Friday, 18 January 2013

Why US students choose the UK for postgrad study

I've had the pleasure of discovering a great blog resource recently called The Professor Is In. It's created by Dr. Karen Kelsky, a post-academic from the US who decided to leave academia even when she has a successful career with tenure. I love finding blogs like this because they provide an honest narrative of why people initially aspired to the academic life, and what they learned about its realities after investing so much of themselves in it. The thing that also makes Dr. Kelsky's blog a great resource is the author's willingness to offer realistic career advice for post-acs as well as solid advice young academics just starting out. She's aiming to train postgrads in career preparation in a way that she never experienced when she finished her PhD. She is clear at the start that she is not in the business of creating illusions that there is a fruitful and abundant academic job market out there for new post-PhDs, but she does claim that she can offer strong advice about how to be competitive in these conditions if you are convinced you want to give it your best shot. On the other end, she offers some great thoughts about what it means to quit academia and doesn't stop at warning those potential grad students to rethink their move before getting themselves into major debt when signing up after they are encouraged by their undergraduate mentors.

After reading one of her great 'Guest' postings Don't go to graduate school shared by a tenured friend of hers, I spent some time thinking about why bright spark US graduates might be so keen on packing their bags and flying over here to the UK to take postgraduate MA, MSc courses and PhDs. The post is really an exchange between Karen and her friend, who tells the story about one of her talented undergrad students in English who has finished his/her degree and is passionate about becoming an academic. The student has applied to an MA grad programme in a prestigious university in the northeast and has not secured any funding, but is so stuck on pursuing this dream that they are willing to pay the 45,000 dollar a year tuition fee and go into massive debt to prove their commitment. The student letter/email to the professor is a kind of expression of intent with the hope that the professor will praise him/her, encourage their academic interests and open their arms as a welcome into the life of academia. The prof's response, however, is something unexpected. We don't know what the student's final decision was after that, but at least he/she can't say they weren't warned.

The wonderful twist to this scenario is that this prof tells it like it is and advises the student not to take the MA course, especially if it's unfunded, but even if funded, warns the student that this is not the way to go either, especially with worsening academic employment prospects that are not showing any sign of improvement. She stresses to this bright young star that he/she has a lot going for them and there are so many other avenues he/she can choose to exploit their talents while not breaking the bank. Yay for her for playing it straight, and yay for the student if they take seriously the advice.

I am reminded then about the perverse business of these elite US higher institutions that can charge whatever they like to allow their perspective students the 'privilege' of studying there. In the UK students have been up in arms and protesting in the streets when Higher Education institutions here went public with their intentions to raise yearly undergrad fees from 3,000 pounds a year to between 6,000-9,000 annually (home students costs) for their three-year undergrad degrees. For graduate MA or MSc courses, home students will be expecting to pay around 6,000 a year full-time or 13,000-14,000 pounds if international. These estimates are based on my scan of an equivalent 'elite' UK university (they are called 'Russell Group' universities here because they are the older institutions). Other non-Russell Group universities will often charge on the lower end of that spectrum but some go higher. At this point in British history these public institutions cannot simply charge whatever they want, and we don't have the large culture of private university options like in the US. They've been forced to raise fees because of less government funding and they've taken advantage of aiming for the higher fee demand, but that's the threshold at the moment. They're not allowed to go higher.

So for those talented US undergrads hoping for a future in academia they can see the benefits of studying here in the UK. Laying out 13,500 pounds for an MA converts, at current rates, to 21,567.60 dollars (to be exact), a massive savings of over 20,000 (using the northeast ivy league example above) if they are convinced they should go in this direction. For many of us post-acs who have been there, however, and who have suffered the debts of undergrad education in the US (myself included - I moved to the UK after finishing my US undergrad degree), and then accrued more postgrad debts, we wouldn't want to repeat the experience. Enough is enough, I say.

