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The high cost of inadequate funding for grad students

A recent report on the future of the history PhD shows many students are living below the poverty line.


Last spring, more than 7,000 scientists and engineers signed a letter asking the federal government to increase scholarships to graduate students and postdoctoral fellows funded by the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). They showed that the value of NSERC scholarships for these “emerging leaders” had fallen well below the poverty line and suggested that the possibility of solving the challenges of “climate change, plastic pollution, natural resource use” and “future pandemics” was being undermined by the lack of funding.

The recipients of Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) doctoral fellowships are also future leaders poised to make important contributions to how we govern ourselves, how we combat misinformation, how we tell meaningful stories about our past, and how we create a more equitable society. And yet, these scholarships have also fallen way below the poverty line.

This past fall, the Canadian Historical Association’s Task Force on the Future of the History PhD in Canada released its final report. Our committee investigated questions of how to change the dissertation to make it more in keeping with current scholarship conventions, including the drive towards more multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research; how to decolonize our academic processes; how to shorten time to completion and improve graduate supervisory practices — but our group kept returning to the question of funding.

Frozen scholarships

The value of Tri-Council scholarships has not increased in a very long time. The SSHRC Doctoral Fellowship increased to $20 000 two decades ago and has remained frozen ever since. The Canadian Graduate Scholarship (CGS) program was introduced in 2003 and the dollar amount has stayed the same, meaning that inflation has cut the value of these scholarships by a third. In the meantime, tuition in provinces outside of Quebec has risen rapidly. We desperately need to increase the value and number of these scholarships.

Students who win SSHRC scholarships are the lucky ones. In 2020-21, only 38 students in history won SSHRC doctoral fellowships and only 32 won CGS-Doctoral program fellowships. Most of our graduate students in the humanities and social sciences are living on far less, relying on wages from teaching as well as scholarships offered by their departments. The committee examined the minimum funding commitments to PhD students in programs across the country. The investigation showed that while nearly all history PhD programs guaranteed some form of minimum funding package, the funding levels have students living far below the poverty line in their respective cities.

The line at the top of this graph is Canada’s Market Basket Measure (MBM – Canada’s poverty line) by city.

Most history PhD programs offer four years of guaranteed funding. Several departments – McGill, University of Victoria, University of Calgary, and the University of Toronto have moved towards five years of funding. York commits to six. Partial fifth-year funding is worked out in practice in a few other programs. The funding commitment is only two years at Concordia and three at UQAM and Université de Montréal. Guaranteed funding can vary from as little as $0 to approximately $27,000 (this includes TAships and scholarships). PhD students must devote a sizable portion of their guaranteed funding to pay tuition, university and student society fees, health and dental insurance premiums, and, often, the cost of a student transit pass.

As shown in the bar graph above, after tuition and related costs are deducted from minimum funding, no history program in Canada offers PhD students more than $20 000/year. This is far less than the cost of living in any city in Canada. Furthermore, TA pay, which almost always makes up the majority of net annual minimum income, is taxable, further eroding students’ incomes. If PhD students forswore a TAship to travel for research, leave campus, or any other reason, the impact on their income would be substantial.

The U of T, with the largest graduate history program in Canada and the most generous annual funding promise, serves as an example:

Guaranteed funding$27,055
Ancillary fees$1,844
Estimated rent in Toronto$12,000/year
Toronto cost of living (not including rent)$15,804

Even if students paid the lowest possible rent of $1,000/month, which the U of T assumes would mean living in a room in a shared house, expenses exceed the guaranteed funding by almost $9,000/year.

A matter of equity and mental health

Across the country, students consistently take longer to complete their PhDs than the guaranteed funding period allows. The mean time-to-completion for History PhD graduates is six years, seven months. The median is six years, one month. Once their years of guaranteed funding are up, students must scramble to get sessional contracts, research contracts, and other forms of precarious labour to make ends meet as they finish their dissertations. While our committee also recommended that programs shorten the time to completion, underfunding remains a poverty, equity-diversity-inclusion, and mental health issue.

If students are required to self-fund their PhD (to whatever extent), they must either draw on their family’s savings, borrow money, or work so much that it detracts from their studies. This is a significant barrier for many prospective students. Better funding is essential to ensuring that a more diverse group of students, including Indigenous and Black students and first-generation students, can access PhD programs, create new knowledge, and be more innovative in their scholarly work.

Adequate funding is also vital to resolving the mental health crisis in graduate education. The Degrees of Success report, published by the Council of Canadian Academies, pointed out that graduate students were six times more likely than the general population to experience depression and anxiety. Students in the later stages of their program are even more likely to experience moderate to severe symptoms. One of the graduate directors we spoke to as part of our research referred to themself as “the feudal lord of despair”, referring to the difficult circumstances students faced near the end of their degree programs. The graduate students we spoke to were vocal about how financial insecurity impacted their mental health. Canada needs to do better by our students in history and in the humanities and social sciences more generally.

Will Langford is a history professor at Dalhousie University. Catherine Carstairs is a history professor at the University of Guelph.

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  1. Kelly Loverock / January 4, 2023 at 09:30

    Hello. Thanks for linking directly to our report, Degrees of Success. I noticed, however, that our name is spelled incorrectly in that last paragraph (it should be Council of Canadian Academies):

    Adequate funding is also vital to resolving the mental health crisis in graduate education. The Degrees of Success report, published by the Canadian Council of Academies, pointed out that graduate students were six times more likely than the general population to experience depression and anxiety.

    Kind regards,

  2. Candace Green / January 5, 2023 at 02:02

    This is a surprise? No, starvation funding is a feature, not a bug. And then, when you graduate at the very top, you still get nothing – there haven’t been faculty jobs, especially in the humanities, since the 1970s. Those of us who bought the whole fraud of “Oh, everyone will retire and there will be openings” are just suckers. So we left the country, for opportunities elsewhere – the country that raised and educated us, that we never wanted to leave. The most educated are fleeing, providing no benefit and no return on investment. Way to go, Canada.