Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Why does a PhD in the US take so long?

I'm taking my preliminary exams in less than a week's time so I thought it might be a good time to highlight some of the differences between PhD programs in the US and in universities outside the US. When I tell my friends that I will take at least 5 years to finish my PhD in political science in the US, more often than not, the question back to me would be, "Why so long"? The people with PhDs in Malaysia, I'm guessing, come disproportionately from universities in the UK, Australia, Malaysia and New Zealand and they usually take approximately 3 years to complete. Why this disparity?

The main difference lies in the coursework requirements. Almost any PhD program worth its salt in the US requires its students to complete at least 2 years of coursework before they are even allowed to start on their PhD proper. I'm almost at the end of my two years at Duke and I'm one of the few students from my cohort taking my prelim exams this early. Most of my cohort are taking the prelims in 6 to 9 months' time which means they would have finished at least 2 1/2 years of coursework.

Why have this coursework requirement? At least for the social sciences, it is to ensure that you are familiar with a broad enough 'vision' of your field of study before embarking on your 'narrow' PhD thesis focus. I feel that this is one of the great strengths of the US PhD. You are exposed to different fields besides your main area of interest. You are thus able to borrow different techniques and ideas from different fields.

The coursework requirements often have some 'technical' elements. For political scientists who want a teaching job in the US system, statistical and mathematical knowledge is almost a 'must have' (unless you are a political theorist). You'd be surprise that a lot of what passes for political science here in the US comprises of regression anaylsis, game theory and models filled with equations. Those who want to skip these technical elements have the choice of learning 2 or more foreign languages. In practice, what you find is that most political scientists would be proficient in at least one foreign language and at least some quantitative methods.

I recognized the strength of the US PhD program even before coming here. Now that I am here, I value it even more. It provides necessary training and it inevitably increases the quality of your work at the thesis stage.

I'm not saying that coursework is not a requirement in other non-US universities. Increasingly, it is becoming the norm in many economics programs in the UK (at least at the LSE and Cambridge) where taking and passing one year of coursework is mandatory. I'm not sure about the current situation in Australia and New Zealand.

As more and more academics are trained through the US system, I believe that a US PhD will be valued more highly than a PhD from the UK, Australia or New Zealand, at least among the members of academia. I know that I will be getting a lot of flak about this but it's a general position that I'm willing to stand by and defend.


Anonymous said...

Kian Ming,

Different countries have different tertiary education systems. Take for example their undergraduate degrees. US and Canadian universities take 4 years to complete post-high school. UK system requires A-levels(1-2yrs) + 3 years post-high school. Australian degrees with Honours require 4 years post-high school (year 12). At the end of it, it all comes back to roughly about the same number of years for the differing countries.

Even for postgraduate studies, generally, all countries require a Masters as qualification for PhD. There is an exception however, that good Honours degree holder (2:1 and above) have the opportunity to enrol straight to a Higher Degree Research (HDR) programme (PhD). Even the US allows this.

What differentiates the quality of education from these different systems is how the teaching and assessment is conducted. US universities tend to focus more on practical assessment and allowing opportunity to take minor courses to give a more holistic education. In the UK, except for the top 5 U's there (i.e. Ox, Cam, Imp, LSE), they tend to be highly exam-based and focused only on related subjects of the degree programme. Assessments generally put weight on final exams which can go up to 70% of total marks.

As regards to PhD programmes outside of the US, most institutions do require some form of coursework thrown in as well. Candidates do require to attend some postgradute courses, but not as many as the US (up to 2+ years). Australian Unis require min 4 yrs full-time. Specifically for the PhD programmes, what differentiates US unis from others is the requirement of teaching/research assistantships (mostly for science based programmes, not sure about political science). This prepares the candidates for an academic career.

All in all, the number of years add up to be about the same. Maybe the UK unis are a year faster, especially with the new Intergrated PhD programme (4 years) which allows direct entry from a Bachelors. It is known that the UK unis have come under fire the past decade due to their fast-track concept which started with reducing a 4-yr undergrad to a 3-yr duration. Other countries (e.g. Australia, New Zealand, some EU countries) usually require min 4 yrs full-time for the PhD programme.

I think what you are trying to point out is an important point. However, it is actually not about the duration that matters but how the programmes are run at the different countries.

-- gradstudent

Anonymous said...

Not long really the Charles Sturt DBA tries to make it longer so that you can pay more fees each month.

Anonymous said...

I think it has become more common in some UK universitites (esp. Oxford, Cambridge)that you need to start with a Master program before enrolling to a PHD. I think this especially true for social science students. In this few years, some departments have made it mandatory for students to complete a master course in the first instance. Sometimes, taking an extra one year master course will increase the burden of the students, especially when you have limited financial resource. Yes, in a way, they are trying to prepare their student for their PHD work. But this only happen among social science students, while science student can proceed to Phd after their bachelor if they manage to get a first in it!

