There were a lot of surprises, like ‘lectures’ being called ‘classes’ and ‘university’ being called ‘school’, when I first arrived in the US almost exactly three years ago. And in fact, doing a PhD in the US is quite unlike anything you’d do in the UK —so perhaps I should start by explaining exactly how it works. In the UK, the standard route to a PhD is to do a Master’s degree first (normally 1-2 years). Depending on the university and your programme of study, you can find yourself doing anything from taking lectures again to writing a Master’s thesis, to a combination of the two. Once you’ve completed the MA degree, you then move on to your PhD, which will typically be 3 years of in-depth research on a single topic and end with a dissertation.
I’m entering my third year – which means I’ve got a year of qualifying exams to look forward to! So a lot of my time at the moment is taken up with revision for the first round of exams that start in 3 weeks. But I also have a couple of classes this year, too. Most third-years have to help out in teaching undergrads (that’s another difference from the UK), but I received a fellowship this year which means I can take classes instead. So I’m doing one on ‘Technologies of Knowledge’ – the different ways knowledge has been put into technology, right from papyri to digital media! – and one on Cleopatra, another of my favourite classical women (see my post a couple of weeks ago).
So if I told you that I’m going to be spending much of my first day back at Yale shopping, now you know – I’ll be spending more time in the classroom than at the department store. After all, who would trade in a class on infinity for a pair of shoes?