Things I love about doing a PhD in the U.S.

As a foreigner in the U.S., I observe many things through a Finnish/Scandinavian lens, in good and in bad. These are some of things I have come to love about doing a PhD in the U.S.:

Diversity is a good thing. I was welcomed here although my background is not in anthropology. The tradition of American anthropology is a four field approach, comprising of biological, cultural and linguistic anthropology as well as archaeology. This holistic approach makes American anthropology quite unique.

We are taught the history of our discipline. In anthropology, this is of course particularly important because of its colonial and racist roots, but I feel that this exercise of acknowledging the past would be helpful for all sciences. Why do we ask the questions we ask? And how do historical contexts shape those questions? This disciplinary soul-searching also helps develop critical thinking.

We are taught how to articulate and how to discuss. Participation in class is important. In fact, a large chunk of our grade can be determined by engagement in classroom discussions. For a non-native speaker, this is both terrifying and exciting.

We do not immediately dive into our PhD research projects. In order to start doing our own research, we first have to master the field we are in, giving credit to the work that has already been done. This means completing the selected amount of coursework ideally within the first two years. After that it is time for the qualifying exam which consists of both a written and an oral examination. Only after passing this exam are we promoted to the level of doctoral candidacy which means the data collection for our dissertation can begin.

Peer review is everything. Most classes do not have exams, instead we read, critique, present and discuss peer-reviewed articles, learning how to break them down to discussion points. This process is connected to mastering the field. It helps us to start seeing connections and identifying potential theoretical frameworks for that tiny niche on which we aim to shed light on with our PhD work.

Here in the U.S., graduate studies (Master and Doctoral level students) are a whole other level of studies than undergraduate studies. In Finland, when admitted to university, one is automatically on track to complete a Master’s degree as well. Here you have to apply for a Master’s programme separately, which maybe glorifies it a bit, signalling the change it brings compared to undergrad: in no way are graduate students supposed to just be memorising things and prioritising the best possible grades. Instead, we should learn how to engage in discussions and become critical thinkers in the field. This is often repeated.

Finally, there is a coffee shop on campus which is open 24/7, and let us not take such a thing for granted…

Disclaimer: this is just one discipline, one university, one city. My experiences from Finnish universities date to 6-10 years ago. Maybe things have changed dramatically since I got my Master’s? What are your experiences as a PhD student in Finland/U.S./elsewhere?

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