UK Schools...worthwhile??

AriAstronomer
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UK Schools...worthwhile??

Postby AriAstronomer » Mon Jul 25, 2011 4:42 am

Hey everyone,
So I'm narrowing down my school selections for where to apply, and I realized I hadn't even considered the UK schools. Do schools like Oxford and Cambridge compare to the schools in the states? I'm sure on some levels they do (since they're famous and old), but specifically for astrophysics/astronomy/physics? I know I can look on their website and try to get sold on their programs, but I figured an 'un-commissioned' opinion would be really helpful as well.

Also: Do they need GRE scores? Is there as much money there (i.e. am I going to be shelling out money to go there)?

Thanks,
Ari

TheBeast
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Re: UK Schools...worthwhile??

Postby TheBeast » Mon Jul 25, 2011 10:26 am

With regards to physics in general, Oxford and Cambridge are both top-notch world universities. I'll leave the astro assessment to someone who actually studies in this field but your choice of University in the UK will depend greatly on whether you want to do theoretical or experimental astro and what sub-field (pulsars, star formation, interstellar planets, etc).

GRE score are not needed to apply and funding decisions are made separately from admission decisions. Most of the departmental funding can only be used to fund UK or EU students. So, if you want to apply (and are not a UK/EU resident), you need to allocate the necessary time to apply for scholarships as well from the University, the Colleges (if applying to Oxbridge) and local schemes in your home country. Fees and living expenses for a 3 year Oxford PhD will set you back ~150K USD if you don't win any funding.

physics123
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Re: UK Schools...worthwhile??

Postby physics123 » Mon Jul 25, 2011 12:10 pm

Cambridge is a big competitor and collaborator in mainstream astronomy and astrophysics. It would compare with the top US programs. Keep in mind that its PhD program is only 3 years, and they'd probably prefer you to matriculate with the course knowledge of a US Masters.

A former professor of mine got his DPhil from Oxford, but otherwise I don't usually hear Oxford mentioned in astronomy. I'm sure their graduates do well for themselves, but I think Cambridge definitely overshadows it quite a bit.

bfollinprm
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Re: UK Schools...worthwhile??

Postby bfollinprm » Mon Jul 25, 2011 1:02 pm

English-speaking schools that are excellent in cosmology (my field) outside of the states are (basically in order) listed below.

1. Cambridge (UK) -- top 10ish
2. UBC-Vancouver (Canada) --top 15?
3. Perimeter Institute (Canada) --top 15?
4. McGill University (Canada) --top 30 (some classes are in french)

I might be missing some, if anyone wants to comment.

There are also excellent programs in Germany, France, Italy, and Japan, which predominately do science in English-speaking journals. They aren't on the order of at least the first two on the above list, however. There are also second tier English programs at Toronto, Oxford, Edinburgh, Capetown, Sydney, and Hong Kong, though these schools don't really offer anything of note you cant get much more easily (and more cheaply) by staying in the States; I wouldn't recommend applying to them unless you're really excited about the prospect of living in those respective cities.

PS: physics123 is absolutely right. For any of the above programs, you almost certainly could not apply to the PhD program; you'd have to apply for the masters program instead. That said, there is a clearer path to the PhD program in foreign schools from the masters program than there is in American schools, and you are somewhat more likely to get your masters funded (though it still isn't a great chance). As another aside, physics elsewhere doesn't necessarily pay your way like it does in the states; if you go to the UK especially count on taking out some student loans.

PPS: I think (as in get the sense that) there is somewhat of a bias against non-US PhD's in academia in the states. Thus, even at a place like Cambridge, you might find your degree isn't worth as much as it probably should if you're applying to faculty positions at US schools. Obviously, this bias disappears entirely if you apply to positions in Canada or Europe, and seemingly isn't as strong in industry. Another effect of the cultural differences is that your recommendation letter from your adviser likely wont be as glowing when applying to postdocs or industry jobs; most people in academia know about this so won't hold it against you, but people in industry might.
Last edited by bfollinprm on Mon Jul 25, 2011 1:14 pm, edited 1 time in total.

TheBeast
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Re: UK Schools...worthwhile??

Postby TheBeast » Mon Jul 25, 2011 1:10 pm

bfollinprm wrote:McGill is a respectable school that leaves you with a chance of finding work as an R1 research professor (also, some classes are in French).

McGill is a university where English is the language of instruction. Unless you take a French language or literature class, the classes are in English.

bfollinprm
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Re: UK Schools...worthwhile??

