Mike the Mad Biologist

What Makes U.S. Graduate Education Very Good?

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….


  1. #1 Coturnix
    November 28, 2007

    Yes, money for the current use. But also what money has produced in the past – the vast infrastructure. There are 75 colleges in Boston, and thousands around the country. There are thousands of potential collaborators who are willing to work with you no matter where you are. Decades of wealth resulted in the willingness to share it, and with it a willingness to share work and ideas. Psychologically, money does not matter.

    This is hard elsewhere, where lack of resources breeds stinginess, secretiveness, jealousy. You are in an Institute and have to do what you are told to do and have to do it pretty much alone. There is nobody to collaborate with. The hierarchies are much more stark. A PhD is not enough – you need to be a Head of the Institue in order to have freedom to do what you like.

    In the USA, only a couple of most competitive areas of research (e.g., cancer) have such a mindset – because, although there is a lot of funding, there is also far too many people vying for it, so there is fear of not getting (or losing) the money, a fear that results in secretiveness, caginess, competitiveness, etc. Most other areas of science do not suffer from it.

  2. #2 Matt Penfold
    November 28, 2007

    I suspect this may apply more to the humanities than in science but I imagine that having students from a wider range of background would bring in different ideas. I know science is science where ever it is done but it also seems clear that certain theories or hypotheses seem to have greater or lesser acceptance depending on where you are. To give an example it strikes me that the Richard Dawkins’ view of gene selection and adaption has greater acceptance in the UK than it does in the US where concepts of group selection would seem to be more prevalent (The late Steve Gould’s influence no doubt”). It may be that graduate level students would be exposed to ideas not prevalent in their locale anyway, but I think it is a point to keep in mind.

  3. #3 Andythebrit
    November 28, 2007

    Resources I am sure are a big part of it, especially now we are in the era of Big Science even in biology. But culture is also very important. To the US and UK I would add Australia — which for decades has punched well above its weight (considering the size of the country) in biomedical sciences. Relative lack of hierarchy, willingness to try on new ideas, attack dogma, etc.

  4. #4 robd
    November 28, 2007

    As for the comparison with France, do you have any numbers for french resources per student?
    And if you talk about competing for international graduates
    language is a big factor.

  5. #5 Jonathan Vos Post
    November 28, 2007

    “… two tetrabases of DNA sequencing capacity per year (and climbing).”

    I think this is a typo for:

    “… two terabases of DNA sequencing capacity per year (and climbing).”

    The A, C, T, G got to you subconsciously, I suspect.

    But I agree with your main point. I had the good fortune to take some advanced Astronomy courses at Caltech. Jesse Greenstein had made it the top Astronomy graduate department in the world, and that not only attracted the best grad students and faculty, but trickled down to the undergrads as well. Similar points could be made of the Physics, Chemistry, and now the Math departments.

    The paradox of American education is that the best is unsurpassed in the world (See the current list of top 200 universities in the world), yet the mean and median are not internationally competitive.

  6. #6 Frederick Ross
    November 29, 2007

    Having just moved to Switzerland from the US in the middle of my PhD, I’ve got a bit of a perspective. The Swiss system isn’t that far from the American one, except that they still have a separate masters and PhD, and you are much more at the mercy of your advisor. On the other hand, the Swiss out-produce the US in science per capita, so maybe they’re on to something.

    Comparing the US system to the German and French systems is ludicrous. There are a few prestigious institutes (Pasteur, Max Planck) which are well funded, and where anyone below the rank of full professor is a serf. The best of these professors were hired from abroad after they had established their careers, largely from the US, the UK, and Switzerland. Aside from that, it’s a pyramid game, so you end up with backstabbers from the top down. In the German universities, masters students don’t have access to the institutional journal subscriptions! A friend of mine who did her masters thesis in the US sent her username and password back to her classmates in Germany so they could read things like Science and PNAS.

    I’m confused as to why the Grandes Écoles have such a good reputation. They take only rich, white kids who have been strenuously selected for their ability to learn under heavy pressure and adverse conditions. Is it any wonder that they continue to do so?

    The glory days of European academia had very little structure. German universities were positively freeform, and if they were too restrictive — and you were really, really good — you could take the train to Zurich, where ETH would let you in with nothing but a really frightening set of exams.

    The money helps, but a lack of hierarchy helps more. Just look at the legendary institutions in the US like Woods Hole, Bells Labs, and the MIT AI Lab.

  7. #7 Kaleberg
    December 9, 2007

    Ross’s argument about lack of hierarchy has a lot of truth to it. Research money in Europe tends to flow from the top down. The government grants it to the university; it flows to the department heads; then to the professors; and so on down. In the US, the money flows to the PIs, usually professors of various ranks and levels of seniority. The department grabs a piece and the university grabs a piece, but the money flows up. This means that aggressive junior faculty have a lot more power than in a top down system which makes them willing to push new ideas. More importantly, they can push new ideas and win.