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.



General Information about Education in the U.S. 

Internationalization and Study Abroad

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.

U.S. vs. Japan

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?

For more on this topic see our Doing Research page.

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International Students in the U.S.

All U.S. universities will have an International Student office 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 though they may work with post-doctoral researchers as well.

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 their international student office and these advisors 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? 

  • It is very unlikely a Japanese students will be considered rude in the U.S.  This is because in Japanese there are formal and informal words/phrases.  This means that most Japanese students 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. 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.
  • Japanese students can be perceived as being too indirect, not being clear, or not saying ‘what they really mean’ when speaking in English sometimes.  This is because Japanese is an indirect language but English is a very direct language. So if you try to translate something from Japanese directly into English it will likely be very confusing to the English speaker. For example, saying “It might be good if you could possibly come at 9:00 AM.” would be very confusing. In English, it is more approriate to say “Please come at 9:00 AM” or even “You should be there at 9:00”.  See our Life in the U.S. page for more on Direct Communication in the U.S.  Japanese students may find this directness rude or very abrupt but it is just the normal style of communication in the U.S.
  • Japanese students also often pause at the start or in the middle of a sentence, usually because they are trying to translate or remember a word or thinking about the ‘best’ or ‘most polite’ word or phrase to use.  In Japanese language and culture, silence and pauses are also more common and valued because it is important to carefully consider what you want to say before speaking.  However, Americans do not like silence or pauses though! Silence and pauses in conversation tend to make Americans very uncomfortable and they may ‘jump in’ and try to complete your sentence or suggest the word they think you mean to say.
  • In classroom or meeting settings, this is challenging for Japanese students as they may wait ‘too long’ to ask their question and not get called on or feel too much pressure to think/speak quickly and be too shy to ‘speak up’ and make their voice heard.  The American might wonder why the Japanese students never says anything and the Japanese student may be frustrated that the American never gives them enough time to think/speak.  These language/communication differences are rooted in cultural values where, in the U.S. we tend to place a higher value on efficiency and ‘getting our point across quickly’ than on group cohesion and mutual understanding.

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”?

  • 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, your professor invites you to an ‘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.
  • Also, 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.
  • For more on this see the Small-talk, Friendliness, and Optimism section of our Life in Japan page.

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Job Hunting 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.

Graduate students sometimes pursue research or professional internships during the summer, but this varies by your goal. If you plan to pursue a post-doctoral research position and then become a professor after you graduate then you would likely not do a summer internship in industry. Instead, you may participate in research at a national research laboratory or international summer research school/workshop in your field.  Graduate students can, and should, visit their university Career Services Center and the Office of Graduate and Post-doctoral Studies usually has information on Professional Development as well.

For more information, see the Career Resources for Science & Engineering Students on our Other Related Programs page.

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.

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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.  As part of this program, you will complete the coursework and requirements necessary to receive your master’s degree and then move on to work towards the completion of your doctoral degree.  Most students take between 5 – 7 years to complete both degrees, though some may take less or more time depending on their field.

Applying to Graduate School in the U.S. 

Funding: Most programs in science and engineering provide full funding for their PhD students. This means that the student does not have to pay tuition and may receive a stipend in return for serving as a teaching assistant or research assistant working under the advisement of a professor. Instead, student tuition and stipend costs are paid via the research grants that your advisor/professor receives.  Therefore, most grant funds in the U.S. go to support graduate students who will do the research on that grant’s research project. Each university/program is different so be sure you ask about funding when you are applying to the program.

Note: If you only apply to a Master’s program in the U.S. these are typically un-funded.  This means you will need to pay for your own tuition costs and will not receive a stipend. Some Master’s programs have scholarships or teaching/research assistantships available for their students but this funding is typically not guaranteed and may only be allocated for one year at a time.  If you want to receive full funding, it is usually more financial advantageous to apply directly to a joint master’s/PhD program as you are more likely to receive funding for the full duration of your degrees. 

Relationship with Advisor: In the U.S. system, them most important relationship you will have as a Ph.D. student is with your professor/advisor.  When considering which programs/schools to apply to you should be sure there are 1 – 3 professors there whose research interests match yours and that you want to work with. During the first year of the program, students in science and engineering typically take coursework, must pass a qualifying class or exam, and may start to apply/interview for graduate research assistant spots in their preferred research labs. Then, starting in year two of your program, you will typically officially join 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 continue to complete your coursework and degree requirements while working for this advisor/professor as a research assistant on projects in their lab and, in some cases, may you 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 the PhD program you identified 1 – 2 advisors/professors that you were most interested in working with and may have already been in communication with these professors via email.  Also consider the professor/s working and communication styles.  Talk to some of their current PhD students to learn more about what the culture of the lab is like and if that working environment would be a good fit for you. Remember, at 5 – 7 years to complete a PhD program, your relationship with your advisor/professor/lab may be the longest relationship you will have had outside of your family so far.

Timeline to Degree Completion: 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 more forward with the degree. But you have to balance your coursework with your research project in your advisor/professor’s lab and manage their expectations for as well.  This is not always easy to do and requires that you develop excellent time management and prioritization skills.

Deadlines and Paperwork: It is important that you read your PhD program’s website carefully and also read through all pages of the graduate student handbook that you will receive during orientation week. There are often strictly enforced deadlines of when you need to take certain course or submit certain paperwork. If you miss these deadlines, you may delay your progress in the program. Print off any check-list you are given (or make one  yourself) and refer to it regularly throughout your program to be sure you do not miss any important deadlines. A little organization now will make it much easier in the future.

Balancing Research and Writing:  For most students, research is fun – writing is not.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. It is also really hard to know when to ‘stop taking data’ and sit down and focus on just writing your thesis or dissertation.

Remember, the goal is to complete your degree; not be a life-long graduate student.  And the best thesis/dissertation is not a perfect one – it is a completed one!  

When you advisor encourages you to sit down and write take their advice and make use of any writing resources your university may have to help graduate students with this process. Here are a few of the offices available to Rice University students.

Be Curious – Ask Questions and Learn from Others: 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: 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: Why are there so many students in the U.S (or at Rice in particular) 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 study 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.

Alumni Question: In general, do professors appreciate their students experiencing internship in other groups or industry?

  • Professors want their graduate students to be successful and go on to careers in academic or industry.  However, they also want their students working in the lab to finish their research projects. So the timing of when you can do an outside research or professional internship may vary depending on your degree program and research project.  However, they are usually very happy to introduce you to other researchers, programs, or job opportunities that they become aware of if they know you are interested in this. In the U.S., students typically pursue these opportunities during the summer months (June – August) when they typically do not have any classes.
  • If this is something you are interested in, speak with potential advisors about opportunities for external research or professional internships when you are applying to the program or applying to join that lab. Ask this about the outside opportunities their current or former graduate students have pursued.  This may give you a better idea if this is something that is common or uncommon to do in your lab.
  • However, most professors have spent their entire careers in academia – first as a students and then as a professor.  They may give you excellent advice on research opportunities or post-doctoral positions in your field but may not able to advise you on industry opportunities.  You may need to seek out other sources of advisement, such as your academic department/program, career services center, or professional organizations in your field for information/advice on professional or internship positions in industry.

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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

For more on this topic, see this section on our Doing Research page.


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