Postby bfollinprm » Mon Jul 25, 2011 1:17 pm

TheBeast wrote:
bfollinprm wrote:McGill is a respectable school that leaves you with a chance of finding work as an R1 research professor (also, some classes are in French).

McGill is a university where English is the language of instruction. Unless you take a French language or literature class, the classes are in English.


Yeah, it's definitely the case that there won't be much of a problem at McGill. I was under the impression (though from a friend, so it's heresay) that sometimes seminars and talks can end up in French (maybe just during Q&A). Anyhow, definitely an English-speaking university, and shouldn't pose a problem at all.

AriAstronomer
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Re: UK Schools...worthwhile??

Postby AriAstronomer » Tue Jul 26, 2011 4:08 am

bfollinprm wrote:English-speaking schools that are excellent in cosmology (my field) outside of the states are (basically in order) listed below.

1. Cambridge (UK) -- top 10ish
2. UBC-Vancouver (Canada) --top 15?
3. Perimeter Institute (Canada) --top 15?
4. McGill University (Canada) --top 30 (some classes are in french)


Hey bfollinprm, thanks alot for the help. What I exactly want to do is cosmology, so your info has been very helpful. Unfortunately, Unless Cambridge has something absolutely spectacular to offer vs. other schools, I can't see myself going 100k deep into debt for a degree from there. Also, I knew that UVictoria (Victoria Island, BC) was a good school for astro, didn't know about UBC though. Did you mean UVic? If I were to choose one of those schools when applying (UBC or UVic) which one would you recommend?

Thanks alot for the advice everyone,
Ari

michael
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Re: UK Schools...worthwhile??

Postby michael » Tue Jul 26, 2011 5:03 am

It is almost unheard of for a phd student to pay anything to Cambridge to do their phd. The normal procedure is:
1) apply to the university, and get in
2) apply for funding* - there are many sources of possible funding for non-EU students, but it is not easy to get it

*I don't know the due dates of funding applications - they may be quite early and I would recommend looking at funding while looking at the university applications.

There are quite a lot of non-EU students doing physics phds at Cambridge, and the vast majority of them are getting paid about £12,000 in stipend per year to do so. They are usually very smart though! I would say it is about as hard for a non-EU student to get accepted to Cambridge + get funding, as it is for a non-US student to get into a top-10 US university. If you are the top student at a fairly good non-EU university, and have a few publications under your belt with glowing letters, you should be able to get funding.

bfollinprm
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Re: UK Schools...worthwhile??

Postby bfollinprm » Tue Jul 26, 2011 12:49 pm

AriAstronomer wrote:
Hey bfollinprm, thanks alot for the help. What I exactly want to do is cosmology, so your info has been very helpful. Unfortunately, Unless Cambridge has something absolutely spectacular to offer vs. other schools, I can't see myself going 100k deep into debt for a degree from there. Also, I knew that UVictoria (Victoria Island, BC) was a good school for astro, didn't know about UBC though. Did you mean UVic? If I were to choose one of those schools when applying (UBC or UVic) which one would you recommend?

Ari


U Vic! I knew I was forgetting one. I meant UBC, but UVic is also a good astrophysics school. They're pretty different though; UBC focuses on early universe (Cosmic backgrounds, inflation, dark energy) while UVic does a lot of cosmic structure (quasars, weak lensing, cluster physics, dark matter)*. I gravitate towards the former, so I don't know as much about the faculty at Victoria.

UBC has amazing depth in early universe cosmology. Mark Halpern, Doug Scott, and Chris Sigurdson are all looking for grad students, and represent the full spectrum from experimental to theoretical cosmology. Here's a full list of professors there: http://www.physics.ubc.ca/research/astro.php#people.

I can't tell you where to apply (by the way, UVic's cosmology faculty is here: http://astrowww.phys.uvic.ca/research/index.html#Babul). What I can tell you is outside of the US, the PhD is thought of much more as a simple apprenticeship between the adviser and the student; you'll pretty much have to know who your adviser will be the minute you walk in the front door, and his/her opinion is the one that really matters when deciding if you'll get in. Therefore, it's important to find people who are currently accepting students, and email them. It probably isn't worth leaving the US unless you get really excited about someone's research at a particular school, and definitely isn't worth it unless you know exactly what you want to do.

