You can do a PhD anywhere. No matter what, a PhD constitutes the highest degree level worldwide, and has the prestige of adding more credentials to your CV. And, no matter what, you’ll be the smartest person at the cocktail party.
However, getting a PhD is not necessarily the same in every part of the world. The duration, the funding structure, and the requirements can be very different for PhD candidates in different parts of the globe. Depending on your long-term goals, this could also impact where you decide to study.
In the United States, thousands of universities offer PhD degrees every year; and their programmes tend to be popular among graduate students all over the world. Why is that?
Going to the US for a PhD can offer a unique set of benefits. Depending on what you hope to achieve with your PhD and how you want to commit to it, you may decide that going to the US for your PhD is a wise choice. Below we will run through some of the benefits of choosing the US as the destination for your doctoral studies.
1. Yearly openings for PhDs
If you’re familiar with the way that PhDs are offered in Europe, you may notice that PhD candidates are considered part of the university staff, and that PhD openings are treated as job vacancies. Universities will maybe have one or two PhD vacancies throughout a given year (if they have the funding for it).
Because European schools receive a large part of their funding through government grants and subsidies, the school has to apply for a grant in order to even have a PhD vacancy.
In the US, PhD candidates are also part of the university staff, joining as a teaching assistant, research assistant, or adjunct instructor. Yet, as a PhD candidate in the US, you’re primarily a student who is enrolled to meet the university’s requirements (sometimes set by the state) for the doctoral degree. In order to fill the various graduate courses (while also filling the teaching assistant positions), university departments will have openings for PhDs every year.
So, rather than waiting for one or two vacancies to come around, you can count on several departments welcoming PhD applications every year (though, due to funding and space, they may limit the number of people they admit each year).
University departments will open up space for any qualified graduate student to send applications during the time that coincides with the school’s entire admission and enrolment timeline.
For prospective students, this can be a huge benefit, as it means that you can plan to apply for a PhD during the usual enrolment timeline (i.e. whether they admit for Spring or Fall enrolments), and you can also plan to re-apply the next year if you are unsuccessful.
2. PhD positions are ‘open call’
In addition to offering yearly admissions and openings for PhD programmes, university departments also do not necessarily limit you in which specific topic or field you have to research.
As opposed to other countries, where the PhD is offered according to a specified project, departments in the US are fairly flexible when it comes to deciding what you would like to devote 4-5 years of your life to.
Rather than feel constrained to one specific topic, and having to write about something that someone else has decided upon, you have full autonomy to propose your own project. This is what students tend to refer to as 'open call'; you are open to choose any project, assuming it fits with the needs of the department.
Of course, your PhD project can’t really be about anything. Typically, PhD students are admitted because their ideas or proposals match those of the faculty that are already employed in the department.
So students who are applying to a PhD in the US should ensure that their project is something that the department would like to fund, and check that there is a faculty member who is willing to supervise it. But, so long as your project meets these conditions you are welcome (and even encouraged) to choose a topic that interests you the most.
3. Funding is (almost) always guaranteed
While students who are doing a PhD in the US are often encouraged to seek external funding - through private research institutes or federal grants - they are not always required to. Instead, PhD students in the US are usually guaranteed a tuition waiver (!) plus a ‘basic stipend’ for the full (expected) duration of their studies.
A stipend is essentially a basic (taxable) payment that is given to a student twice a year (once every semester). Typically, it is not a large amount of money; but it is intended to cover the minimum basic living costs during your study. Because PhD students in the US are unlikely to have enough time for a part-time job, universities offer their students a basic income to support them during the time of their studies.
However, keep in mind that universities are quite strict about the requirements for your stipend. Students who stay in a fully-funded PhD usually have to apply to the programme quite early.
If students miss the early application deadline, many programmes will still consider their application, but will not necessarily offer that student funding. Also, the stipend will not last students more than the expected duration of their PhD.
If you expect that your research or work may take longer than the standard 4 or 5 years, you may need to consider external funding options to cover the remaining years until you complete your dissertation. To manage this, however, students will offer their services as teaching assistants or research assistants, lowering the stipend payment and allowing the funds to last a bit longer.
Nevertheless, it is quite an advantage that universities in the US offer. Any student who enters into a PhD at a research university is given a chance to receive funding directly from the university, rather than having to seek external scholarships or grants.
Use your PhD to connect to a global market
Getting a PhD can be a challenging, yet worthwhile opportunity for you to receive extra education, making you more competitive on the job market, and more responsive to the changing socio-economic climate.
Students all over the world are seeking research and academic opportunities, finding remarkable success in fields ranging from chemistry, to psychology, to the various humanities fields.
Ultimately, a person who decides to pursue a PhD should feel motivated enough to commit to a long-term research project. And, no matter where you decide to go, a PhD can be both risky and exciting.
If you’re considering the practical questions of funding, research demands, and timing, then you should see how the degrees match and compare in different parts of the world.
Going to the US can give several flexible benefits to prospective students who are looking for a home for their research. So, you are encouraged to consider each of these benefits and advantages, and think about how they can shape your experience as a PhD candidate.