Undergrad from Canada before grad school in the US

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vader95
Posts: 7
Joined: Wed Nov 13, 2013 6:49 pm

Undergrad from Canada before grad school in the US

Postby vader95 » Tue Dec 10, 2013 4:31 pm

I am planning to do my undergrad from somewhere in Canada before doing my graduation from the US. I don't want to spend a lot of money (because my parents can't spend a lot). Will it really matter if I go to a big or small school in Canada? Will Universities like Harvard and Caltech take a guy who has done his undergrad from a small school in Canada? I know they take people from smaller schools in the US, but I was wondering how different that is for international schools.

If I do a fair amount of undergrad research, get a good GPA and do well in the GRE, the name of the school wouldn't matter right? Is it true that undergrad research is basically non-existent in big schools?

Sorry for asking so many questions. Thanks in advance.

TakeruK
Posts: 815
Joined: Mon Jan 02, 2012 3:05 pm

Re: Undergrad from Canada before grad school in the US

Postby TakeruK » Tue Dec 10, 2013 5:35 pm

Hello, quick intro of myself: I'm a Canadian student that is currently doing a PhD at Caltech in Planetary Science (related to Physics but not in the Physics department!). I did my undergrad at UBC and my Masters at Queen's (both in Astronomy) and I hope what I say can be helpful:

While the majority of Canadians I've met at big name US schools come from the "big 3" Canadian schools (UBC, Toronto, McGill; in no particular order), there definitely exists other students at top US schools from smaller Canadian schools. I know of students from Queen's (still a big Canadian school though), Western, York, and McMaster at top US schools. I'm sure there are others. I also think the reason why I don't hear about these students from smaller Canadian schools is just that there are fewer students in these programs so it's harder to find them.

I think the "brand name" of a school does play a role even when you have good GPAs etc. In Canada, grades are a bit more standardized -- i.e. the conversion from X% to letter grade is common across most science programs in Canada, but this isn't always true in the US. Also, there is different grading standards at different programs, so a 90% average at one school might be valued differently than a 90% average at another school.

But I agree with you that by far, the most important aspect is what research experience you can get at your undergrad school. Macleans magazine splits up Canadian schools into 3 categories:

"Medical/Doctoral" which means "research intensive schools": http://oncampus.macleans.ca/education/2 ... -doctoral/
"Comprehensive" which means slightly less research intensive: http://oncampus.macleans.ca/education/2 ... rehensive/
and "Primarily Undergraduate" which I would say are less geared towards preparing students for grad school, but that is a generalization! http://oncampus.macleans.ca/education/2 ... rgraduate/

The one exception for Physics/Engineering is that Waterloo appears on the second list but it really is a top notch research university for some fields.

In my opinion, if you want to go to the top US schools, you should aim for schools in the top half of that first list, as they have the reputation for research worldwide. Maybe the top few schools in the second list would be okay too. However, your research opportunities will be more limited.

That said, you should know that you aren't limited to your undergrad school for research opportunities. NSERC offers USRA (Undergraduate Student Research Awards) which will help pay for 16 weeks of full time research (usually in the summer). You would apply for USRA positions directly to the school you want to work for, e.g. one of the top schools where there are more opportunities.

However, there is usually a quota for the amount of USRAs awarded to students from different schools. Also, there is a lot of advantage to being immersed in an environment where there is a lot of research going on. And, having profs that are doing exciting research is a different experience than profs who are primarily involved in teaching. It's true that the quality of instruction at research intensive schools is lower than smaller schools and that you will probably not be as noticed by profs unless you're a star student, though.

Fortunately, most Canadian schools are relatively inexpensive, especially compared to US schools. To save money, you might want to live closer to home so that might limit your choice of undergrad. So, if you are really certain that you want to do graduate studies in the US and want to get as much research experience as possible in undergrad, I'd recommend sticking to the "medical/doctoral" list and trying to find the best school you can get into / can afford (scholarships are available too!). But keep in mind that for many students, priorities may change during undergrad. Another thing you can look out for when researching undergrad school is to look for "co-op work education" programs. UBC has one. In a co-op program, you spend 4 years of school in the classroom and 1 year plus 2-3 summers doing full time work in your field. They pay you pretty well -- I earned enough money during my co-op work months to pay for my entire tuition. And you get excellent research experience. When I graduated from UBC, I had 16 months of full time research experience in 2 different research groups at UBC plus my undergraduate research thesis. Working on a project full time for 8 months lets you make a ton of progress and really helps you get to the stage where you can publish the work and present at conferences.

Therefore, I would very strongly recommend that you keep your research opportunities in mind when picking a undergrad school if a top grad school is indeed your goal. I strongly recommend co-op programs -- they help you pay your tuition and the experience you get is well worth that extra year. Co-op programs are competitive to get in, but when I applied at UBC for the Physics co-op program, there were few enough applicants that you just have to meet the minimum standards. However, there may now be a competitive process involving interviews etc. to get in. Also, as part of the co-op program, you attend workshops that teach you useful skills such as getting a job outside of academia, if you choose to go that route!