*I don't mean this is exclusive. There are certainly people who think about structure at UBC, and people who think about early universe at UVic. And, increasingly, there's no way to do one without the other--there's so much each sub-discipline does to inform the other.

TheBeast
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Re: UK Schools...worthwhile??

Postby TheBeast » Tue Jul 26, 2011 2:17 pm

bfollinprm wrote:What I can tell you is outside of the US, the PhD is thought of much more as a simple apprenticeship between the adviser and the student; you'll pretty much have to know who your adviser will be the minute you walk in the front door, and his/her opinion is the one that really matters when deciding if you'll get in.

I don't want to detract from the excellent advice from bfollinprm but I disagree with the generalizations regarding knowing who your advisor is before you start. Realistically, it varies from school to school, department to department and country to country. In my experience with Canadian and British schools, in hep-ex, it hasn't always been necessary to know exactly who you want to work with from the get-go. Obviously you will want to have done the necessary research to figure out if there are faculty members who share your interest but there, but the ultimate decision as to who will be your advisor is made a few months into the program. Granted, this is less time than choosing a permanent research group after a couple of years in the program, as it is in some US schools, but there is still the opportunity to shop around, if you will, before settling on an advisor. McGill and Oxford are two examples of such flexibility. Other institutions, though (UCL in my experience), need the whole advisor thing fully settled before you begin.

With regards to a potential advisor strongly influencing whether you get in or not, this probably applies at many universities, including those in the US. This seems to be the opinion of Eric Prebys, who used to serve on the Princeton adcom http://home.fnal.gov/~prebys/talks/gradschooltalk_fermilab_20110706.pdf. Also, if the international school that you're applying to has an interview process, I've heard that if you completely bomb this relative to the other applicants, having a prof really want you as a student might not be enough to secure admission.

bfollinprm wrote:Therefore, it's important to find people who are currently accepting students, and email them.

I agree with this, but I think that this is good advice in general for most applications. In particular if you're considering applying to a school that only has a one or two people doing stuff that you're interested in, you want to make sure that they are actually taking on students (and not on sabbatical or have a full research group already).

bfollinprm
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Re: UK Schools...worthwhile??

Postby bfollinprm » Tue Jul 26, 2011 4:54 pm

Thanks for the clarifications, theBeast!

I guess I also should mention that you'll likely be applying to masters programs at these schools anyway, and having an adviser wont be necessary until some (short) time after you start your PhD. So, looking at the 4 years as a whole, you have the same year that you would have if you go to an American university. Though, since the PhD program is only 3 years long, you'll be expected to jump right in and contribute--I know many students in the US spend the first year you spend learning the ropes (since many people are in 6-7 year PhD programs nowadays). That wont really be possible in the shorter UK/Canadian programs.

TheBeast
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Re: UK Schools...worthwhile??

Postby TheBeast » Tue Jul 26, 2011 8:07 pm

bfollinprm wrote:I know many students in the US spend the first year you spend learning the ropes (since many people are in 6-7 year PhD programs nowadays). That wont really be possible in the shorter UK/Canadian programs.


Let me add one further clarification. For Canadian schools, since undergrads apply to start grad school in an MSc program (typically of 2 years duration) and then go on to a PhD (another 3-5 years) you're looking at a total of 5-7 years in grad school. Thus, the amount of time spent in grad school is similar to that in American institutions. There are variations, like some places allow you to switch into the PhD stream after a year of Master's work or some allow you to apply directly into their PhD programs as an undergrad (UToronto allows this, but I think you need an A or higher in all of your physics classes to be considered), but in general, the process is as I've described.

In the Master's program, the first year is spent taking classes so most advisors have little research expectations for their students and expect them to learn about the field. The second year is where the research kicks into gear because the student needs to produce a Master's thesis by the end of it.

I should also mention that Canadian physics MSc programs are, save for some rare exceptions, fully funded.

AriAstronomer
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Re: UK Schools...worthwhile??

Postby AriAstronomer » Wed Jul 27, 2011 4:40 am

Hey guys,
I really appreciate the feedback, most notably the advice from bfollinprm and the link about grad school admissions from The Beast. I had no idea that was how admissions worked, and I guess even a few emails to a prof on the admissions committee can help your cause. I am actually from Canada, and probably thus am a bit disadvantaged when applying to schools in the States anyway, but the name of the game seems to be never to close any doors, so here I am studying my butt off for the GRE's, even though there's a 50/50 chance I'll stay in Canada anyway. So in that regard your advice about UBC and UVic have been very helpful, I'll definitely be getting in contact with some of those profs.

