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.