Much to the dismay of many UT doctoral students, the Office of Research and Graduate Studies of the College of Liberal Arts recently announced the implementation of policies which will regulate graduate student funding as well as time to degree. The ultimate goal, according to the official statement released June 4, is to limit all doctoral students’ time to degree to six years by 2017. Liberal Arts Dean Randy Diehl’s office wrote, “The general intent of the College is not to approve financial support for students beyond their seventh year in the program as of 2014-2015, and beyond their sixth year in the program as of 2015-2016. By 2017, all entering and current students should work with a clear expectation of no more than six years of College funding.” To that end, the College believes that overall program quality and student success will improve; such a limit is required in order for the programs to be comparable to those at other universities nationwide.
What becomes problematic here, and is succinctly and cogently expressed by a letter written by the graduate students of the American Studies department, is that the College aims to decrease the graduate student population at the University while simultaneously striving to maintain the viability of each academic program: “A smaller student body is critical if we are to increase our student financial support level. Placing a limit on the number of years of support that we offer individual students is equally critical.” Nowhere in the statement, however, does it mention that teaching assistants or assistant instructors will receive a pay increase. Instead, the statement reads, “The combination of low stipends and overly long time to degree places our graduate students in a precarious financial position that often involves the accumulation of debt and may have lifelong adverse consequences.” By decreasing the graduate population and by cutting the number of years that COLA is willing to fund graduate students, it would appear that the College is more concerned with the money it can save rather than spending it productively on its doctoral students.
Unfortunately, it is not only the financial implications of the newly established policies that are discomfiting. One of the most significant shortcomings of the policy is that all departments are combined together in the same category. That is to say, all graduate students in liberal arts programs are held to the same standards. This is troublesome, to say the least, when one takes into consideration the diverse and varying requirements each department demands of its students. Some programs require that their students master fluency in multiple languages and spend part of their time abroad. Additionally, graduate students are expected to complete their coursework, teach, present at conferences, author publishable scholarly texts and complete their dissertation all while vying for external grants and fellowships. While the College did state that individual students will be taken into consideration for extra funding, the one-size-fits-all approach to the six-year plan is indefensible unless departments and students collaborate with COLA in order to devise time-to-finish projects that are molded appropriately for each program.
I had the chance to interview several graduate students about the new procedure — the majority of whom wish to remain anonymous due to the precariousness of the situation — and they were able to shed new light on a pertinent facet of the policy. A few of these students, including myself, are concerned about certain students who may have children during their graduate studies. COLA fails incontrovertibly to address the issue of maternity/paternity leave and how such a life-changing event factors into funding and the overall timetable. Perhaps this is what the College was referring to with “individual exceptions,” but the obtrusive and disconcerting vagueness of the statement leaves much to be desired. Indeed, the students I interviewed argued that the policy unfairly disadvantages female students wishing to have children, but ultimately it is biased against any student wanting to start a family.
I cannot deny that there is an advantage on the job market to finishing a doctoral degree in a shorter amount of time. Personally, I would like to finish my degree in fewer than six years. That is not to say, however, that COLA’s announcement was sufficiently explanatory or appropriately executed (I am referring here to the complete absence of any recent dialogue between the College and graduate faculty and students). Perhaps it is not the ultimate goal of these new policies, which are not altogether unfair, that are troubling, but rather the shocking lack of respect for the students the College is so eager to professionalize. I look forward to a more thorough explanation from COLA as well as an opportunity for an open forum.
Holterman is an English graduate student.