Lise Puyo, a Penn anthropology Ph.D. student, needs $30,000 to present to the United States Embassy in three years’ time.
Otherwise, she won’t be able to renew her visa — she'll need to put aside the Ph.D. degree she'll have spent five years working to finish and return to her home country of France.
The Department of Anthropology in the Graduate Division of the School of Arts and Sciences guarantees tuition, health insurance and a $26,000 stipend for five academic years, as well as a $2,000 stipend for three summers. However, Puyo said she’ll need more than five years to complete the program's requirements: three years of classes, two years as a teacher assistant, fieldwork and a dissertation.
That’s why she has an Excel spreadsheet with details of every grant that she can apply for.
The visa Puyo is on does not allow her to seek employment outside of Penn. As an international student, she is also excluded from applying to many federal grants, which is why she is anxious and “saving like crazy," she said.
This is only her second year in the Ph.D program.
A funding gap
Astronomy Ph.D. student David Sliski said similar concerns have been voiced by other students to the Research Council, the body within the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly that represents Ph.D. students. Sliski, who serves as the council chair added that these complaints exist across many universities and are not specific to Penn.
At Penn, each graduate school provides its own funding packages, Vice Provost for Education Beth Winkelstein said. For instance, Biomedical Graduate Studies and Graduate Studies in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences usually fund students until the completion of their degrees, Sliski said. BGS stipends are $32,000 per year, higher than those of the Graduate Division of SAS.
Funding in SAS however, varies by department — while many scientific subjects and economics win government grants that fund students for longer, many humanities areas lack the same direct revenue. Those departments rely on funds from Penn’s endowment and tuition, which are not as comprehensive.
Most SAS humanities departments fund students for five years and three summers, whereas others, such as the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, fund for four years and two summers.
The problem is that SAS humanities students average at least an extra three semesters past the standard five-year funding package, and often also exceed the median graduation time of 5.75 years for all Ph.D. students, Sliski said.
Other Penn graduate schools face similar difficulties — nursing students average 4.75 years to complete their degrees and receive three years of funding, Winkelstein said.
Sixth-year Graduate School of Education Ph.D. student Miranda Weinberg noted that the GSE does not have steady revenue due to the lack of undergraduate tuition and alumni contributions. She is receiving only four years of funding for her educational linguistics program, which has a standard completion time of six to seven years.
As Weinberg did not win any of the grants she applied for this year, she has been teaching GSE classes and serving as an adjunct professor at Temple University to support herself. She has spent so much time working and looking for funding that she now needs an additional semester at Penn to finish her degree.
Weinberg said she knew she would not have enough funding when she was admitted, but was led to believe during her interview weekend that finding money would be less of a burden.
Winkelstein said many programs have sufficient funding, as almost every division and Ph.D. school has a similar median graduation time to the overall figure of 5.75 years.
“I actually think it’s quite supportive that we give five years of funding to a majority of our students,” Winkelstein said.
Graduate school has other expenses as well, such as attending conferences for which neither of Puyo's nor Weinberg's departments provide funding.
Ph.D. students pay to attend conferences and apply to GAPSA as well as their respective graduate schools for potential — though usually not full — reimbursement, Weinberg said. She added that at a recent conference, a friend from the University of Virginia was “shocked” to find out that she was not funded to attend.
“Doing the things that are necessary to do your research have to come out of your own pocket,” she said. “It’s harmful to the work we’re trying to do."
Forcing students to pay for research expenses, and sometimes tuition, limits the pool of potential students who can receive a graduate degree from Penn to those with financial stability, Weinberg added.
What students are asking for
Some peer institutions are granting more funding to Ph.D. students. Columbia University has a new program that qualifies some students for seven-year funding. Humanities Ph.D. students at Yale have been guaranteed, in most circumstances, a funded sixth year.
Penn does offer some options past the average five-year SAS package. One example is a dissertation completion scholarship for students past the funding period, Troutt Powell said. She receives about 75-80 applications for this and can fund 30-35 of them.
This semester, Sliski and the research council drafted a resolution that they presented to Winkelstein and Provost Vincent Price, to ask that the University fund all Ph.D. students who complete their degree in the 75th percentile of the school's average completion time.
Sliski explained that funding 75 percent would allow advisers to spend more time with those in the '25 percent' group, helping them to complete their degrees faster. He also mentioned that advisers would have fewer recommendations to write and forms to fill out for their students’ grant applications.
“This is not a small ask of the University,” Sliski admitted, as it would require redistribution of the University budget.
Penn has also been working to reduce the time it takes for Ph.D. students to finish their degrees, which would alleviate many funding-related issues, Winkelstein said.
Troutt Powell said that although Sliski's appeal is “not illogical," it is not feasible to fund all SAS students for six to seven years without drastically reducing the program size.
Sliski holds that there must exist an “in-between” — a way for the University to allocate at least some additional funding to Ph.D. students.
"There are some things I think we can do,” Troutt Powell said. “I hope the graduate students feel like they’re being heard."
She suggested extending summer funding to five years in SAS as a potential option.
For Puyo, summers are critical times for research. As her work mandates travel to historical sites in Canada and upstate New York to interact with Native American artifacts — not a feasible task during the academic year — Puyo would welcome reduced financial pressure during the summers.
However, no institutional change can happen without supporting data, which Penn has not made available. Without concrete information, it is difficult to tell if the graduate students' qualms have factual backing or are simply based on perception.
Winkelstein recently shared some data with the Research Council, figures which she released early this week. Among other general statistics, the data includes information on the time to degree and completion rates for Ph.D. students. Sliski hopes they soon release data on individual schools, as Princeton University has done for completion rates and time to degree.
Now more than ever, Ph.D. students are dedicated to solidifying their funding, as President Donald Trump has proposed various budget cuts to departments that often provide federal grants for graduate students — for example, the National Institutes of Health, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Winkelstein called this a “definite national concern,” and both she and Troutt Powell have noted increased stress among students and faculty. Puyo added that although she cannot receive many federal funds as an international student, these cuts still affect her because more domestic students will apply to non-federal grants, increasing her competition.
“If I don’t get the grant, I have to rethink my entire project,” Puyo said.
Troutt Powell said the entire University community is worried.
"Everyone is trying to figure out how to respond to what looks like a dangerous financial world."