Deadlines without consideration

Contributor argues that new postgraduate degree timelines hurt the students that countinue education

Sean Field, PhD ’13

Yesterday, the Graduate Studies Executive Council (GSEC) lowered graduate time-to-completion limits for PhD and Master’s Candidates to four years and two years respectively. GSEC reviews and amends regulations pertaining to graduate studies including admissions standards, degree requirements, completion requirements and graduate students appeals. These new time-to-completion limits only address the symptom of graduate completion rates rather than the systemic determinants of graduate program completion. These new limits will increase the number of graduate program withdrawals; discriminate against graduate students facing systemic barriers to completion; and, more closely tie program completion and withdrawal rates to federal and provincial research funding. If you’re an undergrad, this is the equivalent of Queen’s automatically withdrawing you after four years, when the time it takes you to complete your degree isn’t always in your control.

This is important because evidence indicates that graduate scholarship funding and quality of graduate supervision are the primary determinants of graduate program completion. Recent research by Université de Montréal Assistant Professor Vincent Larivière, indicates that students who don’t receive federal and provincial research scholarships, and are excluded from collaborative research projects (led by their advisors) are less likely to graduate.

According to Larivière “If you are integrated into research you’ll finish faster and you’ll finish, period.” The available evidence also suggests that the average time-to-completion is about six years for PhD Candidates and three years for Master’s Candidates, well over the proposed program limits, and this varies widely across disciplines.

While the length of undergraduate and professional degrees are determined by course requirements, the length of graduate degrees are determined by research that is complicated and full of surprises. If you’re an undergrad, you should be concerned about the impact of these motions on teaching and grading because Teaching Assistants and Teaching Fellows will be under pressure to focus on research to the detriment of teaching. If you’re a future graduate student, you should be concerned about how these motions will impact the quality and type of graduate research conducted at Queen’s.

A second motion regarding extensions to graduate time-to-completion limits was tabled. According to this motion, Master’s and PhD Candidates will have to apply for program extensions at the end of years two and four, respectively. However, these extensions aren’t guaranteed and are contingent on “valid reasons,” “extenuating” and “exceptional circumstances.” The passing of these motions by GSEC members (10+ in favour, four against) is indicative of the distance between students and administrators at Queen’s. SGPS and Graduate Student Senate members, Becky Pero and Terry Bridges, voted against the motion to lower time-to-completion limits. However, despite the outcry from graduate students, the majority of the deans and faculty representatives (who stack the Council) voted in favour of the motions spearheaded by Brenda Bouwer, Associate Vice Principal and Dean of Graduate Studies. These Dean and Faculty Representatives on GSEC ignored all empirical evidence on graduate completion rates, as well as the 1000+ signatories to the online petition against these motions (hosted by change.org). Moreover, a number of questions remain unanswered about these new rules. These include (but aren’t limited to): What will happen to graduate students who currently exceed these limits? How are the rules expected to affect overall graduate completion rates? And, who is more likely to be affected?

There is little doubt that the new program limits will have a substantial impact on current and future graduate students at Queen’s. However, they are unlikely to solve the problem of timely graduate program completion and will exacerbate pressure on graduate students.

Sean Field is the Treasurer for PSAC Local 901, and a PhD Candidate in Department of Geography.

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