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University funding cuts


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I am a PhD candidate at a state university. As with almost all PhD candidates I am paid a small amount of money in exchange for being a TA or an instructor for an undergraduate course. Typically departments such as the one I am in fund PhD students for a minimum of 5 years (often times longer) until their thesis is complete. Our department because of funding difficulties promises only 4 years of support (but traditionally has funded students up to 7 years). And urges students to find outside funding. I am in my 4th year. Next year will be my 5th.

 

Because of major funding cuts we constantly receive threats for future funding. Recently there was a meeting that was announced through e-mail to again talk about this and students were notified that nobody that is in their 5th year will be funded from now on. There will also be other major budget cuts and there will be no seminars anymore, and some undergraduate courses will no longer be offered (since they are not funding us, there is nobody to teach them!). Now I for some reason did not receive this e-mail and I don't know if it is because it doesn't concern me (i.e. they have decided to fund me, or if it is just a mistake). If they have not decided to fund me, there are some issues I would like to bring up with them, but I am unsure of how to do this.

 

1. Starting the program, I came with an outside scholarship that funded me for the first year an a half. So far, unlike my classmates in the same year, I have not been funded 4 but only 2.5 years.

 

2. Additionally if they cut my funding now, unlike my classmates who will benefit having teaching experience for 2 years or more, I will only have 1 year of teaching experience. (It seems as though the 'advantage' of having an outside scholarship has worked against me!).

 

3. And finally it has been unfortunate that the only faculty member who specializes in what research I am trying to do was not on campus (was on sabbatical) this whole academic year. So again, unlike my classmates, I did not have the advantage of seeing my advisor on a weekly basis, although he has been very responsive through e-mail.

 

Now as funding decisions are being made, I really want to send an e-mail to 2-3 people that possibly have some say in this. The graduate program coordinator, my advisor who is abroad( and who was the previous grad program coordinator), and the department chair. Do you think if I point these out and ask for at least an additional year of support I am being annoying or demanding? How do I phrase these points that I am trying to make? Should I send it to 1 person or all three, and how do I address them?

 

annie24, I feel like you may have some insight over this since you also come from an academic background. Your input would be appreciated!

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Would it be better to send an email to one or two of them asking if you can discuss this in person with them? You might have a better time putting your argument accross and getting the right tone if you do it face-to-face.

 

I agree, but I did try to bring it up with the graduate program coordinator at one time and he said things along the lines of it is not time to worry on this now, focus on my research etc. But some months later he calls this meeting (and I didn't even get the e-mail) and says there will be no funding for 5th year students. ... go figure.

 

I guess through e-mail I want them all to be aware and possible even talk to each other too instead of just telling one person. But I guess I could e-mail all of them and ask to speak in person to one of them about it and hope that they discuss it before that meeting. Does that make sense?

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Yes of course that makes since. Why wouldn't you talk to them? They may not be able to do anything for you but you won't know until you ask. Do you have any professors in your department that you are personally or professionally close to? I would include them in on the e-mail to.

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Welcome to the wonderful world of Higher Education cuts. My institution is currently threatening to fire 30% of academic staff (and I don't mean TAs by that, we're talking research and teaching faculty) due to a financial crisis after recent budget cuts, so I understand where you're coming from.

 

The first thing I'd say is find out (1) who makes the decision as to who gets TA funding, and (2) whether or not that decision has already been taken. If it's already been taken, then you're likely wasting your time; if it hasn't, then you want to talk to the person who actually makes the decision. Once you know that, I'd contact that person directly if I were you, and ask to meet them. Don't give them advance warning of what it's about, because in a situation where cuts are being made, people are looking for ways to say no to any funding request, and the more advance notice they have, the easier it is for them to find a way to do that. If you have the meeting, you should also start with something along the lines of "I didn't get the e-mail so naturally I assumed it didn't apply to me and I've now got financial commitments; I assume that the promise of my funding for this year will still be honored." You should say it politely, but let them know in no uncertain terms that cutting your funding is not an easy option.

 

I think sending the e-mail around several people will potentially create a situation of territorial competition where they're each trying to make sure that the other is not getting access to some money that would then be allocated to you. Perhaps that's just my cynical insider's view; it depends whether you think they're really out to help you keep the funding (in which case a co-operative effort might be possible), or take it away from you (in which case you should be more cautious).

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You do make good points but I am not sure they all apply. Funding decisions the next academic year are either being made or have been made (it is really hard to tell but I think they are being made.) The meeting was just 3 days ago so I can't really say that since the meeting I have made financial commitments. And they have always warned us that after the 4th year there are no guarantees so I can't really use the words 'promise of funding being honored'.

 

It is really difficult to figure out who really makes the final decision for funding. I think they have meetings and they hear out what the advisor thinks but mine is overseas and I only communicate with him through e-mail. That is why I thought cc'in him on the e-mail may make sense.

 

Can you explain what you mean in your last paragraph?

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The last paragraph refers to the fact that for pooled departmental resources, which is usually what pays for TAs, there is competitive situation amongst academics. If you are funded, that's effectively money awarded to your supervisor, i.e. he gets a free PhD student and TA, while someone else has to either find alternative funding for theirs, or lose them. If you advertise the fact that you're going to be talking to the decision-maker (most commonly Head of Department, but that obviously varies by institution) about keeping your funding, other academics may take that as their cue to get in first with a pre-emptive strike against you, because you're potentially taking money that they want for their own students, or for some other purpose. In other words, make sure that people who have a vested interest in you NOT getting the funding, don't get to hear that you're after it. In addition, the more public you make it, the harder you make it for the decision-maker to do something quietly on the side as a favour to you, because you're putting them in the spotlight. I know it all sounds rather cynical and cloak and dagger, but this comes from someone who had both masters and both PhDs fully funded by universities, and never had any funding cut. Discretion is a valuable ally when you're effectively asking for a favour.

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I do understand what you are saying I guess but ties with faculty and grad students (at least seem to be) rather loose for many cases. No one really cares who their TA is (so long as they get a TA). They are just trying to decide who gets the funding and who doesn't. And in my case they would rather use me as an instructor than a TA (because given the option, they need grad students to teach). But I guess it may be a good idea to only send the e-mail to my advisor and the graduate program coordinator (and keep the department chair - who is less involved with research and more with undergraduate teaching) out of it. I have already spoken to him anyway, and he said he would look into it. (But he may not have power, or he may just be busy as I haven't heard back from him. I wouldn't be surprised if he forgot).

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