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.