Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Thoughts from an ex-LSE lecturer (Part I)

I couldn't resist blogging about this since it concerns one of my alma maters, the London School of Economics (LSE). I was alerted to this blog by an ex-LSE lecturer (Thanks Alain Chong for the headsup) and he has the following advice for prospective Asian PhDs and undergraduates who are thinking of applying to study at LSE and more generally in the UK.

Here's some of his pointers for prospective Asian students who are thinking of applying to LSE, Oxford or Cambridge to do their PhDs:

- English universities really aren’t all that good. Far inferior than the best American universities and certainly not much better than universities in Scandinavia, Germany or France.
- Don’t forget, PhD programs in UK universities, in contrast to American, have no course component. All you get for your tuition fee — some 12,000 pounds per year — are a few chats with your supervisor. When you factor in the cost of living in a city such as London, this is likely to be about as much as your family’s entire annual income.
- Add the lousy weather, the lousy food and it all becomes very unattractive indeed. Yes, and I forgot the barely concealed racism against anyone with an East Asian accent. They’ll take your money, but they won’t take you seriously.
- If you go ahead with your UK PhD, what you’ll soon realize is that you’ll be far better off doing your research back in your home country. You’ll save money that way and you’ll be closer to your primary sources. Before long you’ll find yourself sending 12,000 pounds off to the UK every year and getting absolutely nothing in return — no library access, not even an absent-minded supervisor. Before long the absurdity of the situation will be hard to ignore.
- The only thing you’ll get in the end is the alledged prestige of a UK degree. Yes, this is still worth something today but only since universities and employers in East Asia are slow to catch up on the serious trouble that UK academia is in. The Singaporean authorities have. They are not encouraging students to travel to the UK for a PhD anymore. Other Asian countries will soon draw the same conclusion.
- Let’s assume that the prestige of UK universities has a half-life of about 50 years. If that’s true, your PhD won’t be worth nearly as much by the time you are ready to go on the job market, and it’ll be worth even less some decades into your career.

Who is this blogger?

Erik Ringmar, 林艾克, is professor at the National Chiao Tung University, Hsinchu, Taiwan. He grew up in Sundsvall, a big industrial town in northern Sweden, and in Mellanfjärden where his father was a sheep farmer. He received a PhD from Yale University in the United States in 1993, and a Fil.Dr from the University of Uppsala in 1998. Between 1995 and 2006 he taught in the Government Department at the London School of Economics.

While I broadly agree with his advice, which is to go to a US institution to do your PhD if you can get into a good school, I'd like to make a couple of corrections to some of his points.

Firstly, the course component requirements in UK universities differs according to field. Erik, whom I think was did his PhD in political science at Yale (I think Jim Scott was one of his advisers), is probably right to say that for fields such as political science, sociology and most certainly the humanities, there is little or no course component in UK universities (Although this might change in the near future as more UK universities try mimic their US counterparts). This is certainly not true for a field like economics. As far as I know, you have to do one year of pretty rigorous coursework and obtain a pretty high passing mark before you can proceed to the PhD stage, that is if you want to. If you don't, you can leave the institution with just a Masters. This is the way it works in LSE and Cambridge for economics, at least when I was there in 1998/1999. One year of coursework is still not as rigorous as the 2 years (minimum) of coursework which you have to take in most fields (social sciences and humanities) in US universities.

Secondly, the weather in London or the UK generally might be bad but it's not as if Boston (where Harvard and MIT are) is all warm and nice during the winter months. You'll get your fair share of bad weather (a combination of snow, hurricanes, tornadoes, flooding, hail, etc...) in most parts of the US outside of California. In sunny California, you just have to worry about the earthquakes, which are fairly rare or so I'm told.

Thirdly, it is possible that you'll encounter racism in most countries where you're not the majority race. I found London to be an amazingly cosmopolitan place and I didn't remember any racial slurs being directed against me nor was I discriminated in any way. Although I was called a 'chink' by two English lasses while I was in Cambridge doing my Masters. Here at Duke, I've been spared of any racial incidents so far, thankfully.

