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I have a friend who was accepted into an interdisciplinary program at the University of Arizona a few years ago.

They are more than halfway to completing their Ph.D., however their advisor is indicating that they may not receive the full amount of funding this year.

Their offer letter and governing handbook all state that students will be funded at an annual rate of $25k for up to 5 years.

My friend has procured much of their own funding for many of the years through fellowships, so their salary was payed from outside money for over half of their time in the program.

The relevant handbook text is:

The basic graduate stipend is $25,000 (pro-rated the first year due to August start date). Depending on the source of funding, you may receive this stipend in the form of bi-weekly paychecks or in larger lump sum amounts... In addition to your stipend, tuition is waived and single only health insurance is paid. Miscellaneous fees incurred each semester are the student’s responsibility to pay.

and

All first-year students are funded from multiple university sources. By the middle of the second semester, students should have identified a dissertation advisor. From that point forward, financial responsibility for the student besides with the dissertation advisor. During dissertation research, students are typically paid as graduate research assistants (via payroll) for a period of up to five years, contingent on the availability of funds and continued satisfactory progress.

Now this was sold to them by the program recruitment as they would have complete coverage for 5 years at $25k salary, but the statement "contingent on the availability of funds," seems to be an escape clause here.

When a Ph.D. student is promised a certain level funding in the US, but legally the University can shirk that duty, what is the typical response, recourse, and avenues that the student should take when that funding is lowered or removed?

Note that my friend is still in negotiation about this with their advisor, and they may still obtain full funding, but I thought it would make a good question.

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That "contingent on the availability of funds" is indeed an escape clause for the university, such that they technically have no responsibility to ensure funding.

However, it is entirely unreasonable for a Ph.D. student in a STEM field in the US to not be paid a living wage for their work. Your friend needs to make the department aware of this situation, as departments often have resources that can be used to help to cover small gaps. Now it's possible that neither the department nor the professor is able to obtain the necessary funds, in which case, I would recommend that your friend consider seeking paid employment in industry and finish their Ph.D. part-time.

Having a student do this would be quite embarrassing to most professors, so making it known that this is a possibility may help ensure that appropriate support can be obtained.

The situation, unfortunately, is much worse if your friend is not a U.S. citizen. In that case, if they have the ability to seek employment through the training option on an F-1 visa, then they may be able to pursue the same strategy. Some professors, however, will attempt to effectively enslave foreign students through visa-related threats, and this can result in very difficult problems.

  • Decent answer, but what if they want to pay them $17k, instead of the $25k promised? In this case the funding is not going to zero...I agree with your assessment, I just wanted to get some input from actual tenured professors and perhaps academic HR people who have encountered this kind of thing before. – daaxix Mar 27 '15 at 21:18
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    The phrase "up to five years" is another escape clause for the university. This does not mean at least five years, it means at most five years. – Corvus Mar 28 '15 at 4:42
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This might need a lawyer's attention. My guess is that the university can get away with cutting funding by claiming funds aren't available, but that claim might be undercut if, for example, they're admitting new students and offering them funding. They might also try using the "continued satisfactory progress" clause as an excuse and claim that your friend wasn't making satisfactory progress. But then there should be some real evidence of that, and the claim could be undercut if they continued to fund other students who weren't doing as well as your friend. All of this, however, is my opinion of how things should be --- the university should not be able to easily get out of a promise of funding --- but my opinion might not be the law's opinion; that's why I suggest a lawyer might be needed.

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    The statement "financial responsibility rests with the dissertation advisor" suggests that the system is that students are funded from their own advisor's grant. I don't think there's a claim that the university or department as a whole has insufficient funds, just that this advisor does. I wouldn't see any inconsistency in the department admitting new students at full pay if they are going to work with other advisors. – Nate Eldredge Mar 28 '15 at 4:03
  • @NateEldredge, yes, and unfortunately the interdisciplinary programs here don't have a formal department, it is usually a collaboration among departments, so students who are members of these programs seem to have more difficulty with issues like this...and I understand the funding situation in the US has been particularly bad for the past few years, but RU/VH institutions shouldn't make promises that they cannot keep... – daaxix Mar 28 '15 at 4:43
  • Also, according to cbpp.org/cms/?fa=view&id=3927, AZ has the highest level (as a percentage) of university funding cuts in the nation. – daaxix Mar 28 '15 at 4:49
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    @daaxix: I understand what you're saying, but at the same time I would not go so far as to say the university made a "promise" - it seems to me that it was clearly conditional, and the students were made aware of the risk that funding could dry up. – Nate Eldredge Mar 28 '15 at 4:55
  • @NateEldredge, ok, an ethically grey, almost promise during recruitment...I agree the handbook is fairly clear, however, I was under the impression that there is an informal understanding among RU/VH institutions and STEM graduate students that they will be fully funded for 5-6 years, every biological science, engineering, and physics Ph.D. graduate student and professor that I have interacted with seems to have this understanding in the US, but perhaps my perception is incorrect, which is one of the reasons for my question. – daaxix Mar 28 '15 at 5:03

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