What’s the difference between them and us?
December 4th, 2009


What’s the difference between them and us? That’s what I always ask myself when I am in the USA at some conference or another. You can bet they don’t ask themselves the same question.  I am in lovely San Francisco, at the annual Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) event, with about a thousand or so of my colleagues, most of them strangers, some of them very good conference companions, indeed.  I know I’m not in Canada because the square on which my hotel sits boasts a skating rink surrounded by palm trees. That’s right, ice and palm trees.  Only in America, you say–or perhaps Dubai.

An oddly disconcerting myth is emerging here, reinforced by panelist after panelist, that things are so much better ‘up there’ in Canada. It’s all relative, of course, and, of course, compared with the nightmare that is the State of California’s budget, perhaps they are. Talking to one of the ten deans of graduate studies in the University of California system, I am finding it difficult not to feel as if I am living in a far more stable universe, one without a budget-desperate Terminator for a governor.  But even fully educated PhDs from prestigious schools will exaggerate the truth when they have to, and it’s now quite convenient to overstate the Canadian experience when you want to stress how under resourced your own situation is.

My Canadian colleagues were particularly amused at someone’s very public announcement that we have evolved to a 3-year PhD. Our Canada-proud Blackberries went wild at that one! Show me a campus in Canada where that is the standard rate to completion and I’ll eat my (recyclable cotton) conference tote bag. But, again, it’s useful to say that if you need to sound the alarm bells. What we Canadians do know in our hearts and by our budgets is that we are all growing our graduate cohorts while trying to find the funds to support current and future prospects. In provinces like Ontario things are particularly gloomy, but we’re not going to dispel our American colleagues’ notions of our success and ‘national vision’ if we don’t have to, not yet. Besides, it’s nice to be held up as models of good behavior.

A particularly hot topic here is the status of postdocs. I have been attending sessions on the subject to learn more about the status of this often neglected and vital group of researchers, learning a lot from schools like University of Connecticut and Rutgers about how best to accommodate the needs of postdocs, offering them the dignity of work and pay they so often lack.  Indeed, Canada has much to learn in this department. Perhaps it’s only a matter of time before postdocs start unionizing drives the way they have been doing in the USA. That they are neither fish nor fowl, neither employees nor students, has not inhibited them from finding solidarity and articulating a persuasive set off demands at their educational workplaces. Of course, when it comes to American postdocs size really does matter. The California system is looking at about 6,000 postdocs, for example, and so in such numbers they have a force and a dynamic not yet realized in our own country, but I think that’s the direction to which we are all moving—and not just in the sciences or medical fields.

All is not always serious in San Francisco. Hugely popular illustrator Jorge Cham delivered an hour of his road show on the graduate experience to a highly amused audience. Cham, and his web-based comic strip, “Piled Higher and Deeper,” is well known to readers of these Memorial pages. Last March he was our special guest speaker at our annual Aldrich Interdisciplinary Lecture, pulling in hundreds of students and faculty who are devout followers of his work. Cham’s hilarious spiel rests on the conviction that procrastination, the universal condition of the addled grad student, isn’t always an unhealthy or unnatural reaction to the pressures of pursuing a higher degree. Cham himself, a PhD graduate from Stanford, is a living example of how one can turn the guilt and anxiety of the graduate experience into a successful career. It’s an ingenious, irrefutable, and obviously unique example, and one wonders how much longer the disarmingly boyish Cham can parlay his routine much further into the future. Is there life after PhD Comics?

Much debate about this very question ensued during the break. No matter how superficial some might have found Cham’s plenary presentation, there is no denying the effect of his message on our coffee talk. Certainly, he gave the deans lots of opportunity to question whether our graduate programs were too punishing, too demoralizing, too dehumanizing.  I doubt things will change, but at least students have Jorge Cham to get them through those long bouts of dread, delay, and doubt—for now.


Thanks to fuxoft for sharing their photo via flickr and creative commons.

Dr. Faye Murrin is Dean pro tempore of the School of Graduate Studies and Associate Professor in the Department of Biology. She completed her B.Sc. (Hons.) at Memorial University, her M.Sc. at Acadia University, and her Ph.D. at Queen's University. Her research interests have always been focused on fungi, in particular the cell biology of insect pathogenic fungi and, more recently, the ecology of mycorrhizal mushrooms in the boreal forest. Dr. Murrin has served in a number of positions on the Council of the Mycological Society of America and was awarded the title of MSA Fellow for her contributions. She was awarded the Women in Science and Engineering Lifetime Membership Award as founding co-director of the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) Summer Program. Dr. Murrin participates in public lectures and workshops, and is a Director on the board of Newfoundland Foray, Inc.

One Response to “What’s the difference between them and us?”

  1. Blaine Morry says:

    I think a conference such as this would be quite fascinating. I’ve always been curious as far as the comparison of Canadian universities to their American counterparts was concerned, in terms of expectations and demand. Apparently, based on a certain individual’s belief that we complete PhD programs in an average of 3 years, I’m not the only person wondering about this :P.

    Also, PHD comics are indeed awesome. They have found a welcome home in my bookmarks.

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