What is the best country to pursue a PhD?

Very often I participate in formal and informal discussions about the quality of doctoral training (in social sciences) in different countries. Many prospective applicants ask where they should pursue doctoral training and which system guarantees the most rigorous scientific research training.

Here is my take on the subject based on my own personal experiences (as a PhD student in the UK), and as a Director of Postgraduate Research Students (also in the UK).

I chose three countries and compared the PhD programs based on a number of factors. Why these three countries? UK and USA because these two countries are often perceived as competitors, I am familiar with UK system, and Poland because of the recent changes to doctoral training.

I chose the best university in each country: University of Warsaw in Poland, University of Oxford in the UK, and Harvard University in the USA. The below comparison is based on the information about PhD programs available on the websites of those universities, and on some of my personal experiences with PhD programs (UK). I am also comparing the quality of PhD programs in social sciences only.

How long does it take?5 -6 years3 years4 years
Compulsory training/modules in research methods ?yesnoYes
Compulsory foreign language trainingNoNoYes
Core subject exam/s?YesNoYes
PhD scholarshipYesOnly for selected candidates, otherwise self-fundedYes

Phd in United Kingdom

PhD programs in the UK officially last 3 years (full-time). There is also an option to study part-time. There is no compulsory taught element – this means doctoral students do not need to attend any classes and submit any coursework or pass exams. Many universities offer optional training but no-one will force you to attend it. the UK also offers general researcher training but it focuses on only very general skills such as literature review, presentation skills and conference presentations.

PhD in the United States

The United States of America is one of the most popular study destinations for doctoral (PhD) studies among international students in social sciences. PhD programs in the USA last 5 years and can only be taken full-time. Students need to attend classes, submit coursework and pass exams.

PhD in Poland

Doctoral students in Poland can study full-time or part-time in Doctoral Schools (Szkoły Doktorskie). Students have to attend compulsory classes and pass exams in selected subjects specific to their area of study. Students also must attend and pass exams (or submit coursework) in research methods.

The verdict

If you want to become a very well-rounded scientist and a specialist in your field, head to the USA, or Poland (if you speak the language or if the university offers English-language option).

If you want to focus only on your very narrow topic- head to the UK.

How NOT to promote vaccines to Covid-19 vaccine-hesitant Poles in Britain

I am a Pole in Britain and I live in Luton, one of the most deprived areas in the UK. My neighbours are diverse and also include Poles who resist vaccinations. This is weird in itself and probably would make a very interesting study because all my friends and family in Poland are getting vaccinated like crazy (mostly working-class so very similar demographics to the majority of Polish people living in Luton).

But here in the UK, things are a little bit different, especially when it comes to Poles in Luton. Vaccine take-up amongst this group is low. I do not have any official numbers to prove it so please take this post with a healthy dose of skepticism, it is just what I hear and see on social media forums, and when I talk to my Polish friends, and hairdresser, builder, cleaner. A few weeks ago, I was targeted by an online advert on Facebook – an ad targeted specifically at Poles, available on the London Borough of Hounslow Facebook profile. Ad can be found here in the Facebook Ad Library.

You can watch it here: https://www.facebook.com/ads/library/?id=461639755159948

and a screenshot of it the ad below:

The advert is an official NHS advert providing information about the Covid-19 vaccination in the Polish language.

So how do you NOT advertise vaccines to skeptical, vaccine-hesitant Poles in the UK?

Here are my pointers:

  1. Do not make it look like the endorser is reading from a dictated script and runs out of breath
  2. Do not make it that long (but if you solve point 1 above, the length should not be such a big issue)
  3. Do not make it look forced and ‘fake’, the endorser looks like she is struggling to read out the script.
  4. Do not use an endorser who looks insecure and a bit timid.

Other than that, they did pretty well. Targeted ads, the endorser is an assistant nurse, a Pole, and the advert is in the target group’s language.

More could have been done to make the ad look more realistic and ‘relaxed’, less script reading and more of a casual conversation would work better. But time was probably an issue here, so all in all – not the worst result.

Why does it matter to communicate with audiences at the right time and place? A case study of New Zealand Border Compliance Social Marketing programme.

Did you know that used hiking equipment such as hiking boots could be a biosecurity risk? International travellers to New Zealand often bring items that pose a serious biosecurity risk to the natural environment of New Zealand. Those items include, amongst others, used outdoor and hiking equipment such as hiking boots. The Ministry for Primary Industries (New Zealand) explains why in this short video. The video is just one of the tactics that the MPI used to increase awareness about biosecurity risks and, eventually, change traveller behaviour. The campaign demonstrates why communicating with international travellers matters and highlights the need to do it in a culturally sensitive way.

