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Graduate study in the UK: a student’s perspective

Thinking of graduate study in the UK?  My decision to study for an MA and PhD in the UK has saved me time and money, and I’ve had a great time. 

by Jennifer Regan 

Jennifer ReganThe main reason I decided to study in the UK was that degrees are shorter and more self-directed than American degrees.  A Master’s typically takes one year and a PhD three.

Some Master’s degrees are taught, meaning you will take classes, and others are research-only. Doctoral degrees are research-only, unlike in the US where you usually spend two years taking classes and then begin researching. If you’re self-motivated, you’ll love this flexibility and independence. Of course, if you’re doing a research-only degree, you need to have an idea of what you want to research! 

Unfortunately, funding is scarce for a Master’s degree, in both the UK and the US. I paid for my Master’s myself, but I still saved money: if I had done it in the States, I would have had to pay for two years.

If you’re interested in a particular program but can’t afford it, make sure you ask whether the university has any special grants for international students. Funding for PhDs is competitive but more plentiful.

Most Americans who I know in the UK have received special international student grants from their universities, although I know a few who have been funded by Rotary, Marshall or Fulbright scholarships. 

Doctoral students benefit from the fact that UK universities are all public universities and they receive funding from government research councils. These research councils expect universities to offer PhD students offices with computers and internet connections. They also pressurize universities to ensure that their PhD students finish in three years.

I prefer this to the American system, where universities have little incentive to encourage their PhD students to finish because those students are providing cheap labor!

Normally, if you’re given a PhD grant in the UK, you’re paid to do your own research, not to stuff envelopes or teach undergraduates. If you do teaching assistant work you’ll be paid at an hourly rate. Universities also offer training for PhD students in areas such as career management, computer skills and teaching: at my university, we select from a number of one-day courses to attend.

Student services
BelfastAt UK universities, there are Students’ Unions instead of student governments. These have full-time elected officers who can help with any problems relating to student life, whether you need advice about dealing with your landlord, or you want to set up a fish and chips appreciation society.

In addition to the Students’ Union, your university will provide services such as a careers office, a counseling service, chaplains for a variety of religious faiths, a bookstore, computer labs, and (lest we forget why you’re there) libraries. If you have young children, your university may offer a subsidized daycare center.

As a full-time student you’ll be covered by the National Health Service, so you’ll be able to visit a doctor for free and a dentist for a small fee. Your university will probably have its own health center.

Universities are obligated to adapt their services for disabled students. If you have a disability, it’s a good idea to inform universities when you are applying: your information will be treated confidentially and it won’t hurt your application. The university will then be able to explain the support and funding available for disabled students. 

Going out
UK students have active social lives and universities offer a huge range of societies and clubs. Societies are non-athletic whereas clubs are intramural sports. Clubs are often open to all abilities, so if you’ve always wanted to learn fencing or waterpolo, you could get your chance.

Societies might include politics, volunteering, photography and even Monty Python Appreciation. Student groups are eager to attract new members. In fact, I attended a clubs and societies fair at my university and I made the mistake of walking past the crew club table.  For weeks afterwards I was followed around campus by burly rowers, who were trying to convince me to become a coxswain! 

As a graduate student, you’ll also become part of an academic community. I’ve made friends across the UK by attending academic conferences and going on research trips. I frequently attend lectures and seminars in my department, and these usually conclude with both staff and graduate students going for a friendly drink in the pub; it’s a great opportunity to meet people. What’s more, research has shown that your supervisor is much more likely to offer you an extension on an essay when you are in relaxing in the pub on a Friday afternoon, rather than in a meeting on Monday morning! 

Where will I live?
Autumn in BelfastI’ve heard legends about graduate students who saved money by sleeping in their shared offices and showering at the university gym, but I recommend you find a place of your own.

You’ll probably be offered campus accommodation – usually a single dorm room with a shared common room and kitchen. Some universities have separate apartment buildings for graduate students, so you’ll meet others in the same situation as you. Living in campus accommodation means little hassle – you don’t pay utility bills, you can arrive with housing sorted, and you’ll probably be close to the university itself. 

However, some students feel that a privately rented house is more convivial. University towns offer plenty of rental accommodation, and it is possible to arrive without pre-arranged accommodation.

The Students’ Union will probably have a noticeboard where students can advertise rooms available in rented houses. Prices will vary: London is, of course, not cheap, but many other cities offer excellent value for money. In Belfast, I can afford to rent a two-bedroom house with another graduate student.

The housing stock in the UK is often older than that in the US, so if you’re worried about feeling the cold you might want to make sure that your house has double-glazed windows and lots of radiators, and that it doesn’t feel drafty. UK winters are not very cold, but they can be damp, and you’ll need a cozy place to draft your thesis! Whatever you do, don’t live alone: you’re more likely to feel lonely or homesick, and you won’t meet as many people.

What will I eat?
Is all that hard work making you hungry? If your idea of British food is lukewarm tea and murky stew, you’re out of date. Traditional food is having a huge revival in the UK.

Most cities have markets that sell excellent food – at the Belfast market, I can buy local farmhouse cheeses, organic carrots, and fresh fish. Universities have their own canteens or cafes on campus if you don’t want to cook your own food. You’ll also find that the UK has many cuisines from former British colonies. Britain’s favorite dish is actually an Indian chicken tikka, and ’going for a curry’ is as much a part of life in the UK as ’having a cuppa’ (a cup of tea).

The bottom line is that you will not go hungry, and you might well fall in love with British food (although, if you want your clothes to fit, I don’t recommend you make a habit of eating cheesy fries on the way home from the pub... I write from experience).

And finally...
Ultimately, you need to find the best program of study for you, but I think you should seriously consider the UK. I’ve received an excellent education, I’ve avoided huge debts, and I’ll also return to the US with the unusual experience of having lived an extended period in a foreign country. I have no regrets about my decision, and I hope you find the right university for you, too.   

Best of luck with your graduate school search!

Jennifer gained a PhD in modern history at Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland. She also holds an MA in Irish History from Queen’s and a BS in Foreign Service from Georgetown University. She is now a fellow at King’s College, Cambridge, where she teaches and directs studies in history.

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