New master’s programs offer flexibility to students impacted by COVID
Posted on Monday, June 22, 2020
By Michelle Read
When COVID-19 halted research in labs around the world, graduate students at the Faculty of Medicine were sent home with their research projects in limbo.
Naturally, they wondered how they would finish gathering the results they needed to write and defend the theses necessary to graduate.
“Our students are understandably concerned and even scared,” says Karen Littlejohn, administrator of the Faculty’s Graduate and Undergraduate Basic Science Programs.
Pre-COVID, the Faculty was already in talks with the University of Ottawa’s central administration to create a series of accelerated, one-year master’s degrees based primarily on course work. The research component would be much shorter than that of a traditional two-year master’s program, and instead of the time-consuming process of writing, submitting and defending a thesis to an advisory committee, students would complete a shorter, less structured, research paper.
COVID-19 seemed the perfect time to fast-track the programs through approvals, offering a solution for students suddenly limited in their access to labs.
“It’s the ideal time to open up these programs,” explains Dr. Alain Stintzi, vice-dean of the Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies Program. “Our current students can’t resume their research yet, but waiting until labs are fully re-opened would penalize them financially—and no one knows when that would be anyway.”
The Faculty immediately reached out to current students to offer them the option, depending on their career aspirations and objectives, to transfer from their thesis-based degrees to an accelerated program.
Instead of returning to the lab to finalize their experiments for their theses, students may now work with their supervisors to turn their existing research into a research paper.
“This is about the student experience,” explains Dr. Nadine Wiper Bergeron, interim assistant dean of the Program. “It’s an opportunity for students to graduate sooner by offering options given the new reality of our labs.”
For fall 2020, new students can apply for master’s options either with or without a thesis. With lab access likely still limited, all students will attend the same on-line core courses for the first two terms so that when labs open, they can focus on their research. Ultimately, next steps will depend on the status of COVID-19, with students and supervisors deciding case by case how the research component will be completed.
“We are absolutely prepared for anything that may happen, and we are extremely accommodating,” says Dr. Wiper Bergeron, “We passed the first test of our flexibility back in March, moving from in-person to on-line in days.”
The course-based option is expected to attract students with diverse career objectives, as it fosters enhanced competency in the technology and techniques of biomedical research, specialized knowledge, critical thinking skills, communication skills, and professional skills and behaviours.
The University of Ottawa is one of the first Canadian universities to offer a one-year master’s degrees in the fields of Biochemistry, Cellular and Molecular Medicine, Microbiology and Immunology, and Neuroscience.
“We are in creation mode,” says Dr. Stintzi. “Distance education is an opportunity to increase student population, because students don’t have to be in a classroom.”
With all uOttawa courses offered on-line until 2021, it would be possible, albeit challenging, for students to earn a master’s without ever setting foot in a lab – or even in Ottawa, says Dr. Stintzi.
“The new reality of distance learning means we can offer our programs to students halfway around the world—without them having to travel a step.”
Find out more about master’s programs available through Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies.