Top 5 Reasons to Get a PhD in the UK Instead of the US

Idyllic UK campus

I previously discussed the many hassles of studying abroad. So, why did I decide to get a PhD in the UK rather than the US? Here are my top 5 reasons.

#1: A New Challenge

The US has far more universities than the UK since it’s a much larger country, and the quality of research and education in the US is second to none. I found my US postgraduate experience both rewarding and challenging, but since I view getting a degree as an opportunity to see the world, I knew I wanted to live and study somewhere else for my PhD degree.

I think this was a huge factor in my decision to look abroad to further my education. I already studied at one of the top schools in the US, so I was looking for a new challenge, which studying abroad fulfilled.

Canterbury, UK

#2: Reasonable Distance from Boston

Of course, I checked PhD programs in the US and in the UK, and my ideal programs were in California, which is about a 5-6 hour flight from Boston, and in Canterbury, UK, which is also about a 5-6 hour flight from Boston, albeit in the opposite direction. To me, this is a reasonable amount of time to travel home for the holidays and special events. The cost of the flights are also similar, so that wasn’t too big of a concern.

Also, I never got the opportunity to study abroad as an undergrad or post-grad student, and studying abroad was high on my bucket list.

It was when I learned that a direct flight to California takes about the same amount of time as flying directly to London that I began to seriously consider studying in the UK. If I could get a PhD AND study abroad at the same time, I would be able to check TWO items off my bucket list!

I worked full-time for six years at a postgraduate school with Master’s and PhD students. During this time, I learned about the US PhD process in great detail. Therefore, the next three reasons are related to US PhD programs.

#3: Shorter Time to Complete a PhD

Part of my job was to monitor PhD progress and ensure that students completed PhD milestones by a certain deadline. With many PhD requirements to fulfill, the average US  PhD student completes the degree in about 6 or 7 years.

As I spent 8 years working full-time (which meant I graduated from my Master’s program 8 years ago), I really was reluctant to dedicate so much time on a PhD degree. Part of my PhD program search consisted of comparing the average number of years to obtain a PhD  in the US to the average in the UK and other countries, and I found a significant difference.

In the UK, a majority of PhD students are required to submit their theses within 4 years, making studying in the UK very appealing.

#4: No Coursework

In the US, most PhD students are required to complete two years of coursework before they begin work as a research student. This is the main reason why the average PhD program takes 7 years to complete.

In the UK, it is common to have separate Master’s degrees for research (MPhil) and taught (MSc, MA) degrees. The PhD is a research degree, and some universities initially accept PhD students as MPhil students who are upgraded after a review, usually within nine months from the start your program. There is no extra time to make up if you begin as an MPhil student.

Research degrees usually do not require any coursework, thus reducing the time to complete a PhD degree to 4 years instead of 6-7.

Instead of spending time attending new or similar courses you’ve already studied previously, you get to start working on your research right away in the UK.

#5: No PhD Qualifying Exams

Another important component of the US PhD process is the qualifying exam. This usually consists of a written and oral exam, which must be passed before becoming a doctorate student. PhD students often have two chances to pass the qualifying exam.

I have seen many intelligent students fail either the first or second exam, which frankly really scared me. In my search for PhD programs, I found out that many non-US PhD programs do not require qualifying exams.

I decided that if I could avoid taking this stressful exam, then applying oversees for a PhD would be worth it.

Note: I completely understand if you think this is the coward’s way out! However, I didn’t research the entire UK PhD process, otherwise I would have realized that instead of the qualifying exam, the UK has its own equivalent called the viva, which is an oral exam at the end of the PhD instead of at the beginning, and it is just as stressful and scary!!!

While the US PhD program has the PhD defense at the end, it’s more of a formality as students likely pass their defense once they get to this milestone. It’s  a chance for students to talk about their research and has a more celebratory feeling rather than the intimidating tone of an exam. For the UK viva, that is not the case. I’ll write a future blog post about this soon.

A Bonus Reason!

#6: Potential for Traveling

London is an excellent hub for traveling around the UK and in Europe. There are buses, trains, and planes that offer transportation to suit any budget and preference. As I am someone who just loves to travel, this was the clincher in choosing to study in the UK over the US.

I had so many opportunities to travel all over the UK and Europe as a PhD student, and had many friends visit me while they were traveling across the pond, which absolutely made my PhD experience so wonderful.

While the PhD process was still stressful and rigorous, especially for international students (which all US citizens studying in the UK are considered), integrating short holidays definitely made the experience much more pleasant.

It also helped motivate me to work hard so I can take time off and travel more!

I hope this post helps you or someone you know in deciding whether or not to study in the UK! If you have any questions, please leave a comment below!


2 thoughts on “Top 5 Reasons to Get a PhD in the UK Instead of the US

  1. Interesting post. I was a Ph.D student in the US (and my boyfriend is a Ph.D which is how we met!) and the European system sounds quite nice. Is the job market easier if you’re coming from non-American institution or it only makes you more competitive in the EU? I’m working outside of academia at this point, however it’s something I’m curious about. Similarly, are both of you still in academia or working in non-academic fields now?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Wanderlustingk for another great comment! I think the US job market for academic jobs is easier with a PhD, even if it’s from the UK, but I’m not too keen on working in academia so I’ve been second-guessing my applications to teaching positions.

      I found that the UK job market was really difficult to get into as a non-UK/EU citizen with a UK PhD. I tried to find a job there while my visa was still valid, but they usually selected candidates that could work in the UK with no restrictions. In the UK, I focused on both academic jobs and non-academic research jobs.

      We both worked at a university before applying to the PhD program, but they were non-academic jobs, and I think we both prefer working in non-academic fields now.


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