Breadth v depth

I am about to begin my 20th year of teaching in the UK: 12 years at Lancaster University and now in my eighth year at the University of Aberdeen

September 12, 2013

I had taught for years in my native US and, when I arrived in the UK, knew nothing about British higher education. The differences still impress me.

American education, from secondary school on, is far less specialised than its British counterpart. Students in the US are admitted to universities on the basis of general academic aptitude and grades. The more varied the array of subjects taken in school, the more appealing the application, which is sent not to a department but to the university as a whole. Not until the end of the second year (out of four) do undergraduates in the US choose “a major”, and even then they can switch around: I went through three possible majors before deciding on religious studies.

Most professional degrees in the US – law, medicine, dentistry and ministry – are postgraduate. One must first obtain an undergraduate degree in another subject. Savvy “pre-med” undergrads know not to major in biology or chemistry: breadth is prized over depth.

By contrast, the UK is committed to specialisation from secondary school onwards. The US does offer “achievement tests”, which are the rough equivalent of A-level examinations in specific subjects such as English or physics, but they count for less in admissions.

The US emphasis on breadth continues even to the doctoral level. When I applied straight from undergraduate studies (Wesleyan University) to Princeton University for my PhD in religions of the Graeco-Roman world, I had done a mere year of classical Greek and several years of biblical Hebrew.

In the US, a doctoral applicant would be laughed out of court if the application came with a thesis proposal. How, it would be asked, can one specify a topic without knowing the discipline? PhD students in the US begin their doctoral studies taking years of specific postgraduate courses intended to acquaint them with their discipline.

How different in the UK. One applies for a PhD with a proposal, and the thesis is all that one does, although there may be optional courses on research methods.

The result, I think, is a trade-off. American PhD candidates know far better the scope of their disciplines, which is scarcely to say that they are experts. British doctoral theses can be more creative and individual. The topic is what one really wants to investigate.

In the US, one chooses a supervisor only after passing exams. No one would propose a topic for which there was no resident specialist. In the UK, one may identify a prospective supervisor, but one may also apply blindly and simply hope that someone will wish to supervise the thesis. And the supervisor need not be a specialist. A colleague of mine at Lancaster supervised a PhD on ancient Greek religion – without knowing a word of Greek himself. Some years ago, the director of graduate studies at Aberdeen informed us that we were not to reject an applicant merely because no specialist was present! True, the external examiner is an expert, but examining comes at the end, not the beginning, of the process.

Overall, British PhD students have more independence, but tighter supervision may be what they need.

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