Oxford/Cambridge PhD decision!
June 2, 2011 3:12 PM   Subscribe

Oxford versus Cambridge for a PhD - opinions welcome!

So I'm heading over to the UK for a PhD next year, and am deciding between Oxford and Cambridge. Being chronically indecisive, I'm obviously agonizing over the choice. This is made worse by the fact that many factors that might ordinarily be deciding ones aren't points of concern in this case. I hold fully-funded offers at both, so finances aren't an issue (although my money seems like it would go farther at Cambridge, in terms of rent and food costs). The departments, doctoral supervisors, and library resources for my topic at both universities seem very comparable.

Given this, I guess I'm interested especially in the Hive Mind's sense of the intangible experience of living in each town and going to each university. Are there any main things that would distinguish the experience of attending either one? Is the atmosphere similar at both? Presumably the students attending both are similar, or do slightly different types of students attend each? Does one have more financial resources, in terms of scholarships or exchanges (preliminary poking around I've done seems to suggest Cambridge)? Is one town more enjoyable, in your opinion? Is accommodation, either college or private, better/cheaper in one town versus the other? Anything else of note to distinguish the universities and towns? - restaurants, general vibe, college atmosphere different at each? Does one university have the advantage, in terms of being more friendly and a new student being able to meet people? I'm more familiar with Cambridge, so would particularly welcome comments on Oxford, but I'm interested in any experiences you have to share! Help me, MeFites!
posted by UniversityNomad to Education (18 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
They are much of a muchness so I'd recommend choosing based on the supervisor. Pick the supervisor that you seem to get on with best - this will have the most substantive impact on your quality of life and general state of happiness for the next four years.

Try to get in touch with the supervisor's current students, ask what they think of the supervisor, and then read the answers *very* carefully. Similarly, ask the current students about the state of the department, amount of additional research funding available, rate of progression, graduates in academic/industry positions, etc. These are the questions that you should be asking to get a good sense of the best institution for you as these factors will wind up mattering much more than the small differences between the two cities...
posted by lumiere at 3:23 PM on June 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Having visited both universities, Cambridge has the nicer campus, but Oxford is a more vibrant city.

Neither of those things should matter, however, as lumiere has explained what your priorities should be. Good advisor = good grad school experience. Bad advisor = bad grad school experience. If the students in the department finish quickly, you will finish quickly. If the students in the department take a long time to finish, you will take a long time to finish. It doesn't matter how fun the city or nice the campus is, or even how much money the university has (given that your funding is already taken care of).
posted by deanc at 3:29 PM on June 2, 2011

I did my PhD at Cambridge. Assuming the departments are similar at both universities (not a given in some fields), your college will probably make a bigger difference in your experience to Cambridge versus Oxford. Which colleges were you admitted to?

The city of Cambridge is slightly smaller than Oxford. There is little to do outside of university-associated activities in Cambridge, and I believe this is better in Oxford. I think Cambridge is prettier. Oxford has a 24-hour bus service to London, but Cambridge is significantly closer to London (45 min train ride). If you think you will have to spend significant time at the British Library, Cambridge is probably a better choice.

On the whole, I think lumiere is probably right—the departments and doctoral supervisors might only seem very comparable because you haven't looked into it closely enough.
posted by grouse at 3:29 PM on June 2, 2011

Oxford closer to nice English countryside, hills, walking, variety. Cambridge is cuter, Oxford is a real city. Oxford more central to the country as whole - side trips to Bath, Wales, Cotswolds, Isle of Wight, new Forest are all pretty easy; not to mention Manchester and Liverpool. Cambridge: fens. Fens fens fens fens fens.

But really, the overarching issue is, who is your supervisor and what is the lab/institute like. Any chance you can go there in person and get a feel for the places? Lots of labs exist "only on paper" and a sign on a door, for example. Others have a real community feel. The "Centre for Higher Studies in Foo" can be anything from a dedicated building to a broomcloset and a website.

Given it is three or four years of your life at stake, I'd do whatever I could to jump on a cheap flight and spend a day in each town with a meeting with each supervisor/group. It could be the best money you ever spend in your life.
posted by Rumple at 3:36 PM on June 2, 2011

The departments, doctoral supervisors, and library resources for my topic at both universities seem very comparable.
You don't say what subject you're doing, but whatever it is, at the graduate level, this is almost certain not true. Your advisor and department are the #2 and #3 things that determine how successful you are (#1 is you!). You won't get the same advisor at different departments (obviously!), and advisors are very different. If possible, this is how you should make your choice.

