UK vs. US Grad Schools for Physics

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UK vs. US Grad Schools for Physics

Post by secander2! » Fri Feb 27, 2009 9:36 am

Hi All! I kind of applied to Oxford on a bit of a whim, mostly since I really like the prospect of studying in the UK. After going for the interview, I was almost certain that I was out of the running, but it seems that somehow I didn't do as badly as I thought and I've been funded by a Clarendon Scholarship to work on Silicon Detector R&D.

Now, I'm trying to decide whether Oxford would be a good choice (both in terms of education and career) for graduate school in Physics or whether I should go with a top-10 US School. Here are the pros and cons as I see them:


  • 3-4 yr max for Ph.D. so you get done faster and there is no chance of becoming an eternal grad-student slave to your advisor.
  • Superb campus with lots of tradition and history behind it.
  • In the UK (this is a pro for me at least).
  • Very well-known, Oxford name has an "aura".
  • UK system is very against the sort of "weeding-out" which takes place at some American schools. Most professors will bend over backwards before they let a student fail.
  • 3-4 yr max for Ph.D. so less flexibility if problems arise
  • No choice in project and little chance to change projects if you end up hating the one you've got
  • Probably not as high-caliber as a place like MIT for grad school.
Top-10 US:

  • Many are highly prestigious and their name alone can take you places.
  • Most are usually very well funded compared with UK schools.
  • Most are highly flexible on degree time.
  • Flexible in choosing a project and lots of chances to work with different groups.
  • Sometimes the programs try to weed out students through use of rigorous qualifiers.
  • Variable degree time and readily available funding means that your advisor can keep you indefinitely at times.
  • Many campuses are rather ugly (at least compared to Oxford)
I probably missed some pros and cons, so if you've got anything to add, please let me know. I'd appreciate everybody's opinion on this issue. Personally, I really like the idea of going to Oxford, but it would be hard as heck to pass up places like Chicago and MIT whose research interests are so close to my own. Anyways, please discuss, and maybe this thread can help others who are also faced with a US - UK decision too.

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Re: UK vs. US Grad Schools for Physics

Post by nowhereguy » Fri Feb 27, 2009 10:17 am

That is a tough choice you have to make. Hmmm...Personally, if I could do research on what I like, I would probably pick Oxford. Since you say that the research project for you there is already defined, are you sure that it is a topic you like/love? If so, I would say go for it! Also, have you met your potential supervisor? One more pro I can think of going to Oxford is that you would probably get involved in actual research much faster than at a US school. I personally consider that a big plus.

Passing on schools like MIT, Princeton, etc should be difficult because, as you say, they are highly prestigious. However, I am pretty sure Cambridge and Oxford are as highly regarded as those US schools.

Best of luck making your decision!

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Re: UK vs. US Grad Schools for Physics

Post by Helio » Fri Feb 27, 2009 12:21 pm

Well I always like the example of Brian Green... yes Rhodes Scholar, but still. He did his PhD on Oxford and look where he is now. Anyway, I always thought as Cambridge as the more sciencey school of Oxbridge. I dunno why it just seems that way. Anyway, that said, I would really say that the advisor-student relationship is important to me. I could not work with someone closely for 3-4 years when he/she is being a complete dick towards me, so I would say. Meet you advisor and see what you think about him/her and then see what happens

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Re: UK vs. US Grad Schools for Physics

Post by Imperate » Fri Feb 27, 2009 12:54 pm

I am from the UK and have spent quite a bit of time in Oxford (due to friends living there) if you have any questions about the city itself etc. You do have a tough choice, but I think in terms of just reputation alone there's not a huge difference (although for me doing string theory, I think it's a lot more centred with US theorists so would prob go with top-10 US, but no idea about your field). In terms of actual differences in the PhD itself, I think you will find it a lot more flexible in choosing a topic than you think, you are stuck with your advisor but everyone I've spoken to is completley open with their students coming in learning/reading first then playing about with ideas, before they find something theyre enthusiast about and decide to run with it.It's not like you start and they give you a thesis title and say go go go.

For me also I would be glad of the reduced teaching load, i.e. 2hrs a week (or maybe even nothing at all!) vs 20hrs a week in the US! Also there will be graduate lectures but prob not compulsory examined ones for the first 6-12months alongside your research, so you will still have the opportunity to learn what you need to know without stressing about qualifying exams etc.

