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SSHRC’s new guidelines, time to PhD completion and the challenges facing doctoral students

I woke up this morning to news of SSHRC (the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada) making substantial changes to its Talent Program. As a scholar who has taught in Canadian universities (and someone who completed a PhD in Canada), I am familiar enough with how SSHRC programmes have evolved throughout the years, and I have reasons to be concerned.

Funding for my doctoral degree did not come from SSHRC as I wasn’t a Canadian citizen nor a landed immigrant at the time, I was funded by the Mexican Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnologia (CONACyT), who also changed their policies and guidelines for PhD funding as I was completing my PhD (sadly, the changes weren’t retroactive so they didn’t benefit me). Originally, CONACyT funded only 3 years of the PhD process, and then they expanded to 4 and 5 years (which I find reasonable).

However, in what I find a strange move, now SSHRC is changing its funding to apply to only 3 years of the PhD process.

Implement changes to those funding opportunities offering direct support to graduate students and postdoctoral researchers (Doctoral Funding)

Align the duration of funding under the SSHRC Doctoral Fellowships with the Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarships (CGS) Doctoral Scholarships and the Vanier CGS Doctoral Scholarships by setting a consistent, maximum duration of three years.

This is, in my view, quite worrisome. First, it assumes that a PhD can be either completed in 3 years or income can be supplemented in the first few years with alternative sources of income. So far, I have not met ONE person in my entirely life who has completed a PhD in 3 years. One could argue “well, you can find other sources of funding for the first 1-2 years of the PhD and finish in 5”. But how many Canadian PhDs (in fact, how many PhDs overall) finish *easily* in 4 or 5 years? There are rare cases, in my view, of History PhDs who have completed in 4 or 5, but I know of others who have taken up to 9 or 10 years. And in my field, a comparativist PhD thesis may take up to 6-7 depending on length of fieldwork.

Some universities cap program length (e.g. number of years you can be registered as a PhD student) at 8 or 9 years. But as I can personally be witness to, life does happen. So, what if a PhD student has had a number of problems that hindered his/her progress? With so many challenges facing higher education, and higher PhD attrition rates, I think what we ought to do is create safeguards and mechanisms to ensure that those who already embarked in the PhD process can complete.

Second, and the reason why I am more concerned, is that changes in SSHRC policy will not be reflected fast enough in the Canadian higher education system. Even if university departments know that now SSHRC enables you to apply your doctoral funding for any of the 5 years your PhD is supposed to take you to complete, what safeguards exist to make sure that departments won’t bias internal application choice towards early-stage PhD students, rather than towards students who may be taking longer but may need the funding more?

These are some rough thoughts, and I welcome any and all feedback (please leave in the comments section, as I can Storify your tweets, but I prefer a more permanent record). Thanks to Ian Milligan for sparking this discussion and offering his own thoughts.

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2 Responses

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  1. JoVE says

    You raise some excellent points, however, the SSHRC doctoral fellowships are now a rather small proportion of all doctoral funding administered by SSHRC. Those CGS fellowships (Bombardier, Vanier) are the bulk of the awards. From the student’s perspective they are “SSHRC” grants but the money was additional to SSHRC’s budget and the main issues like amount and duration were decided by the Canadian Government NOT by SSHRC.

    Given the effective cut to SSHRC’s core budget in the last federal budget, this shift to align the duration of SSHRC and CGS awards seems like a sensible move to ensure that the limited budget gets used wisely.

    The real issues here are the underfunding of the expansion of graduate education, and the lack of a real debate about what a PhD is and how long it should reasonably take. (And yes, thinking about completion time means thinking about what we expect students to accomplish as part of the PhD and what is really more suitable for post-doctoral or early career work.)

  2. Prof. Susan says

    I have to agree – the REAL problem here is gov’t edicts that we all expand our grad programs but no gov’t support for them by way of 1. Enough money to fund the students we do have 2. Some plan for where all these people are supposed to get jobs after they graduate.
    Frankly, we need to have smaller grad programs with better quality atudents who are properly funded.
    Also, frankly, in my field (History) time to completion is often a predictor of productivity once employed. We favor PhD’s who finish quickly because those who don’t – those who take 8 or 10 years to finish – often struggle or fail to earn tenure once employed. As a Professor, part of my job is to ensure I use my time efficiently. In the private sector employers give employees time limits to complete tasks & if they don’t they get fired. Why should academics be any different?

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