Tuesday, March 11, 2008


Ask the Administrator: Grad School Funding Follies

A new reader writes:

I have a question for you based on personal experience. I am ABD in a
humanities program at Wisconsin, and the university has recently decided
to do away with 1-semester dissertation fellowships in favor of offering
(a presumably lower number) of 2-year funding packages for incoming grad
students. I'm curious as to what your take on this is from the
administration standpoint. On the one hand, I understand the desire to
attract high-caliber students and the difficulty of competing with schools
that have more money (read: IV league schools). I also understand the
desire to drop out of school due to unpredictable or inconsistent funding,
especially in the early years, as I went through that myself. On the other
hand, there seem to be a lot of negatives to this change. First, you are
giving a lot of funding to candidates that have yet to produce any
graduate level work, and so from the investment perspective, it seems
riskier. (At least in my department, university support, i.e.
non-departmental support, has been a terrible predictor of academic
success, let alone graduation.) Secondly, it reduces the number of
graduate students the university can support, not only because the time
frame is longer but because the cost is higher; at least here, dissertator
tuition is vastly lower (about 80% lower) than non-dissertator tuition.
And lastly, it seems like it would make the mean/median time to graduation
even longer (something that I think all universities care about), because
the support would come while students are doing their coursework rather
than while they are writing their dissertations; coursework deadlines make
that part of graduate study happen quickly no matter what, but
dissertations can last forever. Am I misreading this, or is this a bad
idea? What's your take on this?

Although this isn't really what I work on day-to-day, I really enjoy questions like these. Readers who work on these issues on a daily basis are invited to bring light to darkness.

If I read the question correctly, there's a distinction here between university-based support and department-based support. To that extent, I think the key issue is really the coordination between the two. If the funding cuts out after two years and there's nothing left to replace it other than adjuncting or bagging groceries, then there's a serious problem. If all that happens is a handoff from one source to another, then I'm not sure what the fuss is about.

I'm also not sure about the distinction between coursework deadlines and dissertations. In my experience – admittedly, a more innocent time, in which a young Kurt Cobain taught America the meaning of “bad life choices” -- most of the folks in my program were carrying anywhere from one to four incompletes, often for years at a time. (I wouldn't be surprised to find that a few of them are still unresolved.) Yes, coursework has deadlines, but at least in that setting, they were mostly advisory.

(And what's the deal with a single semester fellowship? I've never heard of them lasting less than a year. “Here, have four months on us.” In the scheme of dissertation writing, I'm underwhelmed.)

And it's certainly true that the availability of funding can affect recruitment, as well it should. A prospective grad student looking for a do-able program would be well-advised to choose a program that offers fellowship support through the coursework phase. Presumably, someone a few years into a grad program will be better able – both academically and in terms of time management – to handle some ta'ing than someone who just walked in the door.

As my regular readers know, I'm a strong supporter of reducing graduate admissions, especially in the humanities. Over the long term, the only way that humanities Ph.D.'s will command more respect on the market is to reduce the oversupply. Since new gushers of funding for tenure-track lines don't seem to be materializing, trimming graduate admissions strikes me as the best way to do that. If we go from “let 'em all in and let God sort 'em out” to “we support the very few we accept,” that strikes me as positive.

(Question for folks who run grad programs: what's with the 'finish quickly' imperative? If there aren't any jobs out there anyway, what's the rush? I've never understood that.)

From my 'interested outsider' standpoint, it appears that graduate programs are working with several conflicts of interest. They're supposed to regard employable graduates as their product, on which they're judged; this would suggest taking relatively few, and supporting those few well. But they also need to supply the research professors with progeny, and to staff all those Intro sections with ta's. These imperatives would suggest relatively more open admissions, combined with a fairly aggressive 'weed 'em out' approach. Finally, even in fields in which there's no reasonable argument that more PhD's are necessary, any given department has strong incentives to be considered doctorate-granting. It's a variation on the tragedy of the commons, with 'jobs' substituted for 'pasture.'

As long as the drivers are contradictory, I'll assume progress, if any, will come in fits and starts.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers who actually toil in these fields – how do you read the correspondent's dilemma?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

I'm assuming the fellowship amount is much more than just giving tuition remission, as they typically give living expenses as well -- so the cost of dissertator tuition vs. coursework tuition isn't a huge factor -- and it is all internal accounting for the university anyway.

I wonder if the idea behind the change was to strongly encourage students to finish more quikly? If so, it seems to be a good move. If the usual trajectory (and I'm far from being on the usual trajectory) for a grad student includes an assumption of the availability of several semesters of fellowship after department TA positions, PhD candidates aren't in any rush, thus they hang around longer if they can't get jobs ABD.
I've assumed that 'finish quickly' was due to the idea that those who don't finish quickly are much less likely to finish at all.
I do suspect that a lot of this has to do with being competitive. My facility is not an R1 per se (we're a hybrid academic department/governmental lab where our grad students are concerned), but a great deal of attention is given to being able to attract excellent grad students. And they won't come without support up front.

