Forget the Footnotes

Talking to prospective, Asian, PhD students

Dear Prospective Asian PhD student,

I know you really want to go to the United Kingdom to study. There are very famous universities there — Oxford, Cambridge, LSE, and many others. This is, you’ve been told, where the best students in the world meet the best professors. If nothing else, your parents will be endlessly proud of you and you’ll have a future job in the bag. The prestige value of a UK PhD is immesurable.

Still, I suggest it’s a scam. They are taking advantage of your eagerness to get ahead in life through educational means. Perhaps it’s time for a short reality-check:

  • English universities really aren’t all that good. Far inferior than the best American universities and certainly not much better than universities in Scandinavia, Germany or France.
  • Don’t forget, PhD programs in UK universities, in contrast to American, have no course component. All you get for your tuition fee — some 12,000 pounds per year — are a few chats with your supervisor. When you factor in the cost of living in a city such as London, this is likely to be about as much as your family’s entire annual income.
  • Add the lousy weather, the lousy food and it all becomes very unattractive indeed. Yes, and I forgot the barely concealed racism against anyone with an East Asian accent. They’ll take your money, but they won’t take you seriously. More on British racism here.
  • If you go ahead with your UK PhD, what you’ll soon realize is that you’ll be far better off doing your research back in your home country. You’ll save money that way and most likely you’ll be closer to your primary sources. Before long you’ll find yourself sending 12,000 pounds off to the UK every year and getting absolutely nothing in return — no library access, not even an absent-minded supervisor.  It’s like an international aid program in reverse. Before long the absurdity of the situation will be hard to ignore.
  • The only thing you’ll get in the end is the alleged prestige of a UK degree. Yes, this is still worth something today but only since universities and employers in East Asia are slow to catch up on the serious trouble that UK academia is in. The Singaporean authorities have. They are not encouraging students to travel to the UK for a PhD anymore. Other Asian countries will soon draw the same conclusion.
  • Let’s assume that the prestige of UK universities has a half-life of about 50 years. If that’s true, your PhD won’t be worth nearly as much by the time you are ready to go on the job market, and it’ll be worth even less some decades into your career.

The obvious alternative is to do a PhD in one of the many outstanding universities in East Asia itself. There are many that give courses in English, full of world-class professors and world-class students. NCTU, where I work, is a great example. The cost here is far, far lower — including living costs — and you’ll have a much easier time adjusting. There is no racism and no behind-your-back condescension. There are no woolly sweaters and no woolly grub. And most importantly, the prestige value of your East Asian PhD is a commodity whose value is on the rise.


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