Student Dispatch

Serge Bloch
The Graduate School prides itself on timely Ph.D. completion. Its website boasts that it takes Ph.D. candidates an average of 5.1 years to complete their degrees, better than the six-year average reported in 2014 by the National Science Foundation.

Nikita Dutta GS
Marie Lilly
Behind the average, however, Princeton’s numbers vary widely. Students in engineering and the natural sciences finish their degrees relatively quickly. But for humanities and social-science students, the averages are 5.8 years and 5.7 years, respectively. Many students require funding beyond the five-year program length, and this can be a significant source of stress.

“It was a huge problem for me, the anxiety of not knowing what’s going to happen,” said Eduardo Lerro, a sixth-year student in comparative literature. 

The Dean’s Completion Fellowship offers a partial solution to this issue. This year, its first, the program has provided fall-semester funding to 28 of 116 sixth-year students in the humanities and social sciences eligible for the fellowship (the economics department chose not to participate in the program). Students were nominated by their departments; those who completed all degree requirements by the end of January can serve as postgraduate research associates (PGRAs) for the rest of the academic year.

Cole Crittenden *05, deputy dean of the Graduate School, said 17 students were expected to complete their requirements by the end of January; an additional three who qualified for the childbirth accommodation have another semester to do so.

The program is part of Princeton’s efforts “not to extend time-to-degree,” Crittenden said. “We firmly believe that it’s in no student’s interest to have them take longer to complete the Ph.D.” 

Melissa Verhey, a Ph.D. student in French, is among the first class of fellowship recipients. She’s been happy with her experience. “Knowing I was able to complete in January and still have employment for another half-year made me able to commit to finish and allowed me to focus on my dissertation,” she said.

The half-year of PGRA employment is also important to fellowship recipient Hanna Golab, a sixth-year Ph.D. student in classics. “Many fellowships, postdocs, or positions require that applicants have their Ph.D. on hand by the time of applying,” she said. “Graduating in December and yet not being unemployed is a great help.”

This benefit is complicated for international students like Golab, who is from Poland, because of visa requirements that may not be fulfilled in time to allow a smooth transition to work as a PGRA. To avoid this risk, Golab moved her Ph.D. defense date from October to December. She said she hopes the University will provide more information on this issue for future students. 

Lerro observed that while he is grateful to have the fellowship, promoting timely completion is not the same as supporting students for the full time they need. “We’ve had at least a person every year in my department who ended up with no fellowship, no funding from the University, and not enough classes to teach,” he said. 

But while Crittenden confirmed that a few students every year “self-pay” due to lack of funding, he believes the combination of the Dean’s Completion Fellowship and other honorific fellowships will prove widely beneficial. 

Only time will tell how these expected benefits play out. Until then, Ph.D. completion remains a long haul in the humanities and social sciences, but perhaps one where students can stress less about funding and more about research.

Allie Wenner contributed to this story.