UBC Trip Report

My beloved husband and I just got back from Vancouver, British Columbia, where we explored the University of British Columbia as one of the options for a MS in CS. The other option is Stanford, which unquestionably has more prestige, but everyone says that Vancouver is a great place to live, UBC seemed like a reasonable university, and we have family just across the border in Bellingham.

We were very impressed with UBC.

Grad student interaction

One place that I think UBC really shines over Stanford is in interactions with other students. At Stanford, it is quite possible to get a MS degree without ever seeing another student, thanks to their strong distance learning program. Not only that, but apparently a lot of the on-campus students don't bother actually going to class in person when the lectures are available on the Web.

Furthermore, at Stanford, the MSCS is a short, terminal program. While you can do research, it's not the normal path. This means that the students are not part of lab groups, and I think therefore much more isolated.

At UBC, by contrast, all first-year masters students, who usually are not yet doing research, are given a desk and a SunRay thin client in a room secured with key-card access. After the first year, MS students start on their research, at which point they get a desk in a lab with other students in that research group.

Graduate students are also woven into departmental governance much more than I could ever imagine at any of the universities that I have known. There is a grad student on every departmental committee, including grad admissions, including faculty recruiting, including even the committee that chose a new department head. Barry Po, a PhD student who was my principal contact, apparently had been and is still very involved in getting the new building constructed -- up to and including negotiating prices for computer equipment!

CS Department facilities

The facilities there are outstanding. They are JUST moving into a big new, well-laid out, well-equipped building. UBC is a state school, and the winds of political favor happen to be blowing in the University and Department's favor right now. (UBC is building lots of residence halls right now, in part because of the upcoming Winter Olympics in Vancouver in 2010.)

I like the usability of the new building much more than I like Gates, Stanford's CS building. (And it's not just the name I don't like.) At Gates, you have quite long sight-lines down the corridors, but the ceilings are at normal heights, so it gives an optical illusion of being cramped. In the UBC building, the ceilings are quite high.

At Gates, the doors don't have windows in them -- not even the ones leading in and out of staircases or classrooms. (I'm always nervous that I will whap someone in the face as I go through or that someone will whap me.) The faculty offices have a thin, tall window next to their doors that IIRC is frosted. That helps a little, but is nothing like at UBC.

In the new building at UBC, the faculty doors are mostly glass. They are frosted for privacy, but you at least get the natural light filtering through. Meanwhile, the labs -- where the grad students live -- have clear glass doors, so you can see people bustling. It feels alive.

There is a snack-bar-ish area in Gates which you can discover if you walk through the entire building (as I did). However, it isn't at all obvious. They are also experimenting with a small student lounge -- big enough for about three overstuffed chairs and a ping-pong table.

At UBC, there are two different lounges in the new building. There is an undergraduate lounge on the first floor of the new building in a very obvious place. It's quite large -- there are about four sofas and about ten tables, with lots of handsome chairs (with "cs.ubc.ca" carved in the backs), and some vending machines. Then, on the top floor, with an absolutely stunning view of the ocean and mountains, is another lounge that is more for faculty/staff/grad students. (I don't know if undergrads are restricted, but they probably wouldn't go up there.) It felt bigger than the undergrad lounge, had a sink, and I bet it'll have a fridge and a microwave at some point.

At Gates, I have the sense that most people keep their doors closed. (Either that or nobody's ever there!) In the CS department at UBC, it seemed like people kept their doors open. It was a much friendlier environment. (Note that this is probably in large part because Stanford has such prestige. People probably bother Stanford profs a lot more than UBC profs.)


We stayed at Saint John's College, a grad student/postdoc dorm that has a few couples' suites, and that was a good move. We got to meet a number of the students, who gave us good info about the CS department, residences, culture, etc. Saint John's has a mandatory meal plan, seminars, and various events that happen frequently. For example, next week one of the guys we ate dinner with is going to give a talk on a particular composer.

One woman showed us the suite that she and her husband have at Saint John's; it is very small by the standards we are used to, but livable.

Saint John's is interesting in that it has a strong international theme to it. Another, similar residence hall called Green College has more interesting architecture and a strong interdisciplinary theme.

There are also two apartment complexes that we could live in on-campus. These are much more stand-alone: no meal service, no seminars, probably minimal socializing.

If we go to UBC, we think our first choice is to live in Green's or Saint John's if we can get in.

Trailing spouse

Canada is MUCH more accommodating of trailing spouses than the US is. Not only would there be no problem with Jim living in a student dorm, but there would be zero problem with him working up there. He basically just has to fill out a form.

They want me!

UBC is recruiting me very aggressively. They want me. They say they think I'd be a valuable addition to the department. They are reimbursing us $500 of the cost of this trip, regardless of whether or not we decide to move there. Barry Po has spent a significant amount of time wooing me when he should be preparing for his thesis defense next week. I had a full day of tours, meetings with faculty, etc.

Stanford doesn't really seem to care. I have the sense that if I went to UBC, Stanford would just offer my position to one of the other highly-qualified students with nary a backwards glance.

They are friendly!

People were genuinely, sincerely, actively nice up there. For example, I was wandering around the halls of the old CS building to get a sense of the place. (I like to look at cartoons and posters on doors, see what flyers are pinned up, etc. to get the feel of a place.) Alan Hu, one of the CS faculty, saw me wandering around and asked if he could help me find something. I explained who I was and what I was doing, and asked him a few questions about the department. (It's always good to talk to people that weren't hand-picked to talk to you!) He ended up spending an hour or so in a very engaging conversation with my husband and I comparing Stanford (where he got his PhD) and UBC.


UBC acquitted itself extremely well. Now I need to go see if I can bend the Stanford experience into one that would give me as rich interactions with other students (and, to a lesser extent, faculty) as UBC would.

Ducky Sherwood