Thursday, December 6, 2007

What is a Master's degree?

Some rushed thoughts...

I attended my second U of Calgary Master's defense today, and I have come to the conclusion that the requirements for a U of C Masters degree, at least in Computer Science, are too demanding. Or, maybe it's better to say that Master's degree requirements in general are too inconsistent across institutions. Everyone knows that a Bachelor's generally consists of 4 years of full time classroom-based study. A PhD is 4-5 (or 6+) years of intensely focussed research culminating in a dissertation that positions the candidate as the world expert on a particular small subject. But, what is a Master's?

The requirements are not even generally consistent across peer institutions. Many universities, U of Toronto included, are putting a lot of focus on lowering "time to completion" for their graduate programs. This might come in the form of strategies to get the real time-to-completion in line with the expectations currently on the books (better financial support for students, better progress monitoring and response), or it may mean re-working the entire degree to shorten the expected time needed to finish (reduce course load, rework thesis requirement). It seems to me that U of C computer science hasn't made much effort in this direction. While this may be a principled decision on their part towards maintaining a certain level of quality and rigour in their program, employers don't know that a U of C Master's degree produces a thesis that is of a depth and quality that goes beyond a Master's from another university. So, I think if people are taking a "terminal" degree, they are not getting much advantage from the longer time frame of the degree here. If they are going on to PhD, I guess the experience of writing a significant thesis, and defending it would be beneficial.

There is a general push toward shortening Master's degrees throughout North America. Cynics will argue that this is so more Master's students can be pushed through the system -- in many departments they are unfunded, so can be considered "revenue generating", like undergraduates. Having been in on institutional planning processes at U of Toronto, I'm sad to say there is some truth to this. Despite whatever the questionable reasons may be for this trend, I think if a University does not recognize the widespread move toward 12-16 month Master's programs, they are doing their students a disservice.

The defense I attended today had a committee of 4 examiners -- including an external -- and had 90 minutes of very rigourous questioning. Of course the candidate was well prepared and did a very good job (congrats!), but I think the depth of analysis and critical thinking expected by the committee went beyond what I think is reasonable to expect from a Master's student. Heck, I was squirming in my chair at some points imagining having to answer questions like that as a PhD candidate. Indeed, in some universities, there is no thesis. In others, such as U of Toronto, there is no defense.

I think there is a real disconnect about what is a Master's degree across institutions, with the variation going from 12 months of course work to 2-3 years of focussed research with a thesis and defense. For me, the Master's is a degree that should allow someone to specialize in a sub area of the discipline they studied in their Bachelor's degree, and should allow Universities to identify appropriate candidates for PhD studies. I think some research component is essential to assess the latter. While students in the more traditional, and more extensive Master's programs certainly leave with better preparation to conduct research and write academic papers, I think they may have to spend too much of their time and money to get to a point that will be considered equal to someone who took a 16 month degree at a peer institution. I know my view isn't universally accepted; I'm sure I could be convinced of the need for more traditional, research-based Master's. What I really think is most important is we work for general consensus across institutions on what constitutes a Master's degree so we can compare apples to apples when evaluating graduates for employment and further study. I don't mean to disparage U of Calgary -- they have been great to host me here and I've really enjoyed the vibrant and exciting research environment. It's just that as a future member of the academe I think it's time to start thinking about these things and weighing in on the discussion of the future of graduate programs in Canada.

1 comment:

RMS said...

Hey Chris, As a UofC MSc student who then went to UofT for a PhD, I was surprised to find out how much more rigorous the Calgary MSc program is. UofT doesn't even require a full thesis anymore for the MSc...any conference paper or tech report counts, and your advisor just decides when you've done enough. It's bizarre to hear someone in the lab suddeny announce "hey, my advisor just e-mailed and said I graduated". It seems like that would be less satisfying than what I went through.

Having already written and defended a 150+ page thesis, finishing a PhD doesn't seem so daunting. In my mind, this is a good thing. But it is a bit frustrating that, to anyone else, "an MSc is an MSc". (And, let's be honest, most will probably assume that a UofT MSc is worth *more* than a UofC MSc.)