Meet MIT student Sam Turton from Tenby who has first-hand experience of both US and UK universities…

Sam Turton pic

This week, we spoke to Welsh MIT student Sam Turton who met with Cabinet Secretary Kirsty Williams and our Seren students on the YYGS programme last week to discuss the importance of building relationships between Seren and US universities.

Having done his undergraduate and masters degrees at Cambridge University and now doing a PhD at MIT, Sam has first-hand experiences of both US and UK university systems.

We asked him all about the differences between the two, why he decided to apply to MIT and what advice he’d give to Seren students who are considering applying to US universities.

This is what he said…

 Why did you decide to do a PhD in the US?

One of the main reasons was that it was a great opportunity to live and study abroad in such a big and exciting country. It’s incredible how many more universities there are over here, conducting world-class research.

A standard PhD program in the US is also quite a bit longer than in the UK. Some people find the prospect of being a graduate student for 5-6 years quite daunting, but I think it gives you a lot more time to focus your research interests by working for different professors in the first couple of years of the PhD. I really liked that I didn’t have to start working on my thesis as soon as I started at MIT, but instead could spend some time figuring out what exactly I wanted to work on.

Another big attraction for me were the greater teaching opportunities that you have in the US. My funding is conditional on me teaching classes every semester. Not everyone enjoys doing this, but I think that learning how to be a good teacher is an essential part of excelling in research.

What’s been your experience of studying at MIT so far?

I’ve had a really positive experience. On the whole, MIT has a very collaborative and diverse atmosphere. Every day I work with people from very different academic backgrounds, and this has really helped me to push my research in different directions and out of my comfort zone. Boston is also a great city to live in as a student. There are so many world-class universities in the Greater Boston area, and this draws students from all over the globe. However, I’ve yet to meet another Welsh student at MIT, so it would be great to see some more in the future!

What have been your highlights?

It’s pretty typical to spend the first year of your PhD just taking classes. Since I had already completed a Masters at Cambridge before I started my PhD at MIT, I had already taken a lot of graduate level classes in fluid mechanics, which is my principal research area. I took this opportunity to take classes in areas outside of my field, such as in nuclear science and quantum computation. I would have never been able to learn this material when I was an undergraduate in maths, so I really enjoyed immersing myself in some totally new science!

I’ve also attended three different conferences so far during my PhD. I found this overwhelming the first time, but I’ve grown to really enjoy presenting my research. Plus, it’s always enjoyable to travel for work and see different parts of the USA.

Given your experiences of both US and UK university systems, what do you think are the main differences between them?

I think the main difference between the US and UK university systems is that an American undergraduate degree is generally much broader. In the UK, we usually apply to study a specific subject at university, that we study for three whole years and have relatively few opportunities to take classes in different areas. In the USA, undergraduates will generally study a mixture of classes in their first year or two, and then decide on a major. American degrees also generally last four years, compared to three years in the UK.

Another big difference is that vocational degrees, such as law and medicine, are not offered as undergraduate degrees. If you want to be a lawyer, for example, you would have to complete a four-year college degree and then apply to law school, which generally lasts an additional three years.

Why do you think Welsh students often don’t consider applying to US universities?

I think the obvious reason is probably that the USA is a long way from home! It’s definitely a big decision to move across the ocean to go to university. There’s a lot of stress involved with moving to a different country to study, such as applying for a visa and navigating other unfamiliar bureaucracy. However, not having the language barrier definitely makes these things easier than they might be if you were looking at studying abroad in Europe, for example.

Another reason might be that the face value cost of an American degree is generally much higher than the equivalent in the UK. However, many universities in the US have very substantial bursaries and scholarships that can significantly lower the cost of an American education.

What would you say to Seren students who are currently considering applying to MIT, or any other US university?

I’m not very familiar with the process of applying for an undergraduate degree at MIT or elsewhere in the US, but my main advice would be to start researching early! Make sure to read all of the information on university websites to make sure you know exactly what you need to do to apply to each university. As far as I’m aware, there isn’t really a centralised system like UCAS, and universities will expect you to write application essays that specifically address why you want to be one of their students.

Several top American universities have created online platforms, such as EdX or Coursera, which contain versions of the undergraduate classes they offer. They are definitely worth checking out as they will give you a taste for the style and content of American lectures.