In my field, it's also possible to get grant funding for a grad student once he or she is settled in and working. If the department will carry the student during the period when he's not going to get much research done, it gives his mentor some time to secure grant funding for his maximally productive period. That handoff allows the school to then recruit another student on the fellowship line.

OHOH, a diss-writing fellowship doesn't help the school much. The student has already done all of the work he's going to do, and with the fellowship, he's going to vanish completely. From the school's perspective, better to have the grad student around, teaching or otherwise earning his keep, and writing the dissertation more slowly.
Our university has done the same thing from a top-down approach - the funding is used for recruitment. We have had to struggle with "awards" - with the assumption that not only is the student deserving, they have at least a few outstanding bills if they have been in school at any level for awhile - versus "scholarships". We were specifically told to give money only to students who would be back the next year to take additional courses. . .

So, it's part of recruitment, not looking at the larger picture of "student support". Get them in the door is the primary focus now at many universities and colleges.
R1 school with 30k+ undergrads here at "Compass Heading State U."

We have competitive admissions (no problem with oversupply in our discipline) and a finite number of slots (based on funding- go figure!) to accept PhD seekers.

Once accepted, students get 4 years support (tuition + stipend + summer teaching) then zilch.

They work "joined at the hip" with faculty as RAs for the first two years, then TAs for the second two years. Assigned a teaching mentor pre-comps, and then a research mentor (dissertation chair).

They are expected to sit for comps at the end of two years of coursework- and seminars are timed to allow them to do just that. Minor fields of course may drag out a bit.

We have a couple finish up in under four years. Very few take longer than four years. In the last 6 years or so, we have had 1 student "wash out," a small handful "drop out," and the vast majority placed upon graduation in tenure track positions.
Well, I went to grad school in an evergreen social science at an R1 university. It was a huge graduate department, over 180 graduate students in five sub-disciplines. It was very much a "let em all in and let God sort it" type of place when I was admitted. Little first year funding but very cheap tuition and it was a cheap place to live. Very tough, weed-em out course work the first year and then TAs & RAs to a large subset of remainder. The faculty was large, diverse, and very different and they had a terrible time deciding on admission criteria -- once when someone on the committee raised the standardized test scores required to get in, the most high-flying professor claimed that the new students were too young and boring! (Novels could be written about this department). Anyway, if you bonded with your advisor and were a good fit for the department and got outside funding to support your research, then the expectation was that your advisor would fight tooth and nail for you to have at least one year of funding to write the dissertation.

As I said, tuition was cheap and people could and would hang around a long time. Many people succeeded quite well but few would have been identified that way at the start.

The department has now changed significantly -- tuition is higher, the department culture is less free-wheeling, admission is stricter, and there is more funding upfront. But the students are grumpier than ever and hiring in this field continues to decline.
The questioner writes:
"First, you are giving a lot of funding to candidates that have yet to produce any graduate level work, and so from the investment perspective, it seems riskier. (At least in my department, university support, i.e.non-departmental support, has been a terrible predictor of academic success, let alone graduation.)"

The above statement seems to imply that the aim of the university should be to "invest" in students that will "succeed." I'd argue that the inverse makes more sense, from a business standpoint. Once a student is to the dissertation phase, he/she has already bought the farm, so to speak. The likelihood is that he/she will slog through and finish, without that semester of funding. On the other hand, when attempting to attract the most sought-after applicants (something that the school can then use in its promotional materials to attract even more sought-after applicants in the future) and in attempting to keep retention through coursework high (again, important in continuing to attract high-caliber students - it doesn't look good for the grad school if there's a huge attrition rate in the first couple of years), it makes better business sense to invest on the front end rather than on the back end. If it's a straight PhD program and people choose to leave after coursework with the terminal MA, that doesn't reflect badly on the school. If people leave before that, it does. I suppose all of this is a long way of saying that these decisions are *not* about investing in individual students. They are about investing in the school, and making an investment that will make the statistics of the school look better. I'd say that's also the reason that there is a focus on "time to degree" - it makes the school look efficient and strong; whether people get jobs at the end or not can then be blamed on the individual student rather than on inefficiency in the program.
That funding model sounds familiar -- many places now look upon the first years of grad funding as most important (to recruit students, help them through the expensive years and hope they learn how to latch onto some other funding for the last years). Also, you get a lot more people willing to put money into an admissions scholarship than a continuing scholarship fund.

DD, you asked why grad programs are all about quick completion. #1, that's usually because of the metrics we report to outside agencies. I run a one and two year graduate degree program and every student who doesn't complete in the time alloted becomes ineligible for funding and also gains us a checkmark in the bad place on the spreadsheet. Too many bad checkmarks and they start talking about redress against the program.