As for the duration for completing a PhD in UK, I believe it will be amazing (but not impposible) for a student to finish their PhD in 3 years but normally it will take 3 1/2 to 4 years. (I don't understand here why there is always comparisons between the US and the UK PhD. I believe there are strengths and weaknesses in all these programs.)

Anonymous said...

If you don't mind my giving my 2 cents worth, I think you may have overgeneralized a bit:

1) Many U.S. PhD's are 5 years long typically because students either transfer from a Master's program or enter a Ph.D. program from the Bachelor's level. How long you take is highly dependent on your progress, your supervisor, and your area of study. In my field, most people complete their Ph.Ds in 3 1/2 to 4 years. In the biological sciences, 6 years is not uncommon (due to the fact that bio-based experiments are so prone to failing).

Most U.S. universities have a nominal Ph.D. length of 4 years. (this differs from school to school). 5 years is certainly not the norm for those entering with a U.S. Master's degree (it's more like 4 years). (I'm speaking from experience)

Part of the reason for that is that an M.S. (thesis based) in North America takes nominally 2 years, and already contains a fair amount of coursework in it -- in many cases, they can be applied towards the Ph.D. coursework requirement if equivalency can be established. (Carnegie Mellon allow this; not sure about Duke).

Most U.S. bound students tend to enter a direct Ph.D. program, hence the notion that U.S. Ph.D.s take 5 years. I'll tell you another thing, most people who are in Ph.D. programs are the type who want to stay in school for as long as they can -- at least at Stanford, advisors tell you to take your time. There's no hurry to enter the job market. Once in a while you have mavericks who try to finish their Ph.D.s in 3 years so that they can start working.... but that's unusual.

2) As I said, different schools have different rules. Normally, the Ph.D. quals are taken in the first 12-24 months.

3) I agree that a U.S. Ph.D. tends to be valued highly. I disagree that they are necessarily generally valued more highly than degrees from other countries. A Ph.D. from the Ohio State University would generally not be valued more highly than say a Ph.D. from McGill. (not in general anyway.... perhaps in specific instances)

You see, I don't agree that a U.S. Ph.D. is more valuable than any other Ph.D. JUST BECAUSE it is from a U.S. school -- that's mistaking correlation for causation. If you really look at it carefully, in terms of rigor of curriculum and training, the U.S. Ph.D. is nowhere as demanding as a continental European or eastern European Ph.D. (just look at the requirements for Hungarian Math Ph.Ds)

However, the selling point with U.S. Ph.Ds. are the reputation of the institution (and at this time in history, most of the major research-intensive institutions of note are in the U.S.), and the reputation of your academic advisor's (U.S. academia is replete with people who are very well-known). In academia, working with the right person is extremely important, not just because of their name, but because good supervisors can direct you in areas that are truly novel.

4) Coursework has its merits -- it helps the non-audodidacts to learn stuff they wouldn't normally discover on their own, and it formally introduces areas that one would normally not get into if one hadn't the interest in the first place. But I don't think they're necessarily what makes U.S. graduate programs great. I'll tell you something, some of the courses at Stanford are truly awful.

Please don't get me wrong; I don't mean to be critical at all -- but there are all these other factors that I thought were worthy. While your experience is not uncommon, I don't see it as being the norm, based on my observations.

P.S. I'm a Ph.D. student myself.

Anonymous said...

I agree with most of you that it's not the duration of a program that matters but how it is conducted and who your advisor(s) are. For example, my sister finished her PhD in chemistry (direct entry program from bachelor's) from a top US university in 4 years, as she published several papers in science journals. On the other hand, I have a friend who got hers (in engineering) in 3 1/2 years (without a master's) because her advisor needs to get his tenure.

Although I'm actually more curious about how master programs are conducted. This is the area with a bigger discrepancy I think, i.e. UK vs US etc. system.

Anonymous said...

What about the idea that when grad schools in america enrolled 200 phd students in the first when they know the faculty only has the ability to supervise 100? I guess that makes those who couldnt make it in the first year will have to wait for another year?

When a person choose to do a phd, isnt it true that the person should know quite well, what s/he wanted to do or specialised in? So the US insititutions still assumes phd students need to be taught and have not achieved the stage of self taught?

What's the point of being more "industrial oriented" if a grad student doesnt know where s/he will be by the end of the phd? On ther other hand, if you argue a person already is working in the industry while doing his/her phd, what's the point of learning more things but has nothing related to his/her work/research ?

Or you are implying the American insitutions assume phd students should become more generalist like the undergrads?

I believe UK/US have their strength. not being through both systems, I think you should be keeping an unbaised view. Or isnt that what a researcher should be in the first place?

