PhD work in the UK vs. the USA

Larry Hurtado recently posted on his blog about the differences between pursuing a PhD in the British university system and in the American system. (Full disclosure: My own education has been entirely within the American system. Several of my colleagues received PhDs in the UK, however, so I have learned about that system through observation and dialogue.) In the main I agree with him: The British system focuses on completion of the dissertation, thus a strong focus on research and specialization, while the American system prepares a student to be a generalist in the field of study, thus a strong focus on a broader knowledge of the subject matter. Both systems have produced excellent scholars and teachers, and his closing assessment that the best choice depends upon the student is spot on.

I find one thing he says, though, quite interesting:

Some (typically, I find, some Americans with little experience of living or studying outside the USA) may look down on the British PhD in comparison to the North American PhD.

My experience is the opposite: People within the circles I run tend to automatically assume that a PhD from a British university is better. It automatically carries more credence, even with people who have no experience living or studying outside the USA! I think this often comes from familiarity with the situation in the USA breeding contempt, but as Hurtado argues each system has its own merits, and students should consider their own situation and which system would fit them better.

On a more philosophical note, I would encourage all students (and by extension the academics they become) to move beyond the assumption that a degree from a particular type of institution automatically qualifies an individual as a competent scholar or teacher. As in the marketplace, so in the academy: What a scholar produces with the skills they acquire in their education is most important. Certainly credentials are important, but only as they are properly used to contribute to the field of study.