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As a new wave of Australian university graduates move over to the U.S. to pursue postgraduate studies and scientific research, Mei Zheng wonders whether the grass is truly greener on the other side.
As I enter my final year of undergraduate studies, I wonder where I should plan my next chapter, whether or not to pursue postgraduate studies in the United States or not? Two years ago, I had the opportunity to take part in an exchange semester in the United States, in upstate New York at Cornell University. It was a refreshing change from the daily walks down Eastern Avenue at the University of Sydney.
Comparing my two university experiences at Sydney and Cornell, there’s definitely a distinct difference between the two but is there a clear line between whether the ‘grass is greener on the other side?’
Key differences from the US that I’ve personally found included having many different niche fields of study to choose from as well as a large variety of niche clubs and societies that are hard to find in Sydney. Some of these fields of study, including in-depth entomology [the study of insects] classes with one solely covering disease vectors [such as different mosquitoes species], transmissions and treatment or preventions available to undergraduates and offered weekly field trips to the surrounding areas just outside campus to carry out field studies.
A few niche clubs that I’ve enjoyed being a part of include ones such as the Klezmer Group which played Jewish, Eastern European folk music as well as the Bread Club which makes bread from scratch, possible because Cornell had their own Food Sciences Building, which also produced their own ice-cream flavours as well as wine tasting classes.
Also, the marching band is huge in the States and they would follow the football teams to perform at matches. Cornell’s Big Red Band had over 200 student players and an extremely lively spirit, which is something that I’ve missed having marched as one of their cymbalists at the games. We have SUMBA (Sydney University Marching Band) though it is quite small in comparison with around 30 students and usually plays at the Easter Show and various other festivals. Moreover, in terms of location, Cornell University, like most other US universities, sits roughly at least one hour from larger cities. Owning a majority of the surrounding land in the ‘rural’ space, Cornell also has a wide area of field study space right next to the main campus to allow for agriculture and entomology field trips as well as for other animal, biological and landscape studies.
Another key point is the research opportunities available for students. For undergraduates at the University of Sydney, it’s often hard to get involved with research exposure and opportunities unless you’re a Dalyell Scholar which requires having an ATAR of 98+ or maintaining a WAM of 80+. Even with that however, from experience, it’s still hard to get lab experience as I’ve mainly found projects working on modelling simulations as well as collecting and analysing data from a medical clinic at Westmead instead, which tends to be quite limited and dry. Having said that, I’ve known a few friends who’ve taken up wet lab undergraduate research projects, though these are much rarer to find and come across. However, at Cornell, it seemed to me that there are a lot more research experience opportunities for undergraduates, especially in wet labs with lab groups actively finding and welcoming undergraduates to join their labs.
With respect to workload, Cornell was definitely different, with weekly quizzes and assessments to keep you on your toes. It was also not uncommon to have a few scientific papers assigned for weekly readings and expected to discuss over them in class while from my personal experience at Sydney, you’d mostly get 1-2 papers to read over during the semester and you’d only be required to interpret and share the results in a report or presentation. I enjoyed this change as it challenged me more and helped me develop quicker and stronger skills in scientific paper readings. Further, the finals at Cornell were almost always below 50% in overall course grade weighting. However, for a majority of my undergraduate courses at Sydney, it wasn’t uncommon to see finals with 60% weighting or higher, especially for some first-year maths courses with 80% finals. This spread of course grades across the semester encouraged students at Cornell to be more engaged with their material on a weekly basis, whilst at Sydney, it was easy to let a few weeks pass by before starting to cram towards the finals, especially in the first two years of undergraduate studies.
Some of my professors have studied and worked in the United States and I’d been curious to what they’ve thought about the study and work differences compared to in Sydney and more broadly Australia. My virology professor from third year, A/Prof Barry Slobedman, studied a BSc Hons in Microbiology and completed his PhD in Virology at the University of Adelaide before heading to Stanford University to undertake postdoctoral training in Virology. He described how after a few years of working in the labs in the States, he’d decided to come back to Australia and set up his own lab where he continues to be a prolific researcher and leader in his field. However, he’d described to us that when he announced his decision to leave the labs in the States, his supervisor was shocked and astonished, puzzled as to why he’d ‘want to end his research career’ like that.
My current applied mathematics Honours supervisor A/P Peter Kim was originally from the States, and studied a B.Sc. in Mathematics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, before completing his PhD in Applied Mathematics at Stanford University. I was curious why he’d chosen to come to the University of Sydney after having been so successful in the States. Upon asking, he replied that he’d wanted to broaden his horizons and meet new people so he took up a teaching position in Sydney when the opportunity presented itself. He highlighted that the main differences he’d found between Australia and the States was that people in Australia are more friendly, there’s less competition and more collaboration and the environment is much more relaxed which he enjoys. He explained that in the States there’s a general tendency for people to keep to themselves and not share a lot of information due to the competitive nature there, although this would vary quite a lot depending on the group and lab you were with.
So I wonder again whether the grass is greener on the other side. As a few of my friends in older years have graduated and moved over to California or to Northeastern United States to pursue postgraduate studies, I wonder if I should follow their steps and take the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) which is the standardized admissions for many US graduate schools. There are many collaboration opportunities between the two countries with the US being Australia’s top research collaborator, with over 39,000 co-publications from 2010-2014 and room for continued growth. So would it make a difference to pursue further research in the States or in Sydney?
Are there really more opportunities, resources and higher quality of research in the US, or would these be found in a similar manner in Australia? It’s certainly something to think about and certainly something I will be thinking about over the next few months.