Fourthly, I think he underestimates how much you can benefit from being in an institutional setting in a UK university. He recommends that potential PhD students stay at home instead, where they are closer to primary sources. This is probably true for those who need access to primary sources (sociologists, anthropologists, political scientists, historians etc...) but he doesn't point out that in many East Asian countries, the library facilities are far from good. Indeed, you might not be able to access certain journals because your university doesn't subscribe to them or that many books which you require somehow mysteriously 'disappears' from circulation. By being in a place like London, you can have access to the LSE library, which is one of the best social science libraries in the UK, as well as the British Library which has rare and previous documents found nowhere else in the world. (I don't get this comment about the lack of library access. I would have thought that all PhD students can access the library of the institution where they are studying at)

I think that Erik is being too harsh to the UK universities. I would still recommend prospective Malaysian students to go abroad to do their PhDs. And if the Malaysian government is willing to spend the money, a good UK university is not a bad choice. But do try to get into a good US university first. Failing that, then go to a UK university.


Anonymous said...

I agree with both KM and Prof. Ringmar. I honestly think that most British universities are overrated save for top-tier institutions such as Imperial, Oxbridge etc. I also reckon that institutions such as NUS, Tsinghua, Peking, Tokyo, Kyoto and IIT are far better alternatives for PhD studies...

Anonymous said...

It s true that LSE will just absorb your 12000 pounds. They want to slaughter Asians. Why are we so silly to bow to them and study in their doctoral programme? The doctoral programme in the states is different from UK. It is still once a month for lectures for a couple of classes. Once you do your dissertation, it will differ. You will have to make appointments to see your professor.
I still don't think that a PhD can do wonders. There are many such holders who are cab drivers... Why do Malaysians want to chase after that piece of paper???

Anonymous said...

I still don't think that a PhD can do wonders. There are many such holders who are cab drivers... Why do Malaysians want to chase after that piece of paper???

What's wrong with being a cab driver?!!
Frankly, I don't know any PhD holders who are cab drivers ... although I have read about one who became a farmer.

But sadly, this is the kind of attitude that many people have, which needs to be changed if we're ever going to become a developed country. To reach beyond the notion that nothing is worth pursuing unless the rewards are $$$$$

No. A PhD is probably not a magic potion that can do wonders to your earning potential.

As to why there are so many who persist in taking this 'stupid' path ... you'll have to ask them. May I suggest that perhaps it's because they are interested in the pursuit of knowledge, or maybe they want to make a difference, discover new technologies, discover a cure for disease, teach ...

This would be such a boring place if everyone wanted to be an actuarist or accountant y'know. (no offence to either profession)

Anonymous said...

I recommend everyone to do their PhD at Open University Malaysia. Costs so little...and everyone can get a PhD

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that each field (more like each sub-sub-field) has its own unofficial opinions...usually not of universities, but rather of specific research groups or supervisors. So I'm not sure how many sweeping statements can be made...the best thing for prospective Ph.D. students to do is to talk to senior people in their field and catch up on the gossip on who are good people to work with.

As for the coursework, it really depends on the department, Kian Ming. If I am not mistaken, chemistry at Stanford requires 6 classes (2 quarters if you take three per term - each year has four quarters). Physics requires 10, which is more normal for the sciences. EE requires an insane number that I can't remember. As for the 'rigour' of the coursework, most students will agree that the quality of postgrad classes (especially required ones) at big name science departments is uniformly low - they are simply not a priority for most departments. (I'm not saying that this is how things should be; it's just how things are.) So just because classes exist don't mean that they are valuable or useful.

Another comment about the 'value' of a Ph.D. To a certain extent, classes, qualifying exams and other kinds of structure are almost incidental to the experience. Kian Ming, you mention libraries. I would say that an even more important resource is people. You want to go somewhere where you can sit at the feet of someone who is good at what they are doing and bounce ideas off peers who are bright and enthusiastic. At least in the sciences, important discoveries are almost never the work of a single individual any more.

