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 by Robbie Crowder
, posted on 15 Jan '20

5 Differences Between PhDs in the USA and the UK


Considering a PhD abroad and not sure whether the UK or USA is best for you? Robbie, an international student, shares his experiences of both countries.


There’s no doubt that the USA is a popular study destination, but it’s also true that lots of international postgrads study abroad elsewhere. This is even true for American students. I should know – I’m one of them. I studied at home in the USA for seven years before moving to the UK for my PhD.

So, how do the two compare? What can you expect if you’re following in my footsteps or if you’re considering travelling in a different direction?

If you're thinking about becoming one of the 435,000 international students heading to the UK, or the 984,000 travelling to the USA, you might be asking yourself those very questions.

Well, these are the five biggest differences I’ve noticed between the UK and the US, as (post)graduate student:

#1 Programme length

Well, technically this is something I noticed before I began – but it made a big difference to my decision-making.

When I was looking at PhD programmes to apply to in the USA I was finding that most of the programmes for my field of study would take 5–7 years to complete, and most of them would only accept a fraction of the credits from my Masters programme.

So, because I had always been interested in studying abroad, one day I took a break from looking at PhD programmes in the USA and decided to look at ones in the UK.

I found that the programmes in the UK were typically 3–4 years long. This meant that if I pursued my PhD in the UK that I could enter the workforce and start using my degree 1–4 years sooner than I would if I attended a programme in the USA.

Furthermore, most of the programmes I found in the UK highly recommended having a Masters degree prior to beginning PhD studies, which made me feel like my Masters degree was more valuable for a UK application than it would have been for an application to a USA institution.

#2 Programme structure

After studying in the US for years, I was used to programmes with a timetable of classes, telling me when and where I had to be somewhere. My US Masters programme was structured to the extent that I didn’t even have to select classes because the degree had a predetermined schedule that the whole cohort followed.

Based on the information I found for PhD programmes in the US, I could’ve had a similar situation there had I decided to go that route.

However, the UK PhD programme that I am on is not as structured as equivalent courses in the US. This lets me be more flexible, which is great for a PhD, but it also requires good self-discipline and the ability to self-motivate.

While there are deadlines for certain things such as annual reviews, this type of programme can provide a bit of a shock for individuals familiar with the more structured US approach. The personal freedom to decide what training to attend and what to work on in a given day can make it easy to get sidetracked. However, setting basic time-based goals and exercising self-discipline can make it easy to stay on top of things.

#3 Cost

So, is it more expensive to study a PhD in the USA, or the UK?

It’s important to remember that there are differences between individual universities within both countries – and the funding opportunities will vary too. Therefore, you should look thoroughly into the options that you are considering and make the best decision for your situation. It’s good to remember that the living costs of a particular area will influence your overall costs as well.

With that said, what’s the difference likely to be, broadly speaking? Well, in a lot of cases, a US PhD is probably going to be more expensive. The typical annual fee will probably be a bit higher and you’re likely to be studying for longer overall.

As an international student, you might be looking at something like $78,000-177,000 across a 5-7 year US doctorate, vs $40,000-107,000 for 3-4 years in the UK. (Exact fees will vary, so it's worth checking the fees for specific UK PhDs and USA PhDs.

For me personally, when I was looking at what programmes to apply to, those per-year numbers are not far off. However, I did find quite a few universities in the US with much higher costs and a handful that were a bit cheaper on a per-year basis. In terms of the overall costs, I found that the most affordable options were programmes overseas, such as in the UK.

The point is, crunching the numbers on programmes from around the world can really illuminate what might be the best option for you.

Also, if you are reading this then you are probably considering undertaking a PhD internationally – if so, take the time to learn more about PhD study in other countries as well as the USA and the UK.

#4 Opinions of the PhD

As someone from the US who was looking at UK PhD programmes, this was one of the things I was most worried about – at least at first.

A lot of the articles I found online suggested that the US was the best place to get a PhD, with better job prospects, higher reputation and more rigorous programme quality.

However, when I talked to my previous professors about pursuing a PhD in the UK the vast majority did not think it was an issue. The majority advised that I should try to tailor my experiences – alongside of the PhD research itself – to experience I could refer back to for the job interviews I hope to one day get. Personally, I think that is fair advice for any student.

While the perceptions of undertaking a PhD overseas made me a bit concerned, I became completely sold on the prospect after I discovered a tool available through the careers office at my university (Loughborough) This shows both the role and location of where graduates of a certain programme are. This allowed me to see that many alumni, from the programme I’m enrolled in, have had success in obtaining careers in the career I’m aiming for. It showed that these individuals found careers around the world, including at prestigious universities in the US.

As with any programme, your PhD will ultimately be what you make of it.

#5 Work-life balance

One of the things I noticed right away was the difference in work-life balance.

It's not much of an exaggeration to write that while I was completing my Masters I was essentially doing something related to my programme from the moment I woke up to the time I went to bed. I’ve heard people say that when you’re at university you can choose two of three: a social life, good sleep, or good grades. In my Masters programme it felt like I could only choose one, which meant good grades.

From what I had read, it seemed as though a PhD in the US would have a similar work-life balance, especially as these programmes tend to include lots of coursework in the first year or two. I knew I didn’t want that kind of experience. That’s a big part of why I decided to apply to PhD programmes in the UK.

Now that I’ve been in the UK for eight months, I can definitely say that I’ve experienced a much better work-life balance here. I keep a regular working schedule while it seems like most of my friends here do as well. While there’ll always be times where I might have to stay late or work on the weekend, but that’s been few and far between.

My summary

There's no doubt that the UK and USA are both great options for your PhD as an international student. Personally, I am very happy with the choice I made. It made sense for my situation and allowed me to indulge my extracurricular interests as well.

I have a lot of thoughts on studying internationally, but ultimately whether it is beneficial for you is something that you need to look into for your own needs and desires. You may find that studying domestically is the best option, or perhaps going abroad is a better choice for your situation.


Editor's note: This blog was first published on 29/11/2018. We've checked and updated it for current readers.





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