On August 21, tables were set up on Abele Quad, piled high with peanut butter treats, chocolate chip cookies and mini chocolate cakes. The Duke Graduate Students Union was holding the first of a series of bake sales called “Cookies for Continuation Fees” to help fund Ph.D. students in their seventh year and beyond.
Previously, the Graduate School had guaranteed tuition funding for Ph.D. students for their first five years. In August, Paula McClain, dean of the Graduate School, announced that new “tuition scholarships” would be offered for sixth-year Ph.D. students who do not have external or departmental funding. Although DGSU's official statement about this recent change called it "a big win," where Ph.D. students past their sixth year will obtain funding still remains a question.
Much of the debate about whether or not Ph.D. students in their seventh year or later should pay fees hinges on a difference in what those fees represent. Ph.D. students who are in their seventh year or beyond spend most of their time working on their dissertations. The $7,000 they must pay covers collaboration with faculty and school resources as they finish the papers.
But DGSU views the fee as a consequence for not finishing their dissertations sooner.
“[These charges] are just an additional fee that’s slapped on top of the other things [students] have to pay” like health insurance and recreation fees, said Casey Williams, a second-year Ph.D. student and member of DGSU.
However John Zhu, senior public affairs officer and communications strategist at the Graduate School, said the $7,000 charges aren't additional fees.
"It’s tuition, plain and simple,” Zhu said, noting that the fees are not punitive.
But Laura Jaramillo, a seventh-year Ph.D. student, said that paying the fees is no easy feat for the roughly 75 graduate students in their seventh year or later. Such students must often prolong their studies as they need to find other jobs to pay the fees, she said.
Williams, the second-year Ph.D. student, added that he believed Duke charges the fees as a way to incentivize student to finish their dissertations faster, but often that's not the case.
“Continuation fees weaken promising scholars at their most financially precarious times," Jaramillo said.
Students also argued that Duke is out of step with its peer institutions in terms of what it charges its graduate students. Joseph Longarino—a fifth-year Ph.D. student who helped organize one of the meetings to encourage Duke to change its Ph.D. tuition policy—found that at Harvard University, Princeton University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Cornell University, tuition is waived if students are employed as RAs, TAs or in other similar positions.
Zhu said that certain departments at Duke have similar policies as these other universities, but that the Graduate School as a whole does not. According to the Graduate School, the median time to receive a Ph.D. degree is 6.3 years in the humanities, 5.7 years in the social sciences and five years in the physical sciences at Duke. Each median is shorter than the national median lengths for Ph.D.s in those respective subject areas.
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While DGSU is pleased with the recent policy change for students in their sixth year, they are not finished with the issue.
“We’re asking the University to remove these fees for students in their seventh year and above,” Williams said.
Until then, DGSU will continue its bake sales to help pay for its members’ charges. Longarino said the approximately $600 raised from three sales are just “a small dent in the $7,000 plus dollars in tuition that they have to pay.”
Correction: This article was update 2:00 p.m. to reflect the median times Ph.D. degrees are received, not average times.