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MPhil/DPhil at UK Institutions


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Hi everyone,


I'm an undergraduate at Stanford, and I'm interested in doing MPhil/DPhil in the UK. One reason is that I feel PhD in the US takes too long and can be unpredictable. A lot of students at Stanford stay for 6-7 years; some can't do the work and drop out. Another reason is that I would like to experience living in another country.


I've looked at websites of places like Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh, etc. and it seems like MPhil+DPhil at these places can be completed by most students in 4-5 years. That sounds like a good deal to me. Are there any major differences between the programs in the US and in the UK? In terms of the approach to research or how much work the student needs to do?

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Hey mbc,


You might wanna wait for the oppinion of someone who has actually done an MPhil/DPhil at one of those places, but here's what I've heard from various more or less reliable sources. Anyone else, please feel free to correct me.


Most of the MPhil's won't be the same as the masters you get on your way to the PhD in the US. They are actually separate degrees and will usually have a strong taught component in addition to the research. There are exceptions (there's a 100% research masters at Edinburgh), but afaik those are pretty rare. Secondly, it might be tough to get funding for an Mphil. Funding is definitely not guaranteed and unless you can get something like a Gates scholarship there's a good chance you'll have to cover at least part of the cost yourself.


Now, the DPhil (and btw, you don't necessarily need to get an MPhil first, though it might help). Here funding should be easier, but again not automatic or assured. Cambridge has a bit of a reputation of telling marginal accepts "sure, you can come over, but we can't guarantee funding".

It's true the median time for a DPhil is < 3.5 years. Theoretically you should be done in 3 years, with a maximum extra year of buffer mostly used to finish writing up. As an extra motivation, if you do get funding it tends to run out after 3.5 years, so if you really wanna take the full 4 the last 6 months are on your dime (which might explain the median finish time).

The cost of the shorter duration is less flexibility. You're pretty much expected to figure out what you're working on when you apply, get accepted by the prof you're gonna work with, go there and start working. People do switch their research focus sometimes, but it definitely shouldn't change by a large degree and probably not more than once.


Other than that, it seems pretty similar regarding work-load, publishing etc.


Btw. I'm pretty much the opposite of your situation. Finishing my undergrad at Edinburgh, probably gonna do an MPhil at Cambridge and would like to go to the US for a PhD.

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Yeah - you can apply straight for a PhD here with a Bachelor's - but there's less choice - you pretty much have to specialise instantly.


The funding situation is a little different too. At Cambridge, most of my friends who are funded aren't required to do any teaching / research assistantship as part of their funding. They do however supervise undergraduate students which is optional paid work - and is additional to the funding they receive from whoever backs them. This would probably mean you have more time for your own research. I have no idea how the funding situation works though, I believe my two friends there are funded by the group they're part of. Others are funded by companies - e.g. Microsoft. As Haggis says - most people tend to complete their PhD in 4 years (I've met just a single person who completed his PhD in 3 years and he's possibly one of the smartest mathematicians I've ever met).


Incidentally, I don't know that any of my friends who are doing PhDs here had significant (if any) research experience before starting. This is a huge contrast to the (highly competitive) US admissions 'market' where it seems in order to get a PhD studentship in which you can learn how to research, you need to have already learned how to research...


Honestly I've heard that graduate life in Cambridge is more relaxed compared to American institutions. Certainly this was the case of our undergraduate course (where exchange students would be amazed at the course load - or lack thereof). It's probably not that we didn't work as hard - it's more how the work was distributed. American degrees seem to have more constant assessment, where as Cambridge is a single shot of three or four exams at the end of every term. I think the exams are structured similarly for the Cambridge MPhil (but I may be wrong). Certainly I know many PhD students there who manage to have an active social / extra curricular life - which is dissonant with the (perhaps inaccurate) image of American graduate students working 80 hour weeks.


BTW, if you'd find it helpful to speak to any current PhD students, I have two very good friends who are there now. PM me if you'd like to be put in touch.

Edited by ssk2
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Wow, didn't think I would get responses from people who are actually from the UK. Thanks so much guys!


Sounds like doing an MPhil would be a good place to start for me. It should be easier to get in, and I hope it will provide directions for my PhD research. I'll certainly apply to Cambridge and Oxford, and maybe 3-4 other places like Edinburgh, Imperial, and Sheffield. But honestly, given my undergraduate school, I'd have to hope for the first two. Do you guys think that if I get into, say, the Cambridge MPhil program, applying to its own PhD should be easier?


Also, it would be useful to know what the completion rate for people who start their PhD at Cambridge or Oxford is like. Are there significant hurdles, like qualification exams, too-heavy workload, or lack of research progress, which prevent people from getting their PhD?

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So I put your question out to one of my PhD friends there:



There are no quals (there's an obligatory research skills course, but I don't think that can be failed), workload/research progress is VERY supervisor dependent. Some supervisors use their students for lots of extra stuff, like TAing their courses etc., some put them on projects, some (like mine) just let them do their own thing and workload/progress is your own responsibility. There's not much way to tell except for talking to the specific supervisor and maybe even their students, and there's no good general rule.


He didn't know the completion rate - but perhaps you'd be best asking the department directly.


I do think it would be easier to get into the PhD program having done the MPhil. An ideal situation would be if your MPhil supervisor is the person you want to supervise your PhD too!

Edited by ssk2
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gonna add in my input, hopefully it helps! one of my mates is currently in her third year of physics PhD at Cambridge


she said the admission for a PhD there is highly competitive baring in mind she did her BSc and MSc at Cambridge; as far as she can remember the admission data for a PhD in her dept was 28 out of 380 applications

-your supervisors push and motivate you to finish your PhD in 3yrs max upto 3.5yrs

-working as a TA/RA is highly unlikely but if you want to make extra money its possible (limited to 6hr per week)

-to enter into a PhD with a bachelor's is very very very rare but an MSc or MPhill would make it easier

-there is a healthy balance btw your academic and social life


the major difference btw a PhD from US and UK is that, US universities require pre-requisites and subjects that aren't of any relation to the degree : no-offence intended mate (same reason bachelors is a year longer compared to UK) and up to a years worth of research training thus takes btw 4-7yrs to complete; but UK universities are very much on point only require you to attend few lectures to help your research (mostly in the first 3-4 months of your PhD) and they expect students to have enough research experience from their MSc (here MSc is tailored to be more research/experimental than theory) thus takes <4yrs to complete



-UK students are guaranteed funding because  ESRC prioritizes British citizens over any other nationals; hence funding for other nationals isn't guaranteed

-the stipend covers tuition fee and is more than enough to live on, typically ranging btw £13000 to £19000 depending on the university and location


i suggest you make sure that the university you intend to attend in UK guarantees funding otherwise living costs in Cambridge or Oxford are almost same as London (not central London but more likely towards greater London) 


here's a link for typical annual costs for attending Cambridge


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