The University announced on July 23 that it will commit to funding all Ph.D. students for 12 months. This funding will be available for up to five years, addressing affordability concerns and financial insecurities across all departments.
The announcement came as a response to years of activism by the Affordability Task Force and the Stanford Solidarity Network (SSN), two student-run organizations that have been working to ensure graduate-student issues are addressed. They have advocated for several affordability concerns, like food insecurity, healthcare and housing.
The announcement was also an attempt to respond to demands made in a petition titled, “COVID-19: Stanford Graduate Student Petition.” The petition explained that access to resources for research and travel and difficulties within the employment market during the global pandemic has increased students’ need for 12-month funding by impacting.
Many current Ph.D. students agree that universal 12-month funding is a step in the right direction, tackling financial problems that are specifically summer-related. Kari Barclay, a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in Theater and Performance Studies and co-chair of the Stanford Graduate Student Council (GSC), believes that the new funding policy is a viable solution.
“Folks in my program were especially worried this summer, in light of COVID, about being able to pay rent and being kicked out of the places they were living … so this is a huge benefit,” he said.
Hannah Mieczkowski ’22, a Ph.D. candidate in the Communications Department and GSC co-director of affordability, acknowledged that the new funding policy has the opportunity to begin resolving key issues like food and housing insecurity.
“A good number of students during the summer are either food or housing insecure … so I think that this new policy will definitely contribute to fixing those issues,” she said.
Although students appreciate this announcement, some also believe that this policy should have been implemented long ago. Dean Chahim, a sixth-year Anthropology Ph.D. student and one of the founding members of SSN, said, “I welcome the announcement, but it should have been that way from the beginning, even before the pandemic.”
For all of the policy’s perceived positive aspects, it also leaves many problems untouched.
The policy “doesn’t help with the fact that the reaction came so late that a lot of graduate students took out loans and had other serious problems this summer, which have not been so far resolved,” Chahim said.
Housing insecurity is one specific issue that has not been addressed completely. Angela Lee, a second-year Ph.D. student in the Communications department, explained, “rents can be pretty expensive, and if you don’t have another source of income, it can be quite challenging.”
She hopes the policy will alleviate some of those anxieties, but she also believes that there is a long way to go before real solutions are implemented.
Another concern is the policy’s implementation — how different departments will comply. After having conversations with other graduate students, Mieczkowski thinks that “there’s a pretty distinct lack of consistency around how this policy will be implemented across different departments.”
She is worried about the fact that some department leadership members may claim the policy does not apply to their specific department due to discrepancies in the funding structure.
Chahim was also adamant that the University must ensure the policy is imposed equitably. “We all celebrated the news, but we want to make sure it applies to everybody,” he said.
The five-year cap on the funding timeline is also a point of unease for some students. The pandemic has restricting access to resources such as labs, libraries, archives and research abroad, all of which are necessary to complete dissertations.
“I want to push back a little bit on why it’s five years and maybe not six,” Mieczkowski said. “Many, if not all, Ph.D. students will be pretty severely affected in terms of their research timelines by COVID.”
With a policy that provides only five years of funding, students will also face challenges when entering the job market: many are worried that they will be pushed to complete their studies too soon, leaving them unprepared for employment.
According to Chahim, “the academic market has basically collapsed.”
“If we push people out when there aren’t jobs and when they’re actually not ready for the market, we’re going to end up diminishing our name,” Barclay said.
Chahim noted that some assistant professors have had tenure clocks extended and made a comparison between those professors and graduate students trying to complete their Ph.D. degrees.
“If the University is recognizing that its professors are facing undue strain due to the pandemic, they should also recognize that students are experiencing the same strain and should have the same extension,” he said.
Many of the Ph.D. students interviewed agree that the most important next step is to push for a universal one-year extension of funding. Due to delays, pauses and other difficulties brought on by the pandemic, the expected 5-year timeline doesn’t feel like a reasonable ask to some current graduate students. Some students mentioned that peer institutions like Harvard and Brown have taken steps to support their graduate students financially beyond 12-month funding.
“The next step, and an important thing that the University can do, is to provide that sixth year of funding, like I mentioned some of our peer institutions are doing,” Barclay said.
Lee also has some ideas about how to continue addressing students’ issues.
“I’m hoping that we can have a better understanding of which communities are disproportionately impacted by affordability issues,” she said. She also wants to “[figure] out solutions to both include those people in the process of coming up with solutions and also make sure their needs are met.”
Graduate students, while appreciative of the new policy, plan to continue to fight for financial support to compensate for obstacles introduced by the pandemic. Moving forward, their focus remains on advocating for a one-year funding extension for Ph.D. candidates.
Contact Zoya Chughtai at 22zchughtai ‘at’ castilleja.org.