FGSA newsletter article: World Year of Physics
A Ph.D. in Any Language
by Ben Brown
So what does it take to be called "Doctor" the world over? Is a D.Phil.
the same as a Ph.D.? Do students in
receive government support for a terminal degree in physics? How is the
traditional path to professorship in
These questions (and many others) were recently addressed by an FGSA project
to uncover the often overlooked differences between graduate education systems
and other countries.
To honor the World Year of Physics in 2005, FGSA embarked on a year-long project to learn more about
physics graduate study in countries around the world. Young scientists in
a number of countries gave generously of their time to prepare short articles
summarizing their path to a Ph.D. (or equivalent degree), as well as describing
some of the notable physics research currently undertaken in their native
country. These country profiles can be read in their entirety on the FGSA website
Physics is an inherently international endeavor. Historically, the diversity
of physics research programs in the
has attracted students and researchers from numerous countries. When I first
joined my doctoral research group at the University of Rochester, I was one
of only two Americans in a group that included citizens
. Yet aside from lunch-time conversations, we students
were relatively unknowledgeable regarding the variety of graduate research
experiences in countries outside our own.
Across Europe, there is significant variety in the path to the Ph.D. In
, students seeking a doctorate first must complete a Diploma Thesis---essentially
a research thesis masters degree. In the
, a Ph.D. (D.Phil. in the
) is nominally three years in length---extremely short compared to the six-to-seven
year average length of a Ph.D. obtained in the
This difference is in part a result of the broadly differing philosophies
of the American and European undergraduate and school-age educational systems. The
European system tends to emphasize academic specialization at an earlier
age, while the American system stresses exposure to a wide variety of subjects. For
example, British undergraduates typically take courses exclusively in their
major subject, permitting a reduced emphasis on formal coursework at the
graduate level as compared to the American system.
In the rising technical powers of
, governments are rapidly increasing the resources devoted to science and
engineering, with clear benefits to students. In the span of two decades,
literally hundreds of new physics and engineering doctoral programs have
blossomed, producing graduates eager to contribute to their country's increasingly
vital role in international research and development efforts. Recent publications
such as Thomas Friedman's The World Is Flat have stressed the rising
as budding technological powers. Clearly the number of opportunities for
physics graduate study in these countries is in the ascendance.
Around the world, the influence of the close cultural
and governmental ties persisting after colonialism are manifest
in the similarities of various graduate courses to the British and French
, for instance, allow entry to a Ph.D. course (nominally three years in length)
only after completion of an M.Sc.
or equivalent degree---essentially the same academic path required in the
Both of these countries have witnessed impressive recent growth in research
opportunities for physics students.
The World Year of Physics has now passed into memory. However, FGSA has
an abiding interest in promoting appreciation for the diversity of experiences
of physics graduate students. If you notice that your home country is absent
from the collection of country profiles thus far, and would like to write
a profile for inclusion on the project homepage, please contact the FGSA Secretary. Those
interested in addressing the needs of international students and organizing
the exchange of ideas between FGSA and international student organizations are encouraged
to become involved in the FGSA International Affairs
Committee; contact the FGSA Chair or Secretary
for more information.