Education in the U.S.

Education in the U.S.
International Students in the U.S.
Job Hunting in the U.S.
PhD Life in the U.S.
Types of Universities in the U.S.
Women & Minorities in Science & Engineering

Education in the U.S.

us-education-systemYou will likely have many questions about what education in the U.S. is like, particularly for undergraduates and graduate students. The following websites and resources may be helpful for you to review to learn more about this topic. While you are at Rice University you will learn more about graduate study in the U.S. from Prof. Kono and from a group of Japanese students at Rice University.

Question from Alumni: How different is the math education system in Japan and U.S.?
By many measures, Japan leads the world in terms of math education and achievement and, unfortunately, the U.S. typically receives lower scores on math achievement by students at all levels when compared to other nations worldwide. One, unfortunate and incorrect assumption, that many U.S. students make is that if they don’t get ‘good grades’ in math as a young student then they aren’t ‘good at math’ and often choose not to pursue the more advanced classes like trigonometry and calculus in high school; which are optional classes typically.  This means that fewer U.S. students have the basic math skills necessary to pursue engineering and science degrees. This is slowly changing and more and more students and parents are encouraging students to pursue advanced math in high school so they can go into engineering in college but the U.S. has a long way to go to improve math education; especially at the middle school and high school levels. You may also want to read the article “Differences between the U.S. and Japanese Educational Systems” and ask Prof. Kono this question as his daughters when to school in the U.S. so he may have insights on how the math classes he took in Japan compare to the math classes his daughters too in the U.S.

Alumni Question: How different does the graduate school style vary in UK and US in terms of funding, evaluation (number of papers or quality of ones) and education?

Alumni Question: I heard some American students do research from their freshman year. I also heard GPA is important for American students. How do they manage to do research when they are already busy with classes?

U.S. undergraduates who do research during the semester typically do so on a part-time basis and work about 10 – 20 hours per week depending on their class schedule.  Oftentimes, students will receive 1 – 3 credits for their semester research projects and receive a grade for this ‘class’ too.  So, in a sense, research during the academic year is like a part-time job but to make progress in their research and yet still do well in their classes students must work very long hours at time and must become very good at prioritizing their time. If they spend too much time doing research they will do poorly in their classes and their GPA will go down which may make it difficult to get accepted into graduate school.  If they don’t manage their time well and cannot come regularly to the research lab they will not make good progress on their projects and the host professor may not invite them back to do research again next summer.

During the summer break (June – August), U.S. undergraduates can apply to do paid research through programs like those funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) for summer research experiences for undergraduates.  They can also apply to do an internship with a company by working with their university career services center or academic department/school to look up listings of companies hiring summer interns. Typically, these summer internships are funded.  For more information on opportunities for U.S. students (both domestic and international and at the undergraduate and graduate levels) see the Other Related Programs page of our website.

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International Students in the U.S.

All U.S. universities will have International Student offices whose role is to oversee the immigration/visa status of all international students and employees at the university.  Typically, they focus on working with students at the undergraduate and graduate level.  In addition to advising students on staying in compliance with the rules of their U.S. visa, the international student’s office will usually offer programming designed to assist international students with integration into U.S. university life.  Most international students form close relationships with advisors in the international student office and these advisor can be excellent people to turn to for questions that you may be uncomfortable asking your professor or advisor.  They are accustomed to getting questions on a wide array of topics from visa questions to academic to personal to questions about U.S. culture/society – feel free to ask them anything! If they don’t know the answer they will likely direct you to the best person or office on campus to ask. For example, Rice’s Office of International Students and Scholars offers free English conversation classes, programs for international spouses, and International Culture Night, and cultural programming for students including visits to NASA, museums, and sporting events in and around Houston.

You may also want to read the Institute of International Education’s 2015 report on “What international students think about U.S. higher education.” You can download this report for free online.

Question from Alumni: How many Japanese students are there at Rice University?
Overall, the population of Japanese students at Rice is quite small in comparison with students from India, China, or South Korea.  But, because Rice is a small university, it is easy for most Japanese students on campus to meet and get to know each other along with Japanese faculty and staff members too.  There are likely more Japanese students at other universities in the U.S., particularly in California and Hawai’i, but the population at Rice is growing and, indeed, many of the Japanese students at Rice are visiting research students like yourself that Prof. Kono and other faculty members are hosting in their labs. We hope the numbers of degree-seeking Japanese students at Rice will continue to grow too.  For more on the international student population at Rice see the most recent annual report from the Office of International Students and Scholars (OISS).

