When American students investigate potential graduate programs in England, Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland (also Ireland), they can become confused by the way educational terms are used. On websites, in prospectus booklets, and in correspondence, terms that seem familiar are actually used to mean something different. And a few terms will be completely new to Americans.
As a prestigious scholarships advisor at an American university, I learned some of the trickier terms. My knowledge of this phenomenon was greatly expanded when I visited the U.K. and Ireland in 2006 with the National Association of Fellowship Advisors and then in 2009 when I assisted my own daughter in her application process.
Postgraduate Study vs. Graduate Study
Right off the bat, American students should learn that in Britain, study that takes place after a bachelor’s degree is referred to as “postgraduate” study rather than “graduate” study. Thus a “postgraduate diploma” is a certificate that one earns after completing a bachelor’s degree, but a program less in-depth than a master’s degree. In the U.S. such a program would typically be called a “post-baccalaureate certificate” or a “post-bac certificate” for short. The term “master’s degree” is used more or less in the same way in both educational systems.
Taught Degrees and Research Degrees
An American student shopping for a master’s degree program in Britain or Ireland will notice a distinction between “taught” and “research” degrees. A taught degree is one that involves a significant amount of actual classroom or structured studio instruction, as is typical of master’s degree programs in the U.S. A research degree is almost entirely a matter of conducting research independently under the loose supervision of a faculty member.
There has been a proliferation of taught master’s degrees in Britain, in part to attract students from the U.S. and elsewhere. Many taught master’s programs can be completed in one calendar year. Even a “taught” degree may have a significant independent research or creative project as part of the curriculum. In the U.S. this is typically referred to as a “master’s thesis,” while in Britain it is known as a “dissertation.”
Difference between U.S. and U.K. Ph.D. programs
To begin, the Brits are much less inclined to use periods as part of their degree abbreviations, so a British university will have a “PhD” program rather than a “Ph.D.” program! But since I am American, I will stick with our punctuation style for the most part.
At U.K universities, all Ph.D. programs are “research” degrees and, in general, a completed master’s degree is expected prior to entering a Ph.D. program. This is logical, because the classroom instruction and more structured part of a student’s postgraduate education takes place during the master’s program. When entering a British Ph.D. program, a student is expected to have considerable knowledge of their field and to be ready to design and conduct a major research project with minimal faculty support. This is one reason why students in Britain are expected, and in some instances required, to complete the Ph.D. in three years.
At U.S. universities, elite students may apply to and be accepted to Ph.D. programs immediately after receiving a bachelor’s degree. In effect, a master’s degree program is built into the Ph.D. package and an M.Phil. or M.S. degree awarded as a (relatively insignificant) milestone along the way. Completing preliminary exams and full admission to Ph.D. candidacy can be what triggers the awarding of the milestone master’s degree. This American style of Ph.D. program generally takes at least four years and sometimes considerably longer to complete.
Note that the Ph.D. dissertation (U.S. term) is usually referred to as a “thesis” in Britain.
Some Quirky Terms Used in Britain
One of the most baffling terms I heard on my trip to British universities in 2006 was “unseen examination”! What could it be? Well, it turns out to be the British term for what we would call a “closed book” examination-one that the student does not see in advance and must complete entirely without using notes or reference materials.
Also used is the term “gathered field,” which refers to a kind of variation on “rolling admissions” (U.S. term). In a gathered field admissions process, there may be three deadlines for submitting materials and each set of applications is “gathered” and considered as a batch.
Modules, Courses, Routes
One of the most confusing, Alice-in-Wonderland aspects of reading materials about British postgraduate study is the terminology used to describe what it is you are studying! Here are the equivalencies, with the familiar U.S. terms shown first:
course = module
A module is one of the 3-5 topics you are studying in a given semester
degree program = course
If you are pursuing an M.Sc. in Urban Design, this is your course.
route = pathway
If you are pursuing a degree by examination, degree by research, or degree by dissertation, these are different routes to the degree.
The terms “scheme” and “programme” are also used and are similar in meaning to “course.” All three terms refer to what we in the U.S. would call a degree program.
And Some other Miscellaneous Terms
One of my favorites is “uni,” which is widely used as shorthand for “university.”
And while we are speaking of terms, most British universities have three terms rather than two semesters, but this is somewhat variable.
The term “don” when referring to a professor is not used as much as in the past. According to my daughter, her professors are referred to as “tutors” and many classes as “tutorials.” A “personal tutor” is similar to an academic advisor, with a bit of counselor mixed in.
Someone once said that the U.S. and Britain are “two countries separated by a common language.” This certainly holds true in the higher educational sphere. However, investing a bit of time in understanding how terms are used at British and Irish universities will prove helpful to American students investigating graduate (postgraduate) study across the pond.
Personal and professional experience
The British Council website