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Rehab for (recovering) academics.
Trans-Atlantic Impressions 
20th-Nov-2007 01:01 pm
As some of you know from a recent post, I am a doctoral candidate in the humanities. I am an American citizen who obtained my BA (double in Religion and Literature) in the States and have subsequently received an MA and am working towards a doctoral degree from a university in the UK.

In a recent conversation with a colleague (I adjunct here in America while I finish up my thesis), she expressed her interest in doing doctoral work in the UK, but said she had heard some disparaging things about the reputation of masters and doctoral work in the UK.

I can't do much about it since I am so close to completion, but I was wondering if any of you out there had any insight about the reputation of UK degrees in general and in the US academic job market (such as it is ;-)). Of course, I understand that university reputations vary, but I was just wondering from a more general perspective . . .

I have found my doctoral work to be rigorous and challenging, but I suppose I have little to compare it to. Perhaps its a case of "academic nationalism?"

Thanks everyone . . . Cheers/Goodbye . . .
20th-Nov-2007 09:37 pm (UTC)
"Of course, I understand that university reputations vary, but I was just wondering from a more general perspective . . ."

Can you see the problem there?
20th-Nov-2007 09:44 pm (UTC)
What problem? Empty generalities are what we do best.
20th-Nov-2007 09:46 pm (UTC)
Oops. Quite right.

In that case, all postgraduate programmes in all subjects are all equally fabulous.

There. That should cover it.
20th-Nov-2007 10:10 pm (UTC)
absolutely fabulous, I'd say.
21st-Nov-2007 12:13 am (UTC)
Great! Glad that is settled.
21st-Nov-2007 12:12 am (UTC)
Yes. Thank you for your close reading of my post. What I was trying to get at was any differences between impressions of postgraduate degrees in the US and the UK.
21st-Nov-2007 12:27 am (UTC)
Given the vast range (even for these geographically tiny islands) of different courses on offer, subjects and disciplines they embrace, and so forth, you may get more than just "impressions" here.

After all, how useful to you are impressions? You might just as well read a handful of David Lodge novels if that's what you're after!

21st-Nov-2007 12:42 am (UTC) - And oh look...
...there's that crazy, comment-based favouritism again.

Why don't you thank some of these nice people for their contributions?
21st-Nov-2007 03:38 am (UTC) - Re: And oh look...
All have been extremely valuable, I agree.

To be honest, don't know the etiquette for thanking posters. How long does one wait? Does one thank each poster? It's all a bit like how soon you call someone after they give you her/his phone number. Not too soon . . . you come across desperate. Not too late . . . you come across disinterested.

Your reply, of course, stood out to me since I tried ever-so-hard to make my question clear and my logic sound. I failed. And, in true, a_a fashion, you pointed it out. So I thought I'd thank you.


20th-Nov-2007 09:43 pm (UTC)
Not only university reputations, but university reputations in different fields!

Perhaps the reputation your colleague mentioned has something to do with the different way course work and thesis-work are structured.
20th-Nov-2007 09:52 pm (UTC)
I've heard people make snide remarks when someone from the States goes over to do an MA in the UK and moves onto a doctoral program in the US. The perception is that it's easier to get into grad programs abroad (and the MA, in turn, betters one's chances of getting into a PhD program here, particularly if his/her undergrad work was unremarkable). I don't think this is a judgment on the British university system, though.
20th-Nov-2007 10:04 pm (UTC)
I have found my doctoral work to be rigorous and challenging, but I suppose I have little to compare it to. Perhaps its a case of "academic nationalism?"

I don't have any personal experience with the UK system, but I've never heard anyone suggest that it isn't rigorous or challenging. UK degrees do have the reputation of being primarily research degrees and therefore somewhat narrow in focus, however, and US search committees might also be concerned about the amount and type of teaching experience you had.

I don't think having a degree from the UK would handicap you at all at a large, research-focused American university; there were certainly several professors in my graduate department who held degrees from the UK or Ireland. On the other hand, it might hurt you if you were applying for a job at a small liberal arts college, where you might be expected to teach courses that are well outside of the subfield where you did your dissertation research. In English, you would also be at a distinct disadvantage if you had never taught freshman composition. (I understand there's no equivalent in the British system, but please correct me if I'm wrong.) So it would really depend on the sort of job you were looking for.
20th-Nov-2007 11:31 pm (UTC)
UK degrees do have the reputation of being primarily research degrees.

Well, that reputation is correct insofar as the degree is labeled a "research degree." All PhDs are "research degrees", MAs can be taught or by research and an MPhil is usually a bright red flag that says "could not hack getting a PhD but did some research and wrote it up so we won't make them leave totally empty handed" (although, perhaps, there are are some people who just wanted the MPhil and were not anticipating studying for a PhD).
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21st-Nov-2007 09:43 am (UTC)
Mostly the difference is history; the Scottish universities and the ancient british universities offer MLitts which are unusual elsewhere - mostly MPhils cover the same ground. AFAIK, there isn't a regularised difference between the two (you can do one year and two year MLitts, some MLitts have lower thesis-word-counts than the equivalent MPhil, some have more blah blah blah), so if there's a specific recc. to take one over the other I suspect it's institutuion and discipline specific. Offhand, I think the MLitts tend to be one year while the MPhils tend to be longer and two year - but why one should suit you better for in-house PhD I don't know.

