I'm finishing up my third year of a PhD program this Spring. Until recently, I had assumed that I would have four years of funding as many of the PhD students do. However, after asking the department chair, I was told that "the department resources are stretched (as usual) and we made our recruitment plans based on those cycling off funding, including you. There is always a possibility that our recruitment efforts do not go as planned, but it is unlikely that we will be able to offer a fourth year of funding."

My award letter states that I have three years, with the "possibility of a fourth year based on availability of departmental funding." What does "based on availability of departmental funding" actually mean, legally? Does it mean that the department can continue to recruit new students instead of keeping on current ones?

I'm at a public university. Is there any way to find out whether the departmental funding is actually unavailable? Is it enough to ask HR, or might there be any other resources I should search out?

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    You were told there is probably no funding. Why does this not answer your question of whether there is funding? When I did my doctorate we all knew you couldn't spend all your funding each year, because you needed to save some for when the funding stopped.
    – Jessica B
    Mar 7, 2018 at 21:05
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    "Is there any way to find out whether the departmental funding is actually unavailable?" As opposed to what? The department is conspiring against you and lying about having enough money? Mar 7, 2018 at 21:14
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    Why did you assume a 4th year was in the bag when your letter specifically refers to "possibility" of a fourth year? It sounds quite clear actually, I'm not sure why you might think strangers on the internet know better about your department's funding situation than, well, your department.
    – Bryan Krause
    Mar 7, 2018 at 21:19
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    I don't see why the department wouldn't be able to choose funding new students over funding students with only three years of funding. The award letter only guaranteed you three years of funding; they are not obligated to provide more.
    – Allure
    Mar 7, 2018 at 22:02

6 Answers 6


Your institution has definitely met the terms laid out in your award letter, which states that there is "possibility of a fourth year based on availability of departmental funding." This does not mean that you are necessarily guaranteed a fourth year of funding. Even if most students get the fourth year, assuming you will is risky. They promised you three years of funding, and said that they might be able to give you a fourth. They gave you three years of funding, and decided that they can't afford to give you a fourth. As raised by @einpoklum there may or may not be other factors that influence your contract, legally, but any analysis of that would require much more information than what is provided and should be provided by a lawyer, not a random academic on the internet.

Regardless of the precise legality of the decision, I would advise that you spend your time looking into alternative sources of funding rather than try to dispute this decision. Trying to contest will damage your reputation within your institution, make you look foolish (especially if you have a weak case / are perceived by others as having a weak case), and use up precious time you could have spent looking for alternative sources of funding. Speak to your adviser first and foremost, as they have the best understanding of the university and what resources might be available to you (RA or teaching positions, most likely). Your government almost certainty has agencies that award grants that you may be eligible for. There are also non-profits that award academic grants that you may be eligible for, especially if you're an underrepresented minority.

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    I don't think this answer really sheds light on the matter. It makes an assertion but does not back it up. I think more caution should be taken with this and other answers where there is not legal expertise (at least there appears not to be, correct me if I am wrong). See the answer by einpoklum below. Mar 8, 2018 at 15:37
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    @ThomasKing What assertion would you like me to lend greater support to? Mar 8, 2018 at 15:40
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    @ThomasKing I don't understand the complaint. The next two sentences do that. I've also edited my answer to specifically disavow any opinion on the complex legal issues raised by einpoklum Mar 8, 2018 at 16:34
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    Great answer, upvoted. Btw, IANAL but I don’t think the “complex legal issues” are complex at all. OP asked ‘What does “based on availability of departmental funding” mean, legally?’ and you gave the answer any well-educated native English speaker would give. Any legal issues related to other implicit or explicit legal obligations the department may have towards OP are simply beyond the scope of the question, and I don’t see a special need for you to disavow them.
    – Dan Romik
    Mar 9, 2018 at 3:01
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    @DanRomik I happen to agree and have said as much in comments, but other disagree and it’s easy enough to write. Mar 9, 2018 at 13:05

What does "based on availability of departmental funding" actually mean, legally?

