Over at AmericaBlog, Chris compares U.S. and French Ph.D. programs:
The French Grandes Écoles are the best schools in the world, but for higher degrees (Masters, PhD) nothing comes close to the US, possibly the UK. One reason is that the US and UK generally provide much more competition from around the world whereas (in general) the French system limits you to the best in France. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the US and UK will take “the best” of everywhere into classrooms which is much more difficult. Academic competition is healthy.
(disclaimer: I’m going to discuss the sciences, not the humanities)
Does competition really play the role claimed for it? Clearly, graduate schools don’t want to take anyone off the street, but most medium and large research institutions (which train the majority of graduate students) are selective to begin with: does it really matter if you’re rejecting one of three students or one out of six? You’re dealing with the high end of the scholastic pool anyway.
I think what sets the U.S. graduate school system apart is the massive level of resources graduate education receives (at least in the sciences). Yes, graduate students get paid squat, but if you consider the resources the average U.S. graduate student has access to, it is truly staggering. Consider a student interested in something to do with genetics in Boston. These guys are right around the corner: two tetrabases of DNA sequencing capacity per year (and climbing). Graduate students (and their advisors) have a shot at getting to use this kind of firepower.
Also, as precarious as science graduate school funding is, it’s actually better and longer-term than in most countries. While all countries have scholarships for ‘the best of the best of the best’, most U.S. graduate students can count on five or six years of funding (although there might be a lot of teaching attached).
Granted, once you leave graduate school, things can really suck in terms of financial security, but, in comparison to other countries, graduate students are pretty well funded.
While buckets of money are not sufficient, they are necessary….