04/10/2012 10:27 BST | Updated 02/12/2012 10:12 GMT

The Middle Child of Postgraduate Degrees

In the family of UK degrees, the MPhil is a middle child. It's the neglected offspring of university administration that vies for the attention of its parents. Who can help that its younger undergraduate siblings are more auspicious and its older doctoral ones more imminent in the professional world? In any family, thought and care need to be directed toward every child, and the MPhil is no exception.

After having lived for two decades on American soil, I read for an MPhil at Cambridge this past year. I spent mornings strolling down the cobblestones of King's Parade, afternoons punting down the River Cam and evenings eating dinner at lavish formal halls. Somehow, in the discussions borne out of all those highfaluting experiences, some of the other MPhil students and I expressed dissatisfaction with the quality of our individual programmes. One of my more cynical friends felt she literally 'bought' her degree.

For the administration to restructure the MPhil degree, I think it's best to understand--from a student's perspective--why one would undertake the degree in the first place. Being close friends with a motley crew of Cantabs has given me insight into the following takes on what an MPhil really means:

(1) An extension of some erudite brand of teenage delinquency. The degree buys a student time to think about how to deal with the future.

(2) A resume-builder for subsequent applications to professional school.

(3) An opportunity to partake in research with a narrow focus. For Americans, this is a major boon, since liberal arts colleges provide a much broader undergraduate education than their counterparts elsewhere in the world.

(4) A means of obtaining a master's degree in just one year, instead of two, as is more often the case elsewhere in the world.

(5) An exploration of different cultures. Again, for Americans in my generation, studying abroad, especially in the UK or continental Europe, has become a new rite-of-passage. Drop the name of London Tube stops in conversation, and you're automatically inducted into the club of wannabe-expats. Casually refer to Parisian rues by their arrondissement numbers, and you're promoted to being a leader of the club.

My own reasons for studying in the UK were a combination of all the above, but here, in this article, I'd like to specifically focus on the last. I believe UK institutions should strive to retain higher numbers of native-born Brits. I say that not because it would appeal to ardent nationalists but because it would, more importantly, enhance the cultural immersion of international students.

As an international student, I had to make an exerted effort to seek out the Brits and imbibe their way of life. I'm guessing that my taking diligent notes on British slang whilst YouTubing The Inbetweeners is not the kind of education my parents had in mind when they sent me off.

A look at Cambridge's MPhil admissions statistics reveals just how sparse internationals are. In the 2009-2010 admissions cycle (the latest cycle for which data has been made publicly available), overseas students made up nearly half the incoming students. Interestingly, more UK students who gained admission actually took up their offers, so those who apply from within the country clearly are eager and able to do so. But UK students only made up 17 per cent of the application pool, while overseas students made up 67 per cent. At Oxford, internationals are also nearly half the postgraduate population.

This appears to be a trend specifically in the Oxbridge system. According to a study published in 2010 by the Higher Education Policy Institute and The British Library, only 27 per cent of first year postgraduate students are non-EU domiciled, and 64 per cent are born in the UK, which is much higher than at either Cambridge or Oxford. Obviously, the Oxbridge system has an international reputation that beckons students to its college gates. For Americans at least, there are also are a multitude of scholarships specifically for study within the Oxbridge system.

Why else is the presence of Brits so marginal amongst MPhils? The tendency that UK universities have to intercalate undergraduate and postgraduate studies may deter students from pursuing an MPhil strictly for the purpose of enhancing their studies. Students in the UK typically hit the ground running with their specialised studies, so the need for a buffer year is made less relevant to them. Other reasons likely abound.

As I start medical school, I'm constantly being reminded of the importance of cultural competency in dealing with patients, and it's time to put what I learned as an MPhil student--inside and outside the classroom--to the test. I'm now fortunate to be one of the 'older' siblings who can sympathise with the middle children. I only wish our parents at the university administration could, too.

Leila Haghighat is a first year medical student. She spent the past year reading for an MPhil in Clinical Science at the University of Cambridge. Whilst there, she never studied or took an exam. (She 'revised' and 'sat' for them, instead.)