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Cambridge vs Duke


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So, I'm holding offers from both Cambridge and Duke, in the form of a 4-year programme at a Biology Institute at the former, and a bio-related programme at the latter. Also muddying the pitch, is a major international scholarship which I can accept if I go to a US school. I already hold an Oxbridge degree and know that I like the environment, but am less certain I would enjoy spending six years of my life in North Carolina, although I am very interested in learning about US culture.

The supervisor at Cam is famous, with a whole plethora of Nature and Science papers, while the supervisor at Duke is far less well known, but there would be the option of a dual supervisor project with other professors who are almost as well known as the one at Cambridge. The Duke professor is well versed in technical areas, whilst the Cam professor is primarily an experimentalist, and I am looking to do a primarily theoretical project, although my intention is to acquire some wet-lab skills along the way. In terms of my research question, I would be somewhat intellectually isolated at Cambridge, whilst at Duke there are many people looking into similar things.

Following my PhD I expect that I will remain in academia, and probably push towards a position within England, but that said, I would not rule out a move to the US. What do people think? I am curious as to how Americans and others from outside Oxbridge perceive the comparison between Cambridge and Duke.

And if anyone is actually familiar with Duke, I am curious about their position on the Duke intellectual scene. I am a great fan of the Oxbridge Union Societies, and the cornucopia of political associations and speaker events that occur in the two cities: can Duke even begin to compete with this?

Thanks in advance.

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Using your terminology, I'm an "Oxbridge insider," but Duke is currently one of my top choices. After reading your post, it seems like you are leaning more towards Cambridge. Duke is a very academic university, but it's not the same as Cambridge. Then again, few are. If you are planning on working/teaching in the US then Duke may be worth a second look, but typically it's the strength of your supervisor and/or department that provides prestige and facilitates getting jobs down the line. Personally, I'd want to work with the superstar. If you're torn then choose the one that gives you more money!

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Cambridge seems to be the popular option... but is this the case, even if it involves turning down a big, well known, prestigous, non-Duke specific, international scholarship (directly covers three years of full funding with all the bells and whistles)? To what extent do people think that should be a factor?

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It's a heavy burden to weigh, but it's Cambridge. When I think of the best schools in the world Cambridge and Oxford are the two i think of the most.

Duke is great and by no means small potatoes, but it's not Cambridge.

Honestly, all things aside, I think you really need to examine the faculty. Who would you want to work with the most. Who do you see yourself being mentored by and shaping you into the best professional you can be. If it turns out that Duke has better faculty to mentor you, then live in North Carolina. Duke is in a beautiful area of the state, and the weather is not horrendous there (like it is in Texas where I'm from).

Everything aside, I think the faculty matters more than the name recognition of the school. Also, you should consider what school could/may give you more individual attention. They are both big schools with big programs, but I'm sure you would be a better fit at one over the other and be able to earn some more one-on-one time. What school will give that to you?

Good luck! I really wish I had a tough decision like yours to think about. Maybe I will... I still have three schools to hear back from.

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My personal vote would be for Duke.

From a professional standpoint:

In your post, you seem to focus on one individual at Cambridge who you would be working with, while you mention there are a host of individuals at Duke that you could potentially collaborate with. I realize this may be less common in the UK, but what were to happen if this individual left (for, say, somewhere in the US? Or to the continent? Or took a sabbatical)? You can always carve out your own niche, but having other people working on similar issues that you're interested in will make it considerably easier to carry out your research. What if, after working for a few months, you find that there's a personality clash between you and that professor? Would you be able to switch supervisors?

From a personal standpoint:

If you're worried about intellectual culture: Duke, like any other major research university, cares about nothing but the research you put out. You may find a few supportive peers and mentors - but the focus is always going to be on the work you can produce.

Life in Duke and Durham is going to be very different; the South has a very distinct culture and the 'Triangle' research area has its own culture on top of that.

From "further down the road":

Having an international scholarship certainly can't hurt career prospects down the road. What are the funding trends in your field? If you stay at Cambridge, are you going to network with many of the same lecturers and professors that you were exposed to as an undergraduate, or will you have an equally good opportunity to network with an international group of researchers and graduate students as you would at Duke?

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Your posts suggest that you just want assurance that you should to go to Cambridge, so just go to Cambridge. We do not want unhappy grad students (who wanted to go Cambridge or school x) here at Duke.

I am currently a biology grad student at Duke. In regards to the environment at Duke, everyone is an intellect and the school is known for this in the states. I cant compare the intellectual environment to Cambridge. Within the states the general public will probably be more impressed with Duke grads than Cambridge, because the non-intellectual arent that familar with the British system. Duke is at the same level academically as the ivys here (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, etc). Intellectuals in the states probably view them fairly equally. If you are interested in doing a post-doc in the states in my field (molecular/cell biology), you should be aware that some PIs here view doctorate degrees in the states as better than the British system because they are longer (my old boss, a big name, was very hesitant to hire British system grads strait from grad school). In terms of getting a job in the states, both schools are fine.

Students here are very intellectual, but they are well rounded and have lots of different interests outside of school. You would need other interests outside of being an intellect (a basketball fan also helps), if you want to fit in at Duke. You will also need to loose the attitude you displayed in your post or you will make enemies here. Good luck with your decision. Go to Cambridge if you really want it that much!

In regards to the Southern comments by yankervitch, research triangle lacks a lot of similarities with the rest of the south. The exceptions- we have southern hospitality and the nice southern weather. As a northerner that never wanted to live in the south, this area is nice-lacks the major cons I associate with the south.

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One more thing to consider - if your ultimate goal is to be a professor, where do you want to teach? If it's in the US, you might be better off with a degree from Duke (seriously), and if it's the UK, Cambridge. I'm not sure how the Biology community works, but in our field (English) I've been warned that a UK PhD does not put you in as good a position to get a professorship in the US as a US PhD would. (Sorry, that sentence was rather convoluted!) This is mainly because of the fact that UK schools (again, speaking for my own discipline here) don't usually give you much teaching experience and don't make you take lots of "core courses" that would put you in good stead to teach survey courses down the line (don't know if Biology has survey courses, but you get the point). I don't know if UK universities have the same nationalistic approach, but it's worth looking into.

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