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.