In our first weeks in grad school, faculty members constantly urged members of my cohort to form collegial relationships. They reminded us that we’d be in the program together for years and that hopefully we’d be connected professionally for decades beyond. We heeded that advice. We went out for beer after evening seminars, got together on weekends, and for the most part built lasting, deep friendships.
This was well intended advice. But it didn’t reflect the reality of grad school, especially around the time of year when funding decisions were announced.
As Erin noted yesterday:
Yes, there are grants and fellowships, both external and internal, and yes, it’s important to apply for them and get them. But they are often very competitive, and don’t cover the full costs. And yes, graduate students do get funding for their research, but they’re often competing against their peers for a pot of money that hasn’t been enlarged since the mid-90s. Whether you get enough money at the right moment in your grad career – which is mostly out of your control – can make or break your dissertation.
Like many graduate programs, mine was not able to provide full funding to all admitted Ph.D. students. Thus, every spring we endured the same ritual of finding out who among us would receive full funding, partial funding, or no funding at all.
Beyond year-long fellowships, my department also offered numerous smaller funding opportunities for travel as well as competitive prizes rewarding outstanding research and teaching (these tend to be very competitive even at institutions that fully fund all Ph.D. students). All funding decisions were made by faculty committees that did not have student representatives. Nor were there clear selection criteria or, often, even an application process.
I’m happy to report that all of my grad school friendships survived these annual ordeals. But not without some work. The repeated experience of watching some folks benefiting while others got nothing certainly frayed relationships. The experience also made clear that for all the talk of camaraderie and collegiality, grad school was at its core a competition for limited resources.
I recognize that this is life; some people will get more than others. I also recognize the reality of Higher Ed today that there isn’t enough money to go around, especially in the humanities (a reality likely to be made all the worse, as Chris demonstrated, by the GOP tax plan).
Still, there was a particularly disturbing quality to the competition for funding in grad school. On the one hand, students received the repeated message that we had entered a noble calling and should view each other not as rivals but as colleagues. And yet, at least once a year, we endured what felt like a Hunger Games-esque competition for the limited resources that, as Erin observed, could make or break our career.
There are a few things my department might have done to make this process less unpleasant. Providing clear, transparent selection criteria would have removed the aura of mystery surrounding funding decisions. With so much at stake, it’s crucial that departments not allow such decisions to be shrouded in mystery and secrecy. Encouraging students to discuss their competitiveness for funding with their advisor might also have prevented unpleasant surprises. Perhaps having a student representative on the award committee, or at least involved in the process in some way, might have made things more transparent (of course, it might also have merely just shifted resentment to a new target).
Fundamentally, though, the problem is that there are too many graduate students and too little available funding to cultivate the kind of learning environments most faculty aspire to have. That problem is not going away.
Graduate programs need to make a decision. If they’re truly interested in fostering collegiality they must think seriously about only accepting as many grad students as they can fund. A Ph.D. is a full-time job and students expected to do that kind of work should be paid for it.
If, on the other hand, faculty and administrators are primarily interested in maintaining large programs with unfunded and under-funded students, my experience will become all the more common as resources for humanities departments become all the scarcer.
The tension between collegiality and competition is not easily sustained. Nor, ultimately, is it a tension that any of us in academia should want early career graduate students to experience.