Updated: Jan. 12

The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences will soon provide Ph.D candidates in the humanities and social sciences with a sixth year of funding, a welcome change for students pressed to complete their research within six years and find teaching positions. But debate continues as to whether the new policy goes far enough.

The funding, which will be provided through teaching positions or an equivalent stipend, will begin in the 2015–16 academic year. Previously, funding packages in the humanities and social sciences only covered five years, though many graduate programs typically take up to six years to complete, with some students continuing for even longer.

“We have learned from our students in the humanities and social sciences in particular that the increasingly competitive job market favors students who have had more teaching experience than we have been able to provide,” Graduate School Dean Lynn Cooley wrote in an email to Ph.D candidates on Dec. 15. “The sixth year of guaranteed funding will enable eligible students to develop teaching portfolios of more depth and to plan ahead for their sixth year with more certainty.”

Students in the sciences and engineering will continue to be funded according to their programmatic financial aid packages for the number of years it takes to complete their degrees, the email said.

Chair of the Graduate Student Assembly Joori Park GRD ’17 said the policy change comes after nearly five years of negotiations between the GSA and the University. Park said the policy change will remove significant stress from sixth-year students who rely on teaching opportunities to financially support themselves.

“The number of teaching spots fluctuates each year based on enrollment, and as a result [graduate] students … may or may not get funding,” Park said. “There’s a lot of stress and anxiety that comes with that for students finishing their dissertations that need to stay in New Haven.”

Yale is the only Ivy League school to currently offer such a package for sixth-year students, Park added.

Brian Dunican GRD ’15, the 2013-—14 GSA chair who was involved in previous conversations with the University about the policy change, said not having to hunt for sixth-year funding will help students who may have required seven years to complete their Ph.Ds to do so in six. Dunican said the issue of sixth-year funding has been raised for years in department meetings and school-wide surveys, adding that the policy change would make the Graduate School more attractive for future applicants.

The announcement comes less than two months after over 1,000 supporters of the Graduate Employees and Students Organization protested for GESO to be recognized as a student union. Since the protest, which was the second in six months, the University has shown no sign of negotiating with GESO.

“We welcome the University’s actions to recognize the value of our teaching work, but only by negotiating a contract can we fully address the issue of job security for graduate employees in our upper years and especially in the sciences,” GESO Chair Aaron Greenberg GRD ’18 wrote in an email to the News.

Cooley said this improvement in the funding package comes as the result of work begun several months ago by former Yale College Dean Mary Miller and former Graduate School Dean Thomas Pollard, and has nothing to do with GESO.

However, several graduate students interviewed differed on whether the policy goes far enough.

“Yale is making a push to shorten Ph.Ds, and while graduating in five years was often not realistic, this policy change may incentivize students to graduate in six years rather than seven,” said William Gray GRD ’18, GSA’s current Academics and Professional Development Committee chair. “For students that do take seven years I think we will go back to the old system of stress and uncertainty and hopefully we can work with the administration to alleviate this issue in the future.”

But economics graduate student Chiara Margaria GRD ’17 said she believes funding a sixth year is enough, explaining that in her field, taking longer to finish the degree program diminishes a student’s job prospects.

Currently, the median numbers of years required for students to complete their Ph.Ds varies widely, such as 5.7 for economics and 7.3 for history.

Cooley said she does not expect funding to be expanded to support graduate students in a seventh year of study. With the resources available to them, she added, graduate students should be aiming to finish in six years at most. Past experiences at Yale and peer institutions indicate that more funding can encourage students to take longer with their degrees, she explained.

Further, Cooley said she hopes faculty will advise students to undertake dissertations that can be completed within the six-year time frame, as hiring departments often “look askance” at candidates who take a long time to complete their studies.

Dean of Strategic Initiatives, Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Graduate School, Yale College Pamela Schirmeister, who chaired the working group that put forth the new policy, said seventh year students will still be able to teach, though positions will not be guaranteed. This does not represent a change in policy, she added.

Three history graduate students said they frequently have to seek teaching opportunities in other departments, while two economics graduate students reported that it is not difficult to find teaching positions in the department. Margaria said that uncertainty about sixth-year funding has never been felt in her department, where it is easy to find teaching or research assistant positions.

Still, many administrators and graduate students extolled the virtues of the policy shift, explaining that the new funding plan may make Yale a more attractive destination for prospective graduate students and a less stressful work environment for current ones. 

“The anxiety about financial support for the sixth year had weighed heavily on doctoral students in the humanities and social sciences for years,” Pollard said.  “This new plan should allow them to focus on their work and help them finish their dissertations rather than worrying about financial support.”

Professor of English and American Studies Wai Chee Dimock said the existing graduate financial package was already noteworthy compared to Yale’s peer institutions. However, the creation of sixth-year funding is a show of support for the University’s graduate education, she added.

The policy change would be especially welcomed by philosophy students, said philosophy professor Stephen Darwall, as many struggle to complete their dissertations within six years. Darwall, who previously taught at the University of Michigan, said guaranteed sixth-year funding had existed there for the past decade.

As of fall 2014, 2,643 students are enrolled in the Graduate School.