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August 8, 2016 / Matthew Wolf-Meyer

Let’s Fund Every Graduate Student for 7 Years

Several years ago, I had an incidental conversation with a senior colleague, Ken George, who was at the time the chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He had come up with an idea to fund graduate students for seven years, and not through some enormous endowment, but through state funded education. It’s been a decade, and to my knowledge, no university has tried out a scheme similar to what George devised. So I want to put this idea out into the world and see if any institution will take me up on it — it’s a worthy experiment, and one that might radically change the way we train graduate students, how students experience graduate study, and the integration of undergraduates and graduate students on the contemporary campus.

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My memory of the conversation with George was that he reasoned that the average time to Ph.D. for an Anthropology student was seven years. So, to be a competitive program, Madison would need to fund all of its incoming students for at least that long. The kernel of the idea he pitched to me was that students would receive teaching  or research assistantships for years 1-3, then receive a fourth year that was fully funded — so they could conduct research unfettered and without the need of securing external funding — and then return to the university for years five-seven, during which they would serve as primary instructors for their own classes. The funding they would receive in years five through seven would be reduced to pay the university back for the research year. There were probably more details to the plan, but these are the parts that have stuck with me — including George’s mention that he had discussed the plan with a university financial officer who told him it was feasible. And, after almost a decade of teaching at state universities, I think it might be the necessary future to address many of the concerns faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates face.

During their instructor years, I’m assuming that graduate students are teaching two to three classes per year (probably three), basically a reduced tenure-track teaching load and not-totally-abusive adjuncting teaching load. Like faculty, most of the graduate student’s commitment during the school year would be to teaching, but he or she would also have time to write up the research from year four — and work on other professionalization matters. More importantly, they would receive a living wage, which would support them for three years and also provide them with security of employment so they could spend their summers writing and not seeking a new job.

I don’t want to be evasive, but I also don’t know the math. I’ve tried to puzzle out how this all might work, but every institution is different and what they pay instructors who are ABD vs. Ph.D. varies, as well as the cost of health benefits. But the basic idea is this: income should be consistent over the 7 year period, adjusting for inflation. So whatever one is paid in year four — the research year — should be the same as what one is paid in year five. It’s probably not going to be great — it might be the equivalent of $20,000 each year — but it should be reliable.

But if you just want some numbers to think about, consider that it might cost a university $40,000 per year per graduate student (including stipend and benefits), and that three, 20-student classes generate about $60,000 per year (assuming students pay a relatively cheap $1000 per class). Now, most graduate students don’t cost that much, and most undergrads pay more than that per class, so even if the margins are tight, the university would still be operating with a profit, which can go towards facilities, administrators, and all the other gears that need to be greased to make a university run.

One thing I’m always asked when I bring this proposal up is: what does a department do about a student who takes the fourth year funds and then never returns? Again, I don’t know that there’s one universal bureaucratic right answer, but basically the funds would be converted into a tuition fee and the student would need to pay it back. Likewise, if a student decided not to stay for the full seven years — say she or he gets a tenure track job somewhere — she or he could pay the prorated remaining balance from year four off. So, if a student takes a job at the end of year six, she would need to pay one year’s worth of the forward funding back to the university for year four (about $7,000). Students could also decline the research year and just proceed to the instructorship or pay off the research year with an external grant. It shouldn’t be a form of entrapment, but rather the kind of security that provides at least partial liberation from base anxieties (like paying rent and buying groceries).

The big challenge I see is having classes for the returning graduate students to teach. Given a modest graduate program of six graduate students, this would mean that during any given year (not adjusting for attrition), the department would have 18 instructors teaching a total of 54 new classes. Some of these courses might be in the major, but most of them would need to be channeled elsewhere. And this is the crux of the proposition as I see it — where does all this labor go?

My best guess is to create a new requirement for every major on campus, namely a two part writing or communication class that’s major-specific and taken during year one or two of an undergraduate career. For example, in an anthropology department, majors would be required to take a two term sequence in Reading Anthropology and Writing Anthropology. The first would teach them how to identify theses, supporting arguments, the use of evidence, basic genres of social scientific writing, etc. The second course would focus more squarely on getting students to write as novice anthropologists, with all of the expected generic conventions in place. Both of the courses would help them in their major, and benefit them overall with more intensive critical reading and writing training that could be applied in other courses they take, in and out of their major.

There’s another basic math problem, which is that the number of graduate students in any particular program might be out of proportion to the number of undergraduates enrolled in the department’s major. One way to handle this would be to have graduate students from cognate programs teach at the undergraduate level in departments with excessive majors. So, for example, biological anthropology Ph.D. students might teach the Reading and Writing Biology courses in the Biology department, freeing up graduate students there to do the laboratory work they are needed for by faculty in Biology.

The tougher question is what to do about majors like Computer Science, where conventions of communication vary significantly from other disciplines. But courses could be offered to train graduate students in the necessary skills, and there might be significant monetary incentives to lure them into teaching in these programs. Each institution would need to figure out what the roadblocks are and address them with local resources — or, potentially, start new interdisciplinary Ph.D. programs to meet the needs produced by new requirements.

In any case, the course content should be determined by the instructor to reflect her or his areas of confidence and strength, but assignments across iterations of the same class should be similar so as to ensure that standards are being met. Teaching critical reading and writing skills to undergraduates also benefits instructors, whose own reading and writing skills tend to further develop through teaching. And such intensive teaching helps graduate students gain confidence and skills in one of the primary skills they’ll need in their future as educators.

There are some significant reputation dividends to be gained with a program like this for departments and universities: the university can brand itself as especially dedicated to undergraduate reading and writing skills, and in a landscape where graduate training seems precarious if not exploitative, the university can cast itself as ethical and intensely focused on the professional development and economic security of its graduate students.

If you convince your department or dean to experiment with a 7-year funding plan, let me know. And if you can think of any thing I missed, let me know that too…

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