A few things American academics should know

I sometimes get annoyed at Americans who seem to think that the rest of the world is modeled after them. Here are some things many American academics seem to take for granted:

  • Professors are paid for 9 months, the rest of their salary comes from eventual research grants. At least in Canada, this is false. As a professor, I am employed for 12 months a year. I can take a second job as long as most of my time is dedicated to the University. I do not know a single Canadian professor who gets an extra salary directly out of a Canadian research grant. Thus, in Canada, getting large research grants does not necessarily translate into a higher salary.
  • There are few top schools, and many lesser schools, that is, universities are distributed according to a power law. In Canada, there are some more prestigious schools (Waterloo, UBC, McGill, Toronto…). Yet, there is often little difference in tuition or admission rates between universities. There are salary differences between professors, but not always in the direction you would think: many smaller Universities offer better salaries and working conditions. In my province (Quebec), working conditions for University professors are almost the same throughout: the teaching load is standardized. Thus, a professor at a smaller University has no excuse not to spend less time on research than someone at a larger University. Yet, I hear that in smaller American colleges, the teaching load of professors can be substantially higher: there is no direct equivalent in Quebec. In this spirit, you might be surprised to learn that the Canadian school with the most important research licensing portfolio is a school you probably never heard about (Sherbrooke University). Yes, you could say that Canada is a little bit more socialist than the USA as far as education is concerned: Canadian governments try to make sure that all Universities (and thus, their students) have somewhat equal chances. Of course, even in Canada, if you plan on an academic career, you should probably attend a larger school, if only to have more choices. But it is not uncommon in Canada to find top researchers at smaller schools.
  • All Universities teach calculus at the elementary level. At least in my Canadian province (Quebec), most University degrees last only three years, the last three years of an American degree. Community colleges—not universities!—offer the equivalent of the first year of an American  University education. Thus, University-worthy topics in the USA are often of “community college” level for us.

Published by

Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the Université du Québec (TELUQ).

8 thoughts on “A few things American academics should know”

  1. Even comparing apples to apples (population wise), i.e. California vs. Canada, there is a factor of 2x more universities in California (at least according to Wikipedia). If that scales to the rest of the US, it means that there are ~ 20x more universities in the US.

  2. Interesting. This brings another question: do you reward the best people, or do you equally distribute the reward to everyone?

    I think the US model is designed to increase competition. If all 30 or so research universities were equal, would anyone go the extra effort to get into one? I mean, you’d have lowered the bar to make all these schools equal … this applies not to college/grad school applicants, but also to faculty job seekers. I am not saying that model is better than the Canadian model … but competition often forces people to strive harder.

    The 9-month professorship in US is, of course, a bit awkward. But then again, this allows professors to diversify their research during the summer months. There isn’t that much teaching to do in summer anyway … at least in U of Illinois, almost everyone, including the grad students, are gone during summer to their internships.

  3. @Mikhail Lemeshko,

    Well, at least in CS, among the top 10 CS grad schools, half are public (Berkeley, UIUC, Washington, GeorgiaTech, UT-Austin).

  4. @Ragib

    I think the US model is designed to increase competition. If all 30 or so research universities were equal, would anyone go the extra effort to get into one? I mean, you’d have lowered the bar to make all these schools equal … this applies not to college/grad school applicants, but also to faculty job seekers. I am not saying that model is better than the Canadian model … but competition often forces people to strive harder.

    See my latest blog post:

    http://www.daniel-lemire.com/blog/archives/2009/07/17/determinants-of-faculty-research-productivity/

  5. Also, a typical misconception is that Canada is a big country. Canada has fewer people than California. There is simply not room for a power law!

  6. …not mentioning Europe. 🙂

    For instance, in Germany, all universities are supposed to be equal. Of course, they are not, but there is no huge difference between those.

    Also, most of research is done in institutes belonging to the Max Planck Society. Being a professor in one of these, you can never apply for grants and feel yourself happy – even doing experiments. At least, there is no problem to pay another student or postdoc: you just hire a suitable person, and the Society pays the salary.

    Of course, people building machines for a few millions of euro apply for external funding, which they usually get.

  7. Addressing a comment by Ragib Hasan – I think the reason might be that most of top US schools are private. So, better research means more students and more money, which is not the case in other countries.

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