Issue Date: September 2, 2013
Canada’s Master Appeal
With an oversupply of Ph.D.s in the U.S. and intense competition for even the most entry-level positions in industry, having a master’s degree could potentially give a job seeker an edge over Ph.D. applicants who may be considered overqualified.
But in a downtrodden economy in which employers have the upper hand, U.S. companies are not satisfied with master’s-level candidates who are merely qualified; they’re holding out for the very best talent they can find, and that sometimes means searching for talent outside the country.
Some U.S. companies have found what they’re looking for in Canada. “We’ve been extremely successful at recruiting quality students out of the Canadian master’s programs,” says Bruce D. Roth, vice president of discovery chemistry at Genentech in South San Francisco. “We get scientists who are technically trained at a very high level.”
Todd O’Malley, a senior manager of staffing for the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research, in Cambridge, Mass., is also no stranger to the quality of graduates coming out of Canadian master’s programs. “It comes down to a really solid background in chemistry, combined with good communication skills and a good work ethic,” he explains. “And the people that we’ve hired have been extremely successful here.”
Roth says graduates of these master’s programs demonstrate that they have extensive research experience and numerous publications. “We expect almost as much from them as we do from our Ph.D.s, and for them to perform at that level, they have to be really well trained. That’s what we see from the Canadian master’s programs.”
Roth points out that in the six years he’s been with Genentech, his department has filled a large percentage of its master’s-level positions with graduates from institutions such as the University of Sherbrooke and the University of Montreal, both in Quebec; the University of Ottawa, in Ontario; and the University of British Columbia. “The companies who don’t recruit in Canada are missing out on a great opportunity,” he says.
Awareness of these programs among U.S. companies is growing, and it often takes just one successful hire from one of these master’s programs to spur subsequent hires. In addition, with the exodus of many large pharmaceutical companies from sites around Canada, the U.S. is becoming a more attractive option for Canadian chemists seeking employment.
“When I started my master’s, I thought I would stay in Canada and work for Merck Frosst or Boehringer Ingelheim in Montreal, but those sites don’t exist anymore,” says Daniel Shore, a research associate at Genentech who earned a master’s degree from the University of Ottawa. “The evaporation of those jobs has made people look to see what else is available.”
The Canadian master’s degree in chemistry is like a condensed Ph.D., says Christian Reber, a professor of chemistry and director of chemistry graduate studies at the University of Montreal. There, for example, students interested in entering the master’s program apply to the program as well as directly to a faculty member. If they are accepted into the professor’s lab, the student begins doing research immediately and takes only a handful of courses. At the end of what is typically a two-year program, students submit a master’s thesis.
“We take our master’s students very seriously,” Reber says. “We want a high research standard for our master’s students, and not something that’s watered down.”
What’s more, Canadian master’s graduates enter their programs intending to earn a master’s degree. “They’re not students who were seeking a Ph.D. and for whatever reason didn’t go on to get their Ph.D.,” Roth says. “These are students who went into these programs with the intent that this is the career they want to go into.”
In Canada, a master’s “is not a consolation prize,” says Louis Barriault, a professor of chemistry at the University of Ottawa.
Nicole Blaquiere, a senior research associate at Genentech who earned a master’s from the University of Ottawa, says she had no intention of pursuing a Ph.D. “I knew that with a Ph.D., you don’t actually get to do as much bench work,” she says. “You have more managerial responsibilities and roles, and I like being at the bench, and I like doing chemistry.”
Having a master’s degree could be an advantage in this economy, says Simon Mathieu, a scientist at the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research who earned a master’s from the University of Montreal. “If you go all the way to a Ph.D., especially these days, it is really hard to distinguish yourself because there are a lot of Ph.D.s out there, and there is a lot of competition,” he says.
Master’s students contribute significantly to a chemistry department. At the University of Sherbrooke, for example, most of the research in the department is done by master’s students, says department chair Armand Soldera. Students are also encouraged to do multiple industrial internships.
With such an intense focus on research, students often publish multiple papers based on research conducted during their master’s training. Mathieu published three papers while completing his master’s program; on two of them, he was the first author.
The success of the Canadian master’s programs can be attributed partly to the specialized training that undergraduates receive there. Philipe Bergeron, a senior research associate at Genentech who earned a master’s from the University of Sherbrooke, says that by the time he started his master’s, he had already completed a year’s worth of industrial co-ops as an undergraduate. “When I jumped into my master’s program, I was ready to start in the lab doing research right away,” he says.
Reber acknowledges that there’s a perception among faculty members that taking on master’s students is less desirable than taking on Ph.D.s. “As a faculty member, training master’s students is a lot of work, and when they get good, they graduate and leave,” he says. “Ph.D. students stay longer, so you get more results.” But he says it’s important to train master’s students because they fill a critical need in industry.
The Natural Sciences & Engineering Research Council of Canada offers scholarships to master’s students to help them pay for their tuition and salary. Having this funding makes the students more attractive hires for faculty.
As successful as these master’s programs are at producing highly trained chemists, even stellar graduates aren’t immune to the effects of the sluggish economy. Barriault says that over the past few years he has seen a noticeable decrease in recruitment efforts from companies in both Canada and the U.S.
To stay competitive, the University of Ottawa is integrating business courses into the graduate chemistry curriculum. “We have to change the way we train our students,” Barriault says. “The model that was good five or 10 years ago when all the big companies were taking our students because they’re well trained is over, and we have to incorporate other skills or assets in their training.”
Master’s students can take up to nine credits at the master of business administration level, Barriault says. With this strategy, he hopes students will be exposed not only to research but also to the management and entrepreneurial skills that industry seeks.
Barriault and other chemistry faculty members in Canada hope that when hiring starts to pick up, firms like Genentech and Novartis will turn their attention toward Canada’s master’s graduates once again.
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