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Graduate Studies in Canadian Universities

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Graduate Studies in Universities in Canada

Many schools offer graduate studies in addition to undergraduate education. A graduate degree is an advanced degree such as a Master’s or PhD, with the general requirement of earning a previous undergraduate degree. Some schools specialize in graduate studies and are internationally known in certain fields. Examples of notable graduate schools in Canada include Dalhousie University (medicine), University of Waterloo (automotive engineering), University of Waterloo (computer science), Queen’s University (business), University of British Columbia (marine biology), and University of Toronto (law).

Producing original research is often a significant component of graduate studies, including the writing and defense of a thesis or dissertation. Unlike undergraduate programs, graduate students do not take much coursework outside their specific field of study.

In Canada the Canadian Association of Graduate Studies (CAGS) represents the various Schools and Faculties of Graduate Studies. Its mandate is to promote graduate education and research in Canada. In addition to an annual conference the association prepares briefs on issues related to graduate studies including supervision, funding, and professional development.

Types of graduate degrees

Generally speaking, there are three types of graduate degrees offered by Canadian universities ¬ a course-based master's, which requires the successful completion of a specific program of graduate-level courses; a research-based Master’s, which requires both graduate-level course work and a thesis; and the doctorate (PhD), which requires the candidate to undertake original research and to develop and defend a thesis that makes a substantial contribution to the advancement of knowledge.

The course-based master's degree often has a professional orientation. It is normally completed after one year and may include a professional internship. Generally speaking, these programs do not lead to studies at the doctoral level.

The research-based master's degree is normally completed after 2 years, although certain types of research may require a longer tenure.

The doctoral degree usually requires 2-3 years of study, although some PhD’s can take 4-6 years. These students are required to prepare a research proposal and undertake comprehensive examinations prior to commencing the main research for the thesis. The comprehensive exam must be passed successfully in order for the student to proceed to candidacy for the PhD.

Many Canadian colleges and universities offer a variety of graduate-level certificate and diploma programs in addition to the usual degree programs. Certificate and diploma programs generally have a professional focus (eg. for those who have a graduate degree, are employed, and want to upgrade their skills) and require 1-2 years of course work.


Admission to a master's program generally requires a bachelor's degree in a related field, with a grade of at least B+ (although this varies from program to program). Recommendations from professors are also required for admission. Some schools require samples of the student's writing as well as a research proposal. Students from countries where English is not the primary language are required to take the Test of English as a Foreign Language. (International students account for about 11% of Canada’s graduate students.)

Admission to a doctoral program typically requires a master's degree in a related field, sufficiently high grades, and several letters of recommendation. A research proposal and interview with a prospective supervisor may also be necessary. In certain cases, students holding an honours undergraduate degree with sufficiently high grades and proven writing and research abilities may be admitted directly to a PhD program. Many graduate programs allow students to start in a master's program, and then transition into a PhD program after the first year (with proven performance and recommendations).


Graduate students often work as teaching or research assistants. They can work for their department in general, or work directly for their supervisor (who pays them out of their own grant monies). Various schools in Canada have different policies in terms of how much funding is available. This funding may also be different within a school in each of the disciplines. Most students try to secure funding in some form before final admission to their graduate program.

For Master’s students, funding is generally available to first-year students whose transcripts reflect exceptionally high grades; this funding can also be obtained in the second year of studies. Funding for PhD students comes from a variety of sources, and many universities waive tuition fees for doctoral candidates.

Funding is also available in the form of scholarships, bursaries and other awards. There are 3 federal research-granting councils that are responsible for supporting research activities. The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) all grant major scholarships and fellowships to graduate students. However, these are available to Canadian citizens and landed immigrants only; international students usually have to rely on teaching or research assistantships.

Requirements for completion

Both Master’s and PhD programs may be done by coursework, research, or a combination of the two, depending on the subject and Faculty. Most Faculties require both, with the emphasis on research, and with coursework being directly related to the field of research.

Master's candidates undertaking research are usually required to complete a thesis comprising some original research. Some Faculties require candidates to defend their thesis, but many do not. For those who don’t, extra coursework is usually a requirement.

PhD candidates must complete a dissertation consisting of original research representing a significant contribution to their field. Most PhD candidates will be required to undergo a comprehensive examination (testing their general knowledge in their field of specialization) as a prerequisite to continuing their studies, and must defend their thesis as a final requirement.

Professional degrees

These are academic degrees, taken after a first undergraduate degree, which prepares the holder for a particular profession by emphasizing competency skills along with theory and analysis. These professions are typically licensed or otherwise regulated by a governmental or government-approved body. Areas such as architecture, law, medicine, engineering, dentistry, and pharmacy often require such degrees for licensing. These degrees can either be undergraduate or graduate, but because a previous undergraduate degree is generally a requirement for admission, they are included in graduate studies.

Post-doctoral research

In some schools, the Faculty of Graduate Studies is also responsible for post-doctoral studies. This is academic research conducted by a student who has completed their doctoral studies, and is intended to further deepen expertise in a specialist subject, including necessary skills and methods.

Post-doctoral research is normally carried out within 5 years of the PhD, and can take as little as 1 month, or as long as 6 years. Depending on the type of appointment, postdoctoral researchers or postdoctoral fellows (“post-docs”) may work independently or under the supervision of a principal investigator.

Coursework is generally not necessary for post-docs; however several schools offer post-doc courses. This gives post-docs a chance to interact and network with others from different departments, and covers subjects such as public speaking, networking, academic job interviewing, building a CV, and financial management.

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