Applying to study abroad is definitely more complicated initially than staying in the UK, but don’t be overwhelmed! America has so many incredible places to study, and it offers a very different experience to a British undergraduate degree. If it sounds like an American degree might be a better fit for you, then there is definitely no harm in applying.

What are your plans for the future?

I have another two years until I finish my PhD. After that, my current plan is to do a “Post doc”. This is a three-year academic position that you do after finishing a PhD to get extra research experience before applying for a full-blown academic job. I might stay in the USA to do this, but ideally I would prefer to move back to the UK, or somewhere else in Europe, so that I can be a bit closer to home.


Meet Joseph, whose love of engineering encouraged him to apply to the Yale summer school:

We spoke to Seren RCT-Merthyr pupil Joseph Phillips to find out whether his experience of the Yale summer school has encouraged him to apply to a US university.  Here’s what he had to say…


We also spoke to him before he left – here’s what he said before making the trip.

Tell us a little bit about yourself

I’m a pupil at St John’s School in Aberdare and I’m doing A-Levels in maths, physics, geography and welsh baccalaureate. I’ve chosen the YYGS applied science and engineering course.

Why did you apply to the YYGS?

I heard about the opportunity from my Seren hub coordinator. I’ve been to several Seren masterclasses this year already and I’ve really enjoyed widening my knowledge and going beyond what we’re taught as part of the A-Level curriculum.

I’m currently doing an Open University course in engineering; an opportunity that I heard about through Seren. It’s great to get background knowledge and a deeper understanding of engineering. I’d like to learn as much as possible because you can’t do engineering as an A-Level.

To me, this summer school seemed like another great opportunity to extend my knowledge, experience something totally new and get an insight into university life in America.

What are you most looking forward to?

I’m looking forward to seminars, particularly the ones on microscopy and artificial intelligence. But I think what I’m most looking forward to is being able to engage with people from all over the world. Students from 120 different countries will be attending this summer school and I’ve never been somewhere with such an amazing level of diversity before. I think it’ll be a real eye-opener.

Why do you think pupils in Wales don’t consider studying in the US?

I think pupils in Wales are often put off applying to university in the US because they hear about how expensive it can be. I had no idea what sort of financial support was available, if any. But since applying to this summer school, I’ve researched into the financial side of things and there are lots of bursaries and scholarships opportunities, so I don’t think pupils should be put off.

What are your plans for the future?

I’m not sure whether or not I’d like to apply to university in the US, but I’m definitely keeping an open mind. I’m also considering Oxford, Swansea, Cardiff, Leicester and Nottingham, and have booked onto open days this summer.

I also have work experience lined up this summer at a metal fabrication firm. I’m unsure of what I’d like to study at university; I’ve considered aerospace engineering and mechanical engineering, but I’m hoping that going to Yale as well as attending open days in the UK will give me a better idea of the different engineering courses available to me.


We hear from Cassie, Tom, Carys, Joe and Yousuf all about their first week at Yale University…

What has been the best thing about YYGS so far?

Carys: Everything! I’m loving every minute and can’t believe that we only have five days left here in the US!

Cassie: Meeting new people and making global connections.

Tom: Meeting people from all around the world, talking about our different cultures, background and accents. It’s such a good experience to broaden my horizons and find out about the world. We all come together as one community and I believe this shared experience is invaluable to all of us.

Joe: Meeting people from over 126 countries, as I don’t think I’ll ever experience this level of diversity ever again. I hope to leave the programme with friends from all over the world and hopefully meet up with them in the future.

Yousuf: The people here. I have made the best of friends from all across the globe, it’s insane. From Rhode Island to Ghana, Palestine to Jamaica, and New Zealand to Brazil, everyone is incredible and we will definitely keep in touch after YYGS – in fact I’ve already arranged a meet-up with a few of them in Boston in a months’ time!


What have you learnt?

Carys: That I love Yale and definitely want to apply to a university in the US! This programme has given me so much confidence in the fact that I can achieve my goals, and I have found it all so inspiring.

Cassie: There’s more than one way to get where you want to go, and it’s best to shop around before finalising your decisions.