Question From Alumni: What are the rude things Japanese people do when we speak in English, from American’s standpoint? Also, in America, if I speak politely, then does that mean I am creating a distance between the person who I’m talking to? To what extent I am expected to be “polite”?

It can actually be very hard for a Japanese student to be perceived as rude in America because there are both formal and informal words/phrases in Japanese.  This means Japanese students tend to spend a lot of time asking themselves “How should I say this politely in English?”.  Because you are actively thinking about how to say things in the most polite way, it is very unlikely you would say something that would come across as rude. This is one example of how language in and of itself can reflect the culture and society of its speakers.  It is far more common for an American student in Japan to be perceived as rude because they may speak in a too direct or too informal manner as this is how we typically speak in English in the U.S.

What is more likely to happen is that Japanese students may stop or pause in the middle of the conversation to think about the ‘best’ or ‘most polite’ word or phrase to use.  However, to an American, we are not used to silences in our conversations so the person you are speaking with might interrupt this pause/silence and ‘jump in’ to ‘help’ you with a suggestion of the word or phrase they think you are trying to look for or find. This can then cause the Japanese student to get a bit frustrated as they didn’t need help or a suggestion as much as they just needed an extra moment to think about what they wanted to say.  The American has the good intention of wanting to help and the Japanese student has the good intention of wanting to pause to think of the best word to say.  However, both sides can feel a little frustrated in conversations like this.  These cultural differences in how we use/speak a language can sometimes lead to communication misunderstandings or breakdowns.

To your second question, yes, it is possible that if you speak in a too polite or too formal way you might inadvertently cause distance between you and the person you are speaking with. For example, let’s say your professor invites you to and ‘informal’ lunch and during this time he asks you many questions about yourself and/or home.  He doesn’t talk about research and is very informal, telling you to call him by his first name.   To an American, this informality and non-hierarchical style of communication is a way to make the other person feel more comfortable and ‘put them at ease’.  However, to a Japanese student speaking very informally with a professor can be more stressful and uncomfortable as this may not be commonly done in Japan.  So you may want to respond in a very polite or formal way or redirect the conversation to a ‘serious’ topic like research.  But, if you were to keep trying to change the subject to a safe or expected one, like research, you may end up distancing yourself from your professor who was the good intention of wanting to get to know you better.  Understanding that in the U.S. we tend to use informal conversations, small talk, or discussions about non-work/non-research aspects of our lives as a way to build connections with others is also an important part of understanding how language can reflect our cultural or societal values.You may also find this article by the Harvard Business Review helpful on “The Big Challenge of American Small Talk”.  It discusses how differences in small talk and informal conversations in U.S. English can cause challenges for international expats when they are trying to communicate in a professional setting in the U.S.

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Job Hunting in the U.S.

Finding a Job as an Undergraduate in the U.S.: Unlike Japan, there is no set hiring or interview time-table like in Japan, though many companies do seek to recruit graduating students in the fall or spring semester of their final year of study. Some students do not find a job until after they have graduated and may continue to work a part-time job or live at home until they find a full-time job in their chosen career field. Many U.S. undergraduate students pursue summer internships or part-time jobs with a company in their desired field of employment as a way make their resume more competitive to a potential employer when looking for jobs after graduating from their bachelor’s degree. However, it is not required and students can apply for any job with any company after they graduate even if they have not done an internship with that company first or have no prior experience in the field. Hiring is done by each company as needed and when they have jobs available.

All universities in the U.S. have career centers, such as the Rice Center for Career Development, that provide job and internship search and support services including a database where employers who want to hire Rice students can list opportunities. They also arrange career and internship fairs on campus. They also offer a wide range of student resources that can be helpful for college students seeking to apply for internships or jobs. Career center services are open to undergraduates, graduate students, international students and alumni of that university so even after graduating from Rice University alumni can still utilize the career center to look for or find jobs. There are also many student chapters of science and engineering professional organizations on U.S. university campuses that often invite companies to speak to students at their monthly meetings. These are great ways to meet and network with potential employers in your field and gain advice from, typically, young employees on how they conducted their job search and what types of jobs are available to graduates from that university. For example, at Rice there are a number of clubs focused on Women in Engineering and a number of different types of professional organizations/clubs for students too.

