Friday, April 24, 2009

Blog VII: Getting a Foreign Ph.D.

The seventh entry in this blog is the first of several “guest contributions” that will explore the option of going to graduate school in a foreign country. In this case, Galen Roger Perras, an associate professor in the Department of History at the University of Ottawa discusses graduate education in Canada. At Ottawa, he serves as the president of the history department’s financial aid committee, a subject that any potential graduate student should keep in mind. Perras did his undergraduate work at the University of Regina and then attended the Royal Military College of Canada where he obtained his MA degree. He then went to the University of Waterloo where he earned a PhD. He has written a series of articles and chapters that have seen publication in Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States. He is the author of two books: Franklin Roosevelt and the Origins of the Canadian-American Security Alliance, 1933-1945: Necessary But Not Necessary Enough (1998) and more recently: Stepping Stones to Nowhere: The Aleutian Islands, Alaska, and American Military Strategy, 1867-1945 (2003). Here is his guest blog:

The graduate school experience in Canada for history students differs from the American experience in many key ways. First, Canada has far fewer universities, perhaps 60 relevant institutions. But while some of our universities are very large – the University of Toronto has over 60,000 students – others are small and lack PhD programs in any field.

Most importantly, Canadian universities, with a few exceptions (some new and very small institutions) are publicly funded by their relevant provincial governments. Education is a provincial responsibility under the Canadian Constitution. The one exception is the Royal Military College of Canada which is funded by the Federal Government. The national government, however, transfers money to the provinces for educational/social/health purposes given its control of the income tax system. But as any Canadian university president can tell you, not all of that federal cash may not find its way to the universities.

This financial division has direct consequences for graduate schools. First, the federal government provides funding to worthy MA and PhD students in the Sciences (NSERC), Medicine/Health (CIH), and the Humanities and Social Sciences (SSHRC). For SSCHRC, only MA and PhD thesis students may apply. One can get an MA SSCHRC for one year. A PhD student might obtain a SSRHC for one, two, three or four years, though the longer awards are rare and the number awarded per year, never great, is getting smaller. At the PhD level, SSHRC awards can amount to more than $20,000 annually. (All figures are in Canadian dollars) There is also a CGS award, $35,000 a year for three years, and a new Canada Vanier Scholarship at $50,000 annually for three years. Non-Canadians may apply only to the Vanier award. Some provinces also run their own graduate award programs. Ontario, where I work, has the OGS program. It gives students $15,000 per year but one must apply every year for renewal. All these awards require at least an A- average just to apply, but far more applicants are rejected than accepted.

How universities treat students who receive externally awarded scholarships varies too. Some provide financial bonuses to such students for bringing acclaim to the university. Others simply do not reduce internal funding to the winners. Others cut the number of Teaching Assistantships given to winners, and this policy can be mandated at the university, faculty, or department level. My university, the University of Ottawa, has a faculty policy to reduce internal funding to external award winners.

How does one get into a PhD program in history in Canada? First, to have any hope for internal university funding in the form of tuition waivers, teaching assistantships, and scholarships, one must have at least an A- average again. The University of Ottawa, promises full funding for all students who have an average of A- and up. For the one year MA memoir student, this means a tuition waiver, two TAships, and a scholarship. For the two year MA thesis option, this means a tuition waiver, 4 TAships, and a scholarship. A PhD student can expect a tuition waiver, 8 TAships, and a scholarship over four years (with no extra money usually forthcoming after year four). Second, Canadian universities do not ask applicants to take the GRE. Decisions are made on the basis of the student’s grade point average, his/her topic proposal (is it well written, can someone at the Department direct the work?), and two to three reference letters from former professors.

A key national difference is that the MA in Canada really matters. I cannot think of any student, no matter how promising, who made the jump from a BA to a PhD without doing an MA first. The trend recently in Canada has been to discourage a thesis at the MA level. But the University of Ottawa, like many universities, offers two MA options: a year-long memoir option, which involves taking 6 seminar courses and writing a 50-60 page memoir which is graded but not defended; and a two-year thesis option involving 4 seminar courses and a thesis of 120 to 150 pages which must be defended.

PhD programs in history vary across Canada. The number of Canadian universities with creditable doctorate programs, if I am to be generous, does not exceed three dozen. Some require students to take seminar courses–until this year the University of Ottawa required PhD students to take two seminars–others require students to take three “teachable” fields, one of which must be directly related to a student’s thesis topic in the general sense. Some require field students to complete written and oral comprehensive exams, others demand just an oral exam. Some departments set common field reading lists (York University in Toronto, for example), while I set my own reading list for a field in U.S. diplomatic history.

Competition to get into a good PhD program in History is steep. Most large university history departments take in five to ten PhD candidates annually. This is a reflection of large undergraduate teaching loads at many universities and limited teaching resources. The University of Ottawa, a mid-sized institution, has 35,000 students but my Department has thirty fulltime faculty. It is our policy, though sometimes there are exceptions, to take any students who can be fully funded internally. In the last few years the Ministry of Education in Ontario has placed an emphasis on graduate programs and students across the disciplines, and has given extra money for graduate student support. But while extra money for graduate rather than undergraduate students was attractive to many departments and universities, some departments now lose money now by taking on graduate students. While tuition in Canada is low by U.S. standards – about $6,000 annually for Canadian citizens, but more than double that for foreign students – students with little or no funding have little opportunity to succeed especially if their research requires extensive and expensive travel. Our acceptance quota is down due to the economic downturn, but our application numbers this year have gone up by fifty percent.

Unsurprisingly, most PhD students in history in Canada are taking Canadian history. What may surprise many of you is that the study of military history, spurned for decades, has made a very strong comeback across the country (about 1/3 of Canadian history departments offer credible military history programs). I am also overwhelmed with graduate students – MA, PhD fields, PhD thesis – in U.S. history. However, I prefer to send off my best students to American universities if they wish to do a PhD in U.S. history.

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