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Special report: Graduate students struggle to complete their degrees due to lack of research funding

On April 12, graduate students protested for funding extensions outside of the Board of Governors meeting in Winants Hall on the College Avenue campus.  – Photo by Courtesy Alan Maass

For the past two years of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, many Rutgers graduate students have had to put their research and, consequently, their degrees on hold.

One such student is Elif Poyraz, a doctoral student in the Department of Psychology whose research focuses on children’s cognitive development.

Prior to the pandemic, the majority of Poyraz’s research was done by visiting local preschools and conducting studies with young children, she said.

As the COVID-19 pandemic caused preschools to close and social distancing regulations to be enacted, Poyraz said she was unable to continue her research for two years.

Students in the Department of Psychology’s doctoral program are guaranteed funding for five years, during which they perform research and write a dissertation as requirements for their degree.

The pandemic’s disruption of Poyraz’s research has moved her behind in her doctoral track, allowing her to only recently begin her dissertation — a graduation requirement that she will likely not be able to fulfill before her fifth year of funding ends in June, she said.

Poyraz is one of the multiple graduate students from the Rutgers chapter of the American Association of University Professors—American Federation of Teachers (AAUP-AFT) who protested for funding extensions at the Board of Governors meeting on April 12.

The protest, which took place outside Winants Hall on the College Avenue campus, included graduate students from across the University’s three campuses, including Ihsan Al-Zouabi, a doctoral student at the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers—Newark.

As a graduate student during the pandemic, Al-Zouabi said that she has had difficulty paying rent as well keeping up with rising rates of inflation and living costs.

“I’m going to have to make a decision to either put my Ph.D. to the side and get a full-time job or suffer the consequences of being underpaid and overworked,” she said. “That’s the case for a lot of people that are here today, that are protesting today.”

In a statement to The Daily Targum, University spokesperson Dory Devlin said that during the pandemic, Rutgers provided graduate students with more than $15 million in federal emergency relief funding through initiatives like its Doctoral Student Academic Advancement Support Program.

This program, aimed at providing support to graduate student workers, was created as a result of union negotiations with the University, according to Rebecca Givan, president of the AAUP-AFT.

The funding program is also mentioned in the Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) that the two parties signed after these negotiations were completed in March 2021.

While the program did provide some graduate students with funding, it did not support all students whose research was affected by the pandemic, she said.

Many graduate students were unable to reap the program’s benefits due to its eligibility requirements, which stipulated that only doctoral students who have “advanced to candidacy” were permitted to receive funding.

As Al-Zouabi points out, each Rutgers academic program has its own specific timeline for doctoral candidacy. Therefore, the number of years it takes for a doctoral student to be considered a candidate for their degree varies across disciplines. 

“In my department at the School of Criminal Justice, I would have had to pass my empirical paper or pass my ... prospectus defense, and if I didn’t, I would not be counted as a candidate — even though I was a third-year in my program — because I had different milestones,” she said.

Al-Zouabi said that this eligibility requirement means that doctoral students in certain departments were unable to secure funding from the program. 

Devlin said that the University has fulfilled its responsibilities under the MOA with regard to the program. Since federal funds will not be available after July 1, graduate students are encouraged to discuss degree completion with their department leadership, she said.

Abid Haque, a doctoral student in the Department of Biological Sciences at Rutgers—Newark, said that individual departments do not have the bandwidth to support graduate students without the University administration.

“Rutgers central administration has abdicated all responsibility to individual units when it comes to funding extensions," he said. "Individual units are often small and don't have the budgets for program extensions.”

Haque was in attendance at the public portion of the Board of Governors meeting on April 12, where he spoke about the capacity of departments to handle graduate student funding versus central administration.

In response, University President Jonathan Holloway said that the central administration has not resigned from its responsibilities with regard to graduate student funding. Additionally, he said that he believes the issue is best addressed at the school level.

In addition to Haque, Maria Ortiz-Myers, a doctoral student in the School of Arts and Sciences, spoke at the meeting and asked how the University allocated emergency COVID-19 relief funding to graduate students using information from Rutgers 2019-2020 financial report.

As previously reported by the Targum, Rutgers received COVID-19 relief funding from the federal government after the passage of three laws: the CARES Act, the CRRSA Act and the American Rescue Plan (ARP).

All of these acts, passed during different stages of the pandemic, allocated a minimum amount of funding for emergency financial aid grants for students — approximately $27.1 million from the CARES Act, $27.1 million from the CRRSA Act and $74.1 million from ARP.

