In the last few days, I have told a few stories about my time with the Oxford University Walking Club: energetic mountain climbers who are very talented and excellent company. Expeditions with the club was one of the most enjoyable things during my two years in England.
In many ways, it would be appealing to go back to Oxford for my doctorate. I am sure I would appreciate it more now – after four years of work – than I did when I went in after my undergrad degree, back in 2005. There is much to appreciate: the parks, the libraries, and most wonderfully the conversations with knowledgeable and intelligent people of all disciplines.
The major reason I am not applying to Oxford is just finances. Degrees there are relatively quick (you can do an M.Phil and D.Phil in about four years), but it is usually up to students to fund themselves. Some get big scholarships like the Rhodes, but many finance it with a combination of their own savings, familial help, and debt. By contrast, the better American schools are very likely to fund you as a doctoral student.
I was looking at the statistics for Duke University, for example. They fund 95% of their doctoral students. A North American PhD can easily run for five years or more. It would be asking a lot for people to be self-funding as well, especially when the research and teaching provided by doctoral students are integral to the work of universities. The deal in the US seems to be that if you get into a decent school, they can afford to fund you. Oxford University, along with all the colleges, have an endowment of about £3.3 billion (US$5.1 billion). Yale University, by contrast, has an endowment of US$19.4 billion, while Harvard has US$32.0 billion.
Money issues aside, it should be stressed that Oxford is a charming and unique place. There is nowhere else where you can live within the history of the oldest university in the English-speaking world, now more than 900 years old. There is also a marvellous mixture of people there, and it is one of the best places anywhere for turning over new ideas. It’s unfortunate that I am unable to visit more often. Alas, avoiding flying makes that hard.