Understanding the US Higher Education System
The US higher education system is substantially different from what we find in most EU countries. Hence, it is important to start from the beginning by discussing what these differences are, in order to make a better informed choice for the future of your studies
B.A./B.SC (first cycle degree - undergraduate)
What in most countries in Europe is a three-year degree, which constitutes the first cycle of higher education, in the United States lasts one more year (starting one year in advance compared to Europe) and is referred to as undergraduate degree, or more generally “college”. It confers either a B.A. (Bachelor of Art, for subjects such as Literature, History, Sociology, Political Sciences) or a B.Sc. (Bachelor of Science, for subject as Math, Physics, Biology, Chemistry, etc.). The first year of college is characterized in every school by a core curriculum, which varies from one university to another, but always comprises a set of courses which aims at two things: first, giving the student a chance to explore what he can expect to learn in different subjects, and, second, developing basic skills that are employable in every major the student might choose in the future (such as writing, basic math and logic, computer skills, interpersonal skills). A major, which is normally chosen in the second year, is what will become the actual title of the degree. Let’s give an example of that. Let’s say a student is interested in majoring in International Relations. In the first year, he would choose courses such as PoliSci 101, Foundations of International Relations, and probably from the second year onwards Political Economy, Contemporary History, Sociology and the like, to then continue with more specific courses in the last two years. Each student also has the possibility of choosing a minor, which essentially is an additional specialization. Continuing the example we put forward, if we imagine that our student is interested in a particular region of the world, i.e. Asia, in his third and fourth year he would try to choose courses such as History of Asia, Japanese language and civilization, East Asia relations with the US, and the like. Upon graduation, our student would be conferred Bachelor of Arts in International Relations with a Minor in Asian Studies (sounds cool, ain’t it?).
This is only an example which helps to understand how the American system works and differ from most of the systems we find in Europe. Obviously, depending on the University and the degree chosen there can be specific rules about completing the requirements for a certain major/minor. This page has been created exactly for the purpose of asking questions, hence, don’t hesitate to write to us if you want to know more about a program of your interest!
M.A./M.SC./M.I.A./M.B.A etc. (Master – graduate)
In the United States, a Master is not thought of as the natural continuation of a Bachelor degree. In fact, it is very common for American young adults to try and get some years of work experience before enrolling again in university. There are many types of masters: among the most common, we find an M.A. (Master of Arts), M.Sc. (Master of Science), M.I.A. (Master of International Affairs), M.B.A. (Master of Business Administration), M.Ed (Master of Education). A master is thought of as a specializing and professionalizing degree: this is considerably different from what happens in Italy or other EU countries, where a master is thought merely as a continuation of what studied during the bachelor. This is also the reason why for some Europeans it might be difficult to get accepted into the most competitive American masters: we lack the relevant work experience often needed at the time of application, therefore, from an American perspective, we lack the motivation needed to undertake a path of specialization.
Most masters in the Unites States last two years, but it is not uncommon to find Master of 12 to 18 months. Even in this case, there is an infinite variety of choices to pick from, and I encourage to ask more specific questions if any of your doubts need to be solved!
Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy)
The experience of getting a doctorate in the United States is consistently different from what one can expect to get in any EU country. First of all, to apply for a doctorate degree is is not necessary to hold a master (it is definitely an advantage, especially in certain cases, but I will talk about this in a later section). This is due to the fact that the duration of the Ph.D. itself in the US is between 5 and 7 years, where the first two years are alwaysdedicated to coursework: these years help the doctoral candidate to further explore his/her interests and to choose a topic of research for the doctoral thesis, and also give advanced competences to help the candidate realize a valid, high-quality, and publishable research (most of the courses during the two years are in fact focused on advanced methodology). At the end of the second year the student has to pass comprehensive examinationson the subjects of study; once passed, he can go on to the phase of research and writing of its doctoral thesis, which lasts between 3 and 5 years. Most Ph.D. programs entail a stipend, which allows to cover living expenses (but not much more than that) without having to work outside of the University. In most cases, in fact, a Ph.D. student already has to work part-time (no more than 20 hours) for the department where he/she is enrolled, either as a research assistant or ateaching assistant. The stipend varies widely from one city to another city, from one university to another, from a department to another, and even from one student to another. For this reason, it is extremely important to find the relevant information about it before applying and most importantly before accepting an offer, as it is unlikely that a stipend will change after the program has been started.
Finally, there are a lot of factors to consider when you are thinking about applying and enrolling to a doctoral program, factors which range from personal to more general ones. I am here to answer questions, so don’t hesitate to ask!