When I cycled to work this morning through yet another heavy rain shower falling from the usual grey English sky, I asked myself as I have so often: What on earth am I doing here? Why am I on this wet island in Northwestern Europe?
Thinking back, the weather was definitely not a factor in my decision to leave Germany behind for a few years so that I could matriculate as a PhD student at the University of Cambridge in England. That decision was based on more pragmatic considerations: In contrast to the German system, postgraduate courses leading to a PhD degree are strictly organised in the UK. In Cambridge, for example, a so-called Board of Graduate Studies supervises the studies, which should not last longer than 3 years. Although this time frame is theoretically the same in Germany, supervision hardly ever takes place and PhD students end up having to cope with additional tasks. The British system shows its strength here: To ensure that the project chosen for the PhD studies is suitable for a 3-year time frame, the student has to produce a report after the first year, showing preliminary results. Furthermore, he or she has to give a short presentation of his or her results in the department at that time and discuss the work and future plans with two examiners in an oral examination (the so-called viva). Based on the feedback of the examiners, the Board of Graduate Studies decides whether the studies can be continued for another 2 years. At the end of the project, the student has to write up a final PhD thesis and will be examined on it by two examiners in another viva.
All in all, this sounds quite restrictive and demanding, I have to admit. But the good thing about Cambridge is you are never left alone to sink or swim (also quite a contrast to the German system!). If you fear you might get into trouble because of slow progress in your project, then this will also reflect negatively on your supervisor. So he or she will do whatever they can to ensure that this won't happen! Another well-established system, which can be found in many other universities as well, is the mentor system. Apart from your supervisor, who obviously decides on the direction of the project, a second lecturer keeps an eye on your work. In general, this person is not involved in your project, but is always happy to give you advice and can be a great source of ideas. From my own experience, I can tell that it is invaluable to get feedback from an "outsider" who sees things from a different point of view.
In this context, another fact comes to mind that clearly illustrates the different attitude towards the student-professor relationship in the UK as compared to Germany. Although professors in Germany seem to hide themselves away in their offices with a secretary outside as a gatekeeper, here it seems to be the other way round: Most lecturers keep their office doors wide open to invite you in whenever you have a problem or a question. The generally very informal contact between lecturers and students is an experience I would be sorry to have missed!
Additionally, working in another country, especially in a scientific lab, is a personal enrichment in itself. Every country has its own ways, and so it is very interesting to see how departments here deal with safety, or work with radioactivity or animals, for example.
Besides all these positive arguments for doing a PhD in the UK, there is one big negative factor that I had to take into account: the cost of living is high, and studying in Cambridge is especially expensive. In Cambridge, a student from the European Union needs to find on average £12,500 (? 20,000) a year to cover university fees, college fees, and living expenses. Finding a source of funding that provides a sufficient amount of money can be quite difficult. (For further information, though, see the links at the end of the article.)
One general piece of advice for anybody who is thinking about applying for a PhD in the UK is to start organising things at least a year in advance. Many departments have application deadlines that precede the beginning of the programme by about 10 months and invite all the candidates to come in for an interview around that time. It is also much easier to find a sponsor well in advance, and a good college, if you are considering applying to Cambridge or Oxford. Some universities ask for a language certificate, such as TOEFL, IELTS, or Cambridge language certificate if you are not a native English speaker, another point that you'll need to consider.
If all of this has not put you off the thought of doing your PhD in the UK, here are some links that I've found useful along the way: The British Council provides general information about education in England and links to funding sources. More detailed information can be found in the Graduate Prospectus of the University of Cambridge, which was the source of some of the data mentioned in this article.
By the way, the sun came out later in the day. ...