PhD life in US and UK: First months

The application season is upon us yet again. Soon, thousands of students will try to make a decision of whether to go to the UK or the USA for graduate school. Two months into my PhD in Neuropharmacology at the University of Cambridge, UK seemed to be a good time to write a comparison between PhD in the USA vs the UK. Today’s guest blogger is Ms Sushobhna Batra, who is currently pursuing a PhD in Immunology at the University of Texas, Southwestern (UTSW). She has written the parts about US PhD. At this stage, classes, rotations and teaching marks the differences between the two programs. So, I will address these in this blog post. There will be regular updates throughout our PhDs to keep track of the differences and similarities.

Disclaimer: The differences mentioned here do not represent all US and UK PhDs, rather it is a general discussion about the two systems with Cambridge University, Department of Pharmacology and UTSW Immunology PhD program as models.


Sushobhna (UTSW):

Let’s start with something that’s on the agenda every day. Core Course covers the fundamentals of genetics, proteins, and cell biology in general. Since students with different backgrounds and scientific interests all converge at this juncture, the core curriculum aims to bring them all on the same page. However, these classes are very different from undergraduate courses (For starters, THEY ARE OPEN BOOK). Though didactic, the materials encourage extensive thought process into the theoretical and experimental content. This is mediated via ‘experimental design sessions’ that occur once a week. These are questions written by the professor on each lectures where students have to design experiments on that topic complete with a hypothesis, interpretation of the results, and even troubleshooting what could have gone wrong. In addition to lectures, several sessions are also devoted to literature discussions. These involve reading benchmark papers on the topics related to lectures. Literature discussion is an excellent method to prime incoming graduate students to critically read and understand the intricacies of a paper.

Speaking of tests, while all the professors write one question of their own, students have the flexibility to choose and answer any 4 of the test questions. Given that the incoming graduate students hail from diverse research backgrounds, they can choose the questions on the subject of their forte.


Me (University of Cambridge):

Cambridge on the other hand requires no coursework for PhD students which makes it harder for students who do not come from similar backgrounds. However, as a member of the University any graduate student can attend any lectures given to last year undergraduate and MPhil students. Since in the UK system the last year is for specialization, these classes are at a fairly high level. It depends on the motivation of the student to find which lecture to attend and arrange their schedule accordingly. It also depends on the attitude of the supervisor. I am fortunate to have a supervisor who encourages attending courses where I have knowledge gap. But it is not uncommon for our supervisor to require a certain amount of time in lab which will make attending courses much harder.

Another source of “lectures” here is attending the millions of talks that is constantly happening all around Cambridge. In our department there is weekly one hour, semi-mandatory talk given by both departmental PIs and external lab heads which are excellent tools to gain overall knowledge of the subject. Additionally, I have also attended talks in other related departments and a conference on imaging.


I must mention the Biostatistics and Ethics classes as well. Apart from all the biomedical sciences-oriented courses, it is mandatory to take the Biostatistics class which intends to familiarize the students to myriads of statistical tests and concepts that one will eventually end up using in analyzing one’s own research data. Ethics or ‘RCR- Responsible Conduct of Research’ is a mandatory course for all scientists to train them in making moral and ethical decisions while conducting research. This class that takes place once in every 2 weeks starts with ‘free pizzas!!’, includes an interesting lecture, and is followed by a case study discussion on the same.


For skills not relating to biology, Graduate School of Life Sciences in Cambridge University runs some optional research development courses in topics ranging from scientific writing, presentation techniques to time management. So far I have attended the Scientific writing course which proved to be enjoyable and informative and I hope to attend the smaller workshops that will be run in preparation for the first year report. Our department also runs a statistics workshop once a year that I am yet to attend. I am yet to find out about ethics courses for researchers in the University.   



Amidst catching up with all the coursework and exams, kicks in the excitement of lab rotations. Regardless of what program a student might be interested in, one can do up to four lab rotations in any department/lab that suits one’s research interests. Each rotation is about 6 weeks, and lab rotations need to be done simultaneously while taking classes. Thus, time management plays a key role in success both in and outside of lab. However, most PIs are considerate and allow flexible hours. Of course, it is always good to stay as long as a possible and get as much data as possible. The school requires everyone to do at least 2 rotations before choosing a lab. Most of the times these rotations are helping post doc or older graduate students with their projects and in the process learning new techniques. Rarely, there are short individual projects.

Although some programs in Cambridge have started rotations, most do not. This is a problem for students who do not have a concrete idea on what they want to do. In my program, students come in with a research proposal which they work on throughout the three years. The advantage of this system is it gives the student direction for literature review and helps them to start thinking about experiments. I think US-style experiment designing courses would have been a great preparation tool for this. Instead, here it is solely dependent on the research group and the PI. In our group we have weekly journal club and data presentation that helps in thinking about the project in depth.



UTSW does not require any teaching obligations. This allows one to devote the entire time to research. This kind of research environment is perfect for those who want to stay in academia and conduct research, and even for those who wish to venture into industry or other non-bench work and non-teaching but science related fields. However, frequently, teaching opportunities such as training high school or undergraduate students for summer programs or judging local science competitions can be availed, and can be lots of fun with interesting interactions with budding scientists!


Although Cambridge does not require teaching, there are plenty of opportunities around thanks to the collegiate system. In our department almost all graduate students serve as laboratory assistants to undergraduates. In the first term we are paid to do these labs (or practicals) ourselves so that we can direct the undergraduates better the next year. Additionally, each of the 31 colleges in Cambridge require tutors to provide additional help to undergraduates for which graduate students can apply. Some summer teaching for high school students are also available through Oxbridge Summer Academic Programs.


Last word:

So far it seems like US PhD has more structure to provide necessary skills to graduate students, whereas for UK PhD motivation and supportive lab group is essential to gather research skills. Stay tuned for more updates on our social, administrative and research conference lives.


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