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.”

Life and Style
tech

Sales of the tablet are set to fall again, say analysts

Environment
A Brazilian wandering spider
natureIt's worth knowing for next time one appears in your bananas
Life and Style
gaming

I Am Bread could actually be a challenging and nuanced title

News
Nigel Farage has backed DJ Mike Read's new Ukip song
i100
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
tech

Company decides to go for simply scary after criticising other sites for 'creepy and targeted' advertising

News
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised
people
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in the win over QPR
footballInternet reacts to miss shocker for Liverpool striker
News
news

Footage shot by a passerby shows moment an ill man was carried out of his burning home

Voices
Sol Campbell near his home in Chelsea
voices
News
Kimi the fox cub
newsBurberry under fire from animal rights group - and their star, Kimi
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

Year 6 Teacher

£80 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Liverpool: Job opportunity for Key Stag...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £130 per day + Competitive rates of pay: Randstad Education Reading: Ma...

Geography Teacher

£110 - £130 per day + TBA: Randstad Education Reading: Geography Teacher neede...

***Sports Graduate***

£50 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Preston: This role has arisen due to inc...

Day In a Page

Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

Terry Venables column

Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

Michael Calvin's Inside Word

Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past