A graduate student I know at a well-respected public university had a baby last year. This spring her husband’s job requires him to work in a different state from her for several months. She recently decided that that she could not accept a spring semester teaching assistantship because, with her husband gone, she cannot accommodate the workload into her increased childcare responsibilities. Without a teaching position, she finds herself without tuition remission. In order to register she needs to come up with approximately $1,000 personally for tuition for 6 research credits and student fees (a lot of money, especially when you have no salary coming in).
To “help her out”, her university will allow her to apply for a one-semester leave of absence for family care reasons (no guarantee she would be eligible for this leave, however). As a non-registered student, she would be expected to use none of the university facilities. She would have no library privileges, no card-key access to the building; she is even not supposed to use faculty member time.
The leave of absence would stop her “time-to-degree-clock”, but in fact she does not want her clock stopped – she wants to continue her research and she is in no rush to finish her degree – this semester she just needs more flexibility and fewer commitments than a TA would allow. Yet there are no other options - this one university policy that applies to her situation (and is a welcome policy for some situations) is way too restrictive to address her needs. And the university is unbending on this. There is no way to petition for library privileges. She cannot be employed part-time by the university system if she is on leave in order to obtain access to facilities as a regular employee would.
This graduate student spent a lot of energy and worry searching for solutions to her dilemma. found out today that this story has a happy ending: a post-doc in her lab group offered to pay her tuition in exchange for some research help, and will actually hire her on an hourly basis. So she’ll keep her registered student status, have the time she needs at home, and actually have a small income.
This leaves me thinking. Why, in these situations, will an institution of learning refuse so obstinately to help out in small ways? While giving homage to the idea of family friendly by allowing a student a leave of absence, the university in actuality blocks the idea of balancing parenthood and graduate work by offering options that inhibit integrating work and family. It is certainly nice (and maybe worth their while, if they can swing it) for the lab to help out financially to solve this bureaucratic problem. But it is not just the lab that benefits from her research being done and her moving along in her degree. The university ultimately benefits, and facilitating her work could come at essentially no cost.
Moral of the story? Maybe simply: one gets a lot further in accommodating one’s needs by going through unofficial channels and creative solutions than by using system policies. Maybe: when problems get solved under the table like this, it keeps the problem under the table. But can’t institutions do better than this?