Career Options for STEM PhD Students: For students who go on to pursue master’s or PhD degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering or Math (STEM) fields there are typically two career paths: pursuing a position in academia or pursuing a position in industry. The most traditional route is that students who graduate with their PhD will find a post-doctoral researcher position at a different university in the U.S. and work there for, typically 2 or 3 years. They may also break this up and pursue post-doc positions at multiple institutions during this time. As a post-doc, they are more focused on research, since there are no classes, and may have greater responsibility for managing a research lab or helping their advisor with writing grant proposals, reviewing draft journal articles written by the PhD students, or other related task. In this way, they are learning how to be a faculty advisor themselves. Hopefully, at the end of the post-doc period they will be competitive and be able to secure a tenure-track faculty position though this is very competitive right now. Some students also choose to pursue a long-term, full-time position with a National Research Lab.

Because the academic career path is so competitive and there are more post-docs seeking faculty positions than there are jobs available, increasingly U.S. universities are provided increased support for PhD students who want to go into industry. For example, Columbia University’s Career Education Center has a helpful website outlining some career opportunities for STEM PhD’s outside of academia. Rice’s Office of Graduate & Postdoctoral Studies offers an array of workshops and professional development resources available to support graduate students and post-doctoral researchers. If you consult Google sensei about “Alternative Career Paths in STEM” you will find a wide array of resources on this topic.

Overall, the job search process in the U.S. is a highly individualized process that requires that students seek out mentoring, advice, and resources from their professors/advisors, academic departments, student organizations, career services center, and graduate and post-doctoral studies offices. If a student does not actively seek out jobs and career advising, no one will come knocking on your door to hire you. Just as you must be curious about research to make progress, to make progress in your career search you must remain curious about what resources are available at your U.S. university and ask for advice from your mentors. Then you must individually go out and apply for the job/s that you are most interested in.

Alumni Question: In general, do professors appreciate their students experiencing internship in other groups or industry?
Most professors want their students to be successful in their future careers.  This makes them look good as an advisor/professor too.  So they often connect their graduate students with opportunities to do research in other settings, such as industry, national labs, or abroad, so that students can expand their skills and build their professional networks. In the U.S., students typically pursue these opportunities during the summer months (June – August) when they typically do not have any classes. However, the timing of when you do an internship as a graduate needs to be carefully discussed with your research advisor. If it is a very important/busy times for you to get good research results and your internship would detract from your progress towards your master’s or Ph.D. degree then your advisor might not be so supportive and would ask you to reschedule.  It is always a good idea to talk with your advisors about internships or other opportunities at the start of your program so she/he knows that you are interested and then they can let you know of a good opportunity when they hear of one.  This is also something you can ask when you are considering which graduate school to attend or what lab group to join: “Do students in your program/lab group have opportunities to participate in internships or other research at different institutions?”  Depending on how the professor answers this question you will know if they are supportive of these opportunities or not.

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PhD Life in the U.S.

In science and engineering programs students most commonly apply directly to a PhD program after completing their bachelor’s degree.  This means you are making a 5 – 7 year commitment to the program and you will receive a master’s degree on your way to completion of the PhD.   First, it is important to remember that the most important relationship you will have as a Ph.D. student is with your professor/advisor.  During the first year of the program, students in science and engineering typically receive full funding for tuition and a stipend paid either by the university or the academic program. Then, starting in year two of your program, you will apply to join the research group of a professor whose research interests align with your planned PhD research topic/s.  From year two onward, your advisor/professor will pay for your tuition ands stipend costs from their own research grants. You work for the advisor/professor as a research assistant on projects in their lab and, in some cases, may also have some teaching requirements as well.

Deciding who to apply to be your advisor is one of the most important decisions you will make as a young graduate student.  Ideally, when you applied to your program you would have already identified 1 – 2 advisors/professors that you were most interested in working with and may have already been in communication with these professors.  In addition to make sure the research being done in that lab aligns with what you are interested in writing your thesis/dissertation on  you should also consider the working style of the advisor/professor and culture/personality of the research lab too.  Remember, at 5 – 7 years to complete a PhD program, your relationship with your advisor/professor may be the longest relationship you will have (outside of your family).

