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McMaster University's $12,000 Thesis Defense

Two years into his Ph.D., Zachary Trull * found himself beginning his thesis over again--for the second time. After his first supervisor was denied tenure, he moved to another lab. One year later, compatibility problems forced Trull to split with his second supervisor. Unfortunately, the department he was in had a 4-year limit on his funding, which did not reset each time he relocated labs. Now entering his fifth year, Trull has no money to remain enrolled so that he may defend his thesis.

Robert Hodgson knows the feeling. The 5th-year Ph.D. student in neuroscience at McMaster University was awarded an NSERC fellowship that covered the first year of his master's program and the first 3 years of his Ph.D. Now, his NSERC funding has run out. And because he also is beyond the 4-year limit, he cannot count on money from his department. Hodgson feels betrayed. "We are doing good by [the department] to procure external funding, but when it comes time that we need money, they fail to support us," he tells Next Wave.

Many students are finding themselves in similar situations. In the past 15 years, the average time to complete a Ph.D. has climbed from 4.25 years to 5.4 years. Government funding, however, has not kept pace with the changes. Since the 1970s, the Ontario government, for example, has provided support for Ph.D. students for only 3.33 years. After that, universities have to shoulder the entire financial burden of each graduate student. And cash-starved departments occasionally shrug off the burden and leave students to fend for themselves.

When that happens, students are sometimes shocked by the amount they are expected to pay to finish their theses. The worst-case scenario occurs when a graduate student's funding lapses just before the thesis defense. It doesn't matter if the defense is 1 month or 1 year away, the student still has to remain enrolled full-time--and pay full tuition. Total cost: over $12,000 per year for an international student.

A self-financed thesis defense wasn't always this expensive. In the past, graduate tuition in many schools in Canada declined after the first 2 years. Administrators then believed that advanced students used fewer university resources, says Fred L. Hall, who as associate dean of graduate studies at McMaster University helped implement the tuition differential between the so-called residency and postresidency periods. Similar policies were adopted at all universities in Ontario, the University of New Brunswick, Memorial University, the University of Alberta, the University of Saskatchewan, Dalhousie, McGill University, and the University of Victoria.

But the times they are a-changin'. Starting in 1994, McMaster began charging full tuition to all graduate students for the entire time that they are enrolled, says Hall, now the current dean of graduate studies at McMaster. According to Dean Hall, government cutbacks have made it impossible for universities to subsidize additional years of graduate study. And he doesn't think the old argument that advanced students use fewer university resources holds water. "I'm not prepared to grant, in the absence of data, that the demand on university resources is nonexistent [or] half of what it was [or] markedly lower during the research and thesis writing time than it was earlier," Hall tells Next Wave.

University policy aside, life still sometimes intrudes. What happens when a student simply can't get done in 4 years? Some get outside jobs or take out loans. At McMaster, they can now go on relief. Last January, a student strike forced the university to offer post-4-year students two new options: decrease their enrollment status to part-time and pay partial tuition, or apply for a competitive relief grant that covers one term. Other universities have no hard and fast policy regarding emergency funding, says Michael Conlon, president of the Canadian Federation of Students, and each case is handled individually.

Last minute relief isn't a perfect solution, but it temporarily staved off disaster for Hodgson and Trull. Hodgson has opted for part-time status. "I've decided to change my status to part-time," Hodgson tells Next Wave, "But in doing so, I lose all of my benefits." Trull tried the other route and won a competitive relief grant. But his situation remains precarious. "I'm still in the situation that if I don't have [the thesis] complete, I'll have to search for a job in January," says Trull.

Name changed to protect anonymity.

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