A team of specialists working at the Department of Communications and Channels, for the NZ Ministry for Primary Industries developed a communication programme to raise awareness about biosecurity risks related to bringing in a range of items into New Zealand. The aim of the Border Compliance Social Marketing programme was to change international tourist behaviour BEFORE they travel to New Zealand. The programme, described in detail in this Journal of Social Marketing article, is “[a]imed at visitors with the highest identified risk” (targeting travellers from India and China, two countries that send large numbers of visitors to NZ); and “uses a range of interventions in the pre-travel, in-journey and upon-arrival stages of travel.” (Sherring, 2019, p.85). Specifically, the programme’s goal is “to protect New Zealand’s horticultural and agricultural industries, as well as its environment by ensuring overseas visitors do not bring in items that may contain harmful pests and diseases.” (Sherring, 2019, p. 85). In simpler words,  MPI intend to convince travellers not to bring items such as food (cooked or uncooked); animals and animal products, plants and plant products, equipment used with animals, plants or water, and items that have been used for outdoor (such as hiking boots) or farming activities to New Zealand.

In order to achieve this goal MPI developed a programme which targeted several groups of tourists at different times and locations:

  • Local communities in New Zealand (Communicating with them via mass and social media) to encourage individuals to advise friends and family overseas to leave prohibited items at home and conform to the majority’s belief that this is important behaviour. Advertising (posters) conveyed the message “Relatives visiting?  Tell them to always declare food and spices on their arrival card”.
  • International travellers during pre-travel, in-journey and on-arrival (details are presented in the table below).
Pre-travelDigital advertising on popular online travel booking sites (e.g., CTrip in China and Skyscanner in India).   Search engine marketing with key search terms about travel to New Zealand.                   Informing about biosecurity risks at the time of visa application.                   Targeted direct emails (from Immigration New Zealand) sent to visitors two weeks before their visa is due to commence.     Travel and tour companies in India and China receive training guides to ensure travel agents are aware and can inform travellers about the biosecurity requirements.  Online adverts are targeted to searches on New Zealand.       Education is essential at this stage, and MPI assists this with having translated website content and resources (e.g., Chinese language biosecurity website www.nzquarantine.com).     Posters and booklets handed out to visa applicants (for in-person applications); information on Immigration New Zealand’s websites and e-visa application portals (for digital visa applications).   Direct e-mails include links to translated Web content and materials.
In-journeyTranslated leaflets/guides that wrap around the arrival card on all direct flights from China.   In-flight video describing biosecurity and asking passengers to follow the rules.Messaging focuses on explaining what is required upon arrival ( disposing of risk items in specially marked “amnesty bins” and ensuring any risk items are declared to border staff, info about the NZ$400 fine).  
On-arrivalAirport signage and bins, staff to help (including translators), and aids for border staff (such as flash cards).   Translated signs for Chinese and Indian passengers are placed throughout the airport. Public address announcements to remind visitors about biosecurity checks.Signs, bins and collateral state the penalty for non-compliance with the instruction of “declare, dispose or pay the fine”.

The advertisements used in the programme featured a range of images that were culturally appropriate to the target groups. For example, one of the advertisements targeted at visitors from India features the theme of prasad and offerings – a specific religious (Hinduism) practice of offering food and water to a deity during worship (puja). When used at the pre-journey stage, these posters were available in a range of local languages. All communication materials are publicly available on the MPI website.

The case is a useful example of the importance of marketing communications timing and place in a not-for-profit context. For more examples of campaigns targeted at international travellers, have a look at the UNESCO website featuring a number of sustainable tourism campaigns.

“It’s drier than you think” campaign from AffinityWater and Hubbab

It always rains in England, doesn’t it? Well, it turns out England is drier than Melbourne!

In a series of advertisements (see an example above from the Hertfordshire Living magazine, September 2020 issue), the partnership between Hubbab and Affinity Water take advantage of our perceptions of some pretty dry parts of the world and challenge our beliefs. In a series of #tapchat activities, Hubbab and partners promote water-saving habits and increase our awareness about how much water we all waste unnecessarily. You will find many useful tips on how to save water, but I would like to share my own three habits that help me to reduce the volume of water we use in our household.

The three things I do:

  1. Laundry always on 30 degrees, and always on a 1hr cycle. If things are very soiled, I pre-soak them in water and soap.
  2. If you have a garden, catch the water that you use to wash your vegetables and fruits. I do it simply by placing a plastic bowl in the sink, and washing my fruits and vegetables over it. Then I step outside and use that water to water my garden plants.
  3. If you have a combi boiler, catch the cold water before it warms up when you take a shower. I just keep a plastic bottle in my bathroom and catch the water from the tap and then use it to water my garden plants (or house plants!)

