What is the academic life in US like?
The US has maintained its leadership in educational excellence and is often seen as a preferred destination by international students. Higher education in the US is provided by both the State and private universities. The state universities receive public funding. The US state system is often run by a single administration with various campuses spread across the state. Each campus is completely autonomous and has its own identity as an independent university. State universities are comparatively cheaper than private universities where fees can be very high. The autonomous, independent and completely self-regulated nature of the university system keeps the competence and excellence levels high. Educational bureaucracies are non-existent in the American campus set up and there are no political parties trying to capture power on campus, as is the case in India.
First impressions of college life in the US may seem confusing to the international student and even contradictory. Students from other countries for instance often
comment of how competitive US students are though they do not spend all their time with books. The classroom atmosphere seems very informal but the demands from the course may be very demanding. The US system places a great deal of value on creativity, tolerance and flexibility and teaching styles can be extremely varied.
College Professors typically begin their careers as Assistant Professor, then become Associate Professor and finally are appointed as Professors with life tenure. The grant of tenure typically requires about three to eight years of service though this may vary between universities. A PhD is usually a requirement in the grant of tenure. Assistant professors do not have tenure, but are on a tenure track program.
Professors are the core of the teaching staff in the US and full professors take lecture classes, seminars and conduct courses for upper level undergraduate and graduate courses. International students are often surprised by the façade of informality in a professor’s attitude, speech and dress but this should not be taken to reflect his or her attitude towards more serious concerns like attendance, assignments and quality of work which are all considered very seriously.
At many teaching universities, graduate students assist professors in teaching undergraduate courses. Teaching assistants(TA’s) are usually students themselves working towards their Masters or doctoral degrees. They take on some of the teaching responsibilities giving more time for professors to carry out their research. TA’s may take charge of lab and discussions sessions and grade homework and exams given by the professor. This valuable experience gained by the TA’s is viewed favorably as a preparation for a career in academia.
Some graduate students are given a research assistantship. They assist faculty members with work related to a particular field of study. They may work for around 20 hours a week when not taking classes. Many research assistants (RA’s) work at night and weekends. Some universities require an English test from foreign students before they can teach.
American teachers are expected to earn respect which does not come automatically as in some of the home countries of the international students. The international students may find things like addressing the teacher by name and eating and drinking in class strange but this is acceptable in the US and not considered disrespectful. Teaching staff are evaluated by their students and negative student evaluation may have serious impact on a teaching career.
Most instructions at undergraduate level are conducted through lectures with classroom size varying from 20 to hundreds. It is expected that students attend all lectures though attendance is not recorded. Lectures cover the reading assignments and reading up before attending class with improve comprehension especially for international students who are struggling with English. Lectures can even be recorded by students after checking with the professor.
The American system also has a discussion section, which can be termed recitation, review or quiz section where material presented during lectures are discussed. This is considered a very important element of the system and class participation in these sections may count towards a certain percentage of the grade. Students are encouraged to ask question about the material. Many professors also have office hours during which any student can approach them to discuss what is being taught.
If a student is doing independent studies or research, he or she will work under a professor. These are usually reserved for advanced undergraduate of graduate students. This requires concentrated efforts and a lot of reading or work in the laboratory. This allows the student to focus on a topic that interests him. Usually seminars are an integral part of this process and these involve discussions and presentations by the student in a small group.
Tests, Quizzes and Examinations:
These are typically used to evaluate students particularly undergraduates. Exams may include short replies or longer essays, and objective questions have only one answer and demand a particular kind of study. It is important in this case to understand how the marking system works. Essay questions may require longer answers and the prompt usually includes terms like analyse, compare and contrast, define, discuss, outline, prove, summarize, discuss among others and international students should familiarize themselves with these terms and their implications.
International students are usually surprised at the amount of reading assignments for their courses. It is thus important to prioritize and read the important material first. If a student finds it hard to keep up, it is advisable to talk to the professor or teaching assistant after class or during office hours. Writing research papers may also be daunting especially if English is a problem and for international students who are unsure of the American academic writing styles. There are many resources like Writing Labs in universities which students should make use of. An important consideration is plagiarism as it is considered a serious offence in the US. Borrowed ideas or words always need to be acknowledged. It is also expected that students can use the computer for working on their homework or assignments.
As with many countries, the US system is also preoccupied with grades as it often defines gaining admission to grad school or getting a job. The grading system is determined by the professor and he or she will clearly outline the requirements and the weightage given to exams, participation in class and other factors.
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