Tom: I have learnt so much. I’ve learnt lots about the liberal arts system in America, in which you major in a subject whilst studying a wide variety. The American education system is quite different to ours in the UK, so it’s very useful to come out here and understand it for ourselves before navigating university applications. Although the bulk of my lectures and seminars have been about chemistry, physics, and engineering, I have a new-found interest in biology. It’s great to see how interdisciplinary all of the subjects are, and this programme has helped me develop cohesiveness between subjects.

Joe: I have been able to increase my knowledge in all aspects of applied science, which will really benefit me when applying to university as well as when I want to start a career in engineering.

Yousuf: Yale is for me, it’s not just a wild dream. We can actually get into here – it really is possible for a welsh student to do so.


What has been your favourite lecture so far?

Carys: The lecture on the chemical complexity in unconventional oil and gas extraction, as it emphasised that many “green” concepts are not always as they seem. For example, renewable energy sources don’t always have a net beneficial impact. Also, as with all the lectures and seminars, the lecturer was very experienced and engaging.

Cassie: The lecture on particle physics because A Level Physics set me up really well to understand the lecture and grasp the full concepts.

Tom: I really enjoyed the lecture on unconventional oil and gas extraction. There has been much debate in the UK about fracking, and I have followed this without really understanding the back story. This lecture used chemistry and environmental engineering to expose the real issues with fracking and brush aside the misconceptions.

Joe: The best lecture so far has to be particle physics, as I was able to apply my past knowledge from AS level physics. As a result of this, I was able to play an even stronger role in my breakout session, aiding the learning of my peers.

Yousuf: Creating Little Big Bangs – woah. I actually understood the rocket science (and it actually really isn’t that hard – it’s AS physics in a nutshell). The lecturer was amazing and I could apply my knowledge to the situation to ask thought-provoking questions and learn more about the physics at CERN and RHIC.


What has been your favourite seminar so far?

Carys: This is very difficult to choose! It was probably the seminar on the mathematics of maps – we discussed the pros and cons of various different projections and ended the seminar by mapping our own virtual 3D world. I enjoyed applying maths to the earth, and learning how to portray 3D objects in 2D accurately. Also, the seminar emphasised the importance of maths within applied science – this showed me that a strong background in maths will be very useful whichever career path I take.

Tom: The seminars have all been great! I have experimented with rocket fuel, looked at chemical engineering in the Solvay process, and discussed confirmation bias which is actually a bigger issue than you probably think. Tomorrow I am studying the art of flight which I am really looking forward to. The best thing about the seminars is the diversity, which makes us much more rounded students.

Joe: My seminar on video game theory really interested me, as when I was younger I spent a lot of my time playing. Since I have attended this lecture I have been able to understand how they work and why I enjoy them so much.

Yousuf: I can’t choose, it’s impossible. All of my seminars have been so good and so intriguing that I was just immersed into every single talk and my knowledge in each of the subjects increased substantially. A lot of my seminars were centred around VR. I find this topic super interesting so I was not disappointed! It’s been great learning about other super cool things such as growing brains to survive a zombie apocalypse, detecting ripples in space and time, and also levitation. I’ve loved every single one and they were all super great in their own very unique, fun ways.


What have you enjoyed the most?

Carys: Getting to know people from all over the world, and being a part of the incredible and inspiring community that has been created here. Also, teaching people about Welsh culture and flying the Welsh flag with pride!

Tom: I have enjoyed showing off my patriotism. We have got people chanting Wales around campus and playing rugby.

Yousuf: Again, the people. I could just talk on and on about everyone here. Every single person has a life story to tell and it’s so interesting just to sit back and listen to everybody’s life and how they got here. Sitting on random tables at food times and just sparking a spontaneous conversation with the rest of the table was a really great way to make a lot of new friends that I’ll remember forever (not to sound cheesy or anything). 126 countries are represented here, and my suitemates come from all over the world from Kyrgyzstan to Tunisia to India and Michigan – I love it here.


What have you been doing in your free time?

Carys: Exploring New Haven, using the Payne Whitney Gym facilities first thing every morning, socialising and discussing different cultures with new friends from all over the world – creating lifelong memories! The programme is quite intense (in a good way!) therefore free time has been very precious!

Tom: Eating out is definitely a highlight – America lives up to its name in this sense. I have often been throwing a ball around with a group of people, and arguing whether we should play rugby or American football! I’ve enjoyed chatting, playing games, and teaching people Welsh phrases.

