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PhDs in science finish faster in Canada than U.S.

One reason may be the master's degree


If you’re a science student and want a faster route to your PhD, enrol yourself in a Canadian, not a U.S., university. This is the rather surprising conclusion one could make from an analysis of PhD completion rates by Susan Pfeiffer, University of Toronto’s dean of graduate education and vice-provost.

Speaking at the Strategic Leaders Global Summit on Graduate Education conference in Banff in September, Dr. Pfeiffer compared 10-year completion rates at 10 of Canada’s most research-intensive universities with a set of preliminary data generated by 28 universities and colleges involved in a U.S. study called the PhD Completion Project. The latter includes exclusive private universities such as Princeton, Yale and Cornell as well as research-intensive public universities like Michigan, UCLA and Purdue.

Looking at the PhD class of 1994, Dr. Pfeiffer found that 62.9 percent of all Canadian doctoral students at the 10 universities had obtained their PhDs after a decade. That compares with 56.7 percent of their U.S. counterparts in the PhD Completion Project (which pooled results for 1992-94).

American institutions, though, may have a slight advantage in getting doctoral students in the social sciences through their program more quickly – just over 52 percent of PhD students in Canada versus 55 percent in the United States had earned their doctorate by 2004. In the humanities, the comparison was even closer when the results were included for both 1993 and 1994 in Canada.

But completion rates were quite a different story in scientific fields. In 2004, after 10 years of doctoral studies:

  • almost 75 percent of PhD students in the life sciences had earned a PhD in Canada, compared with 62 percent in the U.S.
  • about 71 percent of students in physical and applied sciences in Canada had earned a doctorate. In the U.S., 64 percent of engineers and 55 percent of students in the physical sciences and in science and mathematics had earned a degree.

Dr. Pfeiffer said she thinks the master’s degree has something to do with the discrepancy. “I suggest that the reason for the higher completion rates is Canada’s maintenance of the research [doctoral stream] master’s as a distinct and valued milestone,” Dr. Pfeiffer told the summit meeting, whose participants included representatives from graduate programs in the U.S., Australia, the European Union, Canada and China.

“Experience with a master’s can help students self-select out if they conclude they are ill-suited for doctoral work,” she added.

It is an analysis that rings true with U.S. experts. “I think she is right on about the positive aspects of the Canadian system with respect to the master’s degree,” said Daniel Denecke, director of best practices at the U.S. Council of Graduate Schools, which is overseeing the PhD Completion Project. The council plans to publish, before year-end, the first results of the project, on attrition and completion data at the program level.

“A significant portion of American students may in fact want a master’s degree, but may have to enter a doctoral program in order to get what they want,” said Dr. Denecke, adding that many schools don’t offer research-stream master’s degrees. In the U.S., the master’s degree is common only for professional degrees like the MBA.

Even when the time to complete a master’s degree – generally not more than two years – is included in the equation, Canadian students finish their PhDs more rapidly. With very conservative assumptions in place, it takes an average of 7.3 years to go from a baccalaureate through to a PhD in Canada. In the U.S. the comparable time is 8.2 years, said Dr. Pfeiffer.

Another issue is the very large gap in completion rates between various disciplines. Dr. Pfeiffer suggested the gap can be explained by differences in support from advisers and differences in funding.

“There is a general acknowledgement that studying in the humanities is more individualistic and is done more in isolation. And funding for graduate students is lower in the humanities, so students are more likely tempted to abandon the PhD program and move on to a good job,” she said in an interview.

But also embedded in the statistics may be some significant cultural and economic differences between the two countries. A possible explanation for the relatively lower rate of completion in the biological and applied sciences, said Dr. Denecke, is that some U.S. industries are so hungry for talented new employees that they use the promise of high salaries to lure people away from their PhD program.

At the Banff global summit meeting, participants agreed to a general statement of principles to guide collaborative work on graduate education; one principle was to clarify and strengthen the role of the master’s degree.

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