Doctoral education in the US

The number one thing that attracted me to further my education here in the United States is my discovery about how America produces the largest number of PhDs. For me, my undergraduate education was exceptionally joyful because of like-minded peers. We would organize study times and ask each member of the group to study a particular area to teach all of us. This proved to be useful since we all contributed to avoid the arduous task of having to cramp large volumes of text in our heads. Reading that America produces the largest number of PhDs for me meant that, the doctoral journey is not going to be as lonely as I have imagined PhDs to be with students learning only from their academic supervisors. With more people in a program, there is higher probability of collaboration among students and not an entirely lonely study.

I love that almost all doctoral programs in the US require students to either be research assistants or teaching assistants. I have realized that all graduate students at some point serve as teaching assistants. I believe that this is a good practice since doctoral students are able to realize, before they graduate, whether they want to pursue a career in academia or industry. This practice gives students the needed experience to develop personalized styles of teaching, work on their flaws and ultimately, become better versions of themselves. Aside the confidence boost primarily from having to stand in front of a bunch of students, the practice of graduate research and teaching assistants forces students to build relationships with both their students and colleagues. For me, this is the number one pull towards US doctoral education.

Doctoral education in the US has taught me about the focus on advanced student learning rather than on the specific doctoral program, type of degree or the institution offering the degree. Doctoral students in the US are all different because of the programs they are pursuing but a common identifier among all of them is the cultivated ability to think and behave scholarly. Personally, I have learned to inadvertently become more independent about my thought process, formulate my own opinions and support my decisions with firmly rooted facts. This is a skill I would not have picked up had I been in a more rigid educational structure outside of the US.

US doctoral education has a lot of diversity in terms of race, ethnicity, gender and also age. I look at the demographics of doctoral students in Ghana for instance and it is very monotonous. It has a lot of upper middle age abled men spiced with very few women and devoid of young students. In the US, I am sure to come across 22 year old doctoral students upwards to 70 year old students from different backgrounds, race and gender. I particularly like that about doctoral education in the US since it contributes to a lesser feeling of the imposter syndrome among students because students know that they only got in because someone found them to very qualified to get in and not because they fit a particular template. I think this is very important especially for when doctoral students get into the phase where they don’t think they can continue anymore. I will not be surprised if the rate of doctoral education completion is higher in the US compared to other countries with lower diversity.

Higher Education in Europe

Coming from Ghana, a country that gained independence from the British about 50 years ago, I grew up with the educated immediate older generation all having had their education in the UK. The plan for me had always been to seek higher education in the UK right after my first degree. When I was in high school though, the trend started changing. For some reason, a lot more people started talking about Harvard, Princeton and Yale when hitherto, the discussion had centered on Cambridge and Oxford. I don’t know the reason for the swift change but it did happen. And then, when I was in my first year of university, employees began complaining about the less than a year British master’s program and how British graduates were found to not know as much as the American master’s graduates did. It looked like a curse to attend a British graduate school since it seemed very hard to get a job with a certificate from UK.

Thus, I switched my gaze to other European schools. Germany was offering 2 years master’s programs but required all non-German nationals to study the German language for a year before the actual 2 year program began. I thought 3 years was too long a time to spend on a master’s degree so I dropped Germany as an option. All Ghanaians I knew complained about the icy cold temperatures in most of Europe so gradually, my attention shifted towards American higher education which is why I ended up here in Virginia Tech.

I particularly like Denmark’s 3+2+3 educational process because it shortens the first part of the university education (undergraduate level) and then concentrates its efforts in the 2 years master’s program. Also its PhD program, fixed at 3 years like other European universities, are more guided. I like the flexibility of the American PhD programs where no two programs are the same and also, students have the luxury of pursuing whatever courses they find appealing. However, the guided structure of Denmark and other European universities forces students to set specific targets for themselves and have a singular focus so they can finish on time. I think that most PhD programs in Europe are more alike than different because of the rigid structure. Rarely, do I hear a European student complain about spending too long a time in a PhD program. In America however, it is a norm and PhD students and even master’s students rarely are sure of their graduation dates.

I know about the Bologna process that is followed by about 48 European countries to ensure that   higher education quality and standards remain comparable across the continent.  The process reminds me of the West African Examination Council that sets qualifying examinations for high school graduates wanting to enroll in universities. I think it helps students from neighboring countries to not be restricted to the universities in only their countries but afford to look elsewhere. For instance, it is easier to find Nigerian or Liberian students in Ghana universities because of this system that makes results transferable and standards equal. Seeing the ease with which people can move across the different countries of Europe, it makes sense that such a process is in place to not restrict students to just their home countries. The GRE which is attributed to both the United States and Canada, also provides a sort of uniform standard for entry into a North American university but other than that, the higher education process is unique to every school or area in North America.

I am still not sure about the role of polytechnics in Europe and how a polytechnic certificate differs from a high school certificate or a bachelor’s degree. I am confused about the categorization of polytechnics in Europe and whether they function primarily as vocational schools or not. I will like to know more about that.