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  1. I'm wondering are there any PhD programs (specifically in machine learning) in the US that are structured more like the European ones, i.e. where you immediately start doing research and don't spend your first two years or so on something very similar to Masters' program (lots of coursework, less research). I have already a Master's degree and research experience and would like to start working on my thesis from the start.

  2. Also I'm wondering are there any non-university research institutions in the US that grant PhDs? (For example, something like German Max Planck research institutes)

Thank you!

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    To address your first question: if you already have your Master's degree, many programs require very few classes for your PhD, and I know people who have completed them in a year and considered them noise compared to their research progress. – Chris Gregg Apr 20 '13 at 12:08
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    MPG (Max Planck Society) doesn't grant degrees per se as far as I know? When you do your PhD with an MPG institute (MPI) your degree will be granted by an affiliated university -- again as far as I am aware. HHMI's in the states might be similar to MPI's in Germany. – Name Apr 20 '13 at 13:28
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    I think it's a formality -- as far as I know you may apply directly to the research group at MPI and you don't need to be a student of an affiliated university. – Eli Apr 20 '13 at 13:37
  • It seems students get admitted simultaneously to MPI and affiliated university – Eli Apr 20 '13 at 14:30
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Many graduate programs in the US allow you to either waive coursework by claiming prior credits, or waive coursework by taking a series of examinations. If that's a primary concern, you should look into programs that offer such a format for what's usually called the "breadth" or "comprehensive" requirement.

In answer to your second question, the Toyota Technical Institute in Chicago is a non-university research institute that offers a Ph.D program in Machine Learning.

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It should be noted that the reason for the difference between the US and European style programs is primarily philosophical, and has to do with the way master's degrees are considered.

In Europe (or at least those countries part of the Bologna treaty), master's degrees "follow on" from the bachelor's degree program, and usually programs are designed so that students who complete the bachelor's degree will continue on to the master's at the same institution before beginning a doctoral program.

By contrast, in the United States, the master's degree is very weakly coupled to the bachelor's program. Instead, in many places, it's viewed either as a separate degree in its own right, or as a stepping stone to doing a doctoral degree. Moreover, because the bachelor's degree program is only four years, while the European bachelor's-master's system includes five years of coursework, there is a bit of a discrepancy between the coursework a bachelor's degree holder in the US would have, versus that of a master's holder in Europe. Consequently, most schools tend to require roughly a year of coursework for students entering a doctoral program, as it acts as completing the master's program at a European university.

Also, because graduate admissions are almost always organized at the departmental level in the US, rather than the research group level, there is usually a "qualification" procedure which must be completed at American universities that aren't found in European universities. The coursework phase of the doctoral degree often figures into the material tested in the qualifying exam, and therefore schools often are reluctant to waive these coursework requirements.

However, reluctance is not necessarily the same as refusal. If you have questions about how things work, and whether a particular department would be willing to waive some of the requirements for you, you should contact them. If you can demonstrate that you have most of the work already in place, they may be able to let you skip some of the classes, or at least replace them with other electives (which may be of benefit—you shouldn't assume you're done with classes and learning just because you have a master's or even a doctoral degree!).

  • In the UK, we have 1 year masters. The bachelor is just 3 years. IMHO the courses taken during the masters is similar to what a 4th year USA undergrad would/could take. I suppose the 4th year of a USA undergrad would be different from the 2 years of PhD coursework? – Legendre Apr 20 '13 at 19:31
  • OK, my comment referred to "Bologna" countries with the five year bachelor's-master's program. But yes, the senior-year coursework is distinct from the PhD coursework. (But typically it's only one year; there are relatively few PhD programs with two full years of coursework required.) – aeismail Apr 21 '13 at 0:02

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