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A flexible plan to help grad students finish their degrees

The overarching principle at Queen’s is to support students in completing high-quality work in a reasonable time frame.

by Brenda Brouwer

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Photo: Queen's University

As noted in the column “Queen’s plan to change its graduate policy needs more study,” published on March 27, the Graduate Studies’ Executive Committee (GSEC) at Queen’s University recently approved revisions to our policy on time-to-completion for graduate students. I would like to respond to some of the issues that were raised in that piece.

The old policy, which had not been updated in many years, stated that students had five and seven years from the time of registration to complete Master’s and PhD degrees, respectively, with no mention of mechanisms to safeguard that students were progressing to completion prior to these time points. The revised policy reflects the standard program lengths approved by the province for full-time registration, which is two years for a Master’s and four for a PhD. It also acknowledges that many factors contribute to the time in which a degree is completed.

In some disciplines archival work, fieldwork, and other research requirements are critical, and can require time beyond the two and four years. Departments therefore can diverge from the standard or reference time points and add one year to a student’s time-to-completion. An extension beyond that will be granted by the School of Graduate Studies on the recommendation of the department and the student’s supervisor. The reference time points (two and four years) provide a logical checkpoint for students and their supervisors to reflect on the work completed, to consider what research remains to be done, and to identify milestones and a plan for completing the research.

Additional time to complete will be granted to students who are in good academic standing and making progress – standard fare for maintaining status in graduate programs in any year of study. The check points at the start of PhD year five and year six are valuable to identify any obstacles to progress that can then be addressed and resolved, minimizing lost time and productivity. Requests for extensions beyond year six may be granted in exceptional circumstances, such as unanticipated challenges that could be personal or research related. In Ontario, most universities permit multiple extensions. However, after year six of a PhD program, several restrict the number to up to three one-term extensions with explanation of the delay in degree completion and a description of how completion will be accomplished. Some university policies require withdrawals after six years and others after seven. Our revised policy does not mandate withdrawals at any specified point.

Time-to-completion and extension of time limits are subjects of great importance to students, faculty members, departments and administrators. Policies that reference timelines and processes that support progress through to completion are valuable, as they encourage academic units to ensure that milestones (e.g. coursework completion, comprehensive exams, presentation of proposals) can be achieved as early as is reasonable t to enable the student to focus on his or her research, and guide supervisors in advising on the scope of the research. Timelines and periodic checks in progress assist students in goal setting and moving forward toward completion of their degree.

The new completion policies were discussed for six months at all graduate committees, where all programs are represented; all have student representatives. Many opinions, viewpoints and comments from faculty members and students were brought to the table. The feedback resulted in modifications to the policies, and underscored the importance of the many initiatives undertaken to support achievement and timely completion. Dissertation Boot Camp, designed to accelerate students’ progress in the final stages of writing and to provide writing strategies and editorial support has proven extremely effective. One welcome outcome has been the formation of informal writing groups offering collaborative environments for graduate students to work on their theses – an important element, as Ms. Frauts noted.

Reference was made to the time-to-completion deadlines as an efficiency issue. The policy does not impose deadlines; it defines reference points as described above and incorporates flexibility for departments to add one year in recognition that timelines are not “one size fits all.” The overarching principle is to support students in completing high-quality work in a reasonable time frame.

An argument was made that the policy would have differential impact on men and women. Extensions are granted to students in good standing and making progress. The fact that there might be more women enrolled in the humanities than men and that degree completions in the arts (including humanities) tend to be somewhat longer than in the sciences, which attract proportionately more men, does not imply a systemic bias against women. If any student is facing particular hardship or extenuating circumstances they should speak with someone they are comfortable with in order to explore what supports or strategies might be helpful. In the case of parental/maternity and medical leaves, funding is provided to assist students during their leave and the clock stops in terms of enrolment time in the program until the student returns.

In summary, the new policy supports students to timely completion of their degrees. Best practices indicate expectations about reasonable time limits should be clearly articulated so it is woven into student-supervisor discussions from the outset. Knowing that at specific time points a dialogue about achievements, goals and plans to complete will take place keeps the end goal in sight and progress on track. Excellence in graduate studies, including timely completion, requires access to relevant and effective support services, good supervision and mentorship, funding, and policies and practices that support success. Queen’s and the School of Graduate Studies are fully committed to promoting excellence in graduate education, and supporting our current and future students as they complete their degrees and prepare for what lies ahead.

Dr. Brouwer is vice-provost and dean, School of Graduate Studies, at Queen’s University.

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