It means if there are funds available, you may have access to them.

You have been told by your department that funding is not available. Why they aren't available isn't particularly relevant.

It's possible you can go digging, but no, it's not enough to "ask HR", as they're unlikely to know the line item budgets of each department. And, to be candid, trying to dig that up to play some sort of legalistic "gotcha!" with your department is likely to do considerable damage to your reputation and standing within the department.

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    I disagree with this answer. It sounds like funding is available, but the department has decided to spend it on something else (new students) that I would have though has lower priority. I can understand why OP is upset in this situation, even if they don't have legal recourse.
    – Thomas
    Mar 7, 2018 at 22:04
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    @Thomas I get why they're upset too. But nowhere in the OPs quote is "You're the highest priority for funding". The department spent it according to their priorities. Sadly for the OP, the balance hit 0 before they got to him and funds are no longer available.
    – Fomite
    Mar 7, 2018 at 22:05
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    @Parever. There is a chance you will have funding. You cannot be certain that (a) you have funding for year 4, and you cannot be certain that (b) you don't have funding. Start seeking sources of funding other than whatever source supplied your first three years. If I were you I would dedicate at least 15 minutes per day to finding new funding until it's found, without skipping any days. Mar 8, 2018 at 22:53
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    Is it actually that clear whether it means, if there is funding, you *will* have access to them or if there is funding, you *might* have access to them?
    – innisfree
    Mar 9, 2018 at 0:25
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    @innisfree I think the meaning of "based on availability of departmental funding" is entirely subjective. Whether "funding is available for X" has the same meaning as "whether whoever controls the budget decides to use money for X". Money used for X is always at the cost of all items other than X. For example if there is "available" money, and the money is used to buy party favors for the department, then that money is no longer "available". Mar 9, 2018 at 1:34

I am not a lawyer, but a funding possibility of a fourth year based on availability of departmental funding sounds pretty meaningless as a promise. That is, I don't think you have any legal or administrative recourse in your situation.

That said, I completely understand why you are upset. It sounds like you were given the impression that you would probably get a fourth year of funding, based on what happened to other students.

In general, I consider it poor form for a department to fund new students in preference to current students. A good department should put quality (fully-funded PhD students) over quantity (stretching funding to admit more students).

However, it may be the case that they have chosen not to continue your funding because they are not pleased with your academic progress and feel that new students are more promising. If that is the case, then there is little you can do about it. Unfortunately, it happens and my advice to people in such a situation is to find somewhere they are appreciated.

I would suggest that you focus on (i) finishing your thesis as quickly as possible and (ii) finding alternate sources of funding -- teaching, scholarships/fellowships, internships, etc. Alternatively, you could look for options outside academia.

As always, ask your advisor.


My department also had a soft funding promise in a final year and was giving me difficulty about awarding it. You may have luck with my strategy.

Rather than dispute their right to make such a decision, I was able to make a convincing case that the department should prioritize me among the advanced students if funding was available. I explained that although I never brought in a full fellowship, I brought in several partial fellowships and that should make me a strong candidate for an additional year of funding. The rationale was that I had not actually "used" all of the funding in the previous years. My department was also aware of extenuating circumstances that required an "extra" year and so was more likely to acquiesce to my request. It worked.

I would wager that this will be a more fruitful strategy than fighting the department on the wording of the offer letter.

You should, of course, also be talking to your advisor about funding and actively pursuing alternative funding at the same time.