Jerng said...

AIyah all you commentors. The education options in the US and other parts of the developed world are so diverse that commentary on these is necessarily abstract, in a medium such as the blogpost lah. Good luck with research KM! I have been an admirer of the RAND graduate school program, but I'm not sure how close that is to your own. I'm sure you're having fun though. ^_^

Anonymous said...

Seem that is it much easier to gain admission to top Uni in UK (Warwick, LSE etc) for postgrad if you have a previous UK degree! No need GRE or GMAT! Alot of my china friends who did their undergrad are able to make it in a breeze! I had a Taiwanese friend who did her Masters in Econ in LSE had a hard time finding job in Taipei (Did not take GRE or GMAT). Seem that if U have money no problem getting Masters degree from top UK university.

Anonymous said...

Aiyah.. this is nothing new man!
New thing is don't need to have a degree also can study Postgrad in UK! Have so many Mainland chinese just have Poly Diploma and studying in top UK uni like University of Edinburgh, Bristol etc! They just need to take some additional classes for an additional 1 yr.

Anonymous said...

Like most of the folks already commented, the value of the PhD degree varies according to locations and even institutions. I have known some people who took 8-9 years to get a PhD in physics in the US because of the research they are doing and also sometimes, the professors themselves see value in retaining the students that they don't want them to graduate earlier.
Now, if you really wanna talk about education value differences, perhaps we can talk about elementary or high school programs between countries. Perhaps this will be another topic of its own :)

Anonymous said...

A handful of black sheep professors saw the value in keeping the students as long as possible as they are unable to find students to work for them I have known a few PHD students running errands (washing their cars, looking after their houses etc)for their Professor.

Certain Major just take long time. Even major like Asian Studies/Religious studies can take as long as 8yrs to complete.

Regarding education differences it is an entire different topic ^^.

Anonymous said...

Just as commented by a few of your readers US Ph.D takes 5 years because you enter a Ph.D program directly after a Bachelor degree. On the other hand, UK Ph.D, you need to have a Master's first. That is the basic difference between the two system.

Though I am a UK product (Ph.D and Masters), I believe that US system of Ph.D is better especially for one who wish to join the academia. It gives a more rigorous training.

Sadly, as much as I wanted to go to US for my Ph.D, I had to settle with UK because of the "discrimination" funding that our government has for certain group of people. Nevertheless, I guess as long as you are open to new ideas and has lots of initiatives, an enriching experience awaits you.

Anonymous said...

Hi - a good interesting piece, and a controversial argument has not offended me yet. I will say I disagree with your general conclusion that PhDs in the US will be somehow "better". One thing is that this may be true regardless of any "US" influence - there are some awesome schools in the US, Duke among them. But the UK system is super powerful (esp. in a per capita equation) and I doubt I will ever see the day where Cambridge and Oxford don't remain in the top 10 (not to mention a host of other wicked Euro, ASIA, Oceania, Australia esp [heavy hitters for their isolation and size] schools in the top 50).

I think maybe this issue lies in methodology and ontology - quant. stuff is far less prevalent outside the US and SEAsia. But maybe I have digressed.

I will conclude as follows - US is an awesome system, but claims that the Americaness of the system makes it better is a belief structure that has failed to sustain the US to date and will be unlikely to sustain it in the Uni sector. For one, almost everyone outside the US will disagree leaving the US in a familiar and isolated place.

When Harvard claimed it was so good it should mark it own PhDs did this make them better or worse. I think worse especially since some Harvard academic divisions are not of high standing (sociology for example if you don't count Putnam)

Anonymous said...

I am a PhD student in Malaysia and I find it disgusting to having to wait for months to have the viva.

While Malaysia is very good for tertiary studies, students have to be careful when they decide to pursue their MA or PhD there. The courses themselves are fine and are of very good quality. The problem lies with the theses. Nobody will think it is normal for a student to wait for more than 8-9 months to have the viva. Worse, it takes 3-4 months to get the certificate after that. All of this time, you will be forced to sit in Malaysia and drink Teh Tarik (a local tea) and wait while the examiners and the university take all the time in the world to get your thesis approved. This is not only happening to me but to countless other international MA and PhD students in Malaysia.

No matter how hard you cry for help from the administration or even the rector, things will not change. The university will still consider it normal to take almost a year to process your thesis once you submit the final version for examination. Compare this to the fact that it takes only 1-2 month to get the viva in the US and UK.

I am not discouraging you but if the Malaysian government does not want to be more efficient and recognize that MA and PhD students are not for granted, people should not go there for MAs and PhDs. I would have thought twice of doing my PhD in Malaysia if I knew that I had to wait that amount of time to get my PhD.

Anonymous said...

you can have degrees from any best Universities around the world, but again that would not also guarantee you to have common sense... local Phd graduate