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Funding inequities make a big difference in PhD studies

In a previous post, I joked about the obvious discrepancies in funding between humanities/social sciences and natural sciences…and I say this with all due respect for the two-level trailer in which SCARP has been housed for many years. Interestingly, Inside Higher Education recently reported that funding was the most important factor in PhD completion for US PhD recipients. They also found major differences between humanities/social science students and math/science/engineering students: while 76% of science students were satisfied with their funding, only 60% of humanities students were. And with good reason: social sciences are less likely than others to receive offers covering six or more years, even though many humanities PhDs take longer than six years to complete. Humanities doctoral students were more likely than those in other fields to receive offers covering only two or three years.

I would say that in the current neoliberal political climate, these inequities are typical. Science, math, and engineering are somehow considered more valid subjects of study than english, sociology, and architecture. And with many universities increasingly looking to the private sector for capital and program funding, many software, pharmaceutical, and in BC forestry companies are filling the gaps. I could debate the morals of this to no end, but this won’t solve the basic issue, which is that fields of study which produce products, technologies, or services that are marketable or patentable are favoured in the current climate. This is a real shame, because we need writers, sociologists and architects just as much as we need lab technicians, mathematical modellers and engineers. To quote the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council,

Research in the social sciences and humanities advances knowledge and builds understanding about individuals, groups and societies—what we think, how we live and how we interact with each other and the world around us. Knowledge and understanding inform discussion on critical social, cultural, economic, technological, environmental and wellness issues and provide communities, businesses and governments the foundation for a vibrant and healthy democracy. Through research and training programs, SSHRC fosters the development of talented and creative people who become leaders across the private and public sectors and who are critical to Canada’s success in the globalized 21st century.

The distinction between arts and sciences is only semantics anyway, particularly in newer fields that cannot be easily categorized. I’ll use landscape architecture an example, which was not a university degree program until the postwar era. My undergraduate degree in Landscape Architecture, for which I received a BLArch, neither a BA or a BSc. This is because at the University of Toronto, the faculty is independent and does not fall under either arts or sciences; actually this is a moot point at U of T, where there is a combined Faculty of Arts & Sciences. If I had gone to another school, I would have received a BSCLA, particularly if the landscape architecture program was in the agriculture or applied science faculties; or a BA, if the program fell under geography. So at some schools landscape architecture is a science, at some it falls under social sciences, and in others it is in neither category. Now that landscape architecture is mainly a graduate degree program, students with a range of bachelors’ degrees apply and are accepted into these programs. None of this has anything to do with the courses, which span subjects like dendrology, site engineering, design studios, and planting design and are approved by a national accreditation board.

That’s too unique, you say? Most fields can be much more easily categorized? Okay, let’s take geography. If you specialize in physical geography, you might be studying rock formations, specific types of algae, or air pollution in a range of cities. On the other hand, human geography would lead to studies of women and technology, the impact of immigration policies, or patterns of gentrification in cities. At UBC and U of T, the first option would lead to a BSc and the second to a BA, with each having very different courses. But things start to blur a little in the Masters programs where both BA and BSc students are admitted to one program, and they graduate with either an MA or an MSc depending on what their undergraduate degree was. SCARP takes this same approach: if your undergraduate was in Forestry, you will graduate from SCARP with an MSc; an undergraduate in French will earn you an MA. Notice that this has nothing to do with the courses you take: two separate students could in fact take the exact same courses during the Masters program, one ending up with an MA and the other an MSc.

There are many fields that don’t easily fall into neat arts or science categories, not to mention the journalism student specializing in health and science or the psychologist who studies cognitive behavioural therapy. But because of the funding inequities, if you fall into one of these academic grey areas, you’ll be lumped in with the humanities…and that means less money for your education. Which means you’ll probably have to work during school, which will lengthen the time you take to complete. This is definitely an issue at SCARP, where the scarcity of funding and lack of teaching assistant positions compels many of us to work part-time.

This type of funding inequity is self-perpetuating: fewer people can afford to back to school to study humanities and social sciences, so there are fewer graduates, so the pool of funding decreases, so studying humanities and social sciences seems less popular and less valid. A bunch of us at SCARP signed the petition to prevent SSHRC from prioritizing business-related studies, to no avail. But there has been some media coverage about the inequities so hopefully some day they will even out. I would advise potential grad students in the social sciences and humanities to work for a few years and save up some money before starting grad school. That was my M.O., and it’s worked out perfectly.


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