Cana­di­an term pa­per marathon: No pain, no gain!

A semester abroad in Canada is one thing above all: a whole lot of work. In addition to a heavy reading load, students have to hand in several papers each and every week. Sounds tough? Well, it also has considerable advantages.

Lennart working on his computer.
Weekly warm-up for the 30-page term paper. Photo: private

"Nothing comes from nothing!” - That's what my grandma used to say when, as a kid, I complained about too much schoolwork. Now, most university students - myself included - who go on a semester abroad imagine this will be a time of travelling, free time and partying. But a semester in Canada is very different. During my time in Vancouver, I produced a combined total of over 100 pages of academic writing, had a 50- to 60-hour work week, and actually only took three courses. I also wrote a few PhD applications.

But let's start from the beginning. The Canadian university system is modelled on that of the US. There are undergraduate programmes (Bachelor’s), which usually last four years, and graduate programmes (two years Master’s, five years with PhD). In Berlin, I am currently doing my Master's in history and am therefore in the graduate programme here. The fact that there are also PhD students significantly increases the quality of the classes. But lecturers’ expectations and the workload are proportionately higher, too.

Term papers? A piece of cake!

On average, we have to read 100 pages a week per course - oftentimes a whole book. Of course, the students here are not superhuman either and you don't always read everything very carefully. After all, it’s not for nothing that we’ve taken the term ‘skimming’ from the English language! But most of the time I read everything closely, because otherwise I can't join the discussions in the class. Plus, there are grades given for oral participation and professors have little understanding when students complain about the workload or haven't read the texts.

In addition, you have to plan and write your assignments during the semester. The deadline for term papers is only one week after the classes end. This means that you have to start writing your term papers and significantly increase your workload during the lecture period.

But the deadlines don’t just come at the end of the semester. You’ll have to hand in papers every week – for every one of your courses. The good thing about this is that you get to 'warm up' during the semester and become much more used to writing. If you have to hand in two or three pages of text per course every week, and then have two or three major submissions of up to 12 pages, the 30-page final paper at the end of the course seems like a piece of cake. This way of studying helped me improve my academic English and general feel for texts. However, constantly having to produce written work also has disadvantages. Expressing a complicated thought or developing a good idea simply takes time. If you have to produce something all the time, you don't get to think in peace - or just get bored (crucial for creative thinking).

Students working in a room at the university.
Graduate students tend to regularly spend 12-hour days on campus. Photo: private

Long days and new networks

What’s nice is that there's a good sense of togetherness among the graduate students here. We often go out for joint lunches and there is also a graduate lounge where one can work and hang out. I got a lot of help there when I got stuck on a text or couldn't find a book. It's also a great place to network and get organised. For example, we formed a group where we discuss newly published research and trends. By chance, I also found out about two conferences in the grad lounge for which I submitted my papers and where I was able to present my research.

As you might be able to read through the lines, I have an ambivalent attitude towards the North American university system. On the one hand, it's really tough and I and most other graduate students spend the whole week on campus. I often arrive around 8am and don’t go home until 8 or 10pm. The advantage that this system offers is that it prepares you very well for an academic career and gives you the necessary contacts and tools to get ahead in academia. Overall, I'm glad I did my exchange at the University of British Columbia - because, as we all know, ‘nothing comes from nothing’.

(Published 20 March 2023)