Marco Festa-Bianchet

Advice for potential graduate students

I am planning to retire in a couple of years, therefore I am no longer accepting graduate students.  I'd be happy to advise you on alternative supervisors. If you are interested in a graduate degree in ecology at the Université de Sherbrooke, you may find this information useful for any supervisor.  The bit in bold would be my strongest advice.

1. What do you want to do?

I have a broad range of interests in population ecology, behavioral ecology, conservation and wildlife management. I am interested in supervising students with original ideas and enthusiasm for field work. Most of my students take advantage of ongoing field studies, often combining 2 or 3 years of fieldwork with analyses of long-term data. Do not, however, just tell me you want to work on “large mammals” – be more specific. Read what I have done, what my students have done, and think about potential projects before contacting me. You may end up doing something completely different, as we'll develop a project together. 

2. How good is your French?

The Université de Sherbrooke is a francophone institution. You should have at least a rudimentary knowledge of French, and a strong willingness to learn French. Everybody in my group is fluent in English, but university business is done in French and the Sherbrooke region is over 90% francophone. You could do most of your degree in English (seminars, term papers, thesis etc.) but if you will make no effort to learn French, you will have a nasty surprise. Instead, if you saw this as an opportunity to learn another language,  your experience here will be rewarding. Ability to speak French will help you as much as a graduate degree, especially in Canada.

As a M.Sc. Student, you will present 2 seminars (a research proposal and a talk on your results – can be done in English) and take 7 credits of courses (3 2-credit and one 1-credit course, all written work can be in English, but courses are given in French. The program is flexible, however, and if you are willing to make some effort, I'll help you overcome the language barrier). The thesis can be in English, there is no oral defense for a M.Sc. degree.

As a Ph.D. student, you'd find fewer problems with language because you need only 2 2-credit courses. The “mini-thesis” for the candidacy exam (a research proposal with a detailed literature review on your research subject) can be in English, the exam itself can be in English, the thesis, oral defense, the 2 seminars can all be in English.

Other graduate students and professors are happy to speak to you in English, and about half of our seminars are in English. Conversations among more that 2 people, however, are usually in French.

If the idea of learning to speak French does not scare you, read on.


3. How are you going to finance this?

Ecological research is expensive. You will need money for yourself and money for your research. If you do not have a scholarship, accepting you as a student will require a substantial financial commitment on my part – be ready for some competition.

The cost of living in Sherbrooke is lower than in most Canadian cities. Québec residents pay tuition of about $ 5000 for the first year of a M.Sc., $ 1200 a year afterwards. If you live in Canada outside Québec, however, your fees for a M.Sc. will be about $ 7500 for the first year (including a $2000 support from the Faculty of Science), $ 1200 a year afterwards. For a Ph.D., all Canadian residents pay about $ 5000 a year for the first 2 years, $ 1200 a year afterwards. If you are not a Canadian resident, new policies in place at the Université de Sherbrooke attempt to ensure that you will not pay much more than Québec residents.

I pay the research costs for projects within my research program, and encourage students to find some of their own research funding. Evidence that you have thought about a research budget, and about potential sources of funds, will make me consider your application more seriously than either the pie-in-the-sky or the money-grows-on-trees approaches.

If you are still not discouraged, get in touch with me. Tell me about your interests, your field experience, why you want to do a degree on large mammal ecology. If you are strong in statistics, computing, genetics or any other particular skill, point it out. Are you self-sufficient in the field? Have you traveled abroad? If you are interested in a Ph.D., what is your research experience? What have you published and where? What are your chances of getting a scholarship? Can you get along with other people in remote field camps, with no electricity or running water, for months? Are you scared of snakes, bears, or ticks? Arrange for a couple of e-mails of reference from people able to evaluate your research potential. Contact my current or former graduate students to find out what it's like to work with me, what the Department is like and what Sherbrooke is like. Your choice of research project and of supervisor will affect your future career and will involve a commitment of several years: don't take it lightly!

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