Really depends what you like, if you want a very structured first 2 years, which is basically a continuation of the undergrad style of,fixed lectures and exams, and you learn best this way, then US might be best. If you think you are capable to just getting the necessary books, and motivating yourself to go to the relevant lectures, and want to dive into your research without much delay (some people like this some people dont feel ready..), Oxford is prob best.

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Re: UK vs. US Grad Schools for Physics

Post by astrofan » Fri Feb 27, 2009 1:36 pm

In terms of research, it clearly is a question of have you had enough exposure to all areas of physics to want to choose Oxford where it would be harder to switch projects.

Another consideration is that, from what I have heard, the teaching system is a bit different in the UK than here (I mean to undergrads). If you plan on coming back to the US after graduate school, the adjustment might be harder from the UK system to the US system of professor/graduate student interaction with undergrads.

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Re: UK vs. US Grad Schools for Physics

Post by Ben5504 » Fri Mar 06, 2009 6:59 am

I can appreciate the situation you're in, as last year I had to decide between staying in the US or going to Cambridge. I ended up deciding on Cambridge, even though it restricted me to the Semiconductor Physics group, which I wasn't terribly familiar with previously.

I was surprised when I got here to find that even with being restricted to semiconductor physics, there were still plenty of available topics and advisors to work with. So it would be good for you to find out exactly how much flexibility there is. (Is it one particular project within Detector R&D, or are they looking at several problems within that area? and so forth)

Additionally, it seems most graduate programs in general, (and I know this is the case for Cambridge specifically), have safeguards in place in case you simply cannot work with your advisor. I have a second advisor (also in semiconductor physics) who is there to go to for advice if there are any issues with my primary advisor, as well as a graduate tutor from an unrelated field (but still natural science) for more general advice.

Every graduate program will occasionally have cases where students have to switch advisors, and most likely some adaptation of their research project will follow. I wouldn't worry as much about that side of things, though it would be good for you to look into the particulars of that before you make your decision

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Re: UK vs. US Grad Schools for Physics

Post by chishon » Fri Mar 06, 2009 2:25 pm

If I were you, I'd stick to the US schools. In fact, that is probably what I'm going to do (I decided to not apply to Oxford when I was going to...and I have a couple offers from European schools).

If you go to a top 10 institution, then there are tons of people doing amazing things on virtually everything (well, I suppose that depends on what school...I guess I'm mainly thinking Harvard). They are also probably better funded, which is always a plus. Let's face it, if you want to come back to the US, you probably want a big American name (especially if you switch fields). If you don't switch fields, the only thing that matters is your advisor, and again (unless there's someone ridiculous in one field, which for me was the case with Uni. Wien) you probably will get a better advisor at an American school (or at least comparable).

Another point to think of is the length of the degree: it's possible it's only 3 years at Oxford. Perhaps that sounds like a plus, but if things go wrong for a bit, or you don't have too many publications, that screws your physics life over quite well. A lot of research is based on luck, and it's easy to be unlucky for 3 years.

Personally, I'm leaning toward Harvard purely because of: 1) Name, 2) Can still get an amazing supervisor, 3) Funds are ridiculously availble.

Good luck with your decision!

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Re: UK vs. US Grad Schools for Physics

Post by elzoido238 » Sat Mar 07, 2009 1:48 am

I was recently discussing my decision with one of my professors, and he gave me some really good advice. He said that he thought that I was placing too much emphasis on the prestige of the institution, and not enough on the type of research I would be doing (which is what's really important in graduate school.) I think in your case this rings even more truthfully than in mine: all of the institutions that you have been accepted to are extremely prestigious, so much so that a discussion of which ones may be more prestigious is purely semantic (and really just masturbation.) Are you thrilled at the prospect of doing silicon detector R&D for the next 4 years (because judging from the tone of your post, it doesn't sound like it.)? I would also take shouravv's advice (found here: about how's the "feel factor." Also, I wouldn't put too much emphasis on schools "weeding out" students. It sounds like the schools that accepted you really want you to attend (and they should, your profile is outstanding), so why would they try to get rid of you?

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Re: UK vs. US Grad Schools for Physics

Post by secander2! » Thu Mar 12, 2009 6:21 am

Thank you all for your responses! They really helped me to make up my mind. Ultimately I decided to reject the Oxford offer due to the fact that I am honestly just much more interested in topics like LHC-HEP and Particle Astrophysics than I am in Silicon Detector R&D. Ultimately, I just want to have the opportunity to painlessly shop around for an adviser and a project. Even if I end up doing Silicon Detector R&D at another school, I'd like to have seen some of the other options first :D

Thank you all for your help! You guys are great!!!

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