Rui Hu, Dr. Alberto Martin lab. Photo credit: Mayra Cruz Tleugabulova.
Rui Hu, Dr. Alberto Martin lab.
Photo credit: Mayra Cruz Tleugabulova.

In the tutorial two days before the introductory immunology midterm, there are just over 200 students in the classroom trying to work through problems on T cell thymic selection. One student raises his hand and asks a question about the one peptide mouse. The instructor, Dr. Julius, turns to the class and instructs almost everyone to tune out. Why? Because the question is only relevant to immunology specialists. Now only the eight specialists of the 200 students in the room have to pay attention to his answer. The number of students in the immunology specialist program have been decreasing over the past decade due to an emerging preference to take the immunology major as part of a double major undergraduate. While the immunology specialist program is challenging, as an immunology specialist student, I believe it is a worthwhile program that provides a strong foundation for future careers in science and other fields.

In order to graduate from the University of Toronto with a Bachelor of Science (BSc), undergraduate students need to complete the requirements of one specialist, two majors, or one major and two minors. The immunology major program was introduced only four years ago in the 2009-10 academic year1. In general, students have a preference for breadth over depth. Other departments, such as Human Biology, introduced the major program long before, luring students away from more focused specialist programs in other basic science departments, including Immunology. So to cope with the decreased enrolment, Immunology introduced the major program.

The primary difference between the major and specialist is the number of courses students must take to complete their requirements. In our department, an immunology specialist requires 13.5 credits, while a major only requires 8 credits. This allows the specialist students to learn immunology with greater depth. However, some of the required courses of the specialist program have gained a notorious reputation.

The specialist program requires a few courses that are known for having challenging material and low class averages. Students pick courses not only based on their interests but also on their expected grade in the course. For many science courses at the senior level, there is greater depth, more material and more problem solving, which many students have trouble with.

Although I knew about the specialist program’s reputation when I applied, I decided that I would prefer to work hard at a subject that requires critical thinking rather than a subject that is easy and only required memorization. Now that I have just completed my third year, I sometimes question if I had made the best decision. There were several difficult exams where I spent morning to night in the library, studying and worrying about the results of my exams. I wondered if the specialist program is helping or hindering me from my goals.

If specialist students have less flexibility while taking more difficult courses, then why would anyone choose the specialist over the major? The specialist program has a great track record for training students in a wide range of topics in immunology, and equipping them with critical thinking and communication skills to prepare them for their future careers. Specialist students take lectures in small-sized classes and gain practical laboratory experience by taking on independent research projects. In this regard, specialist students have priority over the major students for research opportunities offered by the department.

After graduation, most specialist students have excelled. From 2005 to 2010, 60% of graduates have gone on to graduate school, 20% have gone on to medical school and another 10% have gone on to other professional programs including law, pharmacy and radiation science (10% did not respond to the survey)1. Clearly the immunology specialist program provides an excellent foundation for future careers.

When I spoke with Dr. Alberto Martin, the undergraduate coordinator for the Immunology department, he told me he believes that, “the immunology specialist is a research stream program and students will gain more from it than the major program, as it is more in-depth. Students gain hands on experience in the laboratory and discover whether they will enjoy graduate school.”

Dr. Martin also realizes that students stress about their marks. For graduate school, the admissions committee in the Department of Immunology want to take the most qualified students, so they look at the marks in the context of the class average, not just the GPA. They also look at the rigour of the program and the relevance of the courses. Specialist students have more opportunities to gain research experience, so they have a better understanding of the laboratory techniques and have more genuine reference letters through their previous research experiences.

The department is also concerned about decreasing enrollment in the specialist program. Over the past three years, changes have been made in the specialist program to make it more attractive to students. We now have more freedom to choose courses that interest us. Enrollment in the program now shows signs of recovery. For the upcoming school year, 20 students were accepted into the second year specialist program.

After many sleepless nights in third year, I’m still glad that I selected the immunology specialist program. The specialist program has also afforded me with the opportunity to participate in the Immunology Summer Research Program this summer. I have a greater depth of understanding of the experiments behind the theory thanks to the extra tutorials. I’m able to interact more with professors through the smaller class sizes. The smaller classes also allow me get to know the people in my program and they are hard working and talented students who inspire me to strive for my best.

Now, back to that tutorial and the one peptide mouse.



1. Cyclical Review November 2011. Department of Immunology, University of Toronto, 2011.

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4 thoughts on “The Disappearing Specialist

  1. Hey Rui!

    I am having the same dilemma that you were explaining in your article. I want to thank you for doing a wonderful job on this article; it was so informative! I was wondering, though, if a double major in a similar field would trump this specialist (specifically a double major in microbiology and imm), or if the “hardness” of the IMM specialist is worth the decrease in GPA?

  2. Hi Clara!

    Thanks for your interest in the article. The immunology specialist is challenging, but I don’t think a double major in microbio and imm is easier. I wrote this article right after 3rd year, which in my opinion is the hardest year in the program. In 4th year, you really see those efforts pay off. The 4th year courses involve a lot more application problems and it becomes a lot more interesting. The professors are engaging and they have realistic and fair expectations from the students, so low grades become less of a concern.

    That being said, I think the answer to your question really depends on your goals and interests. If you like immunology and want to pursue graduate studies in the field, the immunology program is an excellent choice. The difficulty of the program will challenge you and prepare you to face similar problems you will encounter for graduate studies. If you prefer a lot of flexibility in your courses or if you want to explore another field that interests you, the major program will be a better fit.

    Hope that helps,

  3. Hey Rui,

    Something that’s really important to me and science students in general are research opportunities and often times those require applications. I’m definitely not the top student in my class but I’d like to think I’m above average, and I was just wondering what the likelihood is of obtaining a research position throughout the 4 years in an immunology specialist program for someone like me?

  4. Hi,

    It’s great to hear you want to get involved in research! The specialist program is definitely helpful for getting a research position, especially for the summer after 3rd year and the 4th year project. The specialist program has a lot of courses for learning lab techniques and the 4th year research project is part of the requirements of the program, so profs in the department are very open to having specialist students in their labs.

    To get research positions before that is more competitive. Two things that are really helpful is to get started early (like Dec) and participate in a work-study project.

    Hope that helps,

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