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In my opinion

Funding disparities are pushing Canadians to enrol in U.S. doctoral programs

Canada’s graduate student stipends are “very low and tough to live off of,” one Canadian PhD candidate at Yale says.

BY ROBIN BULLER | NOV 18 2022

In 2013, Véronique Carignan – now an assistant professor at the Sea Educational Association in Woods Hole, Massachusetts – enrolled in the University of Delaware’s doctoral program in oceanography. Originally from Peterborough, Ont., Dr. Carignan had graduated with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Toronto in 2012. After spending a year in an ocean sciences lab in Bermuda, she decided to pursue a PhD – but she didn’t apply to a single Canadian doctoral program.

“I had no interest in attending a program in Canada,” said Dr. Carignan, explaining that Canadian universities’ inadequate funding schemes were a primary factor. “In Canada, universities will pay your tuition, but their stipends don’t compete with those offered by U.S. institutions. That was a big barrier.”

What’s more, the probability of receiving external fellowships to supplement a meager stipend was restricted by the fact that only two Canadian universities offered programs in her field. One of those institutions, the University of British Columbia, was located in Canada’s most expensive city. “Receiving one of their limited number of fellowships was just not very likely,” she said. Faced with impossible numbers, Dr. Carignan – like many other Canadian PhD hopefuls – ultimately made the decision to apply to U.S. programs, where it was understood that she would be guaranteed a livable stipend in an affordable location.

The truth is that on both sides of the border, graduate students – who take on robust teaching and research obligations – are grossly underpaid, and struggle to live off of salaries that have been stagnant for decades. In the U.S., stipends almost always fail to meet student workers’ costs of living by a large margin, a crisis that has recently caused 48,000 University of California graduate students to go on strike. Humanities students, it has been shown, typically have it worse than their STEM colleagues. One study, by Boston College professor Eric Weiskott, found that the 2021-2022 annual stipends for English PhD students in the U.S. ranged from $41,520 (about $53,890 CDN) on the high end at Columbia University, to $16,000 (about $20,750 CDN) at universities in North Carolina and Alabama.

At first glance, the stipends at Canadian universities don’t seem far off from those offered by U.S. universities. UBC’s “minimum funding policy” requires that students be provided with a funding package equal to $22,000 for each of their first four years. U of T’s faculty of arts and sciences requires a base funding package of $19,000 to $19,500 per student, in addition to coverage of tuition and fees payments in 2022-23.

However, a simple numbers-to-numbers comparison doesn’t take into account cost of living. Vancouver and Toronto are home to Canada’s priciest rental markets. Yet, UBC and U of T’s stipends are much closer to those provided to students living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina – a relatively affordable college town – than they are to students in New York City. With such discrepancies in funding and affordability, it is no surprise that Canadian scholars continue to enroll in U.S. programs.

Noah Houpt, a doctoral student in evolutionary ecology who grew up in the Peterborough area, was eager to work in a specific lab at Yale University, but funding was also a major factor in his decision-making process. “As I understand it, research-focused universities in the U.S. fund graduate stipends to a much higher level than similar universities in Canada,” he explained. “That certainly contributed to me coming here.” At Yale, Mr. Houpt’s stipend is double that which he received as a master’s student at the University of Ottawa.

“The stipends in Canada, especially for students without other funding [and] international students who may have to pay higher tuition, are very low and tough to live off of,” he continued.

While Rhiannon Turgel-Ethier was completing a master’s degree at McGill University, funding was tied to a student’s ability to get teaching assistantships – positions that were not guaranteed. In her first semester, she did not receive an assignment. “I had to work part time jobs to help during that time,” said Ms. Turgel-Ethier, now a doctoral candidate at Florida State University, studying American Indigenous history. “The funding packages and how strong U.S. universities are with [funding] was one of the main reasons I came to the states.”

Dr. Carignan likewise expressed frustration with the lack of funding transparency and security in Canada. “It isn’t implied that you’re going to get a stipend,” she said of the Canadian programs she considered. “Some fellowships are only for a year. After that, you have to pay for the program or get renewals. It sounds like a lot more work.” By way of contrast, when she was accepted to the University of Delaware, her department clearly outlined the precise amounts of funding that she was guaranteed to receive in each of her five years as a student.

Originally from Ottawa, Tess Megginson, a history doctoral student at UNC Chapel Hill, was advised to pursue a PhD in the U.S. because of funding disparities – although she is wary about how drastic the differences really are. “People told me to go to American universities because there were more funding opportunities,” she said. “I don’t know if that’s true, because there are also a lot of things we can’t apply for as international students.” Only American citizens and permanent residents can apply for the Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad fellowship, for instance.

As Ms. Megginson’s experience shows, however, the very fact that students and scholars expect U.S. programs to offer superior funding packages impacts the number of Canadians who enroll in American doctoral programs. The result, as others have warned, is a potential Canadian brain drain, with younger researchers looking abroad for programs that offer stipends perceived (correctly or not) as more livable.

Administrators at Canada’s top universities hesitate to acknowledge the existence and impact of graduate funding disparities. A spokesperson from McGill, for instance, said that they were “unaware of this potential trend.” Yet, as outcries from graduate students in Canada who are unable to afford rent and groceries become louder and more desperate, Canadian higher education experts will be forced to acknowledge that funding at Canadian institutions is inadequate. As they work to find a solution, many of Canada’s top students – especially those who depend on guaranteed funding – will continue to look south of the border.

Robin Buller is a visiting affiliated faculty member at UC Davis studying Jewish migration history. Originally from Canada, she completed her PhD in history at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.

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  1. Poor PhD student / November 22, 2022 at 20:41

    The interviewee said: “In Canada, universities will pay your tuition”…
    While at McGill, tuition is not paid by the university for graduate students, at least in my program. The institution is unique in its own way.

  2. steve salterio / November 23, 2022 at 13:56

    Interestingly the article does not quote a single Canadian based doctoral student, but rather those who are dealing with cognitive dissonance over their decision to leave Canada and go for a US based PhD.

    Nothing wrong with going to the US for a PhD. Did it myself. But having folks who are attempting to justify their choice to go US be the main commentators in this piece is problematic at best.

    Why? What they think they know versus actual practice in Canada is highly suspect. Min. funding packages are exactly that min. funding packages.