Competition for Top Grad Students

The day after Harvard changed the rules of undergraduate aid, university briefs its faculty on plans to improve stipends in humanities and social sciences.
December 12, 2007

It isn't just undergraduates who are seeing Harvard University's largess this week. On Tuesday, university officials were briefing faculty members on plans to up stipends for graduate students in the humanities and social sciences, which have fallen slightly behind those of some of the university's competitors. In addition, the university said that it would double -- from two to four -- the number of summers for which these graduate students will receive research support.

In a memo to faculty members, Theda Skocpol, dean of Harvard's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, said it was "worrisome" that Harvard had fallen behind others in key ways and was determined to stay competitive on stipends and summer support. While detailed stipend figures were not released, the move is expected to push stipends in the humanities and social science Ph.D. programs from a bit under $20,000 a year to a bit over that. And the summer support -- again an area where Harvard has fallen behind some peers -- is viewed as important both competitively and for helping graduate students finish their Ph.D.'s in a reasonable time frame.

"We know that Ph.D. students do best, and make steady progress toward completing their dissertations, when they can make optimal use of summer time along the way. So this additional summers of support, especially, is very good news for all," Skocpol said in her memo.

In addition, she said Harvard would embark on a plan to expand the size of Ph.D. classes in some science fields.

Harvard's move follows those of other institutions -- generally top privates universities -- in improving stipends. The University of Chicago in February raised stipends in the humanities and social sciences to $19,000. Previously, they had been $4,000 to $18,000. Chicago also pledged to provide two summers of research support.

Among the universities that worried Harvard was, of course, Yale University. For 2007-8, stipends at Yale range from $20,000 for 9 months to $28,000 or more for 12 months, depending on the student's discipline. Students in the humanities and social sciences receive a summer fellowship of $3,700 in any three of the first five summers of graduate study, and a dissertation fellowship of at least $20,000 in their fifth or sixth year of study.

Over the course of graduate study, the typical doctoral student's financial aid commitment from Yale totals more than $225,000 -- not including the cost of health care benefits that are provided.

While Harvard and Yale may well continue to battle for bragging rights for the best stipends, it may be more difficult for top public universities. At the University of Michigan, which has many highly regarded graduate programs, the basic package for an English Ph.D. student includes a first-year fellowship of $18,000 and then four years of teaching appointments, for which the stipend is $14,756 over two semesters.

Debra W. Stewart, president of the Council of Graduate Schools, said she was impressed by Harvard's moves. "Strategic investments in graduate education are simply a good thing." Stewart said that the increased support for summer research was especially noteworthy because gaps in support can hinder progress for graduate students. "Time to degree can be impacted by by the lack of funding" in the summers, she said. "This decision addresses both the amount of funding and the continuity of funding."

Stewart said that while she was pleased to see competition among top private universities, she was concerned about apparent gaps between stipend levels at public and private universities. "The problem here is not Harvard's investment, but the comparative lack of investment by great public research universities," she said. "The country's success going forward depends on that investment."


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