8 big differences between the US and UK PhD experience

And one important similarity. 

  • Helen Robertson

Credit: Malte Mueller/Getty

8 big differences between the US and UK PhD experience

And one important similarity.

11 March 2020

Helen Robertson

Malte Mueller/Getty

In 2019, I took a risk by moving halfway around the world as a postdoctoral researcher in molecular evolution.

Since then, I’ve been struck by how different the grad school experience is here at the University of Chicago in the US, compared with my time at the University College London in the UK, where I completed my PhD in 2017.

Here’s what I’ve noticed:

1. UK grad school interviews are shorter and more lab-specific

In the UK, you’re likely to apply directly to a lab for an advertised project or one that you develop with your supervisor.

In the US, the application process is more centralized. You usually apply to a school instead of a lab. Some programs even require you to take a standardized Graduate Entry Program test, though this seems to be on the decline.

Grad school interviews in the US tend to be longer. They can involve a series of interviews, tours, and faculty events over a number of days.

2. In the US, a work-life balance is harder to achieve

I’ve been surprised by how all-encompassing a US doctorate can be. Even after the first year of teaching, the number of seminars, journal clubs, and university-related activities make the US PhD experience very grad school-centric.

I was fortunate during my UK-based PhD to approach it more like a full-time job than a continuation of my masters year. There were intense periods that required late nights in the lab, but I had time to pursue other interests, which provided some balance and made me more productive at work.

Of course, it’s difficult to generalize about working patterns. Demanding schedules are not wholly dictated by the country you’re studying in. A recent study found that 76% of surveyed grad students spent more than 41 hours a week on their project.

3. It takes longer to complete a PhD in the US

Probably the best-known difference is the time it takes to complete a PhD.

UK PhD programs tend towards three years in length, although it’s increasingly getting closer to four years – a trend that might soon be reflected in funding arrangements.

It’s a different story in the US, where, according to the Survey of Earned Doctorates, students take an average of 5.7 years to graduate.

4. UK PhD fees tend to be lower

Fees err on the more expensive side in the US, as they do for undergraduate degrees – although this isn’t always true for international students.

US PhD fees, coupled with the longer study time, means that the costs associated with grad school are generally higher than in the UK, even before living costs are considered.

If you have a funding body attached to your project, it will likely pay your tuition fees as part of its finance package. But this flags a major difference between the two countries: funding and scholarships.

5. Many US students need to apply for their own funding

From my understanding, most advertised science-based PhD projects in the UK are attached to funding, which covers tuition fees, bench costs, and living expenses. The tax-free PhD stipend set by all UK Research Councils is £15,285 (approximately US$20,000), although other funding bodies pay more.

In the US, there is no national funding level – your level of financial support will be dictated by your school or lab. This means there is generally much more encouragement for US PhD students to apply for their own funding than there is in the UK.

This is good experience for a future scientific career, but if you have to work additional hours to supplement scholarships, you’ll ultimately end up with less time for your project.

6. US PhD programs are more structured

This is particularly true in the first year for US PhDs, which includes lectures, exams, and lab rotations. Only at the end of the first year, after passing your qualifying exam, do you have the opportunity to pick the lab you’re going to pursue your PhD research in.

In the UK, I started in the lab that I spent the duration of my studies in. This meant no structured classes or rotations in my first year, and I began my own research right away.

PhDs that are run through a Doctoral Training Centre (DTC) – centres that manage the Research Council-funded PhD degrees – are increasingly popular in the UK, and include classes and rotations during the first year, but often without the frequent exams and coursework that characterize grad school in the US.

7. There is more focus on defending your thesis in the UK

Writing my thesis was the final hurdle of my UK PhD experience. It gave me the opportunity to document my ideas, successes (and failures), and the context of my project. I defended my thesis in a closed session with two examiners: one internal to my institution, and one external.

From what I’ve seen, finishing a doctorate in the US is less focused on a thesis. Instead, your committee determines that you have completed sufficient work and skill attainment to warrant your defense. Only then can you write your thesis, and defend it in a public session.

In the UK, it’s unlikely you’ll know your examiners well, but a US PhD defense is assessed by the same thesis committee that have known you for the duration of your studies.

8. Teaching is an added bonus in the UK

My UK PhD funding set no teaching requirements: instead, I was free to teach labs and mark coursework at the discretion of my supervisor. And I was paid for any teaching hours I did.

Teaching requirements in the US vary from school to school. For some students, working as a teaching assistant is necessary to pay fees and living expenses – particularly if you don’t have comprehensive funding.

There might also be minimum teaching requirements for the duration of your PhD in the US. In this respect, the time commitment and financial compensation of teaching is very institution-specific.

One important similarity: The lab you join will determine your experience

Despite the differences in structure and requirements between UK and US PhDs, one thing that is common to them all is that, ultimately, your PhD is going to be shaped by the lab you decide to join.

If have a positive working environment and appropriate guidance and support from your supervisor, and you’re interested in and motivated by your thesis topic, then your grad school experience will likely be rewarding.

And that’s true regardless of the country you’re studying in.