Joe: I have tried my best to play sports that I am unfamiliar with, I have been taught many different sports from people with many different backgrounds.

Yousuf: Everything you can possibly think of. Hide and seek at night outside the New Haven library – check; Eating out at every burger and burrito restaurant I could possibly find with my American friends – check; Playing ‘Cards Against humanity’ till dawn in our suites – check; pretending to be an American for a whole day – check; teaching Americans the word ‘peng’ and many other British and Welsh nuances – check; and a lot of other things but most importantly flying the welsh flag wherever I went (Heck we even made some people wish they were really welsh!!). I love it here, and I’m sure everybody else will have the same feeling too. YYGS has truly been an unforgettable experience, I just wish it never has to end!


Kirsty Williams joins some of Wales’ brightest students in the US

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Unless you’ve been out of the country (!) you won’t have been able to miss the news from our students this week as they’ve been settling into their US home for the next two weeks, for the Yale Young Global Scholars Programme.

The bright sixth-formers are the first seven of 16 Seren pupils to join students from across the world on a life-changing summer programme, held at one of the world’s most prestigious academic institutions.

1,700 students, 126 countries, 50 US States

All part of the Seren Network, the students are joining more than 1,700 other students from 126 countries and 50 US states on Yale’s Young Global Scholars Programme (YYGS), at Yale University’s New Haven campus in the US, as part a new scholarship opportunity made possible through the Seren Network.

Earlier this week, Welsh Government Education Secretary, Kirsty Williams, joined the first group of pupils as she looks to build on links already made with the university through Seren.

The Education Secretary will also travel to both Harvard University and MIT in Boston to discuss new opportunities and collaborations.

Kirsty Williams said: “It is a huge success story for Seren that we’ve been able to broker a partnership which will see Yale’s renowned Young Global Scholars programme made accessible to students across Wales.

“I’m proud to be joining our first ever group of students to take part in this life-changing summer programme and look forward to making new links with other universities as we try to open new doors for many more of our students.

“I want every pupil in every school in every part of Wales to know that if you work hard then no academic opportunity is off-limits. I think this is a perfect example of what is possible and I want to thank all the sponsors involved in making this happen.”

The students represent 9 of the 11 Seren hubs including Anglesey-Gwynedd, Cardiff, EAS, RCT-Merthyr, Carms-Pembs, Vale of Glamorgan, Flintshire-Wrexham, Ceredigion, and Swansea.

Here’s Kirsty Williams catching up with Elli Rees from the Swansea hub about her experience of the Yale Young Global Scholars programme so far:

Meet Yousuf, whose dream is to set up his own tech company in Silicon Valley. He’s one of the first cohort on the Yale summer school:

Yousuf Bakshi is from the Cardiff hub and is one of the 15 other Seren students taking part in the Yale Young Global Scholars summer school programme. Find out more about Yousuf…

 Tell us a little bit about yourself

I’m a sixth-form student at Fitzalan High School in Cardiff and I’m studying for A-Levels in maths, physics, computer science and Welsh baccalaureate. I’ll be the first person in my family to go to university, and the first pupil from Fitzalan High School ever to have applied to a US university.

Why did you apply to the YYGS summer school programme?

I’ve wanted to study in the US since I was very young; it’s always been my dream. I’ve thought about applying to Harvard and Yale for a long time, but I wanted to find out as much information as I could about US universities before making my applications next year. I had already been accepted onto the Sutton Trust summer school programme this summer to visit MIT and Harvard, so when this opportunity to experience student life at Yale for two weeks came up as well, I jumped at the chance to apply!

Why does studying in the US appeal to you?

What really attracted me to the US university system is that you don’t have to pick just one subject to study for your whole university career. You can choose to major in one subject and then you can ‘minor’ in a completely different subject. This can even be a subject you’ve never studied before, for example, I know someone who wants to minor in Russian, having never studied it before. I’d really like to major in computer science and possibly minor in either politics or graphic design. One of the other major reasons US universities appealed to me was that many of them are particularly highly regarded for computer sciences, which I’m really passionate about. Lots of universities have links with Silicon Valley and have programmes that allow students to work for huge companies like Apple or Microsoft alongside their degree. I would absolutely love the chance to get involved with opportunities like this.

What are you most looking forward to about your trip?

