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In my opinion

Queen’s plan to change its graduate policy needs more study

Why lowering times-to-completion will hurt women grad students.


One of Canada’s top ranked universities is about to embark on policy changes that could have serious ramifications for graduate students, especially women. On March 14, 2013, the Graduate Studies Executive Council at Queen’s University in Kingston voted in favour of lowering the time-to-completion rates for both master’s and doctoral students. With the proposed changes, master’s students will have just two years to complete their program, down from five years currently, while PhD candidates will be mandated to finish in four years, down from seven.

Under the new policy students may apply twice for a year-long extension on their degree (pending the passage of a currently tabled motion). These extensions are contingent upon “valid reasons as determined by the Department or Program” and “extenuating circumstances” that have delayed completion. Only in “exceptional circumstances” will graduate students be granted an extension, according to the new policy. However, what qualifies as an “exceptional circumstance” remains unclear.

The Graduate Studies Executive Council excluded graduate students from the discussion leading up to the drafting of these policies, resulting in a silent protest by graduate students on the day the motions were put to vote. The time-to-completion motions were also made without any evidence-based research to demonstrate how or if these changes benefit either graduate students or their research.

The dean of graduate studies told graduate students that a “grandparent clause” would apply to current students. She has not set a date to meet with student leaders who requested a working group be formed on the matter, nor discussed the possible impact these changes will have on the professional and personal well-being of students or the research they conduct.

There is also reason to investigate the gendered outcomes of such policies. The point being, will the effects of gendered inequality in academia be considered as an “exceptional circumstance” by the School of Graduate Studies?

Let’s start with the literature on completion rates at Canadian universities. One study looking at a eight universities from the U15 (15 research-intensive universities in Canada) suggests that with the 2001 cohort of doctoral students,

… mean times-to-completion ranged from a low of just under 15 terms – or five years, based on three terms per year – in the physical sciences and engineering, to a high of 18.25 terms, or just over six years, in the humanities. The mean time-to-completion was 15.4 terms in the health sciences and almost 17 terms in the social sciences. (University Affairs)

One conclusion: only a minority of doctoral students finish a PhD in four years. And while there has been discussion in the broader academic community about restructuring PhD programs, there has been little movement on this front. In the case of Queen’s University, some humanities programs are actually structured as a five-year program where students receive a teaching fellowship in their fifth year. So, for starters, a universal four-year time-to-completion policy fails to consider the ways in which completion rates vary according to discipline.

Moreover, a 2012 study by Vincent Larivière, assistant professor at Université de Montréal, found that if graduate students are integrated into research, by means of collaboration and publication, they will finish faster.

Students in the natural and applied sciences are more likely to finish faster because they have access to collaborative research environments. The social sciences and humanities, conversely, expect graduate students to work independently on projects that might deviate from their supervisor’s own research. Students in these fields are far more isolated than their peers in the sciences. On top of these disciplinary conventions, graduate students in all areas of study are expected to publish, teach, and attend conferences in the same time span. Without consideration for these differences, any attempt to impose arbitrary deadlines will ultimately fail.

While many agree that these motions are short-sighted and present numerous challenges to incoming graduate students at Queen’s, there hasn’t been a clear discussion about who these new policies will affect the most. If Dr. Larivière is correct, then it will be women who face the harshest effects of these policy changes, and here’s why.

A report from Statistics Canada (2010) notes that women make up the majority of doctoral students in the social sciences where doctoral degrees take the longest to complete. Men dominate the natural and applied sciences, where, on average, graduate degrees take significantly less time to complete. Making matters worse, funding in the social sciences is significantly lower than what is available in the natural and applied sciences. Women are therefore disadvantaged disproportionately even without the added pressures of shortened finishing times.

Furthermore, while women make up a considerable number of students in undergraduate and master’s levels, “this pattern has not yet been duplicated among doctoral students and graduates” (Statistics Canada 2010). Instituting shortened time-to-completion policies will exacerbate systemic barriers to women graduating from social science doctoral programs, effectively contracting the overall number of female doctoral graduates.

And while there have been attempts to retain women in the so-called hard sciences, a report by Moss-Racusin et al. (2012) at MIT found that science departments tend to favour male over female applicants. Males were rated as significantly more competent, received more career mentorship and support, and were selected to receive a higher student salary than (equally qualified) female candidates. According to the 2008 National Science Foundation survey, in general, men also tend to have a higher salary in the sciences after graduation.

By couching time-to-completion deadlines as an efficiency question rather than a structural issue within a field and academia as a whole, the Queen’s Graduate Studies Executive Council policy will ultimately make worse the disparities between male and female doctoral candidates. And without due consideration for the gendered expectations placed on the shoulders of women, namely household work and family obligations, the policy might inadvertently discriminate against students on the grounds of family status as well.

If Queen’s University is to remain a competitive “destination of choice” for graduate students both in Canada and abroad, the School of Graduate Studies must seriously consider how these new policies will affect its reputation. Will prospective students look to other universities as Queen’s establishes arbitrary deadlines on professional development and scholarship? By ignoring the research and concerns over equity, will the proposed policies function as a structural impediment that increases the gender gap and inequality in academia? Only further discussion and investigation can help resolve these questions.

Meaghan Frauts is a PhD candidate in cultural studies at Queen’s University.


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  1. Benny Quay / April 2, 2013 at 11:13

    One major complaint I have from Ph.D. students is the interminable addenda their superviser or committee would foist on them.

    A time limit is welcome. Oh, please, “more study”?

  2. sebastian toombs / April 2, 2013 at 19:15

    Totally ridiculous! Get rid of Grade 13 (in Ontario), then turn many Master’s programs into one-year degrees (ie: roughly equivalent to doing a BA Honours ten years ago), and now try to get students to churn out a dissertation in just four years? Queen’s and any other school that follows this precedent will totally be degrading the value of a doctoral degree.

    Yet their students will have the same “PhD” as anyone else…

  3. Liam C / April 5, 2013 at 11:32

    I agree that there are issues with the policy, even in the “quick” life sciences I only know one person who finished in 4 years. Maybe if they said 3 for a masters 5 or 6 for a PhD I’d be more on board.

    I disagree that is is a gender biased proposal. If anything I would suggest that if it is the case that females take longer to finish, this is likely the result of the kind of institutionalized discrimination you discuss.