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5 elements of a successful grad school experience

Spurred on by low graduation rates among its grad students, the Université du Québec network has released a report outlining ways to improve the graduate school experience.


According to a new report from the Université du Québec network, communication, cooperation, consolidation, coherence and recognition are the key factors that contribute to graduate student success. The report, The drivers of success in graduates studies in the Université du Québec Network, was drafted by the scientific committee of La Grande initiative réseau en Réussite, which consists of instructors from universities that make up the Quebec network.

This report, intended to “document graduate success” and be a resource for universities, comes after findings that showed graduation rates for students in the Université du Québec network were lower than their Canadian counterparts. In 2010, only 56 percent of master’s students enrolled at Université du Québec institutions graduated after five years, compared to 82 percent at U15 institutions for the same period.

“It started at the deans’ level […]. They worried about the success of the network’s graduate students and were eager to take joint action,” explains Marie-Pierre Baron, professor of educational sciences at the Université du Québec à Chicoutimi and the report’s co-author. She added that the network’s student population has changed significantly since its inception in 1968, and the evolving needs and challenges of current students led to starting this project.

The deans of the network’s universities noted the abundance of scientific literature on graduate student success, but none of it offered a comprehensive portrait of the situation among the Quebec universities. This prompted a collaborative call for research at the Université du Québec’s institutions. The authors reviewed scientific publications, databases and survey data to identify key factors contributing to success:

  • Communicate and cooperate
    The report states communication and cooperation are essential to a successful academic journey. It stresses the importance of a healthy institutional culture, centred on interpersonal exchanges between students and faculty and sharing of expertise. The authors acknowledge that faculty and student interaction has a positive impact on students’ problem-solving and critical thinking skills.
  • Consolidate
    Explore, sustain and expand on existing institutional efforts to promote student success. This includes student and faculty feedback, as well as addressing university-specific issues.
  • Coherence
    The report describes coherence as “a common institutional culture to be put forward and conveyed by the institutions, and supported by the university community, personnel and external partners.” In the authors’ view, coherence is illustrated when different departments and employees contribute to the success of students’ study projects, as long as they are in line with the institution’s values.
  • Recognition
    The authors suggest that recognition means honouring those who contribute to the successful completion of students’ educational projects. In light of the diverse and multi-faceted needs of students, they see personalized support as a valuable tool.

These five drivers are designed to “optimize the advantages of success factors,” which are divided into seven groups. These include developing cognitive and methodological skills, setting clear study project goals, supporting institutional and social integration, varied and flexible training methods, personalized and quality pedagogical and supervision relationships, continuous and adapted support services, and using the resources and services offered.

Reflecting on the teaching process

According to Frédéric Deschenaux, professor of education sciences at the Université du Québec à Rimouski and a co-author of the report, the document challenges universities to reflect and self-evaluate. “We all have the impression that coherence, collaboration or these specific drivers are a given, but that’s not necessarily the case. This report holds up a mirror to our current practices,” he explains. If you check off each and every one of the drivers, that’s great, we can presume that things are working out well for you.”

Dr. Deschenaux also believes that the drivers of success could improve accessibility of graduate studies and make education beyond an undergraduate degree more attractive to students. “There is a somewhat elitist side to graduate studies, which may or may not be deliberate. In Quebec, just under 20 percent of the population holds a master’s and not quite one percent hold a doctorate,” he says. In his opinion, the drivers of success identified in the report can improve the graduate experience, and hopefully encourage more students to continue their studies at the graduate level.

This report sparked interest in the academic community and is now available in English to reach beyond the province of Quebec. Dr. Baron recalls that, during a discussion with a University of Alberta colleague, the two academics discovered that their students faced similar challenges and realities. “She was excited to get the French version [of the report] and asked me to let her know when the English version would be released so she could share it with others,” Dr. Baron says.

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