Postgrad Lives: 'Taking this PhD has transformed my idea of what I want to do'

Universities in the US can give British graduates better resources and more choice

Last year, some 2,500 students packed their bags to take their postgraduate degrees in the United States. It was a record for Britons going to North America, with student numbers increasing 4 per cent on the previous year. Such statistics leave prospective postgraduates at home scratching their heads with two questions: what’s so special about studying across the pond, and if the US really is a better place to study, how do you get in on the action?

There are three big advantages to studying in the United States. The first is money. Vast sums are invested in research and development on American campuses, which are already much better endowed than their British counterparts. This doesn’t just mean more free drinks events; it also means having the resources to carry out expensive top-level research that leads to breakthroughs and publications, be it in healthcare or rocket science.

The second advantage is choice. There are 1,700 institutions in the United States offering postgraduate qualifications – that’s 10 times the number available in the UK. These opportunities aren’t just offered at the famous private American universities such as Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), but also at the country’s great state universities like the University of California, Maryland and

Michigan (the three most common US state university destinations for UK postgraduates last year). Others – such as the University of Oregon – specialise in becoming world leaders in particular fields of expertise.

The third benefit of a stint in the States is the chance to stand out in the jobs market. Margaret Bray, a member of the economics department at the London School of Economics, who works on PhD admissions, has had jobs in both the US and the UK. “When graduates come to me for advice, I tell them to consider the States very seriously,” she says, “It depends what you’re studying, of course, but in general it’s better not to do your postgraduate degree in the same place as your undergraduate one. It’s good to get exposed to new people and to new ideas.”

According to Bray, US universities are more likely to offer better quality careers services. “American universities see helping PhD students into employment as a big part of their role,” she says. “Lots of letters and references are written, and they have faculty members and websites dedicated to supporting people into the academic jobs market. The LSE offers all of that, but in general this help is less formalised than it is in the US.”

So if the United States offers all these benefits, what’s the catch? There are, of course, some drawbacks. Tuition fees are not cheap in America, and it costs an average of £20,000 ($30,000) a year for living and tuition costs (although applicants are advised to check online for details on particular universities, which tend to vary). These costs add up, particularly when you take into account that American postgraduate degrees take four or five years to complete.

On top of that, you may have to sit some American entrance exams (which, for the top universities, can be time-consuming and expensive), complete international application forms and meet the additional stresses associated with visas and international travel. Cultural adjustments can also be more difficult than might be expected for a country that speaks your own language.

But these problems are not insurmountable. Viral Gandhi, 25, is now half way through his PhD in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and the fine education he’s getting hasn’t cost a penny. “I applied for financial support, and now they cover my tuition fees and provide me with a $23,500-a-year stipend,” he says. “That kind of funding is hard to come by in the UK, and Harvard is an excellent brand name. If I wanted an academic job, I’d probably get a better one having been at a US institution – and the facilities here are crazy.”

Gandhi says that he didn’t find the application process too harrowing. “There is a separate application for each university. But the Harvard application wasn’t too bad. You need to take the GRE [Graduate Record Examination], which is a maths and verbal test that isn’t too difficult. You need a few references. And you need to write a personal statement explaining why you want to do grad school there. But it’s not that hard.”

Jennifer Hepworth, 24, has also just successfully applied to Harvard for an MBA, and managed to pick up the Kennedy Scholarship on the way, a fund which covers all tuition fees and living costs, and is open to individuals applying to Harvard and MIT.

Hepworth has this advice for applicants. “One thing I was very aware of when making my applications to American universities was trying to find my

American ‘voice’,” she says. “Brits tend to naturally cultivate a kind of faux humility and understate their achievements, whereas Americans are far more direct in championing themselves. I tried to keep this at the front of my mind when writing my [application] essays, reasoning that, if they didn’t make me squirm with discomfort when I re-read them, they probably wouldn’t stand up against the competition. I’ve ended up with essays which make me nauseous, but the admissions committees seemed to like them!”

In the US, universities receive high levels of funding from the state and private sector for conducting research. A significant proportion of this funding goes towards bursaries, which students receive in return for taking part in a specified piece of research, or for committing to teach for a certain number of hours a week. This is different to the UK, where scholarships tend to come through research councils rather than universities, and are reserved almost exclusively for the most high-performing candidates.

According to Bray, these different methods of funding could explain why PhDs tend to take longer in the States. “In the US, many supervisors have an incentive to keep on strong PhD students who are coming to the end of their degree, because they have become experts who can boost their publication records. In the UK, the research councils target PhD completion rates, so there is more pressure on everyone to complete a PhD in good time.”

Because most of the funding in the US is tied to research, scientists and engineers tend to get an easier ride than arts and humanities scholars. One of the few institutions offering funding for all fields is the Fulbright Commission. This prestigious institution is expected to fund 50 British students going to the US next year, and 50 Americans going the other way. Although the closing date for next year’s entry is now over, the organisation offers a year-round advice service to any student wishing to study in the US. Lauren Welch, head of advising, says she encourages students of all backgrounds considering this path to get in touch.

“Studying in the States is a chance to set yourself apart, no matter what your field of study,” she says. “Surveys of the top 200 employers say they really value international experience, and international student visas allow you to stay on for a year or more to work in the US. These international experiences give students transferable skills, knowledge about another culture and a broader world view.”

The Fulbright Commission has more information for British students who are thinking of studying in the US. Visit fulbright.co.uk for more details.

"I STARTED AT NYU IN SEPTEMBER, AND IT'S FANTASTIC. THE BREADTH OF COURSES IS MUCH WIDER HERE"

Alexander Rees, 24, is a British fashion graduate taking a Masters in magazine writing at New York University (NYU) |in the United States on a Fulbright scholarship.

“When people think about studying in the US, they tend to think of the old-fashioned stereotypes: the Ivy Leagues, the fraternities and sororities, the keg parties, the big sports games. But that’s not representative at all – there’s a whole range of things you can do in America.

I started at NYU in September, and it’s fantastic. The breadth of courses is much wider here. If I wanted to, I could take a whole range of classes and jump about different departments. There are so many options I want to take, I haven’t had a chance!

I did my undergraduate degree at the London College of Fashion, but I’ve still got city shock – New York is a 24/7 place and there are always things going on. I’ve met a really interesting group of people – we have study groups and hang out. There are a couple of other international students, but most are American.

When I finished my undergraduate degree in London, I knew that I wanted to write about fashion and design, and I was told that a postgraduate degree would help my prospects when jobs were tight. I had already been to the top institution in the UK, and coming to the US offered me |a chance to extend my CV. There is no way I could have afforded it without the Fulbright scholarship.

American students aren’t expected to specialise at undergraduate level like they do in the UK, so when you get to the postgraduate stage you’re expected to have quite a broad knowledge of everything. There’s also a lot of pressure to do internships. That’s a bit of a problem for me, as my visa restricts my ability to work – I’m a bit worried I won’t be able to make the contacts others will.

I’d definitely recommend studying in the States, though. It’s been a fantastic experience, and much more valuable than studying for a postgraduate degree in the UK. It’s made me confident about dealing with a different culture. Everyone seems more able to sell themselves out here, and you can learn from that.

The downsides? I get flummoxed that I can’t buy certain British products, and American cookies aren’t as good as British biscuits! Seriously though, it’s really expensive, particularly at NYU because it’s a private university. Coming here as an international student is also tricky – you have to ship all your stuff over or buy it here, and then you have to find an apartment. But that’s only a problem for the first month.”

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