  • Did you do this before or after you were told that there was insufficient funding? I can see the difference in timeline mattering significantly. Mar 8, 2018 at 16:19
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    I believe the PhD director made a comment at our annual student forum that funding was not guaranteed and that current students may not get "bonus year" funding that year. Then I went into full alert mode and scheduled a meeting with him.
    – Dawn
    Mar 8, 2018 at 16:36
  • Thanks for everyone's interest. @dawn this does relate to my situation -- "soft funding promises" made within this department (US), extenuating circumstances, and partial but not full fellowships. Glad you shared.
    – Parrever
    Mar 8, 2018 at 16:46

In the U.S., in mathematics, at an R1, such terminology (though our number-of-years is somewhat different) means that you're really expected to finish in 3, first.

A complication (certainly in the U.S.) is that teaching-assistant hiring/funding decisions for Fall need to be made in January or February before, which is often much in advance of it being clear whether advanced students will finish or not, in that Spring term. Thus, it is presumed that students will finish on time, so that new grad students can be hired as TA's. It's not really about "priorities".

Then, yes, because commitments made to new students are taken seriously, and often recruiting seems to require very specific commitments, financial support of advanced students who've "taken too long" is not at the top of the list for allocations of limited funds.

Yes, I agree that it is probably all too easy to misinterpret the intent of such language, but, in my experience, no one is trying to trick anyone by it. If anything, it's meant to be a warning to "not count on funding in further years".


@Thomas and @Fomite and @StellaBiderman are, with due respect - wrong in my opinion, likely due to lack of legal experience (and lack of union experience).

As any lawyer will tell you, the legally binding obligations of a party to a relationship are not limited by the text of a written document describing that relationship. These may be inferred from the context of the formation of the relations, as well as from custom and from the parties treatment of others. Now, legal systems in different states in the world give different weight to such obligations, in themselves and in context of written documents, but this is a definitely a question to be opined about by someone with relevant legal training.

This does not mean that the university is obligated to continue employing / funding you for the fourth year. It may, and it may not, be thus obligated - or it may be a gray area. Also, I'm not telling you to sue or to threaten to sue, even if you have a legal opinion saying that an obligation does exist. Enforcing legal rights has its own pros and cons (and often takes a lot of time, so @StellaBiderman's practical advice may be quite relevant).

Another point regards the nature of your relationship with the university may have bearing on its obligations. There are ongoing public and legal struggles for the recognition of "funded" PhD candidates as researcher employees of their universities, see:

Finally, some universities have Graduate Employee Unions (that's of course related to the previous point). If yours has one, or a nearby university has one, they may be able to act, or already are in the process of acting, to make the period of employment be decided by clear and fair procedures, and well beforehand, rather than the result of caprice or whim. So - go talk to them.

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    Are you claiming that there are countries / contexts in which "three years, with possibility of a fourth year based on availability of departmental funding" will be interpreted as "four years of funding"? I think you have an excellent point about consulting the union, and if there is a separate union agreement that says "current student funding will be prioritized over new students" that would be one thing. But barring conjectured other agreements I don't see how the OP could be guaranteed four years of funding. Mar 8, 2018 at 16:11
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    I also don't feel that hypothesizing alternative agreements in addition to what is presented in the OP falls within the way we are expected to answer questions. There is always going to be the potential for extenuating circumstances. I'm certain that for every answer on this site I could invalidate existing answers by adding additional context, but I don't think that should mean that every answer should be hedged with as many assumptions as come to mind. We aren't mind readers and can't speak to context except insofar as it is provided by the OP. Mar 8, 2018 at 16:17
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    @StellaBiderman: No, I'm claiming that in many countries, the courts will not limit themselves to merely reading that sentence, but will consider the customary funding period and other kinds of communications, not necessarily in writing.
    – einpoklum
    Mar 8, 2018 at 16:22
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    @StellaBiderman: Also, following your comment, I've made it clearer I'm not claiming there is a 4-year obligation. Just that it's a complex legal question.
    – einpoklum
    Mar 8, 2018 at 16:30
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    "due to lack of legal experience (and lack of union experience)" - Unfounded assumptions are unfounded.
    – Fomite
    Mar 9, 2018 at 0:02

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