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PhD in the UK: Worth It for Americanists?


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Earning a PhD in the UK usually takes about three years. This is obviously attractive to anyone who has seen how long it takes to earn one in the United States. But what if you're interested in American history? More specifically, what if you're interested in American history but not from a British perspective? Your archives, conferences, and contacts would be 3,500 miles away. Is the trade-off worth it knowing that you'll finish in only three years? Do you know anyone who has done this?

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12 minutes ago, JKL said:

Earning a PhD in the UK usually takes about three years. This is obviously attractive to anyone who has seen how long it takes to earn one in the United States. But what if you're interested in American history? More specifically, what if you're interested in American history but not from a British perspective? Your archives, conferences, and contacts would be 3,500 miles away. Is the trade-off worth it knowing that you'll finish in only three years? Do you know anyone who has done this?

Hi, @JKL I think that the best way to answer this question would be to go to the listing of faculty at history departments you'd like to work as a professor. 

How many TT professors in your field have doctorates from British schools?

 

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Americanists usually finish before other fields-- in 5 or 6 years because of easy access to archives in the US and fewer language requirements to deal with.  That said, the 2 years devoted to coursework are really essential for teaching and obtaining a broader perspective on history.  While I came in my PhD program knowing what I wanted to do my dissertation on, I cannot imagine how different my approaches would have been if I chose to do it my PhD in the UK.

Also, you are truly on your own in the UK compared to the US program where professors are usually more available to provide mentoring and advising.

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We'll know soon-- I start in a few weeks.

Unlike most posters here, however, I'll be well into my 50s when/if I'm done, so many of the bugs of the British system are actually features to me. 

It should be noted that the UK DPhils do require a previous master's degree, so it's not a straight comparison of 3 years vs. the US.  I had to figure out a proposal to apply, but it was based on some suspicions I developed while working my last dissertation.  It will be curious to see if there's a good reason nobody has written on this topic before.  :unsure:  [Imposter alert!]

Also, Oxbridge terms are really very short (6-11 weeks, depending on who's counting), so one can spend at least half the year in the US doing research, attending conferences, or other useful things even if otherwise in residence for the full term.  And, technically, you don't have to be in residence that many terms if all you want is the degree, although if you want to slide into a teaching role you'll obviously be best-positioned if you can stick around.

 

Edited by Concordia
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I left the UK-style system (in Australia) for reasons that others have listed--I wanted the two years of coursework and the rigour of comps, and I wanted to earn my PhD at a school where far more people get jobs after completion. The UK's better than Australia in terms of jobs, but if you're thinking about doing your PhD there you should have a deep look into the realities of the job market (in US history) for people who don't earn their PhDs at a US institution. In terms of getting to archives, though, you'll have less of a problem in the UK than you're imagining--I just finished a two year MA in Australia and was able to travel to the US three times, each time with funding either from my university or from other fellowships. Funding exists if you look for it, and the UK's much closer to the US. 

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  • 2 weeks later...

As a UK PhD student I would like to add some information/comments here.

First of all, a PhD in history at schools like Cambridge/Oxford/LSE/UCL/Kings usually takes four years to complete, not three. Although some schools only offer three years of funding, it is generally expected that completing your project, particularly if you do an international or transnational history project, will take you around four years. There is extra funding available, and you also make extra money with teaching. If you study in London, there a a lot of teaching opportunities and some pay quite well.

 

Regarding the job market, I have to agree that a UK PhD is not ideal if you want  to enter the US job market full time. However, I do know quite a lot of people that did get a position in the US. There is of course more to the world than the US and there a loads of opportunities and postdocs in the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, the Scandinavian countries, et cetera. Having said that, the job market in general is of course quite shitty.

 

Finally, about archives and networks. My topic is very international so I frequently travel to the US for conferences and archives. It's of course more expensive and it takes up more time, but there is extra funding available for these kind of trips too. Most scholars travel a lot so I don't think your network would suffer substantially from doing a PhD in the UK.

 

I hope this helps!

 

 

 

 

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  • 2 months later...

I personally have four friends/colleagues in my field who did UK PhDs (3 at Oxbridge, one at Stirling in Scotland), one of the four being American. 2 of them got TT jobs in the US at state schools after having already done a postdoc or VAP in the US. The third had lesser luck initially on the job market trying to secure a job in the US but eventually did secure a TT job in England after maybe 2-3 years. The fourth, the non-Oxbridge grad, ended up getting a prestigious postdoc in NYC and when that ended, he secured a job as an Asst. Editor at one of the most prestigious documentary editing projects in the US. All that is to say, doing your PhD in the UK does not automatically close the door on the US job market. It can make it a bit more difficult, though not by default. 

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