During the first two years of your PhD program most students will complete most of their coursework and complete the requirements necessary to defend your Master’s thesis and then ‘advance’ to PhD candidacy.  How long this takes and what is required will vary from program to program.  When you are working on your coursework it will be very important that you do well in those since if you don’t pass your classes, particularly your qualifying course/exam, you won’t be able to complete the degree. But you have to balance your coursework with your research project in your advisor/professor’s lab and manage their expectations for you as well.  This is not always easy to do and requires that you develop excellent time management and prioritization skills.  It is important that you read your PhD programs website carefully and also read through all pages of the graduate student handbook that you will typically receive during orientation week.  You will also often have paperwork you need to submit to your academic department or the university at very specific times regarding your progress in the PhD program.  Print off any document check-list you are given (or make one  yourself) to be sure you do not miss any important paperwork deadlines that might delay your progress in the program.

Most science and engineering PhD students really enjoy working in the lab and ‘doing research’ but can struggle with sitting down to write papers for presentation at conferences or submission to journals and, towards the end of their program, spending almost all of their time focused on writing their dissertation.  This will also test your prioritization and time management skills and it may be helpful to find a place to write outside of your home and the lab where you can focus.  After all, the best dissertation is a done dissertation and unless you sit down and write it will never be complete!

It’s also helpful to be curious and never afraid to ask for advice about managing your time and research/schoolwork commitments from  your advisor/professor or other graduates students in your research lab (or other departments on campus).  What works for them? What do they recommend you concentrate on the most at different points in your Ph.D. studies?  If they could change something about what they did as a first year graduate student, what advice would they give you? There are also lots of articles on what it takes to be a successful Ph.D. student but, ultimately, the answer rests largely in what you need to do to stay motivated and  flexible to adjust to changing realities over time.

Alumni Question: Why are there so many students in the U.S pursuing Ph.D degree? Indeed, being a researcher seems to be a dream job for us, but at the same time, there will be a risk that you will be overqualified for most of the jobs, if you decide not to be a research after you finish your degree.

Keep in mind that  many of the Ph.D. students in the U.S. are actually international students who may plan on returning home or moving to another country to pursue an academic career or research position after completing their students.  Indeed, a recent Global Mobility of Researchers student that was conducted by Nature found that Japanese and U.S. researchers are the least likely to be working outside of their home country.  Perhaps it is this propensity for citizens of Japan and the U.S. to primarily seek out academic positions in their home country that, in part, leads to the perception that there are not enough jobs in academia or research. Students who are more open to pursuing career opportunities worldwide may find that there are more positions that they could possibly apply to. Second, not all Ph.D. students in the U.S. plan to go into academia or become a researcher.  While this may be the top choice for most, you will find that many students are also considering or applying for positions in industry or other fields.  Increasingly, universities are providing more advising to students on non-academic career paths for PhDs too including this very good resource offered on Columbia University’s Career Center website.  If you search Google for “Non-Academic Jobs PhD STEM” you will find many other articles and resources on other career paths of Ph.D. holders as well.

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Types of Universities in the U.S.

grad_featuresIn the U.S. there are many different type of institutions of higher education from 2-year or community colleges, to liberal arts colleges, to research intensive universities.  What they all have in common in the foundational belief that a bachelor’s degree should provide students with a well-rounded education that enables them to not only take coursework in their chosen major/subject area (such as engineering) but also requires them to take liberal studies/general education coursework in subjects like history, social sciences, humanities, etc. to provide them with a broad understanding of education and learning overall.  Then, as you progress through master’s towards your Ph.D. you become narrower and narrower in what you study and focus on in a specific field or research topic that is of greatest interest to you.  Therefore, most PhD students would not take coursework outside of their required degree coursework but undergraduates can take classes in any department/field that they are interested in.

