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Funding graduate students


When I landed a tenure-track position, several years ago now, I remember thinking how nice it was going to be not to have to worry about money anymore. I was finally on salary. No more applying for grants and scholarships every year and wondering how I was going to put food on the table if I didn’t get them. But things really haven’t turned out that way. This is just one of those cases where my expectations were, lets say, divergent from reality.

Because now I worry about money all the time … only I don’t worry on my own behalf, but on my students’. Sure, technically, if I run out of money I’m not the one who suffers directly, but I doubt that many profs really feel that way. Once we agree to supervise a student, we really have some moral obligations to concern ourselves with our students’ well-being, and there are going to be a lot of practical consequences if their funding runs out. Let’s leave the funding required to fund research or stipend expenses aside for the time being; I’ll talk about that in a future blog. This week, I’ll talk about the stresses of searching for scholarships for a flock of grad students, and the numerous issues that entails.

When I started writing this blog, I thought I would begin with the “simplest” method I use to fund students, but I had a hard time deciding what that might be. In fact, scholarship programs seem to be becoming more competitive, more complicated, and less helpful all at the same time. Take NSERC (and SSHRC or CIHR), for example. NSERC postgraduate scholarships used to provide two years of funding to Masters students. However, not only do CGS-M scholarships now only last one year, but students who hold them are not permitted to apply for them again. As I don’t know of any research-based Masters program that would take less than two years, that means that every NSERC scholar must have grant funding in place for a second year – reducing the flexibility of Canada’s most promising students to pursue curiosity-driven research – or must live with the uncertainty of later figuring out how they will feed and house themselves. It seems to me that this kind of funding system greatly undermines the intentions of scholarship programs to ensure that our best students can focus on solving our biggest problems. As a supervisor, it merely delays my problems of funding the student, rather than eliminating them; I still need a marketable project for the student that can eventually support them, and this greatly reduces students’ options for what type of research they can pursue.

Options for university and provincial scholarships vary across the country. At my university, they are often more difficult to get than NSERC scholarships. They do last for two years at the Masters level, and four at the PhD level; this is an important benefit of these awards, although the annual amount is less. Ultimately, most scholarship students need some additional support. Research and teaching assistantship positions can provide good experience, but can also take time away from thesis research. It would be best if such opportunities were choices, rather than requirements.

What could we do better? If we spread resources too thinly, no one benefits. Full scholarships need to provide students with enough to live on for two years for Masters students, four years for PhD students. Partial scholarships are extremely important for supplementing student incomes, and for contributing to the student’s development of an impressive CV, but they can’t provide enough to allow students to focus on their research full-time. We can’t expect to support every student with scholarships, but when we offer scholarships, we need to ensure that they are sufficiently generous to achieve the goals of each scholarship program, and ensure that the best Canadian students can fulfill their dreams here at home.

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