Academic expectations

Harry at McGill in Montréal


Academic expectation at McGill. This is the blog that I’ve been putting off the longest and that has been for two reasons. The first is that it would probably be the least engaging to write whilst the second was because I had to find a way to write it so as not to put future prospective exchanges at McGill off.

Though I realise in confessing that it somewhat undoes my efforts.

There are distinct differences to the academic system they have over here relative to the one the UK has and invariably these differences will be viewed as good or bad differently for every person and degree. Outlining some of these differences will hopefully shed some light on what to expect for people considering McGill.

McGill operates a continual assessment system the result of which is that the only time you won’t have a deadline is in the first week of term when you’re still learning your professor’s names. Regularly I have been absent-mindedly chatting to someone in lectures and they have mentioned an exam or assignment due the next week which I have known nothing about (there is very little hand holding).

Talking to humanities students this works quite well however since the majority of learning done in the arts is in one’s owns time via assigned ‘readings’. The persistent roll of assignments provides a faithful motivator for these readings.

In the sciences there is less of an obvious benefit although in my opinion, due to limitations in any human’s capacity to take on new information, the breadth and depth of content covered here is less than that covered in Manchester. What struck me in the first few weeks was the asymmetry between what I knew compared to my peers. Though they were infinitely better at managing their time. This is the largest distinction in university styles. The rest are just novelties that add to the academic experience:

  • Teaching assistants (TAs) wield more power than PhDs probably should. Befriend them or suffer.
  • People actually use ‘rate my professor’ sites. Definitely worth checking out prior to signing onto courses.
  • You can actually view exam transcripts and get marks back if you put forward a convincing enough case!
  • Exams aren’t really standardised or decided upon by a committee, they are simply made up by a professor. So in this sense it worth going to their lectures where they’ll probably let slip what they’re going to put on tests. Or at least the lectures during the run up to the exam.
  • You get a lot more choice concerning the types of course you pick. Hence people pick a selection of ones they find interesting (often hard ones) and ‘birdies’ (easy courses that ensure you maintain a good grade point average). Identify the birdies you’re eligible to take.
  • Exams results are usually fitted to a curve against the best result. So if you ace it and no one else does… your selfish.
  • People take pride in the study places they’ve found on campus.

No hour at McGill is an inappropriate hour to hit the library. In fact on several occasions I’ve consolidated friendships with people I’ve just met by studying with them. It is not like only people who want top marks go to the library. Everyone does. All the time. McGill’s equivalent of nightline often serves coffee gone 8pm at the library.

I like to think of the lifestyle here like breathing. Often you might need to work during the weekends, but if you manage your time well this isn’t always the case. Resultantly weekends become the time you can ‘inhale’ and do all the things you enjoy doing that leave you in a positive and restful head space.

The following week sees you ‘exhale’, where all the positivity is converted into library hours and hard work to ensure you’re getting what regularly seems like an insurmountable amount of jobs done.

Don’t worry though. It is surmountable. Having written this it has become glaringly obvious why McGill’s informal motto is ‘work hard, play hard’.

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