How do US students have so much research experience?

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alexgower
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Joined: Thu Aug 26, 2021 6:06 am

How do US students have so much research experience?

Post by alexgower » Thu Aug 26, 2021 6:15 am

I'm going into my 4th year (which is a Master's year) studying Physics at the University of Oxford and looking at applying for some US PhD programmes this winter.

My only research experience is an 8 week simulation summer internship after my second year, and a 9 week supercondcutrivity summer internship after my third year. I could not find any research internships that would take me in my summer after my first year (which I thought made sense since I knew so little physics), and, although we do lots of labs as part of my undergraduate degree, I wouldn't call any of it 'research' (since they last a day or two maximum). Also I have no papers with my name near them from any of these internships or from any lab work done in my undergraduate degree.

My question is, how do so many US applicants' profiles have so much research experience, and with so many papers to list too? Do US universities have research time in parallel to their studies during term time? Do they publish papers 'easier' (with less impressive results)? It seems very difficult to me to make enough progress in a few weeks in a summer to get a paper out of it.

HubbleBubble
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Joined: Tue Jul 07, 2020 7:06 am

Re: How do US students have so much research experience?

Post by HubbleBubble » Thu Aug 26, 2021 10:44 am

Curious to hear replies from people who’ve studied in both countries. Here’s my two cents.

US vs UK: Numbers and culture.

Numbers:

The main factor is that the US has a 5 times larger population. For every UK student with multiple papers, there will be ~5 in the US, more high sigma outliers in general.

Culture:

This is the part I’m less sure of, I never studied in the UK. But in the US is was pretty clearly communicated to me that grades/courses will not get me a career. No matter what I did, extracurriculars/internships were most important, and we should work during our degree concurrently with courses. For physics that means research. A few of my undergrad peers spent more time on research than courses, up to 40 hrs in some cases (not me!!! I don’t remember, certainly never more than 15 hrs. <=10 hrs is probably more typical). Also, at my school we were minorly rewarded for that work. You could get either a course worth of A credit per semester, or a small stipend (a few K). During the summer you worked more and got paid more - a summer break that is usually longer than in the UK.
US universities have research time in parallel to their studies during term time?
Kinda - but you still have to take required courses, and at most schools it is something extra you have to make time for, not baked into the program. Normally a monetary boost.
Do they publish papers 'easier' (with less impressive results)?
No. We often publish in the same journals, judged by the same standard.

Final Note:

I specified US vs UK for a reason.

US vs India the difference would be funding. Our researchers have a ton of money, and attract the best talent, so we have cooler projects to work on that are easily publishable. But that is true in the UK too.

NL vs UK would be program structure. Many Dutch students have more papers than Americans because their last two years are mostly research.

geekusprimus
Posts: 110
Joined: Sat Jun 08, 2019 1:10 pm

Re: How do US students have so much research experience?

Post by geekusprimus » Thu Aug 26, 2021 11:39 am

Most US undergraduate programs are 4 years, whereas most UK programs (to my understanding, please correct me if I'm wrong) are 3 years. While most American graduate programs are straight from a bachelor's to a PhD, a lot of countries elsewhere make you do an MS program before you apply for a PhD program (and most US PhD programs require an MS if you didn't have a 4-year undergrad), and I assume that a lot of students get the chance to do more research during those MS programs.

Basically, the undergraduate program is structured differently. It's also worth mentioning that it varies wildly by school. I was able to do two years of research at my undergraduate institution, typically for 20 hours a week, but that's because the department had very few graduate students but quite a bit of funding (i.e., it all went to the undergrads). Though the graduate program I'm in now is much bigger and better than the graduate program where I did my undergrad, there are far fewer research opportunities for undergrads. All of my advisor's undergrads were funded for the summer by the REU program because he was using his grants to fund his graduate students; as far as I know, none of them are on the payroll now, and certainly none of them for 20 hours a week.

Publishing papers is a funny thing. A lot of undergraduate theory students struggle to get anything meaningful published before graduation because it takes so much time to come up to speed. A lot of undergraduate experimental students, on the other hand, walk out with a handful of papers published because they sat there and did all the grunt work, then the professor or a graduate student did all the difficult analysis.



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