PhDs in science finish faster in Canada than the USA.

According to a story in the December issue of University Affairs, PhD students in Canada complete their degrees more quickly than their counterparts in the USA. (I suspect that no one completes faster than students in the UK, but that’s a rather different topic.)

The article suggests that the existence of a distinct Master of Science (MSc) degree in Canada is at least partly responsible for this difference. That is, having the option of starting in a Master’s degree lets students decide whether they are cut out for the considerably more demanding PhD program. In Canada, the expectations for originality and scope are less for an MSc thesis than for a PhD, but both are based on conducting independent research and have only a moderate course component.

The interesting thing is that with the intense pressure from the top down on faculty to get more PhDs out the door, there is a growing emphasis on doing away with the MSc and having students transfer to a PhD program without completing and defending a Master’s thesis1. The data collected by Susan Pfeiffer, which are described in the story, suggest that this is a bass-ackwards way to go about it.

Moreover, completion times are not the only consideration — students also must be competitive for postdocs, fellowships, and eventually jobs. To me, going a semester over but completing some manuscripts appears more beneficial in the longer term than getting out in no more than nine semesters post-MSc. On the other hand, only 3/4 of PhD students in Dr. Pfeiffer’s survey had completed their degrees even after 10 years in the program, which is way too long by any department’s standards.

Some students are perfectly capable of completing an MSc but may not be interested in, or qualified to attempt, the PhD. It also happens that students who do both degrees typically complete more efficiently overall than those who do just a PhD. Therefore, I feel that the option (indeed, usual requirement) of a distinct Master’s program prior to enrolling in a PhD is a good thing, and I would not want to see it vanish.


1) Full disclosure here: I did not complete a Master’s thesis and instead transferred to a PhD and completed the whole shebang in almost exactly 5 years of graduate studies.

4 thoughts on “PhDs in science finish faster in Canada than the USA.

  1. I’m an American who did a postdoc in Canada (Waterloo) and I can confirm there really is a difference in the systems in regard to Masters students. At the University of Illinois, where I did my doctoral work, people with Masters were either

    1) People who bailed out of a doctoral program after passing their prelims (people who bailed out before the prelims, or who didn’t pass them, got nothing.)

    2) People looking to get a terminal degree to improve their lot in industry, high school teaching, etc.

    In either case, it would be rare that the students would generate independent research worthy of a first-author paper. Instead, they mostly attended classes and maybe as a helper to a grad student or postdoc.

    But at the University of Waterloo, the Masters students were basically like doctoral students, except maybe their projects were smaller. They did their own research, wrote it up, and published it. I have a friend who, after getting his Masters at Waterloo, is now finishing up his doctorate at MIT — in only 4 years. He started at MIT already knowing how to do research, write up papers, etc.

  2. As a Canadian PhD student who has a Master’s degree from another Canadian university, I sometimes feel that comparison with the Master’s degrees awarded in the USA and other places runs the risk of devaluing my M.Sc. In other words, I sometimes worry that a person familiar only with a typical US-style Master’s degree and how it was acheived (as decribed by Jonathan, above) would not value my Master’s degree as highly as I think it should be valued. Or perhaps I overestimate my own value.

  3. This focuses on US, Ca and UK education systems, but let me tell you that until this year, with the adoption of the Bologna Treaty in Europe, getting a degree in Portugal took a very long time. Specially if it were an Engineering degree like my own.

    5 Years to achieve a Licentiate degree, then another 2 or 3 for a Masters and then another 4 or so for a doctorate.

    I happened to take a couple years off mid course to work since I’ve been working to pay my way through Univ, so I’ve taken longer. But I’m back on track and am soon to complete my Masters of Engineering.

    Throughout the years, it’s puzzled me why this now obsolete (and LONG!) degree existed when in the US and UK the systems seemed to work and results appeared.

    People here would complete a degree and already be at least 2 or 3 years behind as regard to work experience when compared to their US/UK counterparts.

    Anyhow, I’m almost done and will certainly be looking into proceeding with my academic career elsewhere! 🙂

    Great post.

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