I’ve chosen the ‘applied science and engineering’ YYGS course and I’m really excited for all the different lectures and seminars I’ll be attending. We were sent a long list of seminars and could pick the ones that sounded most interesting. There was such a huge range of topics; I found it hard to choose just eight. I’m particularly excited for the seminar on ‘Disney imagineering’ where we’ll be learning all about designing Disney theme parks, and the seminar on ‘mad science’ where we’ll be learning how to survive a zombie apocalypse by growing brains! We’ve already been given lots of reading material too – I can’t wait to get stuck in.

What are your long-term ambitions?

If I end up studying in the US, I’d love to stay in the US and find a job at one of the major tech companies. My dream would be to set up my own tech company in Silicon Valley one day…

Why do you think opportunities like this are important for students in Wales?

I think students in Wales often don’t consider applying to US universities because some of the more famous institutions like Yale and Harvard can be very intimidating. I also think schools in Wales tend to focus only on UCAS and universities in the UK. Opportunities like this partnership between Seren and the Yale Young Global Scholars programme are great as they show pupils in Wales that there’s a whole other world out there that they might not have considered or might have found too daunting.

My teachers at Fitzalan have given me so much support with the YYGS application process. One of my teachers is actually going on a course soon to learn about how to support students who are thinking of applying to the US. Hopefully this will mean that more people from Fitzalan will apply in the future.

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Meet Carys: the Welsh athlete who is one of the first cohort on the Yale summer school

Carys Bill is from the Cardiff hub and is travelling to the United States with 15 other Seren students to take part in the Yale Young Global Scholars summer school programme. Find out more about Carys…

Tell us a little bit about yourself

I’m a Year 12 pupil at Ysgol Gyfun Gymraeg Plasmawr and I’m doing A-Levels in maths, further maths, chemistry and physics. I’ve chosen the YYGS applied science and engineering course.

Why did you apply to the YYGS summer school programme?

I’ve never been to the US before, and had never really considered studying in America, so the summer school at Yale University seemed like an amazing opportunity. I know that the US university system is different to the UK, so I was keen to get an insight into university life there.

After researching the different courses, I really loved the sound of applied science and engineering. I’m enjoying all my A-Level subjects but I still don’t know what I’d like to study at university. I really enjoy the sciences, and I’m considering a degree in earth sciences, but I’d really like to found out more about my options. I love that the YYGS applied science and engineering course is so broad, because it means I’ll get to try out a variety of topics and hopefully found out what I’m really interested in and what I’d like to continue studying at degree level. The flexibility of the US system also means that I wouldn’t have to narrow my choices down immediately.

This summer school will definitely be something I’ll include in my personal statement next year. The range of subjects that I’ll be studying on the summer school also means that I’ll be able to talk about topics I’ve learnt in university interviews, whatever the degree I end up applying for.

Why does the US university system appeal to you?

Sport is extremely important to me; I run for Wales and I also love cycling and swimming. At American universities, there seems to be much more of a focus on the whole student and balancing academic life with extra-curricular activities. This really appeals to me, as I aim to reach a high standard in both things. The sports facilities themselves are also incredible at the top US universities. I’m really looking forward to using the Payne Whitney facilities at Yale, which includes a top quality indoor athletics track, gymnasium and swimming pool!

What are you most looking forward to about your trip?

I’m most looking forward to being completely immersed in US university life and finding out what it’s like to be a student at Yale.

I’m excited to meet new people from all over the world. We’ve already been put in WhatsApp groups based on the courses we’ve chosen and this has been a great way to get to know people before the summer school. I’m really looking forward to meeting people who are just as passionate about the sciences as me.

I’m looking forward to attending the seminars themselves. I’ve chosen topics like climate change, bicycle mechanics and Maglev trains. The topics all sound really interesting and they’re things that I wouldn’t ever get to learn about as part of the school curriculum.

In addition to the seminars and lectures, I’m also really looking forward to the ‘Capstone Project’ and the ‘Simulation’. The capstone project will be an opportunity for us to work in small groups and apply what we’ve learnt to real life situations. The focus of my project will be ‘sustainable energy and infrastructure’, which I’m very excited about as I’m very passionate about sustainability and our planet. We don’t find out the topic of the ‘Simulation’ session, which adds to the excitement!

Carys Bill pic