Differences between American and British Universities

Yes, I'm alive. No, I'm not depressed, overworked, or otherwise overwhelmed. Why haven't you heard from me in nearly three-weeks then? Good question. I suppose I felt that I didn't have anything particularly important to discuss, and it was better for me to put out quality rather than quantity. 
But all of that is behind us now. Because I'm back! 

The only things I've been up to lately are settling into campus life and not spending all of my money (a true feat in London, ha). And while I've been feeling more comfortable living here, the one thing I've been struggling with is my course. 

Too difficult, is it?
Nope. Quite the opposite, actually. Of all things, my courses are absurdly easy, and it's left me feeling anxious and confused.
What do you mean, your MSc is too easy, Taylor?
Well, let me just lay it out for you.

As a disclaimer, I go to a relatively small, modern university in London. My program has a total of about 20-people (for 5-different anthropology degrees). I've talked to people from other universities in the UK, and from what I can tell, most of what I'm experiencing here seems to happen on other campuses as well. But, it may very well be the case that my experiences are unique to my particular university, not to all universities in the UK.


Classes are only one day a week. Yes, you heard me right. I have 5-classes total, and each is only once a week. For 2- or 3-hours, depending on the particular course. I believe the idea behind this is to give us time for doing reading on our own, that more closely relates to our particular area of interest or expertise. However, what actually ends up happening is that I go to class on Monday and Tuesday, and then have five days off during which I wring my hands and try to ascertain what to do with all my free time. (This is particularly difficult considering how much it would cost me to go into Central London every day and explore). I find myself getting annoyed because I really enjoy going to lectures (yes, I know how strange I sound), and I wish we had more class-time to learn about our material rather than doing it on our own. 

There is no coursework/homework. A degree with no coursework or homework? How is that even possible? Good question. For my course, I have no tests and no assignments. I am graded solely on a single essay due at the end of the term, and my dissertation. While I do have a lot of assigned reading for seminars, there are no required assignments otherwise. This isn't the case for undergrads, though. In the US, I would expect tests and/or multiple essays throughout the term, but that's not the case in the UK. 

Finals are after vacations, not before. I think that this is done as a supposed kindness, but I really hate this system. All final tests and essays are due on the first day of the second term, rather than the last day of the first term. So, my final papers for this term aren't due on December 13 - the end of Term 1, but on January 6th, the first day of Term 2. You might argue that it's nice to have the extra time, but I am a procrastinator at heart, and I know I will struggle immensely with completing my assignments before my vacation is supposed to start. And I certainly don't want to spend my Christmas break writing essays and doing research!

Masters programs are only 1-year. Most masters courses in the US run 2- to 3-years in length, including time for your field research and dissertation. In the UK, the same program is only 1-year including time for field work and dissertation. This was one of the major selling points for me coming abroad, as it means I spend less money and time overall for the same recognized degree. 

Undergrads and postgrads share classes. This particular point I think might just be a feature of my university because of the small number of students in the anthropology program, but it might be a more wide-spread phenomenon - it's unclear. All of my classes are more or less undergrad classes, with a few postgrad students thrown in. For me, this is a huge shock. Never at my university in the US would juniors or seniors take classes regularly with masters students, but here, there are more undergrads than postgrads in any particular course. Which quite annoys and befuddles me. We take the same classes, for less time, with no assignments, but I get a higher degree than they do? Of course, I do three months of field research and a dissertation, but still. It seems highly unfair. Also, many of the undergrads don't seem particularly interested in the topic, just in graduating, so they tend to talk a lot, be disruptive, and overall annoying to deal with in class. That was one thing I was looking forward to avoiding, but alas...