Hope that was helpful :)

vader95
Posts: 7
Joined: Wed Nov 13, 2013 6:49 pm

Re: Undergrad from Canada before grad school in the US

Postby vader95 » Wed Dec 11, 2013 6:02 pm

That probably had every single piece of information that I needed (if not more haha). Thanks a ton TakeruK! Very very grateful for the help.

TakeruK
Posts: 815
Joined: Mon Jan 02, 2012 3:05 pm

Re: Undergrad from Canada before grad school in the US

Postby TakeruK » Thu Dec 12, 2013 3:56 pm

I'm glad to have been helpful! :)

vader95
Posts: 7
Joined: Wed Nov 13, 2013 6:49 pm

Re: Undergrad from Canada before grad school in the US

Postby vader95 » Thu Dec 12, 2013 7:29 pm

I have one more query. How much will grad school for Physics cost me if I stay in Canada? (I forgot to mention earlier that I am not canadian, applying as an international student, my mom's parents are canadian though) How easily does one get scholarships/fellowships/stipends for grad school? (I mean for a Masters degree). It's just that my parents are very concerned that I might just keep using all of their money without earning anything back. This is why they're pressing me to go for engineering (everyone is actually), but I won't give in.

Also, what do you think is better- Masters from a Canadian grad school, PhD from a US grad school (what you did and I plan to do too) OR Masters + PhD from a US grad school?

TakeruK
Posts: 815
Joined: Mon Jan 02, 2012 3:05 pm

Re: Undergrad from Canada before grad school in the US

Postby TakeruK » Thu Dec 12, 2013 8:59 pm

Canadian MSc and PhD programs are fully funded so you don't really have to worry about cost. As an international student, you will cost more to the department and your advisor, so it might make it a bit tougher to get into the schools. But pretty much all Physics grad programs in Canada pay their students well enough to cover the tuition (international students get paid more to cover the extra international tuition) and have enough leftover to live a modest lifestyle. US MS-only programs aren't usually funded but their PhD programs are fully funded.

As a non-Canadian, this would mean it is not possible to get some fellowships (e.g. the NSERC awards from the Canadian government). Usually, having these fellowships make you more attractive to grad schools and also may increase your stipend. So that's one downside of not being Canadian (or in general, being an international student in any country).

I don't think there is a "better" when comparing a Canadian MSc + US PhD or direct entry US PhD (with a MS along the way). I think what is better is definitely based on your personal circumstances/interests at the time. Here are some reasons I chose to a MSc in Canada first (not really in any order):

1. I didn't think I was good enough for a top US grad school. But I also really did not know anything about applying to grad schools back in 2009. Ultimately, since I am Canadian, it was easier anyways for me to stay in Canada if I didn't get into the top tier of US schools (which would be better than the top school in Canada).

2. Related to the above, I got a 650 in the PGRE, so at that point I (foolishly) decided that I just wasn't cut out for a US program. I did rewrite the PGRE 2 years later and got a 690, which isn't that much better. However, most planetary science programs don't even want the PGRE, something I also didn't know back in 2009.

3. I wasn't sure I wanted to go do a PhD. If I went to the US, it is a 5 year commitment, minimum. I preferred the 2 year MSc followed by a 3-4 year PhD in Canada where you are allowed to change projects, supervisors, or even schools in between degrees.

4. My longtime girlfriend (at the time) and I were not married yet, so she would not have been able to move to the US with me. We got married during my MSc (we were going to at that time anyways, whether or not I was going to the US).

I think reason #4 was probably the biggest factor. Although I am not sure if I would have been as successful in my PhD applications if I had applied right out of undergrad. During my time in the MSc program, I gained more research experience but it also gave time for my work as an undergrad to get published and that also boosted my application.

But it's really up to each person what would be better. For me, I think the way things worked out really was the best for me. Note that most US programs (especially the top ones) don't really care that you have a MSc from Canada already so you kind of have to start all over again (so 2 year MSc in Canada + 4-5 year PhD in US = 6-7 total years in grad school for me probably, compared to 5-6 years for someone who does it all in one country).

vader95
Posts: 7
Joined: Wed Nov 13, 2013 6:49 pm

Re: Undergrad from Canada before grad school in the US

Postby vader95 » Fri Dec 13, 2013 4:12 am

Understood. I think I am going to leave this decision for later. I probably should focus on my undergrad education for now. Anyways, thanks a lot! And again, very grateful for the help :)

DanMarcy
Posts: 13
Joined: Wed Nov 02, 2011 12:23 pm

Re: Undergrad from Canada before grad school in the US

Postby DanMarcy » Sat Dec 14, 2013 8:07 am

Just another data point: I went to a very small undergraduate school and did my masters, all in Canada. I'm at Princeton now.

vader95
Posts: 7
Joined: Wed Nov 13, 2013 6:49 pm

Re: Undergrad from Canada before grad school in the US

Postby vader95 » Fri Dec 20, 2013 2:50 pm

DanMarcy, do you mind mentioning the names of the schools you attended? Also can you elaborate a bit on your performance and research activities in these schools?




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