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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Moving on up to the elite

It’s clear to see which schools undergrads aspire to in search of master’s degrees and doctorates.

By Alanna Mitchell
The Globe and Mail

Students who are willing to spend time and money getting a second or third degree are a notoriously choosy lot. Considerations of the campus social life or the availability of residence rooms rarely figure into their decisions. Instead, they demand the highest possible calibre of experts in their field.

So when it comes to attracting undergraduates to invest in another degree, the URC survey suggests that just two Canadian schools have the market sewn up: University of Toronto and McGill University.

Of the students in this survey who said they wanted to pursue graduate studies, more than a third - 34.1 per cent - said U of T has the best reputation for graduate studies overall. Nearly a fifth, 19.5 per cent, named McGill.

Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., was on the map, but just barely, with 7.6 per cent of the survey’s students saying it has the best reputation. Fourth on the list was the University of British Columbia with 4.7 per cent.

So what’s the appeal of the two dominant schools? Jeremy Thompson, 25, summed up his reasons for doing his doctorate of music at McGill in piano performance in two words: Marina Mdivani. Prof. Mdivani, a gifted pianist who won the gold medal at the Marguerite Long competition in Paris in 1961, is Mr. Thompson’s doctoral adviser.

“I think the secret is good teachers,” said Mr. Thompson. Prof. Mdivani, for example, has helped organize tours for Mr. Thompson in Russia, the United States and Canada while he’s been studying with her. As well, she gives him double or triple the lessons she’s supposed to, he said. He calls her style “personalized mentoring.”

“She goes way beyond what she’s required to do,” he said. Martha Crago, dean of graduate and postdoctoral studies at McGill, said she, too, believes one great appeal of her university is the reputation of the faculty.

“We hire great professors,” she said. “They have prestige. They have networks of colleagues.” In some cases, they also have large numbers of influential graduates who dominate research in their fields and head university departments across Canada.

Not only that, but McGill has been in the business of awarding graduate degrees for nearly a century, which is longer than any other university in Canada, she said.

McGill’s other secret is that it is content not to increase the number of graduates it turns out. Today, McGill has about 6,000 students in graduate programs, roughly the same number as a decade ago. In the numbers game, that puts it in the middle of Canada’s graduate schools. Keeping the numbers at that level means keeping the quality of the programs high. “We don’t want to turn it into a factory,” Dr. Crago said.

The University of Toronto is home to about 10,000 students in graduate programs, one of the two biggest graduate schools in Canada. (The other is the University of Montreal, also with about 10,000 grad students.)

Sheldon Levy, vice-president of government and institutional relations at U of T, said the university deliberately keeps its graduate population at about 30 per cent of that of the whole university. That’s to drive home the sense that U of T is a powerhouse of research.

“Graduate students are always on our mind,” said Dr. Levy. “They are not an afterthought.” Yet U of T has the cachet of being a graduate school that is tough to get into. Many programs require that applicants have a solid A average in undergraduate work simply to be considered.

“We are very, very selective,” said Dr. Levy. Once a student is accepted into doctoral studies, though, U of T guarantees a minimum of $17,500 a year in financial support over five years, he said.

The reason? U of T’s competition for doctoral students is from the best schools in the United States and Europe, many of which offer rich bursary programs. Grad students, said Dr. Levy, are older. They have lives and are committed academics who need to spend time on their studies, not on cobbling together rent money from part-time jobs.

Another key draw is Robarts Library, consistently ranked one of the top three research libraries in the world by academics. As well, of course, is the draw of the faculty, many of whom are internationally renowned researchers.

Andrea Bailey, in third-year law at U of T, said her choice came down to the reputation of the school, its location near the heart of Canada’s large law firms, and the calibre of the professors.

While Dr. Levy was surprised by the survey’s results, he said the package of financial aid, renowned experts and a world-class library may simply add together to persuade students that U of T is the place to do grad studies.

“Maybe there is this halo of reputation that summarizes the university for undergraduates,” he said. ROBTv Workopolis