Many of the top graduate programs in British Romanticism can be found in the United States. Some might find this strange: that, for many of us, our academic interests, geographically-speaking, lie so far from where we live, work, and study. Why, if we’re so invested in learning about the culture of another country, regardless of how far in the past it is, do we not all flock to the UK to study our Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Keats? The easy answer is that we don’t have to, especially as more and more unpublished and out-of-print manuscripts find their way to online archives and databases. At the same time, for some scholars, a British education can provide benefits that studying at an American university cannot and vice versa. In this post, I will discuss some of the basic differences between the university systems in these two countries for prospective graduate students who may be considering options beyond their own country.
Drawing on my own experiences studying at the Masters level in both the US and the UK, my observations are, of course, limited to what I know of Lehigh University and the University of Stirling. There will be many exceptions to the systems in which I have participated, just as there are many variations on English or Literature degrees within the same country. I know the structure of education in Cambridge and Oxford are fairly different from other universities, still deeply embedded in historical tradition. However, these two universities aside, there are a few basic aspects that seem to consistently differentiate the British from the American experience of graduate (or postgraduate) education.
Though structures vary, PhD candidates typically take at least two or three semesters of coursework before taking the comprehensive exams, which cover two or three fields of specific study and include both written and oral components. These fields consist of areas in which the student wishes to write but also to teach. During this time, most American universities also require students to fulfill a language requirement in one or two languages in addition to English. Some programs also require a portfolio of writing before the exam process. After taking exams, the student develops a dissertation proposal, after which the student is classified as ABD (all but dissertation) and spends the rest of his or her time completing that dissertation. This typically lasts 2-4 years, bringing the total time spent at the PhD level to 4-6 years (in addition to the one or two years for the Masters degree). Give or take, anyway. Students generally support themselves by teaching one or two composition or literature classes per semester, usually at the introductory level.
For the most part, postgraduate study in British universities is condensed in terms of time-commitment, placing more emphasis on writing and professional development than coursework and teaching. The Masters degree typically takes one full year: two semesters of coursework, and a Masters thesis (called the dissertation), which is produced by the end of the following summer. The PhD candidate, or research postgrad, then jumps right into thinking about a dissertation, and part of the application for admission includes a detailed dissertation (or thesis) proposal. The nice part of this, of course, is that there is no language requirement and no comprehensive exams (well, “nice”, depending on how you look at it), though there are similar hurtles throughout the writing process. The program, then, encourages independent study right from day one. The first semester is spent mostly reading and revising ideas formulated in the proposal, and, at the end of the second semester, the student undertakes a transfer interview, during which he or she presents a piece of written work, including where that piece fits into the larger project, and an extensive literature review (similar in some ways to the comps reading list, from what I understand) that shows where the project will fit into the much larger field. After the transfer interview, the student typically spends an additional two-three years completing the thesis in order to present it to the examiners. Students support themselves with some teaching, though these opportunities seem to be somewhat limited, depending on the university.
Obviously, there are very strong pros and cons to both of these systems. In a practical sense, the British experience is much shorter and gets you out into the job market much quicker than the grueling American 7 years. At the same time, however, the practical thorn in all our sides, money, is much easier to come by in American universities, where undergraduates pay exorbitant tuition fees. In British universities, fees are reversed: undergraduates pay comparatively low fees, while postgraduate students pay tuition fees that are still relatively low for British and EU students, though funding opportunities seem less readily available. While full-tuition scholarships are not uncommon, extra stipends are much rarer. For American students (non-EU), British tuition rates line up more closely to American rates and can be a challenge to cover without the safety net of teaching assistantships and university fellowships. This having been said, both countries have their strengths and weaknesses in particular fields, making the extra time or extra money spent in grad school worth considering.
Especially if you’re working in British literature, there can be obvious benefits to studying in the UK for archival and travel purposes: the ease of public transportation makes it easy to take a day trip to the Edinburgh Writer’s Museum, the Charles Dickens House, or the home of the Bronte sisters. For many of us, studying abroad as undergraduates has allowed us access to some of these places, but I think there is a lot to be said for importance of work environment. Who wouldn’t find writing a dissertation chapter about Northanger Abbey in a coffee shop in Bath a much more enjoyable experience, after all?
Personally, when I was deciding whether or not to return to the United States after completing an MLitt (Master of Letters) at a Scottish university, money ended up being the deciding factor, despite the fact that the UK is years ahead of the US in terms of Gothic Studies. Another consideration I had was a (perhaps masochistic) appreciation for the comprehensive exam process and the expertise it would help me achieve for teaching. For scholars who plan to specialize more in research than teaching, however, the exams may not hold as much value, and sometimes it can be worth taking out loans if you think you can cover them later. It completely depends on the student and the student’s ultimate career goals.
If you’re currently looking into Masters and Doctoral programs, my advice is, don’t limit yourself to your own country! What works best for you may be found across the pond.