The MPhil thing is a bit tricky, because as the poster above says, there's a tendency to take failing PhD candidates and have them submit as MPhils instead after 2+ years of study. Some places now automatically enrol people on the MPhil first and then only 'progress' them to full PhD if they do satisfactorily at one and two year reviews.

There's also an oldschool/newschool divide - the Ancient (Brit & Scot) unis tend to offer relatively unstructured MPhil/Litts which concentrate on writing, whereas the newer unis (i.e. anything less than 200 years old :P) are more likely to offer MAs or MScs or similar postgraduate study with a strong taught component, in order to get undergraduates 'up to speed' before asking them to write a dissertation.
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21st-Nov-2007 03:49 am (UTC)
Great insight. Thanks. In discussions with my supervisor I discovered that, at least at the university I am attending, they don't have a freshman comp type course. My supervisor has taught in America in the past and has suggested to administrators from time to time that their incoming students may benefit from such a course.

All that aside, I have returned to the States for (what I hope will be) the final eighteen months of my write-up and have been an adjunct teaching freshman comp at a small liberal arts college. So I am fortunate in that regard.
20th-Nov-2007 10:23 pm (UTC)
I've asked this question before (British, have only studied at UK universities except for Erasmus and research trips to Germany), both in online academic communities (including here) and of my academic advisors here in the UK.

I've mostly been told that it's swings and roundabouts: we aren't necessarily as far advanced as a post-doctoral candidate in the US, who may well be in their mid-thirties and have six years of very-close-to-professional experience under their belt, including several publications (depending on field) and ten years' teaching experience. But we're quite likely to be several years younger, our dissertations are perhaps longer (I was told by an American lecturer at my university that US doctoral dissertations in my discipline might be as little as 40,000 words, but I've heard other friends who did their doctorates in the US say theirs were more like 70,000) and therefore closer to being finished books. We haven't had the same kind of incredibly intense and broad tutoring that North American doctoral candidates get in their first couple of years, and that's the thing I find hardest to reconcile, but presumably we've specialised more in our undergraduate degrees than North Americans, or something. I've no idea how that works.

Caveat: this is only in the arts, as I've never asked anyone how European and North American science doctorates compare. And, of course, UK universities vary enormously in reputation. I'd assume that at any good institution where your work fitted the hiring committee's criteria, it would be more of a case of, "So you worked under So-and-So? How did you find her approach to *insert technical question here*?" rather than, "The UK, eh? You call that a degree?"
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20th-Nov-2007 11:04 pm (UTC)
She'd probably have had as much of a hard time trying to get a full contract in a (good) UK university though. I've known people get into the equivalent of tenure-track straight from PhD but it's incredibly rare; effectively you have to add on those extra few years in some sort of post-doctoral position, which is when most people pick up the teaching/publications.

I think it averages out at about the same 5-8 years over all, but we have the advantage of a better wage for the last couple of years of it.
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20th-Nov-2007 11:25 pm (UTC)
In science, I have a pretty good idea of how it works (as I have many American colleagues and my girlfriend is Canadian). It's similar to the arts in the way that in the UK we don't have the several years of broad learning and the huge emphasis on teaching. I did a bit of teaching, but mostly it was 3 years of research. So I know a hell of a lot about my thesis topic and the surrounding area, but not so much in the broader field.

As you say, swings and roundabouts. It might be harder to get a job in an area you have less experience in, but then I think the fact that undergraduate degrees are more specialised here kind of makes up for it a bit. If you've spent three years doing a degree in something specific then you already have the broader knowledge, which is the whole point of making the UK research degree extremely specific.

Of course, for interdisciplinary people like me (physics undergrad to PhD in psychology/motor control/neuroscience) you get the worst of both worlds, at least to start with. I had no idea what I was doing for at least the first year of my PhD, because I didn't know what any of the words meant...
20th-Nov-2007 10:51 pm (UTC)
Your friend's an idiot and we don't want her.

No, but seriously.

I see/have seen a healthy exchange of staff and students UK-US and EU-US in both directions, and there's no blanket statement you can make about any system compared to any other. They differ as much within as between.

However: I am interviewing some US candidates for our MA programme tomorrow so I'll be sure to ask them if they've only picked it because they think it's an easy option. ;)

21st-Nov-2007 03:53 am (UTC)
I wish I could be a fly-on-the-wall when you ask that question! :-)
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21st-Nov-2007 09:48 am (UTC)
I had a friend progress a few years ago from a PhD from a-not-very-well-regarded poly into the most amazing no-teaching, all-research "buy me a giant shiny machine for $4 million" job at Stanford. So I don't think it's just the cachet of the Cambs name!

(tho' I think science PhDs have the advantage, if necessary, of being able to 'step out' into industry and prove themselves for a year or two, which isn't available to those in arts or humanities).
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