Participation isn't required or graded. I found myself in the first week of class looking like an absolute fool, because I realized studying in American universities had trained me to feel obligated to speak and participate in class. The entire regime of cold-calling students, giving a grade for participation, and discussion in small seminars has conditioned me to say something - anything - to make sure I get my 'participation points'. But here? Nada. It's not expected that everyone speak at some point (even though the classes are quite small), though I do think it's still preferred. So, I'm working through my forced-desire-to-speak complex that I've somehow developed, so that I don't spurt out meaningless anecdotes and questions in an otherwise interesting discussion. 

So, in review, I have less work, less class time, and nearly no supervision. I expected some of this, but I guess I'm overwhelmed with the lack of expectations and boundaries. So I'll sit here and do my best to just read in all the free time I have, and try not to complain about wanting more lectures and less undergrads present, ha. 

Have you studied in both the US and the UK, and noticed these as well? Which system do you prefer?

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  1. I think it also depends, like you mentioned on the university you attend, either side of the ocean. As someone who's done an MA (although this was going on five years ago) - I never had any classes with undergrads and had two classes per module each week for my sociology MA. I guess it all comes down to the university and course. Certainly after marrying an American it's interesting to hear his experiences of university.

  2. I studied abroad in Glasgow as an undergrad and found the lack of tests and pressure to speak in class a relief. However, I'm typically quite a shy person, and it helps me to have time to formulate my ideas before speaking, so I really appreciated the independence expected of UK students and the alone time to develop my ideas before discussing/writing about them. I guess the way the style of education affects you depends on your preferred learning style. But I'm sure you'll get used to it before long :)

  3. I've just finished my Masters degree at a different UK uni (York) and my experience was a little different. Whilst our grades were solely on essays and our dissertation like yourself, there certainly wasn't any mixing of classes with undergrads (an idea i find quite odd!) and i didn't find it particularly easy. Whilst i'd studied a similar course for my undergrad and found the class discussion at times a little simplistic in some of my modules, i found with my essays that these were marked in conjunction to my expectations of what should be considered a good, average or not so good essay. Luckily i worked my socks off and managed to get a first in nearly all my essays, but i know many of the other students on the course didn't do so well. So whilst class discussion often seemed to go pretty well, i don't think this necessarily reflected how everyone achieved in the modules.

    We had two classes of lectures and two seminars each week but found this suited me- i had a part-time job and worked 16 hours a week and put a lot of work into doing relevant reading for the more challenging seminars on political philosophy (way out of my depth unless i did the reading!). That was one module where i actually never spoke as i found it so intimidating and challenging being mixed with other students doing a MA in PPE (politics, philosophy & economics) who had studied things related to the module before. I often got picked on to talk in this class and we all had to do individual presentations which absolutely terrified me!

    Lizzy at Nomad Notebook

  4. Yeah, I really hate the undergrad/postgrad mixing! It doesn't make any sense at all to me.

    Sounds like you definitely made the most of your situation with all the extra work and studying you did - I'll have to take a cue from you as I start working on my essays! It's so interesting how different each of the universities are and how they're set up. Thanks for giving me a taste of what it's like in a different UK uni :)

  5. Yeah, I can see how it is definitely a plus to have more freedom/less expectations in class - I've just been trained to expect the opposite! I'm looking forward to relaxing a bit on the class discussions in the upcoming weeks, ha. What did you study when you were at Glasgow?

  6. I definitely agree- I'm sure my generalizations aren't true for all programs! I think my university is especially small, and it's not very old, and they seem a bit disorganized. Hence the mixing of classes and limited schedule. But it's interesting to hear what a similar program was like at a different university! Which one did you attend?

  7. Definitely! Though the cost of living here offsets some of the money you might save otherwise. It's a lot of work to get here, but definitely a good experience overall!

  8. I think you only have a few classes because it's a masters programme, which people usually complete while funding themselves. If you're doing a bachelors there then you'll have lots more classes and it would be more challenging as well.

