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Article: Correspondence School Capers

Correspondence School Capers

by Edward Katz, BSc'68, MDCM'70, MSc(A)'97

"Become a locksmith!" "Finish high school at home!" "Earn your law degree by mail!" We have all seen these ads in popular magazines, extolling the virtues of various correspondence schools. But did you know that McGill has also become, in its own way, a correspondence school, albeit at a much higher academic level? I have recently obtained a Master of Science (Applied) in Occupational Health Sciences, from McGill, after over 3 years of part-time home study.

My studies at McGill began in a conventional fashion. After high school, I completed McGill's seven-year medical program, obtaining my B.Sc. and M.D.C.M. degrees in 1968 and 1970, respectively. After two years in general practice, I became an industrial physician, and have spent the last 24 years working in this area. I have always felt the need for formal training in occupational health, and frequently considered taking a sabbatical year to pursue a one-year Master's program in this field. But it is not easy to take a year off from an established career.

In 1993, McGill's School of Occupational Health, under Professor and Chairman Dr. Gilles Thériault, began to offer its Master's degree program in an off-campus, distance-education format, to occupational physicians and nurses. This was a three-year home-study program, requiring attendance on campus for only three days at the end of each semester. Wow! That sounded like a cinch! I sent off my application in March, and received my acceptance in May. Little did I know what I was in for!

The first clue came in August, 1993, when I received two huge cartons from McGill. They contained the required reading material for each of the first two courses of the fall semester. There were two textbooks, two bound volumes of journal reprints, course outlines, study guides, videos, and five assignments for each course. I now had approximately 1500 pages of reading material to keep me busy. Somehow, this wasn't quite what I anticipated when I signed up for correspondence school.

But I wasn't going to be discouraged by a little reading. I started delving into the texts for the first two courses (Occupational Diseases and Industrial Hygiene); each assignment had a date by which our work had to be faxed into the Occupational Health dept. The first practicum was to be held in mid-December, and included two 3-hour written exams, as well as lab demonstrations, conferences, tutorials, etc.

I had become a student again. My evenings consisted of two hours of studying. I can well remember struggling with the first assignment one fine Saturday night, finally faxing it into McGill around midnight. My wife and children were very helpful; they tried not to make too much noise while I spent my evenings in the basement. But for how long could I keep up this pace, six days a week (I allowed myself a weekly day off)? Only time would tell.

The first semester went by quickly; assignment followed assignment. It was finally mid-December 1993, and time for our first 3-day practicum on campus. The first two days consisted of a factory tour, lunch at McGill, and several lectures and conferences with our formerly faceless professors. On the third day, we wrote our final exams in each of the two courses. But the bad news had started filtering in; we had our first dropout, a physician who decided he wasn't ready to take his exams, so he stayed home! Eventually he dropped out of the program entirely, despite being given a second chance to complete the semester.

And so it continued! The second semester began with courses in Toxicology and Epidemiology. More assignments, more lost sleep, another practicum in the spring. Finally, the term was over; I had survived my first year of correspondence school, and was maintaining an average mark in the low 80's. There were more dropouts; of the 28 students who started the program, four or five had thrown in the towel. But the rest of us persevered.

September, 1994 - the second year started. Courses in Ergonomics, Occupational Health Practice, Social Aspects of Occupational Health, and Physical Agents and their Health Effects. I managed to flunk radiation physics (I could have told them I was no good at physics before even starting the course). But, luckily, the Professor was sympathetic, and offered me a supplemental, which I passed. All in all, another successful year. But our numbers kept dwindling; by the beginning of Year 3, we were down to 15.

September 1995 - the third year, supposedly the easiest year of the program. Fewer assignments during the first semester, but a comprehensive exam (oral and written) in February, followed by a research project of our choice. But not to worry! I had come this far, and would surely graduate eventually. But where would I find a research project? I had it - I could do an epidemiological study related to my work! The Professor agreed. Three months later, my first draft was ready; in my opinion, it was nothing short of brilliant. I laser-printed it on top-quality paper, and left a copy in my Professor's mail slot. I could almost smell the parchment awaiting me! A few weeks later, I was advised by the Departmental secretary that I could pick up my draft! To my surprise, there was page after page of red-penciled comments and corrections, with an indication that considerable rewriting was required. Oh, well, back to the drawing board. It seemed that I required some statistical techniques we hadn't even had in our courses, so the Professor supplied me with textual references. Six weeks later, I brought in my second draft. After three weeks, an encouraging phone call from the Professor; it was much better, but still required work. Finally, another three weeks, and another draft. Success at last! It was considered acceptable, and sent for evaluation. The two evaluators were satisfied, requiring only cosmetic changes, which I made. In mid-February 1997, official confirmation from McGill! I was to graduate in May.

May 27, 1997 - Health Sciences Convocation Day. My wife, two children, father-in-law, and brother-in-law all joined me at Place des Arts. Wasn't it 27 years ago that my Mom and Dad attended my medical school graduation in this very same hall? And who were those familiar faces on the platform? Two of my classmates from medical school: Dr. Abraham Fuks, now Dean of Medicine, and Dr. David Rosenblatt, Professor of Medicine, whose daughter was also graduating. As for Dr. Pierre Bélanger, Dean of Graduate Studies and Research, he seemed to recognize me when he called out my name as I mounted the platform. Indeed, we used to sing together in the St. Lawrence Choir. What a small world.

Yes, it was a struggle. This was no ordinary correspondence course. McGill's first distance-education master's degree was not for the fainthearted. But, as my high school yearbook reminds me, Finis Coronat Opus - The End Crowns the Work.

Now, where do I sign up for that locksmithing course?

This article was first published in LIAISON (Summer 1999). LIAISON is the official publication of the Occupational and Environmental Medical Association of Canada (OEMAC). OEMAC is an association of physicians with an active interest in occupational and environmental medicine. It serves as a unified voice for Canadian occupational and environmental medicine and holds a national scientific & professional conference each year.