Grad studies – are they for you?

7 01 2013

Doing a coursework / ‘extended coursework’ masters  

Basics: takes 3-4 semesters; self-funded by student

This is a great option if you’re not sure what to do next (but pretty sure you’re not headed for a research career), and you really enjoyed being an undergraduate. As its name implies, this option is coursework-heavy and in many ways will feel just like being an undergrad for a 5th year, only with smaller classes and more specialization. Your research project will typically only take 2-3 months (May-July), and if you did an undergraduate research project, it will be a rather similar experience: your project will normally be designed and organized by your advisor or senior members of his/her research group, and although you might come up with small improvements of your own, you probably won’t do much ‘intellectual heavy lifting’ (you typically won’t be expected to develop the hypotheses under test for example, nor analyse the data if they require anything beyond the simplest stats tests). Your final write-up may be publishable (in a peer reviewed journal), but it also may well not be because these projects are often rather small in scale.

If you find you really like the research, there is now an option to extend the research semester into the following fall. This ‘extended coursework’ masters is more likely to result into a publishable project, and more likely to win you a PhD position if that starts interesting you. If you’re a fulltime Canadian student, the department would pay your fees for this 4th semester!

Doing a thesis degree (a thesis masters or PhD)

Basics: takes 2-3 years (MSc)/3-5 years (PhD); typically funded by a grant or scholarship won by the student, the advisor, or both working together

Thesis degrees involve taking some courses, but most of your time will be devoted to conducting original research and writing it up (both for your thesis and also as papers to submit to journals). Most published research papers involve or are even led by thesis students: thesis students play an absolutely crucial part in scientific discovery! This is therefore the option for you if you’re interested in finding out how new knowledge is generated and want to be part of that process. It can be incredibly rewarding, especially if you have a great idea or lovely results that no-one has ever had before. However it can be frustrating too, and being a research student definitely is not for everyone (see http://jcs.biologists.org/content/121/11/1771.full, http://www.yale.edu/eeb/stearns/advice.htm, and http://whatshouldwecallgradschool.tumblr.com/ for perceptive insights). Doing the research needed for a thesis, and publishing and defending it, involves a lot of initiative, independent problem-solving, and insane amounts of hard work.  To be successful as a thesis student, and to enjoy it too, you need to be analytical, intelligent, industrious, perfectionist, creative, well organized, good at taking criticism and highly self-motivated.

My expectations for different types of grad student

As an advisor running a large, dynamic research group, I have different motives for taking on different types of grad student, and accordingly, different expectations too. (Note: in case you didn’t know this, faculty don’t get paid for supervising graduate students, and nor do they have to do it).

I take on coursework students where I have a small self-contained project I want doing, that is best conducted in the summer months. I do my best to ensure such projects are interesting, and also likely to succeed in yielding new, quality, publishable findings. Unlike my expectations for thesis students, however, as a rule I don’t expect coursework students to come to my weekly group meetings (nor to the larger ‘Behaviour Group’ meetings held for all welfare faculty and their thesis students and post docs), except when are actually designing and running their projects (April-Aug). This is because I don’t expect coursework students to be that interested in the minutiae of research, and also, by the time they know enough to really contribute to these meetings, they will have graduated and left!

Thesis students, in contrast, I take on when I (or they) have interesting, difficult research problems in mind that will take a longer period of time to solve. Just as for coursework students, I supervise thesis students because there is research I want to see done, and papers I want to see published… but I have additional motives and hopes too. One is that I want someone to not just take up my research suggestions but to improve them, or maybe even replace them altogether with new, better ideas. Another is that I use thesis students to learn new things myself: at some point in their studies, each and every thesis student will come to know much more than me about something (perhaps a lab technique, a body of literature, or a set of sophisticated statistical techniques). As a result, my thesis students collectively have way more knowledge and skill than I could ever acquire working solo (which is really good fun for me, and an efficient way of doing good research; they also teach each other too). Finally, for those thesis students who decide that a university research career is for them, I find it very motivating knowing I am helping to train a future colleague: someone I may well be friends and collaborators with for life.


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