The CRRSA Act and ARP also allocate a maximum amount of funding that can be used for institutional purposes such as providing reimbursements to universities for a loss of revenue during the pandemic.

In addition to this federal funding, the state government also provided approximately $79.3 million in funding through the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) and two allotments of COVID-19 Relief Funds (CRF).

Carissa Sestito, a University spokesperson, said Rutgers used approximately $115 million from the CRRSA Act, the American Rescue Plan, GEER and two CRF rounds for student aid.

Of this $115 million, $87.5 million went to undergraduate students. Approximately $27.5 million, or approximately 24 percent, went to graduate students, she said.

Sestito said all of the $74,182,727 allotted for student aid from ARP, the most recent funding act, has been spent, of which $14,740,768, approximately 20 percent, was given to graduate students. 

She said that these funds were distributed to students in the Fall 2021 semester and that there are currently no remaining funds from the ARP’s emergency financial aid grant allotment.

In the past, Rutgers has spent approximately $8.6 million from its institutional funding portion under the CRRSA Act for student emergency aid grants, according to four quarterly reports. This demonstrates that the University can and has spent funds from the institutional portion for student emergency aid before. 

This past quarter, the University took $497,500 from the institutional portion of its ARP funding to provide financial aid grants to students, according to a quarterly report.

Currently, only $2,725,497 of the University's $73,638,551 institutional allotment under ARP has been spent, according to the only publicly available report. This means $70,913,054 from ARP is still available for the University to use, based on the only published data.

For many graduate students, the possibility of not having the funding to complete their degrees has been difficult to process. For international students, who make up approximately 42 percent of Rutgers’ graduate student population, this lack of funding can be especially distressing.

Haque, an international student from India, said he has not visited his family in more than two years due to the pandemic-related travel restrictions and issues with his visa.

He said this loneliness of his situation, along with the possibility of having to discontinue his doctoral program, has affected his mental health and worsened his productivity as a student.

In addition, Poyraz said her status as an international student prevents her from gaining employment outside the University. This means that she does not even have the option of supporting herself through means other than funding from Rutgers, she said.

“I’m an international student, so without my funding, I can’t really afford to live here or work outside of campus or afford to have health insurance,” Poyraz said.

After June, she said she is unsure whether she will have the resources necessary to cover expenses such as rent.

Poyraz said she finds it surprising that Rutgers has not acknowledged the extent to which graduate students’ research was slowed by the pandemic, especially considering the amount of work they do as teaching assistants.

“All the teaching assistants followed up with their duties (during the pandemic), but the circumstances prevented us from doing our actual duty, which is doing research,” she said.

Justin Vinton, a doctoral student at the School of Management and Labor Relations, said that despite facing barriers to completing research, graduate students still contributed to the University during the pandemic.

In his case, Vinton said he taught virtual courses and assisted faculty with their own research. He said he wants the University to recognize the value that graduate students brought to Rutgers during the pandemic through funding extensions.

“This is my career — this is my life choice,” he said. “So what I would ask from the University is to take us seriously in the form of extending our funding (and) providing health insurance for people who really need it.”

He said the issue of graduate students losing health insurance due to a lack of funding is particularly alarming, especially in the context of the past few years.

Vinton, whose funding will expire in June, said he is personally worried about whether he will be able to afford necessary medications without Rutgers health insurance. 

He said he is considering options such as the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA), which can be more expensive, or applying for research grants, which may not even have health insurance attached to them.

With regard to completing his dissertation, Vinton said that without funding extensions and more time to gather data, the quality of his research may be lessened.

“It’s very difficult to finish (a dissertation) under normal circumstances, and now, there’s these extra pressures of a global pandemic (that’s) unprecedented,” he said. “The research that we’re going to produce may not be as good because we’re going to be pushing out things quickly when they need more time.”

Vinton said that Rutgers has provided faculty who are in consideration for tenure with help during the pandemic by extending the “tenure clock.” 

He said that since faculty need to publish certain amounts of research per year to be considered for tenure, and the COVID-19 pandemic brought about unprecedented obstacles to research, the 2020-2021 year was allowed to be excluded from these requirements.

Vinton said graduate students did not receive similar treatment for their program’s research requirements. Al-Zouabi said that by not providing adequate support to graduate students, Rutgers administrators weaken the University’s research infrastructure and the appeal of its graduate programs.

“We go out into our disciplines, as Rutgers (alumni), and we churn out data, we churn policy, we churn out discoveries and novel research, and that can’t happen if we don’t complete our degrees,” she said.

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