In my current alt-ac work, I encounter many international postgrads, a good percentage of them from the US, taking wonderfully intellectually fulfilling postgrad degrees. I am happy for them if they've been able to put a middle finger up to the US and have found a way to get off a bit cheaper for a quality postgrad education. But I want to also have long and extended conversations with them about how higher education institutions in the US and here now, who are rubbing their hands together in excitement at the prospect of taking in the postgrad student, and even better if they are a nice international money-maker. I want to remind them that years ago when my UK friends were undergrads the government paid their full education costs and even gave them extra stipends for living expenses. Of course, in those days higher education in the UK was even more elitist with a very small percentage of mainly privileged middle-class young people attending. With increasing widening participation there has been a large increase in those achieving degrees here. This is a great thing for sure, but any increasing fees will not help a lot of prospective students achieve their educational potential if they are faced with years of debt. Getting out in the streets across the UK to protest hasn't solved the problem but it it has increased student awareness and given students a strong voice and presence here that was potentially waning  before fee increases.

So while the UK might offer some attraction for prospective US postgrads (and undergrads too, especially as they will be on a degree programme here for only three, and not four years), I want to signal to these prospects that there must be another way to reward your intellectual curiosity. Unfortunately, with unemployment so high at this time of world recession, there is no easy solution, and many are choosing postgrad courses as a way of buying more time before they have to compete in the job market. And with the extra MA/MSc they will see themselves as being one step ahead of others, I guess. But they are also a few steps behind financially and will have the added pressure of seeking employment in highly paid private, commercial sectors in the hope that they can pay their student loans quicker. Many will find they are working 13 hour days in a career they are unhappy with and are simply looking forward to that one big annual holiday where they can bask in the sun and recharge until they are back in the rat race again. My advice to these postgrad want-to-bes is to take a long, hard time to think about this. It's hard when you're young in your twenties to imagine where you may be when you are forty when you might have regrets about your choices. Think hard about the core of things that help make you happy. And if confused about whether you should sacrifice financial stability for the love of your academic subject, read many of the well-considered post-ac stories in the post-ac blogging community.

That final word, of course, leads me to plug again, the collective post-ac website that I am jointly editing with Currer, J.C. and Lauren, called How To Leave Academia. This is the newest post-ac resource that can guide you in the right direction if you are pondering what to do about academia. As time goes on, readers here might see that I'm posting less - that's because I'm busy with the demands of work and family, and there are times when I really need to go offline! But I will also have to choose to allocate some well-spent time over there. Some of posts here may be repeated there too - why not. Have a look and think about contributing somewhere to share your experiences.


  1. Great post. Read the whole thing, lol :)

  2. UK universities have a great reputation across the world, often with several decades or even centuries of history behind them. Most qualifications you can gain with them will be respected anywhere in the world, a huge plus in today's international work environment. That's why they are choosing UK universities.
    Agrodut Mandal
    Thesis writing

    1. Yes, they do offer good quality postgrad education overall, I agree. Those who teach here on postgrad courses have the pleasure of teaching at a higher level also. At the end of the day though, UK Higher education benefits enormously from International Postgrad students - it's a business they can't afford to get wrong. I haven't checked PG course costs in US private institutions, but can imagine they're inaccessible for un-funded international students who's families are not ultra-high income earners.

  3. Another HUGE benefit of doing a PhD in the UK as opposed to the US is that it takes much, much, much less time. Coursework is done at the MA level, and so the PhD programme is normally only 3 years. I finished mine in 2 years 9 months (and delayed graduation for a year for various reasons, but the requirements were done in that amount of time). You basically start out ABD. I was also given a fairly prestigious studentship that paid fees and stipend, but at my very good UK uni, there were quite a few studentships and I'd say more students had one than didn't.

    Granted, I decided to leave academia for the most part post-PhD - though I still teach part-time while I run my business - but it was much better for my career and future prospects to be able to make that decision at age 26 than age 36.

  4. Nice to hear that lots of studentships were available in your area, as they are usually scarce in the arts and humanities. Cutting the time frame down helps too. Good luck with your business.