Yeah most people I know who have gone to schools in Canada from Canada have ended up being fully funded, and overall after hearing about the difficulty of getting funding for UK schools, I probably will just stick to Canada/US.

Especially in the astrophysics program, length of degrees seem to be on average a bit longer than other programs, so I suppose I should be prepared for 5 years at least.

Thanks again guys,
Ari

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Andromeda
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Re: UK Schools...worthwhile??

Postby Andromeda » Thu Jul 28, 2011 12:09 am

As someone going off to do an Astronomy PhD in Europe this fall (at University of Amsterdam) I completely encourage looking into programs across the pond so to speak- always great to broaden horizons in multiple ways! :mrgreen:

Firstly I wrote a lot more detailed version of how applying to Europe worked for me in the 2011 placement etc thread, so I'd recommend checking that out too if you want more info. But briefly I applied to programs in the UK, the Netherlands, and Germany and all were English-speaking and top-notch caliber- for example Leiden in the Netherlands has had more Hubble fellows than pretty much any other institution, and there are more astronomers per capita in the Netherlands than any other country in the world actually. Lots of interesting research also going on on that side of the pond, like the Planck satellite and the LOFAR radio astronomy array.

With regards to the UK, by far the biggest hurdle I ran into was funding as most places just plain don't have much funding worth mentioning if you're not a UK resident (EU citizens would get tuition covered but not living expenses usually) and most places just plain wouldn't accept a student who they couldn't fund- not like we need all that many astronomers in the world, y'know? I did my research on schools and most admissions folks were more than happy to write back with potential opportunities for US students, and the best opportunities are actually up in Scotland I seem to recall (the best for astro are University of Edinburgh and St Andrews). Most of the time what you need to know is whether anyone in the department is funded by the European Research Council because the profs who are can fund people from not just the UK/EU.

So I had a lot more success with places on the mainland continent of Europe- most places do graduate programs in English, and lots of programs are really as top notch as anything you'd find in the States/Canada (for example the Max Planck Institutes in Germany- main ones for astro are in Munich, Heidelberg, and Bonn). No one ever asked for a GRE score albeit you do need to interview for all these places prior to acceptance- and most will require a M.S. degree for a PhD program!

Ok t'sall for now, feel free to shout out or drop me a line if you have more questions. :)

AriAstronomer
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Re: UK Schools...worthwhile??

Postby AriAstronomer » Thu Jul 28, 2011 3:02 pm

Andromeda wrote:As someone going off to do an Astronomy PhD in Europe this fall (at University of Amsterdam) I completely encourage looking into programs across the pond so to speak- always great to broaden horizons in multiple ways! :mrgreen:

Firstly I wrote a lot more detailed version of how applying to Europe worked for me in the 2011 placement etc thread, so I'd recommend checking that out too if you want more info. But briefly I applied to programs in the UK, the Netherlands, and Germany and all were English-speaking and top-notch caliber- for example Leiden in the Netherlands has had more Hubble fellows than pretty much any other institution, and there are more astronomers per capita in the Netherlands than any other country in the world actually. Lots of interesting research also going on on that side of the pond, like the Planck satellite and the LOFAR radio astronomy array.

With regards to the UK, by far the biggest hurdle I ran into was funding as most places just plain don't have much funding worth mentioning if you're not a UK resident (EU citizens would get tuition covered but not living expenses usually) and most places just plain wouldn't accept a student who they couldn't fund- not like we need all that many astronomers in the world, y'know? I did my research on schools and most admissions folks were more than happy to write back with potential opportunities for US students, and the best opportunities are actually up in Scotland I seem to recall (the best for astro are University of Edinburgh and St Andrews). Most of the time what you need to know is whether anyone in the department is funded by the European Research Council because the profs who are can fund people from not just the UK/EU.

So I had a lot more success with places on the mainland continent of Europe- most places do graduate programs in English, and lots of programs are really as top notch as anything you'd find in the States/Canada (for example the Max Planck Institutes in Germany- main ones for astro are in Munich, Heidelberg, and Bonn). No one ever asked for a GRE score albeit you do need to interview for all these places prior to acceptance- and most will require a M.S. degree for a PhD program!

Ok t'sall for now, feel free to shout out or drop me a line if you have more questions. :)


Thanks alot! I definitely will if I find any programs that appeal and need some help. Thanks alot for the offer.
Ari




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