Tower of graduate school against a blue sky

Graduate School expands sixth-year funding program to support Ph.D. students during the pandemic

COVID-19 has disrupted the lives of students in countless ways. Graduate students, in particular, face distinct challenges as they attempt to make up for research delays and lost funding as they complete their degrees.

To support students at this time of uncertainty, Princeton University’s Graduate School has expanded its Dean’s Completion Fellowship/PGRA Program, a sixth-year funding program that provides financial resources and work opportunities for students pursuing doctoral degrees in the humanities and social sciences.

“This year there has been a lot of demand for it,” said Mary Bechler, senior associate dean of the Graduate School. “We expanded it not only for students going into their sixth year, but also students going into their seventh year.”

The program, which launched in 2017, provides fellowship funding — covering tuition and fees, plus a full stipend — for the fall semester to selected sixth-year students. Those who complete their degree by the end of the fall semester then have the opportunity to be appointed as paid postgraduate research associates (PGRAs) through the end of their sixth year at Princeton.

While the program normally offers funding for 30 to 40 students, the Graduate School has made up to 50 of the fellowships available for the 2020-21 academic year.

The Graduate School also has adapted the program’s guidelines, allowing students to hold the Dean’s Completion Fellowship in the fall of a sixth year, the spring of a sixth year, and even the fall of a seventh year. The increased flexibility helps students work around other funding sources and maximize all funding that is available to them, Bechler said.

“It helps reduce anxiety about where money is coming from,” Bechler said. “It’s a full fellowship and there are no obligations, so you don’t have to teach, you don’t have to think about finding an AI [Assistant in Instruction] assignment. This frees them up to fully focus on their research. It’s a way they can relieve, at least, that element of uncertainty.”

The expansion of the Dean’s Completion Fellowship/PGRA Program addresses another impact of the pandemic — its chilling effect on the academic job market, which has caused some graduate students to delay finishing their degrees, said Cole Crittenden, acting dean of the Graduate School.

“The Dean’s Completion Fellowship/PGRA Program has done what we hoped it would do: It has worked as an incentive for students to complete, because the postdoc opportunity they get if they complete by the deadline is quite good,” Crittenden said. “It’s a substantial pay increase for them. And it’s an affiliation with Princeton as a postdoc for a minimum of seven months.”

Students who have been through the program say the incentive to complete their dissertation helps them to have a degree in hand when beginning a full-time job search. Also, the PGRA portion of the program not only gives them additional time to conduct a job search, but they gain practical work experience that makes them more attractive on the job market.

Merle Eisenberg, who earned his Ph.D. in history in 2018, said it was useful when completing his dissertation to have a hard deadline along with an awaiting incentive in the form of a postdoctoral position. Eisenberg said he also benefitted from the opportunity as a PGRA to design his own course teaching one of Princeton’s junior undergraduate seminars.

“For me it was useful because there was extra pay involved, it allowed me to teach, and it allowed me to have a dissertation in hand when I went on the job market in the following year,” he said. “So I could say not only am I done, but I’ve taught. I think that made a big difference.”

Eisenberg is now a postdoctoral fellow for the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, which supports scholarship to inform global decision-making on the environment.

Camey VanSant, who graduated in 2020 with a Ph.D. in English, used her PGRA term to explore careers both academic and administrative by developing and teaching an undergraduate English course on legal and literary interpretation, and also by working at the Center for Digital Humanities (CDH).

At CDH, she contributed to a variety of initiatives, especially those involving communications, and she eventually became project manager of the Shakespeare and Company Project, which uses records from the famous Parisian bookshop and lending library to recreate the world of the Lost Generation writers from the post-World War I era.

VanSant said she plans to apply for traditional academic jobs, as well as university administrative positions.

“The reality for all of us, before COVID and especially now that we’re in this unfortunate era, is that there really aren’t enough academic jobs for the people who will be applying for them,” VanSant said. “So while I think it’s super important to be as prepared as you can for the market and to become a better teacher and a better scholar, it’s also very important to explore what other kinds of careers would be rewarding for you.”

VanSant said it’s reassuring to know that even if she’s unable to find a tenure-track position in academia, that she’ll still be able to pursue a rewarding career in another field.

“That was helpful for me to confirm that was a path I’d enjoy doing, as well,” she said.

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