The Slow Professor approach


I admit, I have never read the Slow Professor book, but if the Slow Professor concept is similar to the Slow Food movement, then surely it must be good! Mindful, considered, thought-through, healthy, sustainable food is better than fast, pre-packaged, mindless, tasteless food so the same principle applied to academy must produce better long-term results too! Well-fed organisms are healthier, happier and contribute better to economy and society.

The writers of the Slow Professor are not the only advocates of more mindful and slower academia. Mats Alvesson, in several of his books, argues how the current emptiness in higher education (specifically, in the wider social sciences, and in management/business/marketing in specific) leads to the overproduction of meaningless research, neglect of teaching and lack of time for truly student-centered approach. The culture of speed (because things done fast must be good, right?) rapid decision making, countless ‘projects’ and initiatives that achieve nothing more than a waste of money and time permeates some higher education institutions.

I am ready for a slow(er) pace and less-is-more appraoch to academic work.

“Return to meaning”

(by Mats Alvesson, Yiannis Gabriel, and Roland Paulsen, 2017, Oxford University Press).

I am not very good at writing book reviews, so I thought to share some quotes from this thought-provoking book. Here are some I related to and found very relevant to the current context of higher education, scholarship and research:

“The current proliferation of academic publishing in social science, far from enhancing human knowledge, is creating a vacuum of meaning” (p. 12) “[…] the age of mass research and mass publication has led to a perverse relationship between authors wanting to write and publish, and a shortage of readers” (p. 110)

“There are many different ways of being a scholar. […] Being a scholar as an identity and a mode of working means reading and thinking more than managing data. It means arguing and engaging with the ideas of other scholars in written texts but also in conferences, seminars, and informal discussions. It means intervening in public debates, […]. It means being a committed teacher, concerned about the education of future generations of citizens and also future scholars”. (p. 88)

And finally:

“Being a scholar also means making a contribution to the different scientific communities and institutions as a socially involved citizen. Research is part of what it means to be a scholar, but the latter cannot be reduced to doing research, let alone having journal hits” (p. 88)

How to influence people to make better decisions?

How to influence people to make better decisions?

Have you ever wondered why people around you still make choices that do not seem the best for them? Despite being surrounded by numerous advertisements, billboards, smart phone apps or newspaper articles about how important it is to lose weight or why smoking is not the best for one’s health, or why one should save money, it seems there are still millions of people who are still overweight or obese, keep smoking and are in debt.

In the UK, 56% of people are overweight or obese (Eurostat, 2014), household debt is very high (The Money Charity, 2018), 15% of people still  smoke (The Guardian, 2017) and over 75,000 people still drink and drive (ROSPA, 2017). Of course, the reasons behind these are numerous and complex, but one of the questions is why, despite access to information, it is so hard to change people’s behaviour?

The UK government’s initiatives to use the Behaviour Change Communication have produced positive results: fewer people smoke now than 20 years ago, fewer  people drink and drive, but some areas still need more work, and yet some other challenge appear and need to be addressed. Is communication enough to change people’s behaviour or do we need other initiatives (such as regulations) to change behaviours?

Do social marketers use the wrong type of messages (for example, anti-smoking campaigns that do not work), do governments develop schemes that do not reward people to make better choices (for example, would paying for healthcare for issues related to self-inflicted obesity make people take better care of their health – but look at America, they are one of the most overweight/obese nations in the world).

Of course, the reasons behind these are numerous and complex, but one of the questions is why, despite access to information it is so hard to change people’s behaviour; and would stricter government control of availability of some products and services help people make better choices?  ‘Information overload’ and placing responsibility for all choices on the shoulders of individuals may lead to individuals not being able (for example, due to lack of resources such as time) to access and understand the relevant information. Perhaps, the government could be more proactive in regulating the market in a way that consumers are not overburdened with the choices that they have to make, for example by not allowing some products to be offered in the market?



Eurostat. (2014). Overweight and obesity – BMI statistics.   Retrieved January 15, 2018, from http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/Overweight_and_obesity_-_BMI_statistics

ROSPA. (2017). Road Safety Factsheet.   Retrieved January 15 2018, from https://www.rospa.com/rospaweb/docs/advice-services/road-safety/drivers/drinking-and-driving.pdf

The Guardian. (2017). Smoking rate in UK falls to second-lowest in Europe.   Retrieved January 15 2018, from https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/jun/15/smoking-rate-in-uk-falls-to-second-lowest-in-europe

The Money Charity. (2018). The Money Statistics January 2018.   Retrieved January 15 2018, from http://themoneycharity.org.uk/money-statistics/

Street marketing in Mexico

In this era of information overload consumers choose to pay less and less attention to advertising, especially on TV or the Internet. This street marketing approach may be quite effective as drivers have nowhere to go.

Mexico City Street Marketing

Photo 1:  Banner at a crossing in Mexico City.