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This question was prompted by answers and comments on this question about PhD student funding.

I am under the impression that STEM Ph.D. graduate students, when accepted into an RU/VH university in the United States, will typically be funded for at least 5-6 years, depending on the average length of Ph.D. in the specific field, by either TAs, RAs, a mix, fellowships, etc.

I understand that my university, the University of Arizona, has shirked this duty in a legally binding sense, but is this impression wrong?

If it is, why would I (or any other graduate student) risk having to find a job in the middle of a Ph.D. in order to "pay the bills?"

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It's important to distinguish between the legal commitment and the moral commitment. To the best of my understanding, US research universities morally commit to funding their STEM students, i.e., any student joining the university should act on the expectation that they will be funded one way or another throughout their education.

There are any number of ways in which that can go wrong, however, and leave a department in a position where it is unable to fulfill that commitment. For example, public universities are typically subject to review and interference from the state legislature, such as the massive budget cuts that have just been inflicted on the University of Arizona. They can also potentially face interference on a much more fine-grained level from its (state politically appointed) Board of Regents, who are not under a legal obligation to respect the tradition of academia independence.

I would thus not be surprised if many universities carefully weaken their language to avoid a legal commitment, and therefore attempt to immunize themselves from student lawsuits should such a situation arise.

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I cannot speak for all US universities or all disciplines. That said, the graduate programs in the natural sciences that I have been involved with do knowingly commit in legally binding fashion to provide five years of support with the caveat that this may come in the form of 20 hour per week TA appointments if no RA funds are available from the PI or the department.

Why would someone accept a lesser deal? If one has a better option, I see little reason to do so. If one does not, one might perhaps accept such an arrangement in order to receive a PhD education that, in many fields, vastly increases one's earning potential.

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  • At the University of Arizona (UA), all contracts (that I have seen) for graduate students do not bind the University in any way, legally at least. They all contain legal language allowing UA to not pay a graduate student during that student's tenure, with no legal recourse. Admittedly, I've only compared offer letters with a few other students... – daaxix Mar 28 '15 at 5:51
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    @daaxix the cynical answer is that if the university can do that, and still get students, why would they promise a better deal? – Davidmh Mar 28 '15 at 7:45
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The university I went to for graduate school made no such commitment. They usually guaranteed you, in one form or fashion, your first year or two of funding. But beyond that? The department would definitely try to help you, and did it's level best to match people who needed RAs/TAs with people who had funding, and for most people it worked most of the time but it was by no means secure, and absolutely not legally binding.

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