UC Santa Barbara’s Graduate Council voted in early April to extend all graduate students’ time-to-degree and time-to-candidacy timelines by one year in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
But some graduate students are saying that it is unclear how many students — faced with the cost associated with an extra year of study — will utilize this offer.
“It’s just hard to get a sense of where people are at and it’s also hard to get a sense of how your research is impacted,” Alexander LeBrun, Vice President of Academic Affairs for the Graduate Student Association (GSA) and representative to the Graduate Council, said.
Although the Graduate Council is allowing three additional quarters for time-to-degree and time-to-candidacy, no additional funding is guaranteed, according to the FAQ sheet about the changes.
While the extension was offered to every graduate student, the Graduate Division expects “many, if not most, students will be able to meet their milestones and complete their degrees following the normal timelines,” according to the FAQ sheet.
However, LeBrun says it’s “hard to quantify” how many students could take advantage of this extension but hopes it will benefit those experiencing a halt to their research and other facets of their graduate study because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Mostly, I’m thinking of people who work in labs,” he said. “There’s only a handful of labs that are currently open, and those are the essential, and also COVID-related, labs. And soon we’re going to be opening a couple more [labs], but that doesn’t account for enough graduate students.”
The year-long extension will also not apply to graduate student housing, which LeBrun says is already “not prioritized” by the university.
“If there’s too many grad students and not enough housing, it seems like we’ll just have to find stuff in the community,” he said.
As a third-year Philosophy Ph.D student, LeBrun doesn’t do field research or work in a lab, but said that the humanities and social sciences are still impacted by the pandemic and that those graduate students may need more time to complete their degree.
“Even me, who just sits at home and does my research, I’m being impacted,” he said. “My mental health is impacting my ability to do my research. It’s so hard to concentrate on arcane, philosophical questions.”
One of the biggest determining factors for many graduate students’ choice to extend their degree is whether or not they will receive additional funding –– which LeBrun says remains uncertain for many due to budget limitations.
Although the “time extensions will allow students to maintain funding eligibility,” according to the Graduate Division FAQ sheet, the time extension “[does] not guarantee an availability of additional funding.”
Funding for graduate students, determined either by their department as teaching assistants or research assistants, covers their tuition and health insurance, and provides a salary, LeBrun says.
“There’s no guarantee to get funding for that next year. It’s up to either your department if you’re a TA, or your advisor if you’re in research whether they have the resources to pay you.”
LeBrun worries that some graduate students who have no choice but to extend their degree will be forced to take out loans if they don’t receive additional funding from departments.
“There’s only a limited number of TAships for each department and if you have to give one to a student who has extended their time-to-degree, then that means another student doesn’t get that TAship,” LeBrun said.
Securing funding and housing, in addition to completing their degrees, are stressors to graduate students, who also take on the role of instructors as TAs –– a role that has only grown more difficult since the start of remote learning, LeBrun said.
Since the vote to extend degree timelines, LeBrun says GSA has just been doing “damage control” to help graduate students. Recently, GSA diverted all graduate student fees –– normally used for events during spring quarter –– to a COVID-19 relief grant, providing over $30,000 of relief to students who are particularly impacted, according to LeBrun.
“I’m hoping that a system will be worked out where there’s a pot of money for those [graduate students choosing to extend] to continue to get funding, or at least reduced tuition or something like that.”