British and American Style Doctoral Programs

Punting on the River Cam in Cambridge

In a previous post, I briefly outlined my work at the University of Cambridge as a doctoral student in Old Testament. In this post, I will discuss the broad differences between British and American doctoral programs in terms of application procedure and requirements. These, at least, are differences that are stereotypically true. There are innumerable permutations to doctoral programs, of course, so what I touch on here will only be so accurate in any given institution.

British and American Doctoral Programs

Most of my family and friends are befuddled when I tell them about the doctoral program at Cambridge. This befuddlement is not always related to their incredulity at my field of interest (the Septuagint), which almost always generates obnoxious yawns when I discuss it. They’re confused by what I will actually do when I show up in Cambridge, namely not go to class (among other things). At least, classes are not the main point of my program.

American Programs

Princeton University

Most Americans are used to thinking about a doctoral degree in similar terms as a graduate degree. They imagine that you apply with your report card and letter of reference from your mother, get accepted, go sit in class for a few years, and then graduate somehow with no job prospects to show for it. Some will know there is a writing aspect. And this picture is somewhat accurate (particularly the job prospect part). In reality, most American programs work something like this:

  1. Rigorous application process, often involving several phases of elimination, and possibly a face-to-face interview.
  2. Acceptance, with an award of a major source of funding, often a full ride or even stipend for “living expenses” that can reach the $30k mark (per year!) at some of the major universities.
  3. Two to Four years of required coursework in your broad field, with mountains of reading and research papers.
  4. One to Two years of teaching assistance for a professor, which may overlap with your coursework. At larger schools, doctoral students actually teach the undergraduate classes themselves, which is a major benefit.
  5. Supervisor selection and the two to three year writing phase, where students will have finished their coursework and enter into (hopefully) unadulterated research and writing with their supervisor of choice. Occasionally doctoral students are employable at this point, having completed their degree “all but dissertation” (sometimes on faculty job postings you’ll see something like “ABD required”).
  6. Most American schools will also have “comprehensive” exams, or “comps,” required somewhere along the line, which are exactly what they sound like.
  7. Graduation.

All in all, the American system is terribly involved, extremely long, and exhausting. On the flip side, you are so completely immersed in education that you come out with a lot to show for it, including teaching experience and publications. Some or all of the steps above overlap at times.

British Programs

The British (and European) model is very different. The best way I can think of to describe it is as an apprentice-mentor relationship. When you are looking to apply for a doctoral program in the British system, you are not really looking for a school as much as for a person. The idea is that by the time you are ready to pursue a doctoral degree you should be educated enough to have a clear idea of your interests and the research that needs to be done in a certain field. Accordingly, you are left to come up with a detailed research project and to find the person under whom it would be best to conduct that work. The main criteria to determine that is whether a potential “supervisor” has the same research interests as you and expertise in the field.

How most people imagine studying at Oxford or Cambridge

Of course, where that scholar is employed also matters in many ways, since the reputation of your school will go a long way. But in theory aspiring doctoral students should be looking for the best person, over the best university reputation, since the working relationship is so closely knit that most of your education will come from your supervisor rather than the school. That is particularly true in the British system where there is no coursework required at all. Only research and writing.

So a British university’s format works more like this:

  1. Rigorous application process, requiring a writing sample related to your field, identification of a prospective supervisor (who you should have developed a relationship with by then), and a full-blown, detailed dissertation proposal identifying your research project (usually 1000 words).
  2. Offer of admission, usually with stipulation of funding, if any (a big “if”).
  3. (Your desperate attempt to find sources of funding.)
  4. Student’s acceptance of the school’s offer, usually completed by submitting further criteria such as your completed masters transcript, a financial liability agreement, etc.
  5. Three years of independent research and writing, overseen only by your supervisor at semi-regular intervals. Many programs have a probationary first year to ensure you’ve got the stuff it takes.
  6. Oral defense of your completed dissertation.
  7. Graduation.

So you can see that British programs are much shorter (about half the length), but do not necessarily come with any funding, and do not (usually) provide teaching experience. On the other hand, you spare yourself the expenditure of much youthful vigor that American programs excise, and you work personally with a scholar of your choice who is ideally at the top of their field. I chose the British path almost by default because most scholars involved in Septuagint studies are located overseas.

The University & College System

Another perplexing aspect to a school like Cambridge – Oxford is the same way – is that Cambridge itself is not formally a “school,” but a corporate, guild-like institution. Cambridge is the unified front for the diversity of colleges within it. So not only are you a “Cambridge student,” but also a student of your college, which in my case is Fitzwilliam College. The application to your college is part of your application to the university, although you pick several colleges of interest, and your acceptance to one is a separate process from your acceptance to the university.

At the doctoral level, your college is important insofar as it establishes your intellectual community, should you conduct your research there, and it also can provide funding opportunities. It is not necessary for your advisor to be part of your college. Doctoral students also work with their particular faculty, in my case the Faculty of Divinity. This is both a physical building and a group of people, namely the divinity faculty members from all the colleges.

In sum, then, there are many key differences between these two systems that important to know when considering applying for a doctoral degree. Hopefully this has been of some help to those in that position, and to my understandably confused family members.

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