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Differences between Canadian and American graduate school experience?

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I just found out that I got into the University of Waterloo for a Master's in Earth Science! I know it's a phenomenal school and it's doing ground-breaking research in my field (groundwater).  I'm from Memphis TN, but am a Canadian citizen and spent my summers there growing up. However, I'm getting the nagging sensation that I'm always missing something. For example, my POI at Waterloo seemed put off by the fact that I didn't already know that a MSc degree there only requires 4 classes in addition to research, and little help was offered when I asked for it to navigate the funding sources. I would ask a question and the answer would seem to come from left field.

Do any of y'all have advice for navigating the Canadian higher ed landscape as a clueless American? Are there any other big differences in curriculum, expectations, and structure of degrees that I'm missing?

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Basically, a American PhD is a 5-6 year program you enter after finishing a BS degree. It is generally fully funded. Courses usually take place in years 1-2 and you have a qualifying exam at the end of the 1st year or sometime in the 2nd year. You have a candidacy exam usually after year 3 or 4. You defend your thesis at the end.

In Canada, you do a 2 year Masters (MSc) with some courses (usually 4 semester courses plus thesis; but there are some coursework-only degrees that are 8 semester courses, no thesis). If you want to continue onto a PhD, you should pick the thesis option (usually the default in most fields). You also have re-apply to a PhD program, even if you want to go to the same school. You do this in the 2nd year of your Masters degree. To get your thesis-based Masters degree, you have to defend your thesis. Your Masters thesis does not have to be original research (unlike your PhD thesis) and it is more a demonstration of your ability to do good research. However, it's best for you to do some original work, most fields will produce 1 paper out of your thesis.

A PhD typically takes 3-4 years and also has some coursework as well as a PhD thesis. Partway through, you will complete a candidacy exam which evaluates your coursework as well as your ability to do research: both within your thesis topic and broadly in your field in general. At the end of your PhD, you defend your thesis work as well.

The structure is different, but in the end, you basically do the same amount of work. Courses in Canada are more spread out and you start research right away (with your assigned advisor from admission, usually). There usually isn't a qualifying exam for PhDs in Canada because your Masters thesis defense is the equivalent. The candidacy exams are similar in both countries. And the final defense is also similar.

Finally, for funding, as a citizen, you are eligible for NSERC CGS-M funding. Look that up and apply for it. You might also qualify for funding from the Ontario Graduate Scholarship. Look that up too. Those are the two main external funding sources. Everything else is internal and you generally don't have to do anything for it unless they ask for it.

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