And yet another comment about UK vs. US Ph.D.s. (Can you tell I'm procrastinating...) Again, 'in the sciences', US, (continental) European and UK PhDs are three subtly different beasts, even though they all go by the same name. To some extent, this is a consequence of the differences between the 'academic tracks' in each of these places. (There are probably differences intra-continent that I am not aware of - apologies to the Europeans.) It's a little like how 'A'-levels, IB and an American 'high school diploma' are different things because they are from different systems, even though they are all school-leaving thingies.

Anonymous said...

A potentially useful link. http://survey.nagps.org/

Anonymous said...

Err...since when should one pay for his/her PhD studies? In fact the opposite should be true, one is paid to do a PhD! So the money argument seems strange.

'A bit harsh' seems to be an understatement. In fact I sense here a strong personal misgiving towards anything remotely British rather than a factual, rational digestion of reality.

I had a wonderful research experience in the UK (will talk about racism later) and I worked with a top, top class professor, whom I hold in high regards in comparison to other academicians from around the world. It is true that one can get a PhD anywhere in the world, if the paper qualification is all one wants. But one forgets that the cultural experience of pursuing the PhD is just as, if not more important than the paper qualification itself. And the UK, I believe, still have a very rich research culture.

It is true that the 'old boys society' network is still very strong in the UK. The generally conservative nature of the academies (and probably those in other European countries as well) makes it more difficult for a non-white foreigner to obtain a position. Whether the situation is improving I do not know, but I realised this was the case when I was trying for positions in the UK.

I would therefore encourage one to do a PhD in the UK since it does not require a Masters qualification, and takes a shorter time to complete, and then do a postdoc in the US or other countries as lead-up to an academic career in these countries.

My two cents, and I am not British.


Anonymous said...

I got an OCF scholarship to do my PhD in engineering immediately after I graduated from an UK university and I must say that the experience had been most pleasant, although for a short while, my supervisor who was struggling with his wife over domestic problems did cause a delay in my progress. Today I am working for a London-based company, which is a major supplier of the latest commerce-linked techologies to the USA. I go to US quite often to assist in the implementation and would like to assure the readers of this blog that my PhD has fully equipped me for the job. I do agree though that post-doctoral experience in the US is a good idea.

coleong said...

I was offer an ORS scholarship to pursue my PhD in UK as well and I'm now working with one of the top university in US as a postdoc. My experience in UK has been a very pleasant and fruitful. My supervisor is one of the main figure in his field and was busy with a lot of administrative stuff as well. At the same time, we still manage to talk to each other and discuss some critical issues in my study. I spent almost 90% of my time on the bench, identifying the problem, troubleshoot it and solve the problem. I only seek for guidance whenever I came to a deadlock or with some new unexpected discovery which I don’t have explanation for. In almost all instances, even a very short chat with him has totally enlighten my view. In one occasion, we have a totally opposite view on a hypothesis. Instead of keep insisting about his idea is right, we sat down and device a simple experiment to find out the answer. And for many times, he is right and I’m wrong. During the 3 years of my PhD program, I’ve gain invaluable experience and insight in conducting independent research, asking the right scientific question and formulate experiments to test each hypothesis. Because of all the training I received, I was offered a few positions in some top pharmaceutical firms and universities in UK and US. Nevertheless, I’m not in a position to generalize whether the whole UK education is good or bad as I was there for only a short period. But, speaking from my own experience, it has been a very pleasant and the weather and racism is not a problem to me at all. In fact, I appreciated the multicultural experience in my university where we had students from all corner of the world. I was able to develop a very strong friendship with some of the overseas students. From time to time, we chat about our problem, help each other out and even visit each other every year or so. I guess different research group will offer a very different experience no matter it’s in UK or US. I do agree with Charis that, in order to find the right research group for your PhD, you’ll need an extensive network and follow up on the recent development in the field you’re interested in.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the Taiwanese sage. Am a Malaysian, did undergraduate, graduate in the UK and am now settled in the US. Did my PhD in the US on a competitive fellowship, boy was it intensive! In contrast the UK PhD where I was offered was a lark and nearly a joke, very idiosyncratic and unreliable like the hard up and desperate Brit culture of today which is of a jade , cynical and has been status. Yes there was also a concealed racism. Just ask Asians from India , Taiwan, Korea and China who are in the US as professor and successful businessmen . UK degrees are passé and their schools are hard up for cash. They are still only admired in Malaysia.

