University News

Grad students protest denial of sixth-year funding

Transparency of funding process criticized by picketers gathered outside Paxson’s house

Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, April 24, 2014

A forum will likely be held Tuesday for grad students and deans to discuss a lack of sixth-year funding, President Christina Paxson told protesters.

About 80 graduate students picketed in front of President Christina Paxson’s house Wednesday evening to protest the denial of funding to some grad students seeking to complete a sixth year at the University.

The roughly 80 students who submitted Dissertation Completion Proposals for sixth-year funding were initially informed Friday by the Graduate School that there was funding for only about 40 of them, said Sara Matthiesen GS, who participated in the protest.

The announcement left academic departments scrambling to allocate funds to students whose applications had been rejected, Matthiesen added. As of Wednesday, 69 students will receive sixth-year funding, according to an email sent to the Grad School community Wednesday by Peter Weber, dean of the Graduate School.

Over 100 students attended a meeting called by the Graduate Student Council Tuesday night to discuss students’ concerns about sixth-year funding and formulate a plan of action, Matthiesen said.

About halfway through the protest, Paxson emerged from her home to address the protesters. She said she plans to hold a forum, likely on Tuesday, for grad students and academic deans to discuss the dispute.

When John Mulligan GS asked Paxson if there will be a review of the Dissertation Completion Proposal process, she said this idea would be discussed.

Many grad students are concerned about the “opaqueness” of the Dissertation Completion Proposal process, said Dan Ruppel GS, who participated in the protest.

“We don’t know who is reading the applications,” Matthiesen said. “There is a lack of transparency.”

Protesters also expressed concern about how candidates for sixth-year funding are evaluated in comparison with their peers.

The time gap between the application deadline and notification date is problematic because it leaves students little time to secure other funding for work or research, according to an interim statement distributed by the protesters.

Many students need more time to write a thesis, especially if their discipline requires fieldwork, academic travel and multiple language study, Mulligan said.

Students ended the protest with a chant of “hey hey, ho ho, the five-year box has got to go,” referring to the fact that the University only guarantees full funding for five years of graduate education.

Matthiesen invited students to gather after the meeting to organize follow-up actions.

“While this protest is focused on sixth-year funding, we will continue to protest for graduate students’ rights across the board,” Matthiesen said.

A previous version of this article misstated that 41 students who submitted Dissertation Completion Proposals for sixth-year funding were denied. Rather, the roughly 80 applicants were informed that there was funding for only about 40 of them.

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  1. Sara Matthiesen says:

    Just a quick clarification on one of the statistics. “41 of the 81 students were initially informed that they had been denied funding.” This is a slight misquote or misunderstanding. I said that about 80 people applied for 6th year funding and the graduate school only had enough funds to cover about 40 of those applications, not that all 40 of those people were initially denied funding.

  2. If Brown specifically offered six years of funding when these students entered, then they should honor that agreement. If not, then it seems to me they have done the best they can. Unless things have changed since I was a graduate student at Brown, continued dissertation work after that point required only a ‘continuing registration’ fee, rather than tuition, and even when students had exhausted their assistantships, the department made every effort to employ them per-course. And, though I sympathize with the students who didn’t get funding, I can say that’s it’s entirely possible to complete a Ph.D. in five years — I did — at least in English (in departments where field work or other requirements make this improbable, one would hope there’d be priority given in applications for continued funding).

    • Ashley Bowen-Murphy says:

      I’m sympathetic to your points about five years to finish a PhD. As someone who entered a PhD program in my very late 20s, there is part of me that wants to be DONE with being a student by the time I’m, say, 35.

      I am curious, though, about your experience on the job market? I’ve read that students who complete PhDs quickly are not as successful on the market as students who take 7+ years (in part because of the opportunity to get more publications, conferences, etc.). My concern is that five years in-and-out will unfairly hinder my progress toward employment.

      • I was fortunate in finding a tenure-track job right out of Brown. That was 1991, when the MLA reports that there were 1,508 jobs listed. This past year, the figure was 1,142, so it’s gotten a little tougher. Some of my cohort didn’t get jobs that year; some got them the next year (Brown offered them instructorships). My experience is that the year one goes on the market, the demand in one’s field or subfield, and the strength of one’s work are the three biggest factors, and one can only control the last of these. With the benefit of hindsight after 20+ years, I’d actually say that the ability to do research and writing under pressure is as important as anything else, so that if one can finish in five years, that’s actually a plus. One’s scholarly work will, once one has a F/T job, have to compete with many more teaching and service assignments than one typically has in grad school!

    • I would be curious to hear what you are basing your assumption that “they have done the best they can” on, as the lack of transparency is precisely one of the issues with the policy currently in place. Moreover, while it is great that you were able to finish your Ph.D. in five years, every individual case is different – how many years did you have to teach, how many times a week? Were you teaching your own sections or mostly grading? A quick look at your CV shows that you entered the program MA in hand, which already gave you a different starting point than many of the grad students whom this affects. Also, entering the job market in the 90s and entering it now are worlds apart… The current situation demands grad students to be as prepared as possible before entering the job market, and for many grad students, this necessarily means a sixth year.

      • Just to clarify: yes, I came into Brown with an M.A., but I still had to do much of the same coursework; I finished in 5 years overall (2 at Syracuse, 3 at Brown). And yes, the marketplace (in which I got a tenure-line job) was better then.

        But I don’t want this to devolve into a debate over any one person’s experience. I would simply say that, for some students, I’m sure the extra year could be vital, but that there isn’t necessarily a correlation between how long you spend on it and how good your dissertation is. In my day, the department directory listed students who had spent more than eight years on their dissertations as “8+” — and many of them never finished. I also agree the process for a sixth year of funding should be more transparent, and should be sensitive to the kinds of research involved in the dissertation.

  3. i don’t know what the big deal is. just plagiarize someone else’s work. it won’t take very long and you’ll get a great job as a dean– like vanessa ryan. duh.

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