Graduate School at American versus Canadian Universities: Does it make a Difference?

Students sometimes wonder how the quality of graduate training compares between the U.S. and Canada. The assumption seems to be that there are significant differences, but the truth is that there are really no differences between the U.S. and Canada in terms of the quality of graduate training available. This is true in nearly all disciplines.

Graduate programs are designed in the same ways in the U.S. and Canada. The range of quality is the same. In fact, there is more variation among different schools within either country than there is between the two countries. Some of the private schools in the U.S., where tuitions are very high, would like everyone to believe that they offer better graduate training than what is available in the public universities, but that is not necessarily true.

The best way to choose the right graduate school is not based on geographical location, but rather on your particular career objectives. For more advice on choosing the right graduate program, check out thisarticle I wrote for myGraduateSchool.com about how to choose the right graduate program.

Do Graduate Schools Care Where You Earned Your Bachelor’s Degree?

Today, the blog is about an issue that is relevant to the education and career planning of high-school students, as well as students who have already started college and are now thinking about what their next steps should be. Students, if your parents have a significant say in what college you attend, or what university you apply to for graduate school, then you should forward this to them so they can read it, too.

Let’s start with a simple question… Do graduate schools care where you earned your bachelor’s degree?

The answer: No, they do not. And it’s as simple as that.

A related question is whether your future employers will care where you earned your masters or doctorate. Again, the answer is, no. (Admittedly, there might be rare exceptions to this one, especially if the employer is among those who have misconceptions about education and training at different universities).

Some people are more than a bit surprised and doubtful about my claim that the reputation of a university is not a relevant factor when determining where the best opportunities exist for postgraduate education and training. But, almost any career counselor will readily agree with me. Having a doctorate from a prestigious university might sound impressive to some people you meet, but that will not include people in your field who may be potential employers. They will not hire you just because you studied at a distinguished university. They will care only about what you know, what you can do, and the kind of person you are.

The myth of the prestigious university stems partly from the way people misinterpret the kinds of school-rankings lists that are compiled from time to time and published by certain large newspapers or magazines. Television and movies reinforce and perpetuate misconceptions. The school-ranking mentality will lead tens of thousands of people to spend much more for their university education than was necessary for the same credentials and employment prospects.

Most school-rankings lists are based on the general idea that universities can be ranked on several factors, appropriate weights can be applied to each of the factors depending on its relevance to determining the quality of education or training available, and from these results it is possible to determine an overall score for each institution, and they can thus be rank-ordered from “best” to “worse.”  Most of the factors that go into such rankings have little or nothing to do with the delivery or quality of teaching. Lay people assume that teaching is the primary mission of a university, failing to realize that universities are research institutions, too. Universities do care about delivering high quality training in as many areas as they can, but their ability to do so is hardly reflected in any of the popular rankings. The quality of education delivered within specific departments is not reflected in the rankings.

The school-ranking mentality among the lay public is very strongly entrenched, and therefore it is difficult to get students, or their parents, to realize that the profile of a school does not play a significant role in determining training quality or eventual career success. The ranking mentality is based on fallacies, and it can be a very costly way of thinking when it comes to deciding where to apply to graduate school.

It is not worth the extra cost to attend an expensive Ivy League or other high-profile university, as this recent article in the New York Times argues (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/19/weekinreview/19steinberg.html?_r=2).

It turns out that a college student’s eventual career success (as measured by earnings) depends on his or her aptitudes and abilities (as measured by SAT scores), but not on the stature or reputation of the school that was attended. Although graduates from higher-ranked schools tended to earn more than graduates from lower ranked schools, when assessed ten years after graduation, this is only because there are more students with very high SAT scores at the higher-ranked schools.

The message is clear: Many students and parents can save tens of thousands of dollars on a college or university education by ignoring some of the common myths about the high-profile universities, and attending instead one of the many less-expensive schools that are just as good in terms of the quality of training and education that is provided.