoral candidates are getting paid, the funding is typically reserved for UK/EU students because the funding body is British/European. There are, of course, funding opportunities for international students, but they are much rarer and competitive. This answer may be of interest to you. I think the US funding bodies are more generous with their funding.

Application: The application process is also very different. In the US, as far as I know, you apply to a department and you don't have to decide on a topic or supervisor for some time. And even then, it's easier to switch topics/supervisors. However, in the UK, when applying for doctorates, you need to write a research proposal and preferably to have already identified a supervisor who can supervise you. Some places even require you to have a supervisor who has agreed to supervise you to support your application. And if your funding is tied up to a supervisor, good luck trying to switch supervisors.

Content: UK doctorates are very focused. There is no coursework, no TAing if you are properly funded (unless you want to), or any of that. Just full-time research on a topic you've already chosen.

  • The 'fewer papers' point makes no sense. PhDs in the UK are shorter because the people coming in are already more specialised. In the UK you begin research immediately, whereas the extra years in the US are usually a result of taking taught courses first, so don't lead to significantly more time on research.
    – Jessica B
    Commented Oct 22, 2016 at 9:12
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    Depending on the subject, I would say that four years is much more normal than three for a PhD in the UK. Commented Oct 22, 2016 at 9:33
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    @JessicaB I suppose it depends on the field. In my experience, it simply takes some time to get into things, and people typically become most productive towards the end of their 2nd year. Many of my peers didn't submit any papers before the second half of their second year. Many people graduate with just 2 papers. In the same field, people who have completed their PhD in the US have at least 5 publications. Commented Oct 22, 2016 at 9:34
  • I agree with 101010111100. The courses at a master level are no substitution for the start of the research.
    – Nikey Mike
    Commented Oct 23, 2016 at 11:52
  • Plenty of people in life sciences will leave even quite successful PhDs without any papers, because 3 years is simply not long enough for a new starter to learn the ropes and complete a publication level study. Commented Oct 29, 2019 at 16:49

A year and a half ago I found myself applying to top Ph.D programs in the US and in the UK in Mathematics. Having been accepted in one of each, I considered the following factors carefully:

The most important factor, in my opinion, is the availability of funding for international students: In top US programs, funding is virtually guaranteed as a teaching assistantship or research fellowship; the amount of the funding is enough for one to cover all basic living expenses, and then even save some, hopefully. But even in top UK programs, such funding is not guaranteed, and even in the case when there is some funding available, the amount of the funding will not be enough to cover everything.

Unless your family is rich or you are comfortable taking some huge loan, it would be necessary to search for external scholarships, but these, in turn, may demand your time after graduation (for example, if sponsored by a foreign government, sometimes you will need to go back to the foreign country and work there).

If funding is not an issue, then another important factor is the time it takes to complete the degree: in UK, 4 years appears to be very common, since the program is far more focused on research from the very start. In top US programs, however, it can take anywhere from 4 to 6 years, because one has to pass written qualifiers, pass certain core courses, etc..

Finally, another factor to consider is that, depending on the career you're studying, one country or the other may provide better opportunities in practice to get your desired job later. If, for example, you want to work as an academic in the US, studying in the US will make networking, visa issues, etc. much easier. An analogous observation holds if you want to work in Europe instead (although, with the UK exiting the EU, this may change in the relatively near future).

Best of luck in your decision-making!

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    I don't whether your assertion about the inappropriate funding in top UK schools is a personal experience or not, but as I heard from the accepted people to Oxbridge, all of them are considerably happy and satisfied with their funding packages. Don't you believe that the availability of funding issue would not be so harsh, at least for top-10 UK universities?
    – user41207
    Commented Oct 22, 2016 at 5:33
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    Well, seeing as my personal experience deals with a program at Oxford, then I think it is important to carefully consider the availability of funding for UK schools. Keep in mind that the situation is different depending on the program, your citizenship status, and your residence status (for example, EU citizens who live abroad the EU are not eligible for all of the offers available to EU citizens residing in the EU).
    – Lentes
    Commented Oct 22, 2016 at 6:39
  • This is heavily discipline dependent. In life sciences, almost all UK and EU students will have applied to a particlar funded position, and they are likely to have pretty much everything covered for the length of the PhD (as longs are you are happy on approx minimum wage). But international students this is not the case, and the student will either need a scholarship (most unis give out one or two of these a year, foreign governments/charitys give more) or be prepared to pay £20k/year tution fees + £10k/year bench fees + £14k/year living expenses. Commented Oct 29, 2019 at 16:53

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