Sunday, August 03, 2008

Postgraduate Study In The U.K.

Postgraduate Study In The UK: The International Student’s Guide by Nicholas Foskett and Rosalind Foskett (Sage 2006).

One of the best ways to kill time is by thinking of applying to graduate school.

Not by actually attending graduate school. Not by applying. But by thinking of applying. Seasoned procrastinators can spend years considering whether a Master of Arts or a Master of Science would look better on their Facebook profiles.

To add another level of time-consuming complexity, the hypothetical graduate program should be in another country, requiring investigation – and lots of reflection – on issues such as student visas, exchange rates and differing academic terminology. With perseverance and a little luck, the process of selecting a graduate program can continue past retirement.

Postgraduate Study In The UK takes some of the fun out of the process, since it provides a basic orientation (the British would say “induction”) to masters and doctoral study in the United Kingdom.

For students from the United States, the biggest difference will be how little time the Brits spend in class. U.S. courses are measured in credit hours – roughly one credit hour per hour of weekly in-class instruction. U.K. courses are measured in credit points – roughly one credit point per 10 hours of required study. So a class at a British university might meet once a week, if that, which is great for people like me who will gladly read until five in the morning but aren’t keen on attending an 8 a.m. class three times a week.

“Class” is not the correct word, though. In much the manner that Mormonism adopted Christian words but gave them different meanings – making it difficult for a Mormon to understand a conversion-minded Baptist missionary – the Brits have a similar, but different and confusing, academic vocabulary.

A postgraduate student – that’s the first major difference; we say “graduate,” and they say “postgraduate” -- might take two or three “courses” per term, each of which will consist of a reading list and meetings with a professor (“fellow” or “don”). Sometimes a student presents a paper for critique by the group. The academic emphasis is on what students do outside of the classroom to earn their PGDip, MA, MEng, MPhil, MRes, MSc, MSt, DLitt or DPhil. (You didn’t think the degrees had familiar names, did you?)

Certain of the universities employ a Lecture List or Seminar List. Instead of requiring students to attend lectures given at regular intervals by the same professor in the same room, some British universities distribute a list of all lectures (sometimes called "seminars") which will be given by anyone – faculty or a visiting scholar – on a particular topic. The student attends whichever ones are of interest.

A biochemistry student at University College London, for example, would be presented with a straightforward Lecture List, with each day's session building logically on the previous one.

Meanwhile, a student of Indian religions at Oxford University would be feasting on a buffet of options from the Lecture and Seminar Lists issued by the Oriental Institute, the Division of Social Sciences, the Faculty of History, the Centre for Hindu Studies and the Centre For Islamic Studies, as well as the Modern South Asian History Seminars and the Early Modern South Asia Workshop offered by the Asian Studies Centre.

While U.S. universities predominantly employ a semester system, many British universities divide the academic year into three ten-week terms, each with a medieval religious name such as Michaelmas Term or Trinity Term. This gives university towns a distinct rhythm, bustling during term, quieter during the vacations in between. (Your math is correct; the university is in session for thirty weeks, leaving twenty-two weeks of vacation -- which expains why Evelyn Waugh characters had so much free time).

Every university in the U.K. is a public, government-funded institution, except for the University of Buckingham, the nation’s only private university. Not coincidentally, the cost for a U.S. citizen to attend almost any university in the U.K. is roughly the same, at current exchange rates about $22,000 in academic fees. When you consider that annual tuition at a second-rate, State-side institution such as Boston University is $37,000, the University of Edinburgh starts to look attractive, the Scottish winter notwithstanding.

There is one striking similarity between the two countries. As in the U.S., it’s all about the rankings, called the “league tables.” We have U.S. News & World Report; they have the Times Good University Guide and the Guardian University Guide. Going global, the Times Higher Education Supplement publishes an annual World University Rankings. The British government also gets in on the act, with a Research Assessment Exercise every few years that grades university programs on a six-point scale (1,2,3,4,5,5*), the higher the better.

By necessity, Postgraduate Study in the UK cannot be too detailed. It has to provide information to everyone from a mid-career oil refinery manager from Venezuela who wants to earn an MSc in Control Systems from Imperial College London to the parents of a child prodigy from Smolensk who think the kid is ready for a Ph.D. in Composition from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.

Within that constraint, the book provides an excellent overview, as well as material for months, perhaps years, of thought.

Pictured: Graduation at the University of Glasgow.

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Anonymous johnny sibler said...

BU wishes it was second-rate.

1:20 AM  

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