Graduate students who are feeling less than satisfied with the present streamlined and sometimes singular focused graduate and PhD programs will find some flexibility in Concordia’s Specialized Individualized Program (SIP).
The school of graduate studies created SIP in 1977 for graduate students with specific research goals that were not part of the university’s existing graduate programs.
Today, SIP continues to help students who want to include relevant work and academic experiences in their graduate and doctorate research, when no other program will do.
“SIP is for graduate students who, for the most part, are thinking outside of the box,” says James Jans, the director of SIP. “Their work does not fit neatly into a single discipline and they want to bring several ways of thinking to their ideas.”
A graduate student can create and propose a program based on academic and professional experience from more than one discipline and from more than one university across Canada and the United States.
Suzy Lister’s professional and academic experiences have included seven years as an art therapist in pediatric oncology, an honours BA in psychology, diploma in art therapy and a certificate in play therapy.
She has also taken courses in religion, fine arts and creative art therapies, so when she was ready to begin her PhD she wasn’t interested in having a program decided for her.
“I wanted to have the autonomy to create a PhD program that I felt was meaningful based on my clinical experience in Pediatric Oncology,” says Lister. “I had a good idea of what I wanted, but that did not mean being narrowly focused. SIP gave me the opportunity to dally in related fields that I would never have been able to do in a more basic program.”
Lister drew on Concordia’s applied human science and from the psychology department to create her PhD program. “My focus is on transformational learning in bereaved parents, thus I am looking at how parents who have lost a child can learn and grow from this tragedy.”
SIP presently has 37 students registered, with 18 working on their PhD. Last year only six of the 28 applications to SIP were accepted.
“SIP is highly competitive,” says Jans. “A strong GPA is required and a student must have at least three supervisors, with the head supervisor from Concordia, who has agreed to work with the student.”
Often, a student has worked with, or wishes to work with, an individual faculty member at Concordia who is recognized as a leader in a field of research, but the department they belong to does not have a doctoral program. “If the student wants to work with the best he or she comes to Concordia and does a SIP,” adds Jans.
Olga Proulx combined geography, biology and forest science from UQAM for her PhD. “I certainly had to justify my admission,” says Proulx.
“My reason for applying was somewhat unique in that ideally I wanted to continue to work with my supervisor who is an expert in my field.”
Proulx holds an honours degree in physical geography and a master’s in public policy and public administration from Concordia.
“Also I had to demonstrate a commitment to my studies and a clearly set out program. Of course, I had to have good grades and the support of my supervisors.”
The support of a supervisor from each department is a critical element to the acceptance of the proposal. “It would be unfair of us to admit a student without a complete committee,” says Jans. “When we admit a student we know Concordia has the academic resources to help the student successfully complete a degree and we know that because three supervisors have stepped forward and said they want to work with the student.”
SIP is not for the faint of heart.
Students who have been accepted in SIP face some challenges. The primary challenges include isolation and poor opportunities for funding.
The isolation is the result of the variety of disciplines that SIP students study. In many cases there is no commonality, or colleague group that would be part of a single discipline.
“You must be self motivated,” says Proulx. “There is no one around other than your supervisors to wind you up, grip to or complain to.”
Since the students design individualized programs, they don’t really have a home department. “There is no place where everyone knows your name,” says Lister. “Unless your supervisor has space you do not get an office to go to, colleagues to develop relationships with, or peers to have conversations with.”
To help students deal with the isolation, SIP held their first breakfast gathering last December as a way to bring the department’s students together.
“I intend to keep having them on a regular basis so that students have a place to meet and talk with one another about their research and their experiences,” says Jans. The department is also trying to find suitable space to have a reading room that is similar to the room located at the mature student centre.
As there is no department per se, students in SIP are not specifically funded and unless a supervisor is willing to help with finances students are left to do it for themselves.
Unfortunately, funding is a perennial problem. “If a supervisor has funds, it is certainly a positive influence,” says Jans.
“Sometimes, however, a supervisor’s funds are to be used for a specific research project of the supervisor’s, not the SIP student, so the funds can’t be used to support the SIP student.”
The school of graduate studies provides funding for teaching assistantships for first year students, but this is what at best can be described as modest funds. The total amount available is fixed, so the specific amount that students get varies with the number of students entering the programs in any given year.
“We don’t have the long tradition of a place like McGill where endowments have built up,” says Jans. “Both the former and current deans of graduate studies are working very hard to find other sources of funds for students.”
The success of the SIP can be attributed to the number of spin-off departmental programs that have developed. Successful students in the SIP have helped departments demonstrate that they should have a PhD program. The Quebec government did not approve the present biology PhD program until 1995, after many students included the biology department as a main element of their SIP. Other programs have benefited from successful SIP students, including chemistry and mathematics.
“Sociology and anthropology are furthest along,” reports Jans. “But I have heard that geography and political science are also interested.”