But since you asked about more general issues... If you're planning to spend most of your time socializing with (or even living in) college then, as lumiere says, they are much of a muchness. A small, old Cambridge college is like a small, old Oxford college. A big, modern Cambridge college is like a big, modern Oxford college. The Cambridge undergraduate population has a bias towards the sciences compared to Oxford (both in the sense that there are more of them and they have, on average, better test scores prior to arrival). This naturally affects the tone of things. At graduate level this pretty much disappears: both graduate populations, like universities everywhere, are dominated financially and culturally by scientists.

For me the main thing that distinguishes life at the the two is that Oxford feels like a small city with a university in it, while Cambridge feels like a market town that has grown up around a university. This has all the implications you'd expect: Cambridge is cosier, smaller and more intimate, less urban and its culture is more dominated by the kind of people who attend Cambridge or Oxford Universities. Oxford is bigger, more urban, and has a bigger local "scene" (live music, restaurants, cinemas, non-academic immigrant culture, etc.). Which of these appeals to you more will answer your question "which is more enjoyable?"

London is very marginally easier to get to from Oxford (in the sense that you have more travel options), and Heathrow and Gatwick are much easier to get to.

Availability of financial support will depend on college and subject, not on the choice between Oxford and Cambridge.
posted by caek at 3:36 PM on June 2, 2011

Are the opportunities/supervisors really that hard to pick between? If you're really finding it so difficult, I'd vote for Oxford (and that's from someone who adores Cambridge).

Basically, all you need to know if that Oxford has much better links to London, a better music scene, better nightlife and generally more "stuff".

Rememeber this though: much more important than which uni you go to is which college.
posted by turkeyphant at 3:47 PM on June 2, 2011

If you hope to get a tenure-track professorship in the USA, I suggest that you pay close attention to how graduates of the respective programs have done in this regard. This comes to mind because I've been told that at least in my discipline (where the expectation of intensive, prolonged fieldwork means most of us take 8 years or longer to get the degree), it can be significantly harder to land a TT position with a PhD from a British university, because the different timeframe there necessitates a different kind/amount of research than what departments here are looking for.

So, yeah. If you want a professorship in the US, you might want to look into which program has had more success placing grads in TT positions here.

(Keep in mind, though, my discipline might just be the odd duck in this regard.)
posted by artemisia at 3:50 PM on June 2, 2011

This is not directly relevant to the OP's question but... artemisia: it's true that it's basically impossible to go directly from a UK science PhD to a TT position in the U.S. The average UK science PhD will need a few more postdoctoral years than a US science PhD before getting a TT position, and will not be competitive with recent US grads for the very top postdocs their first time around. But because they spent about 3 years less on their PhDs, UK PhDs who do make it to U.S. TT will, in the end, be about the same age as people who did their PhDs in the U.S. They'll have moved institution more times though, which can be a good thing and a bad thing.

My understanding is that things are a bit different in the humanities, because the postdoc system doesn't exist in the same way: top British PhDs do get positions in the U.S., if they are lucky enough to make the right connections and prepare for U.S. academia during their UK PhD. Of course in the humanities the odds of getting a TT position in the US are terrible wherever you do your PhD.

posted by caek at 4:03 PM on June 2, 2011

Response by poster: Hi all, this is really helpful so far - thank you! Just to clarify, I definitely plan on prioritizing the academics over the cities/general vibe when I decide. I'm in the humanities, for what it's worth. I've spoken to five or six grad students of my prospective supervisors at each institution, and each independently has raved about their supervisor - it feels difficult to distinguish more without actually having studied under them myself, although I've read works by both of them and both seem to have good knowledge of my subject, and their approach matches mine. I've also spoken on the phone with both prospective supervisors, and had a good rapport with each. To answer another question, I'd be at a big and rich college at Cambridge (either Trinity or St. John's), and I'm not sure yet at Oxford (possibly Hertford/Wadham, but maybe Magdalen/Merton - I'm still being matched by my scholarship fund). I'd welcome college suggestions if MeFites have them! I definitely know how difficult it is to get an academic position in the States after a UK PhD, and I'm pursuing this anyway: I'd like to be an academic (although not necessarily in the US), but have a Plan B if academia doesn't work out, as the odds are obviously ferocious. Thanks again for all the advice and opinions - keep them coming!
posted by UniversityNomad at 4:18 PM on June 2, 2011

I would add my voice to those aying decide based primarily on supervisor. Try to talk with students the potential supervisors are already supervising if possible. Basically some sueprvisors will have very different attitudes to supervision and some may be a better fit for you, depending on what your working style is. Hands off, micro-management preferred, or somewhere in between. Having a big name can be useful but it can also mean you barely see them. Ask also about how good the departments are about supporting students to get papers published, this will make a big difference to your career progression post graduation.

the other thing to do is look at how the respective departments fared in the last Research Assessment Exercise, which is effectovely a ranking of research capabilities, though I guess both will be pretty good as Oxbridge don't let in too many duffers.
posted by biffa at 5:00 PM on June 2, 2011

placement record is also a big deal, esp. if you're on the academic track. find it out.
posted by paultopia at 7:18 PM on June 2, 2011

Look at what places your prospective departments and prospective supervisors have placed recent grads (last 5 years is best, last 10 is ok).