The two broad categories of four-year institutions (those that offer bachelor’s degrees) is a liberal arts college vs. a research intensive college.  Liberal arts colleges tend to be smaller and only offer bachelor’s degrees (perhaps a few master’s) and the faculty and students focus most of their time and attending on teaching and classroom based learning.  In a research intensive institution, the universities tend to be larger and offer a more varied array of programs and degrees with a strong emphasis on graduate degrees at the master’s or Ph.D. level. Faculty tend to focus much more of their time managing their research grants and the graduate students in their group and may only teach 1 or 2 courses each semester; sometimes teaching only graduate level courses.  However, these categories do overlap. Many liberal arts schools enter into partnerships with larger universities nearby to offer research opportunities to their students or to facilitate transfer into graduate degree programs at other schools. Liberal arts or general education courses are required for all undergraduate students at research intensive schools as well; and many students at Rice even double or triple major in not just an engineering degree but also a degree in a different field too.

University Rankings: Because the U.S. higher education is not managed by one centralized Ministry of Education (like in Japan) there is wide variance in the types of universities available; both at the undergraduate and graduate level.  There is no national raking of universities in the U.S. that is done by the government.  However, there are many other national and global ranking systems and U.S. universities do value these as one way to attract good students.  University rankings are often very helpful for U.S. high school students when they are deciding which universities to apply to (typically they apply to between 5 – 10 different schools).  At the master’s and PhD level, it is more important to look at the rankings and research strengths of the specific academic department or program you are interested in.  This is because, at the graduate level, you apply for admission at the academic department/program level rather than to the university itself.  For example, there are 11 Rice University graduate programs ranked in the top 25 nationally by U.S. News and World Reports. Overall, U.S. News and World Reports ranks the George R. Brown School of Engineering #31 nationwide and, in its rankings of U.S. universities overall Rice University is at #15. This shows you that, even among the same ranking system, one university can be at many different spots depending on whether you are comparing the university overall, a school of engineering, or specific academic departments/graduate programs.

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Women & Minorities in Science & Engineering

This section provide some background information and data on women and minorities in science and engineering in the U.S. and Japan and links to articles and other helpful resources for students who would like more information on this topic.

A view of Women & Minorities in S&E the U.S.
As the U.S. National Science Board’s 2016 Science & Engineering Indicators Report notes, “As researchers and policymakers increasingly emphasize the need for expanding S&E capabilities in the United States, many view demographic groups with lower rates of S&E participation as an underutilized source of human capital for S&E work. Historically, in the United States, S&E fields have had particularly low representation of women and members of several racial and ethnic minority groups (i.e., blacks, Hispanics, American Indians or Alaska Natives), both relative to the concentrations of these groups in other occupational or degree areas and relative to their overall representation in the general population. More recently, however, women and racial and ethnic minorities increasingly have been choosing a wider range of degrees and occupations.”
Most universities in the U.S. have specialized programs, offices, and support for women and minorities in S&E at both the undergraduate and graduate level.
At Rice University, the Women in Engineering page highlights female enrollment in engineering programs and university offices and clubs whose mission is to help and support female engineers. Rice University has been recognized for its success in the recruitment and retention of minority and female graduate students in the US News & World Reports article “Graduate Engineering Programs Beef Up Efforts for Minorities & Women”.

For more on women and minorities in S&E in the U.S. see:

A view of Women & Minorities in S&E in Japan
As the MEXT and JST “Program to Support Research Activities of Female Researchers” outlines:

“As a result of past efforts to support female researchers in Japan, the proportion of women in research roles has begun to increase; however, in comparison to advanced European nations and the US, Japan still has relatively few women in research. Unfortunately, there has not been much progress in the appointment of female researchers to leading positions. Not only from the viewpoint of gender equality but also to demonstrate organizational creativity (including the ability to adopt diverse viewpoints and ideas and to conduct innovative research), it is extremely important to increase the number of female researchers and to improve their research skills.

This program therefore aims to improve the research skills of female researchers and to support their appointment to leading positions. With the cooperation of universities, research institutions, and private enterprises, we are working to improve the research environment for women and to provide more opportunities for research, taking into account many women’s need to balance research against the demands of everyday life (henceforth referred to as the “work/life-balance”), including “life events” such as childbirth, childcare and the long-term care of elderly relatives. Flexible support will enable women to develop and demonstrate their research skills to the full.”

For more on the role of women in the workforce in Japan and science & engineering in particular see the resources below:


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