The second reason we're all about quick completion is that people who don't finish their degrees somewhere near the time alloted are a financial and resource drain on our program. Students (obviously and rightfully) want to compete for any funding opportunities they still have, they still require time from supervisors (who might have to say no to another student if one's still hanging on, slouching towards completion) and office space and the like. Some institutions limit you to a total number of students in the program and this can be a problem. Add to this that the department often isn't recompensed at all for students past the "in course" enrollment. Sure, a prof might get a little stipend boost if they actually move the student through to a successful defense. But the department is now losing money on all the effort it pours into a student who's past the program length.

Frankly, we don't do graduate students any good service when we allow them to linger significantly on past their program lengths (note, I'm not talking about the people who take five years to complete a Ph.D., but the people who take seven, eight or more years to finish a realistic four-year program).
Elephant in the room --

How's the Ph.D. job market? Is this possibly a silver lining situation where one realizes that it's time to bail whether or not the Ph.D. is doable?
As someone who recently finished at Wisconsin (Madison), and now teaches/administrates there, I have to say I have no idea what the question means by "the university has recently decided to do away with 1-semester dissertation fellowships in favor of offering (a presumably lower number) of 2-year funding packages for incoming grad students."

To the best of my knowledge, the university offers nothing in the way of fellowships such as they describe. There are grants here and there, some Title VI FLAS money (dissertators are not eligible), and TA/PA/RA positions. The university system (i.e. not the UW-Madison but the system-level administration) did recently make PA positions prohibitively expensive to the departments wishing to offer them, which of course immediately ended PA support for grad students.

I suspect the questioner's department is finding a convenient scapegoat for their own decision to concentrate on entry-level grad students. This is nothing new--my department focuses it's support on the first two years. Part of the justification is that dissertators should be able to write their own grant proposals for support, and part of it is because, typically, TA positions go to more advanced students.
I had heard people at the UC (California) system making the same claims about advanced students being a financial drain as Janice mentions, which is very depressing. My lit department officially declares that normative time to PhD is four years, even though I only know one person whose made it through on that time and 7 is much more standard --- lately UC is cracking down on everyone who goes over the "clock" and denying them the ability to apply for TAships as well as fellowships.

Our grad advisor mentioned an interesting thing when we were pressuring them to cut admissions way back (and fund us better across the board since so few of us are getting jobs out the other end, eh?) ---- he says that grad programs here are ranked by size, and if they were to shrink down to a lower category, the UC would reallocate our large lectures and TAships to a growing, "up-and-coming" department, making it even harder for them to fund the students we currently have.

So this is how they are justifying 15-20 new grads arriving here every fall even though a third of them won't even have a TAship much less a fellowship. Gah. The whole thing is depressing and completely contrary to what everyone is saying when calling for change in the MLA newsletter etc.
How can any program, in good conscience, take in more students than there will be jobs for?*

I mean, that's unethical at the undergrad level but downright *criminal* for PhD students . . .

*[let alone more than you can support for 4 years!]
This is very curious to me...I am finishing up in a humanities department at UW-Madison, and I've heard nothing of the kind (although I don't think most grad students in my department are kept in the loop at all). However, I am also confused by what Richard said, as we just found out in the last week or so about the 3 dissertators who are receiving University Dissertation Fellowships next fall. In other words, the U *does* offer 1-semester dissertator fellowships.

In any case, as someone who received a single-semester departmental fellowship, I can say that it is indeed laughable--but I was tremendously lucky to get even that. Most people leave my department without having any fellowship-supported writing time at all.
"How can any program, in good conscience, take in more students than there will be jobs for?*

I mean, that's unethical at the undergrad level but downright *criminal* for PhD students . . .

*[let alone more than you can support for 4 years!]"

I have a next-to-worthless Ivy League terminal master's degree from a defunct department that has perhaps called for 5 faculty positions across the discipline in the past 20 years.

That department alone admitted 10-20 new PhD students EVERY YEAR; it was one of about 3-5 across the country.

I received BAD advice and even paid for it all myself. Even worse, the faculty treated us all shabbily.

I should have fled the academy long ago because this only got worse when I applied to other PhD programs. I recently quit grad school in disgust because this festering little secret seems to be how the system works at most schools; it is neither new nor unusual.

I just wish it actually was criminal. I'd sue for a partial refund!
The fellowship the curious anonymous Badger mentions is specifically for humanities dissertators, and is the result of selection from candidates nominated by the relevant departments. The recipients are supposed to be close to finishing and show strong academic potential, so it's not really meant to replace other sources of funding. It's more like a reward for being nearly done with promise of future success. A bonus, in other words
Anything less than a 5-year funding (that is, free tuition and some sort of assistantship stipend that one could live on with a low standard of living) is an insult. And I agree that fewer people should be accepted in the first place due to the state of the job market, at least in fields where the PhD really just qualifies one realistically for a professor job and not some non-academic job as well.

Also, universities have to be realistic about this. I love how my university insists that our graduate in English Literature degrees will somehow allow us to get all sorts of jobs out there in the mythical world. What jobs? I want to know!
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