Graduate Education


  • Until the 1980’s, graduate training (called “postgraduate education”) was available only the the Ph.D. (or D.Phil) level and was a purely research-based degree.
  • Students who wanted to start work on a doctorate already had a sufficient base of general and specific knowledge within their particular field to be ready to start independent research.
  • Then as now, a student was expected to have a Ph.D. thesis topic in mind when entering the program and would meet no more than once per month with his/her advisor.
  • The Ph.D. was (and still is) commonly completed in 3 years of full-time research and writing.
  • For students in the humanities and social sciences, this can be a fairly lonely and isolating experience unless the person knows exactly what he/she wants to do and is comfortable with independent work.
  • Natural science students enjoy a more sociable existence, since they are working in labs.
  • Doing a Ph.D. remains an option for American students going to England now, but it is probably not the best choice unless they have unusually advanced undergraduate training in their subject area and are ready to start immediately on their thesis research.

During the 1980’s, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher realized that foreign students were a good potential source of income for English universities.  She therefore insisted that all of the universities set up new Master’s degree programs, ones aimed both at international students and at British students whose undergraduate work had been less focused than at the older universities.

  • Because the term M.A. was already in use, the new programs are commonly called M.Phil.’s, M.Sci.’s, or M.Lit.’s.
  • Some of them offer a combination of lecture courses/tutorials (which they refer to as the “taught” component of the course) and a big research project, the equivalent of an M.A. thesis in this country (called the “research” component.)
  • Other Master’s programs are taught or research but not both.  They all last 1 or 2 years.

These new Master’s programs are often an excellent choice for American students going to England directly after graduating.

  • They assume a high level of preparation that matches well with a good undergraduate degree from this country, and they take students forward to about the level of a U.S. M.A.
  • Many of them are interdisciplinary, helping students to integrate material and approaches from a variety of fields.
  • The faculty who teach in them are generally excellent.
  • Further, the other students in the course are normally a fascinating mixture of extremely talented foreign students, and English students who did not attend one of the older universities or who want training in a field other than their undergraduate major.
  • If a student does well in the Master’s program and decides to stay on for a Ph.D., it is generally possible to transfer from one to the other; work done at the Master’s level counts toward the Ph.D., so one needs only to write a much more substantial research study for the latter degree.

At the post-graduate level, the university itself plays a greater role than was true for undergraduate education.

  • Both the new Master’s courses and the Ph.D. are run by faculty members in that field from all the colleges.
  • The primary application for graduate study is therefore made to the department (which they call the “Faculty” or “Board of Graduate Studies”) in a given discipline (e.g., Anthropology, Mathematics, Religion).
  • That department decides which students to accept for its graduate courses.

But post-graduate students must also apply to and be accepted by a college.

  • At some universities you submit both applications at once (to the graduate program and to a college), while at others you must first be accepted by a graduate program and then apply to a college.
  • Most colleges offer housing for their postgraduates, which sometimes includes apartments off-campus, food if they choose to live right in the college, and some kind of social center.
  • The colleges may also have scholarships (which they call “stipends”) for postgraduates, though normally these are not open to first-year students.
  • The wealthier colleges at the older universities have a good deal of postgraduate money, so it is worth checking to see what is available.

*With thanks to Professor Marjorie McIntosh, 2001