  9. I studied Scottish Literature there. I realized I had learned allllll about English, Irish, and even a bit of Welsh literature at school, but knew next to nothing about Scottish lit beyond what Robert Louis Stevenson had published. Decided to fix that :D

  10. Yeah, that makes sense! I'm the first of any of my friends to attend a masters program, so I didn't have anyone else's program to compare it against. But I made the assumption that because it was a more advanced degree, the classes would be more difficult too. I was just surprised when they seemed easier! I really enjoy class time though, so I wish I had a bit more... haha

  11. That's fantastic! What an interesting program, I'm sure! :)

  12. I was at Newcastle Uni for both my BA and MA degrees.

  13. Interesting to read about your educational experiences in both countries. I would seriously struggle with finishing up my finals before going on vacation so I could actually enjoy the Christmas break. Procrastinators unite! hahaha

  14. Right?! I feel bad because I know it's done as a courtesy towards us... but I'm going to have to really whip myself into shape and work on my time management to adapt, haha.

  15. Ugh, having finals after vacation sounds awful! Just pretend they're due on the last day and get them out of the way! But I know I'd totally procrastinate too. Good luck with the self-motivating!

    When I was an undergrad, I did take several seminars that were open to undergrad and grad students, but I think the grad students had a few different assignments and research guidelines. And yeah, you never realize how much "participation" is hard wired into us until you go abroad. My teenage Korean students literally did not know what I wanted when I called on them by name to answer questions (and I was told to stop).

  16. I haven't studied abroad, but I did attend a small (at the time) university for both undergrad and grad school; except for one semester when I had to take a full load to catch a once every two year course, I was part time in grad school because I worked full time. It ended up taking me three and a half years by the time I completed my comprehensive exams. In some ways, grad school was easier because I'd had three years of undergrad + a year of work experience behind me. But, at the same time, because you're an adult, the professors expect more out of you than if you're an undergrad student & don't care if you have other obligations (full time jobs, families) as well. Thankfully writing is a strength for me, so what I struggled with topics-wise, I fooled many profs into thinking I understood it better than I really did!
    The program I completed in grad school (MS in Criminal Justice) wasn't huge enrollment numbers wise, so as a result, there were several times that a topics course would be a mix of grad and undergrad students. These are only offered at night, however, for commuter students who work during the day. They know they might not get 10 undergrads or 5 grad students to justify two different sections, so by combining, they know the course will make its minimum number for enrollment. Grad students (depending on the professor) will do an extra paper/project and have a more difficult test. I didn't mind it because there were some good discussions provided by the undergrads, many of which were working adults older than me (I'm in my early 30s) who had real world experience to contribute to the discussions. And as a grad student, we didn't care how dumb we looked asking what we didn't understand from time to time, as I know I would have as an undergrad!
    Last time I took a grad class (was post-grad school), I convinced my brother to take the undergrad section & I did the grad section so we'd have built-in study buddies. For grad students (so far as I experienced as well as others), most meet only once a week here in the states if they're in a night program (most are around Texas, only a Ph.D. program I looked at had day classes). Some professors gave exams and required multiple papers, some only papers. I prefer the mix to be honest, I'd rather have multiple opportunities to boost a overall grade than it depend on a single paper, which was the case in one required class. Thankfully I did make a high A on that policy proposal paper, but still, stressing about that for 4 months wasn't fun! As for participation, the one time I saw it 'graded' in grad school was for a hybrid (online + in person) class. Online discussion boards were the participation grade.
    So glad that finals aren't after semester breaks ... I had that happen one year in junior high and it sucked then!

  17. I'm currently doing my master's in England as well and I nodded in agreement nearly the whole way through this haha. Although participation isn't *technically* required I'm always hyper aware of how little I speak (still in that stage where I fear sounding stupid). I also don't share any classes with undergrads, but I know a friend back home in Texas who is in grad school but could take a few undergrad classes to "supplement" it or something strange. I can't decide how I feel about the whole finals being due after Christmas break thing....it's nice that I have more time...buuuuut I don't feel like I'm going to be able to relax at all during the break which is a bummer because I get to go home for a week or two!