US vs UK PhD Programs

Congratulations on taking the first step towards gearing towards that #gradschoollife. A Doctor of Philosophy or PhD (more popularly known) or DPhil (less popularly known) is no ordinary feat. I am sure now is the time when all the “kids” are racking their brains, trying to figure out the cool programs and universities. I must say, the application process itself is a research of its own!

If you were to look into my browser history exactly a year back, you would literally find ‘US vs UK PhD programs‘ googled a gazillion times. So, I thought I would help out my fellow scientists-in-the-making and share some wisdom that I picked up as I navigated my way to answers for that very question!!

A little disclaimer from my end. The information below is solely based on my experience from researching different programs, particularly in the Pharmacology, Pathology and Analytical Chemistry fields. I am sure there would be some differences between programs. So, do your own research and don’t take my word as your ultimate handbook. As always, I’ll keep it real and honest.

US: The program is typically 5-7 years, beginning with a year of ‘rotations’ where the student rotates between 3-4 laboratories before deciding the laboratory and supervisor of their final doctoral project. The student is required to take classes in the first year and electives through the course of their doctoral study.

UK: The program is typically 3-4 years and the student begins their research directly, either under the mentor of their choice or a university-assigned mentor. Coursework is not mandatory. Also note, some of the UK programs do have the option of being done part-time and typically takes 5-7 years. However, it is preferred that the part-time nature is designated at the start of the program to allow selection of research projects that could be carried out in a part-time fashion.

Both programs have similar applications processes, where you need to let them know why you belong there and what makes you an ideal candidate. However, I’ll list out some pertinent differences.

1. Require generalized test assessment such as the GRE. However, as of 2019, many schools are doing away with the GRE. So, you might be lucky if your program doesn’t need one.
2. A minimum of three people to write your letters of recommendation.
3. Earlier deadlines of first week of December to join fall semester of the following year.

1. Apart from your regular statement-of-purpose (SOP), you will also require to write essays for obtaining funding.
2. A minimum of two people to write your letters of recommendation, while a third is optional/mandated by only some universities.
3. Application deadlines and funding deadlines are separate with the latter being much earlier (Dec/Jan) in comparison to the former.

Okay, this is vaaaaastly different. So, grab that cup of popcorn and read further.

US: The easy answer is that most PhD programs are funded where you are provided an annual stipend that covers your living expenses, and your tuition fees are typically waived off. Research is typically funded by grants awarded to the principle investigator with some assistance in the form of federal aid. So yayyy! However, there is a necessity for some return-of-service in the form of teaching assistantships (TAs) or research assistantships (RAs).

UK: Let me give it to you straight. You aren’t guaranteed a stipend or tuition waiver in most instances. Only funded studentships provide the same. However, they are minuscule in number and have some eligibility criteria to be fulfilled. So, where can you get your money from? There are many many many scholarships that could be your go-to such as the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship, Gates Cambridge Scholarship, Wellcome Trust Scholarship and so on. Make sure you research these well in advance as deadlines could be really early. Also, based on your research topic, you could apply for bursaries or scholarships from organizations whose cause resonates with your research interests. Some universities do have their own Trust that assists students as well in obtaining funding. So, it isn’t all that bad. The only caveat is a LOT of research needs to be done prior to application. So allow yourself enough time for it.

I know I asked myself this question a billion times. After all, we all love to play the comparison game. I, or anyone for that matter, may not be able to give you a comprehensive answer. But, here is my take on it.

The US system of PhD programs works better for a younger crowd who are starting grad school right after college with little or no work experience. The longer program assists students in navigating their way in learning their more well-defined research interests and carve their niche through rotations and 6-8 years of schooling. As long as you have a broader idea of what you’re interested in (such as pharmacology), you are sure to find your way through.

On the contrary, the UK system appeals to a more mature crowd (25+ years) primarily due its short program nature. Additionally, it helps students who have more refined interests at heart to directly get into their project of interest. Having a master’s degree prior or some work experience is definitely more beneficial for such programs because there is more independence in their approach. Many students who want to join industry post-PhD prefer the shorter nature of the UK PhD programs.

A piece of advice that I got from my mentors and peers, that I shall always be grateful for – DO NOT do your PhD just for the sake of the ‘Dr.’ title in front of your name. Recognition can be a very tempting mistress in this world of heightened competition. A PhD program is no easy university degree. Make sure your program and research interests resonate with strings in your heart. Keep asking yourself ‘WHY’ you want to do your PhD. It would allow you to get through the application process and the PhD itself.

With much love and support from all, I am headed to the University of Cambridge (UK) to begin my PhD in Biotechnology. Special shout out to my alma mater, Johns Hopkins University (US). The past 8 years in your pristine quads have taught me not just to seek answers to burning questions, but also to ask questions for answers in hand. It’s been real!!!

Feel free to reach out to me if you have any questions.


6 thoughts on “US vs UK PhD Programs

  1. AV Manohar says:

    Hi. Mathu. Congrats for this piece of treasure. Comprehensively covered the important aspects of PhD programme. It is an inspiration for me and others. Confidence booster to all the students. May be after joining Cambridge, you can pass on the tips as to how do the research effectively and systematically, within the given span of time. All the very best. AV Manohar

    Liked by 1 person

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