Under an international microscope

September 20, 1996

In the first of an occasional series on academic lives, Chris Johnston asks postgraduate students from overseas what they think about studying in Britain. * JANE POTTER

Jane Potter, 30, of California, is at Oxford University in the third year of a DPhil examining UK women's writing during the first world war.

I'd done a junior year abroad at York and I knew the Bodleian Library in Oxford had a lot of the resources I needed. I have received an Overseas Research Award from Oxford, which allows me to pay home fees and I have a college award. The rest - $60,000 - I've borrowed from the US government. It's a huge amount of money and I don't think about it because otherwise I get stressed out. I waited for a while before I decided to go back to school. I had a lot of friends who had debt from their undergraduate days and I had no other debts at all.

Doctorates are at least five years in the US, so I'll be doing it a lot quicker here. I came because I wanted to come here. I applied to universities in the US but didn't get in. It's so competitive and there's so many people going on to DPhils, they really look for big-name schools and big-name referees.

There's a lot more specialisation here - you specialise a lot earlier so that when you do a Masters or a DPhil you're just working on that particular topic and you really start out doing research. We had a couple of courses we had to attend in the first year, but it wasn't as structured as it would have been in the US.


After working in London for three years, Rulande Rutgers, 29, of Holland, chose Cambridge University to study for a PhD. She is in the final year of a chemical engineering doctorate.

I had the option of going back to Holland and I didn't, because it's a three-year course here rather than four years there and I wanted to have the foreign experience. There is also a social life for graduates here with the college system. In Holland, because people tend to be older when they start, they tend to be settled already.

You also have a much better chance of meeting people who aren't scientists and that is really important. That's what kept me from doing a PhD in the first place - my biggest fear was that I was going to be a sad, lonely graduate working all the time on my own, but it hasn't been that way. PhD students in Holland seem to have very little interaction with each other. They don't know people in other departments.

The UK system has no specialist lecturers for graduates at all - there's nothing to help you get up to speed on, say, the mathematics that you need, even if the whole group needs it. There is no time for coursework. It isn't like America, where there is a year getting up to speed in coursework - I'm not saying I necessarily want that, but that is a very different approach.

There is very little interaction with undergraduates. We don't do any supervision, but in Holland that's a compulsory part of a PhD. You work for and get paid by the university and final-year students do your project work and experiments with you, which gives you managerial skills. It's the one drawback here. In a three-year course you can't do it all.

It's more hierarchical here - the academics are very authoritarian. You get treated more as a child than you would be in Holland, but that's probably Cambridge a little bit. I'm older than most of the other students, and I'm a bit more laid back about everything. They are a bit more strict - they feel more guilty.


Fadi Makki, from Lebanon, has nearly completed a PhD in international trade law at Cambridge University. After studying at the American University in Beirut, he completed an LLB in international law at Hull University and further study at the London School of Economics.

It is unusual for a Lebanese law student to come to England, but my father has a business in Manchester, so I grew up coming to the UK quite often.

What I like most about the English system is the supervision and tutorials. At Cambridge, we had research progress seminars. We would get together one day a week and discuss problems, research methods, skills, techniques and experiences and give a presentation. That was very useful. Researchers don't have classes and at some stage you get to feel isolated, but it depends on your attitude. Coming to Cambridge without enjoying the social side is a pity.

I don't recall ever having had problems as a Muslim. I have fairly liberal views and in that sense, I'm not an orthodox Muslim. I don't drink alcohol or eat pork and people first wondered why I was doing it, but when I explained it was personal conviction, it was never questioned. It's a very cosmopolitan community, with very few English people at the graduate level. My supervisors were both non-English.

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