I was with NAGS last week…
October 28th, 2010

I was with NAGS last week – and, no, not a bunch of whiners, but the Northeastern Association of Graduate Schools. I am on the executive and we had gathered in Beantown/Boston to plan our annual, spring 2011 conference. NAGS has the best acronym of all the branch plant associations in the Council of Graduate Studies: the west (WAGS) and the south (SAGS) aren’t quite so amusing. We are also different in more significant ways. Unlike the other groups, NAGS extends its membership beyond the USA. Canadian schools are very much part of the core constituency, and so there are usually at least 4 of us on the executive—all typically enslaved to our Blackberries. And because of the sheer range of geography, member US schools include the Ivy League as well as small colleges about which few Canadians know much. I don’t care what they say, but in Canada the difference between the top-ranked so-called ‘Big 13’ schools (UoT, McGill, UBC, blah blah) and other smaller or medium universities is not as great as the difference between, say, Harvard U. and Salem College. Ten minutes talking to their representatives tells you everything about that.

Anyhow, after the Boston meetings I was thinking that these days the differences between Canadian and US post-secondary institutions, regardless of their own internal, national differences, seem to be getting larger. Traditionally in the US, a graduate student went directly into a doctoral program from an Honours undergraduate program. Masters do not hold the same value they do in Canada; they mean something quite different down there. Generally, they are not meant to be research degrees, and often they are considered terminal—end stops to education, or launching pads for professional, non-academic careers.

In the last decade or so, American universities have seen the possibility of offering masters programs as useful cash cows, ways for colleges to make some money by charging high tuition fees and moving students relatively quickly though their programs—in occupational therapy, public administration, nurse anesthesia, and so on. Commonly referred to as professional masters, they land on a student’s graduation parchment as master of science programs. They are decidedly not research based, not as prestigious as our programs, at least in the public eye.

We don’t see masters programs in the same way at all. Yes, we have been prolifically creating new professional masters programs as a way to capture new markets and attract older-than-average employees looking for upgrading and advancement. But we have a long tradition of masters programs across the disciplinary spectrum, and so our emerging professional masters programs are just a part of those offerings, not a lesser version, not a debased or terminal or inferior version. And often a Canadian professional masters has some sort of perfectly respectable research and internship component.

Sitting around with my NAGS colleagues I was reminded of the lesser value of a masters degree in the States. If you have never really had masters programs as integral parts of your graduate school education then it is hard to get your head around them. My colleagues know we think differently about them, but they are not likely to adopt our system—or culture. That’s impossible.  Planning a conference like this becomes particularly challenging when one part of the group isn’t really interested in what the other part of the group thinks are serious challenges—such as, whether professional masters programs should be extended into the fields of arts and humanities, and, if so, what would they look like? We more or less already know what they look like, but go try and tell them that.

The other really big difference follows to a degree from the point above—that in the US there is enormous pressure to contain or even diminish the number of incoming graduate students in doctoral programs. We in Canada are moving in the exact opposite direction, of course, recruiting as many eligible and highly qualified PhD students as we can, partly to offset the large number of masters students we routinely admit and support, partly to ensure our workforce is as educated and highly skilled as our new technological age demands. But in the US, apparently there are far too many doctoral students for the job market—a point especially pertinent when you consider there aren’t masters students in abundance. Still in the downward spiral of recession, these US schools are struggling to support the students they already have. PhD students are expensive, and only 1/3 of them go on to work in the academy itself.  Therefore, the point is often raised: what are they being trained for?

I hope the answer to that question comes easily to your mind. Memorial is boasting over a 10% increase in our graduate students again this fall, with a good number of them at the doctoral level. Bring it, we keep telling the world—and so the world is paying attention. Indeed, with more economic cushioning, with a national health care program, and with good quality of life we are seeing more and more American students applying to our programs. Their drain is our gain.

I look forward to returning to Boston next spring for the actual conference, of course, but can’t help wondering whether the divide will have grown even larger by then. Sure, we are all watching the same television, listening to the same music, and drinking at Starbucks, but graduate education is one obvious area of difference. It will be fascinating to see how future economic pressures intensify that difference, and who benefits.


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.

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