This is the same predilection and how Lotus was acquired by Proton, when nobody else would touch it with a ten foot , excuse me, meter pole, and where Rover ( the ‘Bulldog Breed’ icon and final demise of the Brit auto industry ) was nearly bought by Khazana . Today Nanjing Auto owns Rover, minus its manufacturing blue prints and its parent Shanghai Auto has taken legal action against Nanjing for being foolish. Ring any vanity bells for the aspiring crony classes?

Pathetic isn’t it? The Anglophiles are passé, and Bits today are desperately seeking jobs in the US. Indians are their bosses in both the US and the UK.

London is crummy cosmopolitan, Asians are still perceived as a homogenous group, whereas in the US Asian are in the mainstream of the country which looks towards tomorrow. Tomorrow is another day in America. America just like Asia looks towards tomorrow, even if we are ancient and they still a relatively youthful culture , we share a vision for tomorrow with the Americans. The UK is dead.

Anonymous said...

Dear Anon Thu Jan 11, 09:51:54 PM,

Perhaps you'll have a much better experience if you're in a better school.

Anonymous said...

As a supervisor for numerous Ph.D. students at a UK University, I'd like to make a number of observations:

1. UK (and European) universities expect their research students to be largely independent. This largely differs from the climate in many other parts of the world, so can be seen as a good/bad thing.

2. I would *never* recommend taking on a Ph.D. on private funds. Get a scholarship, and if you can't get one, then you basically aren't good enough!

3. In technical areas, most UK universities now expect students to register on courses. These are mostly specialised M.Sc. courses. At the University where I work for instance, first year Ph.D. students have to take at least 5 examinable modules, and a non-examinable module on research methods.

4. The UK government has recently introduced the MRes course, which is a partially taught Masters programme, as opposed to the full-research MPhil programme that may address some of Erik's concerns.

5. Many UK Universities I know have a three-tier supervision system, so that you don't fall through the cracks, especially due to non-active supervisors. LSE may be lagging in implementing such a system.

6. And yes the weather suck in the UK. Just this week we had huge gales. I've lived in the UK for too many years, and I very much look forward to my warm holidays in Malaysia. Apart from that, in winter, I stay indoors ;)

7. Finally before taking on a Ph.D. any where, meet your supervisor beforehand, and more importantly meet the research group that you will be part of. Research groups vary too much and thus cannot be clumped together just like that.

Anonymous said...

Kian Ming and all, I finally discovered your amazing blog!!

In my field (Astronomy and Astrophysics), the best from the best UK universities -- Cambridge, Durham, Oxford, Edinburgh -- is comparable the best in the US and Europe. Indeed, the question about pursuing a PhD is so field/professor/research-group dependent that one should do an extensive research about your particular sub-field (as suggested by many) as well as the the place you're going to be. I want to stress the later since as a PhD student, you're going to spend a lot of time at that particular location: the support network, the weather, the city will influence your productivity! Being stuck is London while having a down-time in one's research is great (for me); but some may prefer the mountains of Boulder, Colorado. The PhD, at least in the US, is a very comprehensive and involved experience.
1) Should one pay for one's PhD? 2) What about the Malaysian Government? 3) Are Universities (in the UK?) really out to get your money?
To 1) I say go for it if you can afford. It may not improve you earning potential, but it may enrich your lives. But do an extensive research beforehand. 2) Same as 1) but don't expect the person to be the same after the PhD. The experience is so personal that I think award should be given solely based on what he or she had done, and not what the government EXPECT he or she should do after the PhD.
You need inside information for 3) , but I'm sure we can find out ...