Bachelor’s Degree
10 min

How I Studied in Canada To Become a Geneticist

StudyFree mentor Yulia Chulanova studied molecular genetics and biochemistry at the University of Toronto and now works as a geneticist in Moscow.

In this article, she talks about the peculiarities of studying and living in Canada and shares some tips on how to get admitted.  

Why a Degree in Canada

I had been interested in biology and aspired to become a geneticist since I was a child. At school, I was a very keen student. I used to participate in three or four academic contests on different subjects every year. With some of them, I happened to be the first in the city rounds. Besides, I used to attend theaеук classes, organize different events, and work as an instructor in a children's camp. So, by the time I graduated, my certificates had grown into a solid portfolio.

Education abroad is an opportunity to master the language, broaden your horizons, and gain a better understanding of the world. A degree from a top university is an excellent investment. That’s what encouraged me to study abroad.

I picked Canada for several reasons. To start with, my first foreign language is English, so I needed to find a destination where I could study in it. Secondly, among all English-speaking countries, studying in Canada is the best option in terms of the quality-price ratio. Thirdly, it boasts a favorable immigration policy for international students: right after graduation, you can apply for a Post-Graduation Work Permit (PGWP) for up to three years, and then get a Permanent Residence Permit. Finally, you don’t feel alien or ashamed of your accent in Canada, because all the Canadians once came to the country from somewhere, so the public attitude towards foreigners is very positive there.

However, there are also things to keep in mind. For example, foreigners in Canada have to pay much higher tuition fees than the locals. Many universities have limited admission for international students and allocate fewer scholarships to them.

An Extra Year of School and Going to University

I decided to go to Canada and complete the 12th grade there. It’s not mandatory to take an extra year of school to get admitted to the university, but it helped me adjust to a new environment and get used to living abroad.

I went to a boarding school, where we had a tight schedule from morning till night, with everything being planned down to the last minute. In addition to our studies, we had a lot of extracurricular activities which helped me socialize and improve my English. For example, twice a week we went to church. It wasn’t for religious purposes, but to hold a school assembly there. Besides, we played sports and participated in community services. I also sang in the choir.

I pursued programs in genetics, so I applied to five Canadian universities and, just in case, several British ones. I got accepted almost everywhere. In the end, I was choosing between the University of Edinburgh and the University of Toronto (UTM).

Both of them rank high in the world and have similar genetics programs. However, I had already got used to life in Canada and had made friends by that time. Besides, I wasn’t excited about the fact that I would have to get used to a Scottish accent. That’s why I eventually decided on Toronto.

How It Works at the University of Toronto

The University of Toronto has a large Faculty of Arts and Science where one can study everything from music to math. In your freshman year, you choose courses that you need to get into a specific program. You apply for it at the end of your first year. Admission to many programs is competitive, so you’d better apply to more than one.

With most of the courses, you have the opportunity to choose from Specialist, Major, and Minor options. You get 16 credits for a specialist-level course, eight for a major, and four for a minor. During your degree, you need to take a minimum of 20 credits altogether, so you can combine different levels and subjects. For example, you can take only one specialist course or two majors or one major combined with two minors.

To get four more credits, you need to take elective courses in other areas such as culture, art, foreign languages, etc. For example, I picked "From Napoleon to Asterix", a course in the French language and culture, "Slavic Linguistics", and a psychology course.

I registered for two majors in Molecular Genetics and Microbiology and Biochemistry. I thought they would go together very well. My friend took a specialist option of Molecular Genetics and our curricula overlapped by 90%.

The program runs for four years. You can take five or six courses per year. Each course lasts two semesters and "weighs" one credit. It’s possible to complete the studies in three years, but the load would be overwhelming. If you study more than four years, your fee for a year is lower, because those who take fewer than four courses a year pay for each course separately.

Was It Difficult To Study?

I failed right in the finals after the very first term. When I started, I strongly believed that attending all the classes, having a lively mind, and memorizing information were enough to do a good job as a student. At a Canadian university though, this was not enough. There, professors can even ask you about something that had only been mentioned in passing during lectures.

