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I was admitted to a PhD program last year with guaranteed funding for 4 years. The funding offer was structured as a fellowship for the first year and an assistantship thereafter. I'm done with my first year now, and I will be on an assistantship from this semester onwards. I was asked to sign a contract which states "although we will be able to renew the assistantship in most cases, renewals are contingent upon the availability of funds".

Given my initial admission offer guaranteed funding, while this new contract is a bit more ambiguous, which of these contracts will hold? Is it possible that the grad school will renege on the assistantship citing a lack of funds? This is quite concerning to me, and I would appreciate any advice on this issue.

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I am the Graduate Coordinator of my department, so I have some experience both reading and writing letters like this. I find the phrasing

"although we will be able to renew the assistantship in most cases, renewals are contingent upon the availability of funds".

strange. It is not clear to me what "most cases" is quantifying over: you are only one case.

But here's a key point: what is being taken away from you in going from a letter in which funding is guaranteed to a letter in which renewal is contingent upon the availability of funds? In all cases the renewal must be contingent upon the availability of funds, right? Within the culture of American universities it would certainly not be acceptable for your department to, say, go over budget on renovations and then tell a student "We're sorry, but funds are no longer available -- we warned you!" Not having the funds to cover promises made to students would be a nightmare scenario in any department that I know of. A subtle linguistic change in a contract would not affect that.

However, I agree that the new letter is not exactly encouraging. In my view you are well within your rights to inquire about the meaning of it, and you should of course do so before you sign the contract. I would discuss this with the department official who wrote the letter, unless you feel uncomfortable doing so, in which case you could act through a suitable intermediary (ombudsperson, faculty advisor...).

In conclusion, I think it is highly unlikely that your funding will get cut, but they are taking from you some peace of mind -- which is also worth something! I'm sorry for that, and I wish you the best.

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    Pete: did you see this old(er) question? academia.stackexchange.com/questions/105100 – Yemon Choi Aug 8 '18 at 4:08
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    @Yemon: Yes, I did. I don't find the language used in the other case to be so great either -- again "availability of funds" doesn't add much. In the other case, taken as a whole the language expressed to me that funds were possible but not to be counted on -- however the OP did not seem to appreciate this. – Pete L. Clark Aug 8 '18 at 4:52
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You may want to review the initial offer letter that you received from the program. You may find that the language there is not absolutely "guaranteed"—there is almost always a bit of "wiggle" language such as "subject to adequate progress" or something similar that does not completely commit them to paying you for the full term no matter what. (What if you just decide to take the money and do nothing the whole time?)

However, at public schools, one must also remember that they are subject to state laws and regulations that a private school would not face. The change may be coming at a policy level higher than that of the department.

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    Yes, the initial offer letter states that funding is guaranteed contingent upon satisfactory academic progress. However, it makes no mention of the availability of funds. – user3294195 Aug 8 '18 at 3:58
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    I upvoted this answer. The second paragraph made me think of a few relatively benign possible explanations: (i) A different person wrote the letter the second time around so used different language. (This is still possible even if the person signing the letter is the same, alas.) (ii) Someone from higher up the administrative food chain insisted on more careful language across the board. In this case, the change in language may not correspond to any actual change of facts, funds, intentions... – Pete L. Clark Aug 8 '18 at 4:56
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While labor laws depend on the country/state/region, your contract that guarantees funding probably doesn't really guarantee it. From a labor law perspective, if you are even classed as an employee and the letter is seen as an employment contract, what do you think your recourse is if they do not pay you? If you were in a union position you might have a collective agreement that would provide a means of enforcing the contract, but in reality the guarantee is worth only as much as the reputation of the university.

That said, it cannot hurt to ask your graduate student faculty chair about the wording.

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    The way these sorts of things work in the US never cease to amaze me. If we offer a student a studentship contract and then said "oops, no money" 2 years down the line, we'd be expecting a law suit for breach of contract to arrive in short order. – Ian Sudbery Aug 8 '18 at 9:25
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    @StrongBad: not remotely a lawyer, but from a layman's point of view the damages are clearly of the amount of lost income that was promised to you... If I want to leave a 2-year mobile phone contract early, I have to pay off the remaining monthly cost until the end of the 2 year term (unless I have some good reason to leave). Why should only companies get this privilege? – nengel Aug 8 '18 at 10:34
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    In actuality it is the student and not the university who can back out at any time. It happens quite frequently that students tell their university that this semester will be their last. It is not unheard of for a student to drop out in the middle of the semester, e.g. leaving the department scrambling to cover teaching responsibilities. There are better and worse reasons for this, but I don't know any case in which the institution pursues a legal case against the student. – Pete L. Clark Aug 8 '18 at 14:15
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    @IanSudbery I am pretty sure that is not how US law actually works and US universities work really hard to avoid students being classed as employees, being allowed to form a union, or really having any rights. – StrongBad Aug 8 '18 at 15:00
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    @Acccumulation that is exactly NOT what the university is offering and one of the reasons the whole student/employee thing is difficult. Even for unpaid graduate students who are paying tuition, there is no contractual agreement that the university must give the student a degree. The tuition allows students to take classes for credit. If you accumulate enough credits, then you can apply for a degree. – StrongBad Aug 8 '18 at 17:14
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You are in the unfortunate position of being employed in a super-precarious position, not enjoying a full recognition of your employee status, and living under the US' regime of heavily employer-biased labor law (in my opinion).

In the best case scenario, graduate researchers in your university are unionized, and the union is active, functional and enjoys backing and involvement from its represented public. In this case there would probably already be a struggle to remedy this situation and ensure 4-year contracts with the university having to bear and manage any issues it has with funding, making up for possible shortfalls from some sources with its general funds or inter-research-budget transfers.

If that's not the case, then as other answers suggest, this technically depends on the specifics of labor law in the state you're in. Note that in a landmark 4-to-1 decision in 2016, the NLRB recognized graduate researchers as employees, mostly regardless of how the university defines their status or the source of their funding. ... unofortunately, that's not good enough. Because even you could make an argument against your termination the university may well do whatever it pleases, and the main question becomes: Do you have the will, the time and the resources to fight it? More often than not, the answer is negative.

Thus, for most graduate employees - without bweing unionized, the answer is "Effectively, yes".

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