How often do your prospective supervisors travel to conferences, especially international conferences where they would meet and mingle with academics from the places you're looking for jobs? Did your prospective supervisors do grad work in the US or do they have other connections there? Do they routinely publish in US journals or are they otherwise well-known names in the US?

Look in whatever place your field lists academic jobs. How many jobs are there in your sub-field? What types of schools are offering jobs in that sub-field (large? small?)? If you're considering slightly different topics
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:20 AM on June 3, 2011

If you want to learn how to punt correctly go to Cambridge because they punt incorrectly in Oxford.

Of course in Oxford they say the opposite.
posted by koolkat at 1:54 AM on June 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

Merton is an unusual college: its student body is 50% graduate students (much higher than usual), and in an absolute sense, the number of undergrads is quite small. This means (1) the graduate social scene at Merton is very strong (2) the undergraduate scene is not so great. In most other colleges the graduate students sort of piggy-back on whatever the undergrads do, which is not possible (or necessary) at Merton.

Magdalen is qualitatively similar to St John's, Cambridge and Trinity, Cambridge. The really big, rich Oxford college is Christ Church.

I hope you get the chance to do more than just speak to potential advisors on the phone. As rumpie says, visiting could be the best money you'll ever spend in your life.
posted by caek at 4:41 AM on June 3, 2011

A friend of mine went to Cambridge for his PhD and hated it, but perhaps for reasons that won#t be relevant to you - he found that, as someone from a working class background, people didn't really find common ground with him. The experience may be different for an international student and it may be limited to his field.

Is there a reason why you're looking at just Oxbridge? Based on visiting both cities, I'd rather live in Oxford - there seems to be life there beyond student life, and better transport links for trips out/study.
posted by mippy at 8:51 AM on June 3, 2011

I can't comment on Cambridge, having only made a few short visits there, but I was at Magdalen (Oxford) at the undergraduate level in humanities in the early 2000s. I lived both in walls and out in uni housing, and both were comfortable. I agree with what caek said about the graduate scene piggy-backing on the undergrad scene at Magdalen. Graduate students did attend bops and whatever other goofy activities were going on, and were active in clubs and organizations. How involved you want to get might depend some on how old you are and how big of a drinker you are, but you certainly wouldn't be unwelcome. The bar at Magdalen is my favorite of the college bars I've been to. Food in hall was usually good and cheap; I don't know what the prices would be like these days.

Magdalen's library is a lovely, pleasant place to work. I have also used the library at Rhodes House, the Indian Institute Library, and the ultra-modern Vere Harmsworth Library, and enjoyed them all. I'm sure the humanities-focused libraries at Cambridge are great too, and maybe this is not a huge consideration for you, but for me it was nice to feel comfortable and content in places where I spent so much time.

The dance clubs in Oxford were generally horrible. There are obviously many great pubs (and some awful ones too, but they're easy to identify and avoid). For inexpensive food, there are several good Indian and Asian places, not to mention kebab vans for late night grub. I had my favorites, but it's been almost a decade so my recommendations are likely out of date by now.

Good luck with your decision!
posted by CheeseLouise at 8:55 AM on June 3, 2011

I just remembered - I did frequently visit some Magdalen graduate housing just across the Magdalen Bridge, and it was pretty grungy, but that may have been partly the fault of the occupants. Generally the out of walls housing that I saw (regardless of college) was worse than in walls, so you should definitely make sure your housing situation will be agreeable before committing.
posted by CheeseLouise at 9:01 AM on June 3, 2011

At Cambridge, Trinity and St. John's are both huge and have postgraduate populations bigger than some entire colleges. The postgrads will have their own activities, dances, parties, and so on. You'll still be welcome at the undergrad ones. But even for postgraduates, the amount of activity drops much out of term, which is about half the year. Much of the graduate social scene is driven by hard-partying MPhil students who take off and see Europe at every possible opportunity, so things can be a bit quieter in the summer and breaks.

I don't think anyone has ever described Cambridge's University Library as lovely or pleasant. Some British friends of mine seemed to have satisfaction from their sense of solidarity with other researchers doomed to spend their days in the UL.

The dance clubs in Oxford were generally horrible. There are obviously many great pubs (and some awful ones too, but they're easy to identify and avoid). For inexpensive food, there are several good Indian and Asian places, not to mention kebab vans for late night grub.

You just described Cambridge to a T.

Also, check your MeMail.
posted by grouse at 9:06 AM on June 3, 2011

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