Funding Woes

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 ***Last updated on 2/25*** 

Over the past year or so ND's administration has been planning to revamp its graduate student funding and stipend structure. Despite initial blowback, the dean's office has moved ahead with a plan that they have not yet made public. When information requests have been answered, it is often with conflicting information. We now have word that the proposed changes could go into effect as early as this week, and that 5th year students requesting a 6th year of funding may need to apply for those (though it's unclear how or to whom they would apply) as early as May 1st.

The problems are that: (a) we're all in the dark about the proposed changes, (b) have been given conflicting and inconsistent information, and (c) do not know how or when these changes will take effect. This is all the more worrisome given that the changes aim to improve graduation rates for incoming 1st years, but would put all grad students under severe constraints (without giving them any benefits to offset the pressure caused by the new constraints). Here's what we know about the proposed changes so far: 

  • The incentive structure will be changed in order to encourage all students to complete their programs in 5-years or less (including students that are now well into their programs)
  • Students who have not finished their PhD in five years would have to apply for "exceptional funding" with strong support from their department, and with no guarantee that they'd be awarded such funds 
  • Students who finish in 5 years would be "guaranteed" a post-doc for their 6th year, but it's unclear whether this would require them to teach (or how much), whether the stipend would be comparable to what they received in years 1-5, and what would happen after the 6th year if they were unable to get a job (adjunct teaching, which is how many departments currently support strong candidates who find themselves without a job in their 6+ year, may no longer be available, or, if it is, may or may not include healthcare, and would likely pay less than is currently paid for such work) 
  • Students would not be guaranteed any funding after their 6th year (even if they completed their PhD in five years). While this is technically the case now (students are prohibited from receiving stipend money after 6 years), it's not clear if current practices of offering students adjuncting work while they are on the job market will continue or not
  • Students currently in their 2nd, 3rd, 4th, or 5th year will be expected to abide by these constraints, but will not be given any of the extra funding provided to students currently being recruited, nor would they receive credit for having completed programs under much stricter requirements than will be the norm going forward
  • It's sounding more and more like current 5th years will have to apply for 6th year funding by May 1st
  • Nothing has been done to address the fact that many students in years 2-5 were given information during their recruitment based on informal departmental practices that led them to believe that they would be able to earn money (either in the form of stipend, or by adjuncting) if needed into their 6th year (or even 7th if they had, say, languages to learn, or extra coursework) 

I'm deeply worried about these changes, the rate at which they may be implemented, the lack of communication from the administration, and the conflicting information (where there is information) about who they will apply to and when. I've been told over and over (by the administration) to trust that we grad students will be taken care of, but everything I've seen leads me to believe that this will not be the case.

If you're worried, like I am, then please consider filling out ------> this petition <------ (you can read the text of the petition by following the link or by scrolling down).

We understand that some reasonably fear retribution, but failing to act right now puts many in our community at serious financial and academic risk. 

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Text of the petition: 

A Petition for the Just Implementation of Notre Dame’s New Graduate Stipend Funding Structure

In the fall of 2014, Notre Dame’s administration announced its intention to restructure incoming graduate students’ funding packages, and to require departments to formally implement a much stricter timeline from admittance to completion than had previously been enforced. The reasoning given for this decision was that the administration feels that: (1) Notre Dame graduate students have on average spent too much time in their PhD programs (thus using up resources that could be spent recruiting and funding additional grad students), (2) students who eventually drop out of the grad school often don’t do so until they are well into their program (again, using up funds that Notre Dame doesn’t see as a worthwhile investment), and (3) an increasing number of graduate schools throughout the country are moving toward an accelerated PhD-timeline as a result of competitive job markets and increased difficulty in recruitment due to a larger, more competitive applicant pool.

We have received conflicting information about all of the proposed changes over the past year and a half, and have not been given clear, official details about the plan and its implementation. We acknowledge that the administration has the authority to make such decisions and we do not specifically take issue with the goals set out here, nor with the vision they express. Rather, we are deeply worried that the implementation of the new funding structure and timeline is unduly burdensome to those students who started their programs before these changes were communicated and may now find themselves under constraints they could not have reasonably foreseen when they accepted Notre Dame’s offer. Current graduate students and their advisers designed their timeline to completion based on the expectation that the funding structure would remain the same as in the past. If these students are compelled to accept the new funding structure, their work and ultimately their job prospects are likely to be adversely affected. Unfortunately, it is difficult to assess the precise impact of the new structure, since details remain unacceptably vague. For example, students currently in their fifth year have been told that they may need to apply for special funds to finish their PhD, and that they would need letters explaining why an “exception” should be made in their case. The lack of clarity and absence of reasonable prior notice about the proposed changes -- especially when combined with the looming possibility of reduced funds and the failure of any financial or other support that would offset the disadvantages facing students under the current proposal -- are among our most pressing concerns. We offer the following suggestions as a good first step toward addressing them:

  • Give a clear, public explanation of the changes, when they'd be implemented, and what mechanism interested parties can use to communicate questions and concerns with the dean’s office about these changes.
  • Guarantee students funding that, minimally, is in accord with what was the norm in their department when they were recruited and accepted their offers.

We ask the administration to see that the absence of transparency with regard to the proposed changes puts undue stress and anxiety on a population that is already heavily burdened and dependent on the support and encouragement of the institutions its members have selected as their academic home. We ask that you help minimize these pressures, and do right by the graduate students that you recruited and promised to support. We appreciate the administration’s hard work and support, and look forward to efficient discussion and collaboration on this issue.