There is also a rigorous evaluation system for students. A professor has a list of requirements that you have to meet to pass the exam. For example, if a term in your answer is not exactly the same as the one in the lecture ("fibroblasts" instead of "mature fibroblasts"), you don’t get a point for this assignment.

How Much Does It Cost To Study and Live in Canada?

A year of study in my faculty at the University of Toronto costs 24,000 C$ (here and below, all costs are in Canadian dollars) for international students, which is approximately 19,000 $, and 6,000 C$ (approximately 4,700 $) for those having a Canadian residency permit.

At the University of Toronto, one can apply for the Lester B. Pearson International Scholarship Program. This scholarship covers all expenses for four years, from tuition fees to rent, textbooks, and other daily costs. The program is very competitive: only 37 undergraduate students from around the world are awarded this scholarship each year. However, even though it is difficult to get it, everyone can do that. For example, a good friend of mine from Russia did well in the scholarship contest and is now studying for free.

It cost me about 600 C$ (475 $) a month to live in Toronto, not including rent. If you cook at home and don’t spend as much on coffee-to-go, as I did, you might be fine even with a smaller amount of money.

When I entered, a room in an apartment with other students not very far from the university would cost about 1000-1200 C$ (790-950 $). You can find many offers in Facebook groups, such as University of Toronto - Off-Campus Housing.

In my faculty, students have an opportunity to work as lab assistants to a professor for up to 15 hours a week. Although the pay isn’t that high,11.25 C$ (9 $) an hour, it’s your chance to start gaining experience in your field during the first year already.

In addition to jobs on campus, you can find work in the city. For example, you can be a waiter and get paid 12-13 C$ (10 $) per hour plus tips or a sales clerk in a popular store like Canadian Tire for 14-15 C$ (11-12$) per hour.

On a student visa, you are allowed to work up to 20 hours a week (the limit is higher on vacation). However, my advice is not to abandon your studies for the sake of work. If you fall behind at the university and skip classes, your visa can be simply revoked.

Life in Canada

I really felt in my element when I was living in Canada. Life in Toronto is very comfortable and unhurried. People there are very open and friendly.

When it comes to culture and entertainment, Canada can be a bit boring. Even in Toronto, the largest city in the country, you’ll have trouble looking for exhibitions, quests, concerts, or other activities.

Traveling is not so simple either. Because of Canada's location, one can mostly travel around the country or to neighboring U.S. cities like Chicago and New York. At the same time, Canada is a true paradise for nature lovers since the country is rich in national parks and lakes, which offer vast opportunities for hiking and camping.

Back in Russia as a Geneticist

After graduating from the University of Toronto, I came back to Moscow for personal reasons. Here, I completed my master's degree in Life Sciences at Skoltech. The program was in English. Then I worked for two years in a company that develops gene therapies. These are innovative treatments that are just emerging in the market.

Recently, I started working for a venture capital fund. My job is to analyze biotech startups to help the fund decide whether to invest money there.

The skills that I acquired during my studies in Canada have come in really handy in my new job. Firstly, I speak English fluently and know how to work in it. I use it to write business letters and communicate with foreign colleagues. Secondly, universities in Canada pay a lot of attention to training students on how to make and give presentations. Thirdly, I understand the mentality of people from other countries better which is highly important in my job because most of our clients are foreign companies.

Tips for Those Striving To Study in Canada

Find out which scholarships you are eligible for, and apply for all of them. As trivial as it sounds, you may fail to get a tuition discount or a grant to cover living expenses just because you didn’t know about the opportunity. This information is not always available on the university website, so don't be lazy and look through all the sources you can find to learn more about scholarships.

Get in touch with people who already live and study where you are going. Not only will they tell you about the intricacies of admission, but also share useful daily life tips, such as where to shop for groceries, how to pay bills, and save on travel. Don't be shy to contact people! You'll be surprised at how helpful they are and how much they enjoy making new acquaintances.

If you can, live on campus. It's the easiest way to find company and fit in with the students’ community. It's harder to make acquaintances at university that you can further maintain. The reason is that when everyone has a different range of elective courses, there are no set groups of students.

Do you want to be the hero of the next story and share your experience of studying and living abroad? Join our community of mentors and invite your friends! You can find more information following this link.