20 February 2009


I was at Cambridge today for a conference at their Faculty of Education, and I have to say, although the Open University doesn't quite have the name recognition as Cambridge or Oxford, I think our little university might actually be one of the best places to study in the UK. Look, I like prestige as much as the next guy and a year ago if someone told me, you can got to Oxford or the OU for your PhD, I would have said yes to Oxford without thinking about it. Today, after hanging out with people from Oxford, Cambridge, and the OU, I realized that the OU has a couple of things over these universities:
  • Money. None of us at the OU are paying anything and we get a research budget and stipend, and all of our costs related to the course are covered (books, printing, copying, travel, extra training, etc.)
  • Access to real instruction. I have talked to my supervisors probably four times or more this month. I have two supervisors and they both give me their attention when I need it. At Cambridge, you at allotted 11 one hour meetings with your one supervisor over the year. That's it.
  • Access to big name resources. Okay, my guess is that Oxford and Cambridge have bigger name professors than the OU (well, at least in some areas and probably in a higher proportion), but who knows if you ever actually get to really sit down and collaborate with them. You might be lucky just to meet them. The big names we have at the OU (and they are quite big, in some cases) are sitting in the same open office that you are, and if you need to ask any of them a question, you are free to talk to them at any time. You want to talk research methods with the current guru in the field? While, he's on the third floor of my building: have a go.
I also realized that although going to a big name university (one of the top tens, let's say) gives you sway in certain circles, it's not going to give you any real pragmatic benefit when it comes to job hunting at a big name university because the big name universities are going to want to see your CV, not just where you came from. And they are going to want to see substantial research, independent thought, teaching ability, and publications: all things that you will get independent of the name of your school or the prestige it has. So although I don't think I would ever have been likely to get a PhD studentship at Cambridge last year, I am more confident now that if the opportunity presents itself and I have done the correct work at the OU, I'm in as good as shape as any to get a teaching post there or at a top ten university in the UK, for that matter. And with the advantage of having worked substantially with the people that I am, I think that chance may actually be higher than I would have ever imagined a year or two ago.