On Campus

Doing graduate education differently across the border

Is there any reason to be concerned as our southern neighbours adopt a new path to the PhD?

About nine months ago, I had the pleasure of applying for graduate programs in economics. This involves bothering professors to write letters on your behalf and sending exorbitant cheques to numerous schools in the hope one of them will deign to return an acceptance letter. One thing learned from the process is how American schools are moving away from the traditional structure of graduate education that Canada is used to.

Applying to Canadian universities (and generally the European one, as well), I was told to apply for Masters’ programs, which typically took one year to complete. After successful completion of that degree, then apply to a four-year PhD, which may or may not be taken at the same school. Applying to American universities, the norm is to apply directly to a five-year PhD program.

Okay, sure, it’s five years of torture either way. But there’s still a big difference, though it’s hard to call one approach superior. Our neighbours’ approach lets the universities offer more certainty to prospective students, since there’s no need to wonder whether you’ll be accepted into the actual PhD after the Masters’. There’s typically more money on the table for PhD-level students, and the student is spared having to go through the application process twice.

Conversely, the Canadian system rewards those who didn’t know they wanted a PhD by their second year of university, or who have some rough spots on their undergraduate transcript. These people have the option to get their M.A. and excel at that level, earning entrance to a top American PhD, a feat which would have been impossible applying straight from undergrad.

This pattern even holds outside the realm of economics, but not nearly as strongly, in case you’re wondering. So, consequences? Well, that’s the wrong word. This split is more of a reflection of the different academic philosophies that prevail in each of our countries. The American system is typically more of a tournament, the “winners” of which end up in the Ivies or similiarly prestigious institutions, and their system is thus predictably designed to bring the superstars of the world back to Harvard, MIT, Chicago, and the rest.

Being Canadian, we’re less comfortable with having a really elitist crop of universities. And our top universities don’t have the funds of their private American counterparts to really compete for top students, which requires lavish spending on faculty. The result is that we have a more egalitarian and accessible system, but one that has great difficulty attracting the world’s best.

Oh, and in the end? I’m going to the States, but sadly not Yale or the like.