Brit-Yank systems, compared

Kirsten M Timms ktimms at .NoSubdomain.NoDomain
Sat Feb 17 19:58:34 EST 1996


At the end of her post Susan asks for some perspectives from other countries
so I thought I'd toss in my two cents. I am a New Zealander, did my undergrad
and postgrad degrees in NZ with one year of my PhD on an exchange to
Germany. Now I'm doing a postdoc in the States. From what I've seen of the US
and what Sarch has said about the UK it seems like NZ is a bit of a cross
between the two.

In article <31263300.2276 at qm.salk.edu>, SL Forsburg <susan_forsburg at qm.salk.edu> writes:
|> I think I can answer some of Sarah's comments with a sense of 
|> comparison; I did my postdoc in the UK and have first hand experience
|> of both systems.
|> 
|> Ms. S.J. Rickard wrote:
|> > 
|> > ...but I do tend to think that Americans take there
|> > science more seriously than us. 
|> 
|> That's partly a cultural "thing".  We Yanks are a rather competitive 
|> people, and we like to see people working hard. Contrast this with 
|>  rather extreme way of looking at British science, which is that 
|> it isnt appropriate for people to be SEEN to be working hard--ie, 
|> accomplishment should appear effortless!  I'm' not trying to make any
|> value judgements, far from it, but I think there's a real cultural 
|> difference  here in how we judge effort.   To most of the British I
|> know, we American postdocs seemed like humorless over-serious swots.
|> The opposite is also true....9 to 5 just doesnt cut it in US
|> academic science, and anyone purusing the more British style would
|> be perceived as probably lightweight and not sufficiently serious
|> about their work.
|> 
|> obviously I am exaggerating somewhat to make the point, which is 
|> that these differences reflect distinct cultural values.

I don't know of anybody in my department back home that managed a 9-5
lifestyle while doing their PhD. There was definitely an expectation that we
should be there for long hours, though I don't know of any supervisors that
verbally insisted that you should be working day and night. It was simply a
given, and consequently you could arrive in the lab pretty much any time of
the day or night and there would usually be people there working. At the same
time the atmosphere in the department was a lot more relaxed than i find
here. There wasn't the feeling that you were constantly competeing with the
people that you worked with, people were a lot more social and there was much
more interaction between people throughout the department than I have seen
here.

|> 
|> Sarah also wrote:
|> > The British degree is "harder" than a US degree to my knowledge 
|> > which is why a British Phd takes only 3 years. 
|> 
|> Well, not quite.  In my observation the British educational system
|>  requires a university-bound student to specialize while still in 
|> school and apply to university to read for a degree in a particular
|> field. The students are more advanced because they have focussed
|> very early. The US system is  more generalist. The American may not
|> have decided between English LIt, Biology, or Physics until her 
|> third year.  Thus there's a difference in the intended goal of a 
|> University degree.

This is I think the major difference between the US and NZ systems as well.
People here can't believe that our PhD program is only 3 years long, and they
assume (wrongly i think) that we are not as well trained. I think it simply
is a reflection of a big difference at the High School and
undergraduate level. In NZ from 3rd year high school onwards each pupil will 
only be studying five subjects and the only compulsary subject is english. 
English stopped being compulsary in the final year of high school. This means 
that if you intend to study science at university you pretty much have to 
study sciences throughout high school. Then once you get to university you 
specialise even more. From your second year onwards if you want to major in 
one of the biological sciences you will be basically taking only different 
disciplines of biology. The advantage is that you can get through to the end 
of a PhD at a young age - its theoretically possible to graduate with your 
PhD by the time you are 25. The disadvantage I think is that our education 
is very narrow. For example I have never studied history, geography, or any 
languages other than english - pretty bad I think.

For me working in a mol. biol. lab here it seems that new PhD grads are
pretty comparable between NZ and the US, but there is a huge difference
between a new NZ or US undergrad - depending also on which school the US
person went to as there also seems to be a lot more variability between
undergrad degrees here in the States than we get at home.

|> 
|> The first year in graduate school in the US (students are
|> admitted to a department, rather than being accepted by a supervisor
|> as in the UK) brings the Yanks up to about the same level. 
|> After the firstyear, the American chooses a research supervisor 
|> within her department. 
|> 
|> From  then on, I think the difference is in how the different systems
|> view the purpose of a PhD.  My impression is that the UK PhD is 
|> viewed as a period of training, and US PhD is viewed as a time to
|>  accomplish a significant body of work.  The "training" is  over 
|> about 3 yrs for both;  at that point the UK scientist goes off 
|> to begin her postdoc and the US scientist is told she is ready to 
|> really start work on her thesis.  So the US PhD (which probably 
|> averages 5 or 6 but can take 8+ years) really has a different 
|> purpose and set of requirements.

The NZ PhD I would guess as being more on the training side, but there is
also an expectation that you should produce a lot of good solid work and
there is very strong expectation that you should publish. Post-docs are much
less common in NZ than here or, I suspect, in Britain and consequently PhD
students are the main work producers in most labs in NZ. So there is quite a
lot of pressure to publish. Here's a difference it sounds like between NZ and 
Britain. The NZ PhD is "theoretically" a 3 year degree, I only know of 1 
person in my old department who actually graduated in three years. In my 
experience it just means the money runs out in 3 years (to study for a PhD 
in NZ you have to get scholarship support and these last only 3 years). So 
for most people three years comes and goes and you spend the last 1-2 years 
(a 4-5 year PhD seemed more average for my department) working without an 
income unless you manage to find part-time work- great for the stress levels

|> 
|> At least, that's how I've seen it.
|> 
|> I think both systems have their good and bad sides;  neither is
|> "better".  Most American grad students would prefer the UK system;
|> they'd love to be writing  up after 3 years, when what they are 
|> writing is their first paper.  
|> 
|> George Bernard Shaw was right:  we are one people divided by our 
|> common language.
|> 
|> Perhaps some of our readers from other countries could tell us how
|> the "system" works there?
|> 
|> susan
|> -- 
|> ><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><>
|> S L Forsburg                             
|> susan_forsburg at qm.salk.edu        
|> http://flosun.salk.edu/~forsburg
|>  "I don't speak for the Institute,         
|>  and the Institute doesnt speak for me."

I will now return to lurking,

Kirsten.



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