April 29, 2014
Brown Ph.D. Students Protest Policy That Puts Funds in Limbo After 5th Year
By Vimal Patel
Tension at Brown University over how Ph.D. students in the humanities and social sciences are financed in the later years of their programs fueled a series of protests on the campus last week, and administrators scrambled to secure money for students who were uncertain about how they would pay for their next year.
Doctoral students at Brown are guaranteed five years of tuition, health insurance, and a stipend starting at about $25,000 a year for living expenses. Starting in 2011, Brown began to require doctoral students in social-sciences and humanities fields to apply for continued support after their fifth year.
Many such students were notified this month that they had been put on a waiting list for funds. The move especially worried international students, many of whom were pressed against a deadline that could have forced them to leave the country if they didn’t secure enough money.
The concerns raised during the rallies at Brown highlight the uncertainties that Ph.D. students late in their programs often face as they struggle to keep up funds for projects in which they’ve invested years of their lives. Such worries could intensify as graduate-school budgets get tighter and universities seek ways to shorten the time to a doctorate.
About 80 students chanted and held signs outside the home of Brown’s president, Christina H. Paxson, last Wednesday. A smaller group gathered outside the student union on Thursday. Then, on Friday, students held a “work in” and worked on their dissertations in public to make a display about an activity they say often goes hidden from public view and for which they need adequate support to do well.
“I’d like Brown to commit to fully funding its graduate students for the amount of time they need to produce high-quality dissertations worthy of this school,” said John Mulligan, a sixth-year English Ph.D. student. “Everybody who is in good standing in their fifth year should get a sixth, if that’s how long their department thinks their degree should take to achieve.”
Peter M. Weber, dean of the graduate school, called the situation fluid. Numbers provided by Brown on Mondayshowed that just 11 of the 80 students who had applied for sixth-year stipend support were still on the waiting list as of last Wednesday. The university is still trying to piece together more sources of money to finance the remaining students, Mr. Weber said.
The new process, created in 2011, requires humanities and social-sciences students to apply for sixth-year funds by filling out a form called a “dissertation-completion proposal,” which asks students a series of questions like why they need more time and what their financial situation looks like. That change, Mr. Weber said, set out a clear, merit-based path where one didn’t exist before. Brown’s funding guarantee is “the gold standard,” he said, adding that he isn’t aware of peer institutions that offer a longer funding guarantee. Before, after the five years were up, Mr. Weber said, students were unclear about how to go about seeking sixth-year support.
“Overwhelmingly, both students and professors find this to be a very useful process,” Mr. Weber said. “It’s clear. There are deadlines. Students know exactly what they need to do to apply for stipend funding for another year.”
Debra W. Stewart, president of the Council of Graduate Schools, said many universities were taking steps to improve time-to-degree for Ph.D. students, including in the humanities and social sciences, where average completion times are longer than in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields.
“Many universities have also implemented policies that are designed to use departmental resources more equitably,” Ms. Stewart said in an email. “One way of doing that is to ask students to demonstrate progress through program milestones before granting continued funding.”
Miquel Miralbes Del Pino, a philosophy Ph.D. student, applied this year for financial support for his sixth year. Mr. Miralbes, who is from Spain, said he was accepted to the philosophy Ph.D. program in 2009 and was consistently told from the start that if he was in good standing, he would receive sixth-year funding.
“This is important because no one has completed a Ph.D. in philosophy in five years since I’ve been to Brown,” he said in an email. “That’s just not how the program is structured, and the tough job market keeps increasing the requirements to find a job: conferences, publications, classes taught, and so on.”
So last month, Mr. Miralbes said, he submitted his dissertation-completion proposal, treating it as a formality. “The questions, however, are phrased as if needing more than five years was an abnormality and a failure,” he said. “The whole process was humiliating.”
He worried about whether he would have to leave the country. He’s not sure if he’s legally allowed to work in the United States outside Brown, and even if he is, the required paperwork would take months. He was relieved to learn on Thursday that his funding had come through.
Ph.D. students have created a website about the dissertation-completion proposal in which they hold up responses on pieces of paper to some of the questions it asks.
In response to the question about why extra time is needed, one student wrote, “I have not won the lottery. I have no wealthy relatives. I work better when I have food and a place to live. I pay out of pocket for my research. I want to finish what I started, and what I started takes six years.”
One protester, Sara Matthiesen, a fifth-year Ph.D. student in American studies, said she believed administrators eventually wanted to do away with funding beyond the fifth year for humanities and social-sciences students, and were “testing the water” to see how upset people would be—a concern voiced by others, too.
“This is the first message we’re getting that we’re moving to that model,” Ms. Matthiesen said, “whether we like it or not.”
Mr. Weber said more students were put on a waiting list this year simply because more students applied for the sixth year of funds than in the past and the university had to locate additional money. The total dollar amount those applicants asked for increased by 39 percent from a year ago, to $5.5-million.
Brown singled out doctoral students in the social sciences and humanities for this process, Mr. Weber said, because they are more dependent on funding from the graduate school than are students in science and engineering fields. Doctorates in the social sciences and humanities also take longer to complete than in other fields, he said.
The protesters at last week’s rallies voiced the concerns that the generation of professors and administrators now trying to shorten the time to a Ph.D. did not themselves practice what they preach. Federal data, in fact, show that the median time to a humanities doctorate since starting graduate school was nine years in 2012, nearly two years less than 25 years earlier. The median time for earning a social-sciences doctorate in 2012 was 7.7 years, a year less than 25 years prior.
For now, the students have the attention of Brown’s leaders. A meeting of graduate students and administrators, which Ms. Paxson and Mr. Weber are expected to attend, has been scheduled for Tuesday.