British Students in the United States: motivations, experiences and career aspirations

R. King, A. Findlay, J. Ahrens, A. Geddes

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterAcademicpeer-review


Twelve years ago, the British educational press, and indeed the mainstream media, were consumed by the story of Laura Spence, a super-bright pupil from a Newcastle comprehensive school who, despite having five straight-As at ‘A level’ (the final secondary school exams), had been refused a place to read Medicine at Oxford after an interview there. General outrage at Oxford’s snobbishness ensued, with politician Gordon Brown, amongst others, weighing in with the criticism that Oxford favored applicants from the UK’s fee-paying independent schools (which include the elite but perversely named ‘public schools’), thereby excluding excellent applicants from state schools like Laura – especially if they come from deprived parts of the country with strong local accents. Laura instead went to the US to Harvard on a funded scholarship, completed her biochemistry degree there and returned to do postgraduate medical training at Cambridge – the other UK university which constitutes the top duo known collectively as ‘Oxbridge’.

How typical is Laura’s story? Are there many British students who, as Oxbridge ‘rejects’, or fearful of being turned down for a place at the UK’s two most ancient and prestigious universities, apply abroad to widen their chances of success at other globally recognized institutions? Brooks and Waters (2009a) argue that there are indeed those like Laura who apply to US universities as a ‘second chance at success’; but our research suggests that there are many other explanations of the upward trend in favor of international study. Since the US is the most important destination for people from the UK studying abroad, the findings of this chapter are particularly important in producing a more robust understanding of the key drivers of international student mobility between one advanced economy and another. We suggest that there are some movers for whom study abroad is part of a carefully strategized plan of international career enhancement, while for others it is a product of their class habitus and family networks (see Bourdieu 1977). We would also argue that there are those who are looking for ‘something different’ yet, at the same time, desire a ‘knowable’ destination, familiar to them for example from film and television and without any great linguistic challenge.

In the next section we describe our research project and its aims and methods. The main body of the chapter is made up of three sections which correspond to our three key research questions: about motivations for study in the US, about experiences there, and about future career plans. The conclusion emphasises the motivational and strategic nature of UK student migration to the US, targeted especially at universities perceived to be of high international standing. In terms of the link between study abroad and future career plans, fears about a putative British ‘brain drain’ are shown to be largely unfounded, since most students plan to return to the UK.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationInternational students and scholars in the United States
Subtitle of host publicationcoming from abroad
EditorsH. Alberts, H.D. Hazen
Place of PublicationNew York
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan
ISBN (Electronic)9781137024473
ISBN (Print)9781137024466
Publication statusPublished - 2013
Externally publishedYes


  • study abroad
  • international students
  • student mobility
  • Career Choice
  • Aspirations


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