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New Guaranteed Funding for PhD Students Alleviates Summertime Blues

Music PhD student Ben Daniels says he is looking forward to dedicating the summer to his music, something he could not do in past summers because he needed to work.

Past summers typically found Ben Daniels, a second-year Duke music PhD student, working at his parents’ auto salvage yard in Kalamazoo, Michigan, to help make ends meet. This year, thanks to a summer research fellowship from the Duke Graduate School, he will be staying in Durham and working on his music instead of working on cars.

“It’s going to be a really different summer for me,” Daniels says. “Usually I don’t compose much in the summer because being away from the academy gives me a little less motivation. It’ll be really nice to be around here in this environment during those months to create some things.”

And he’s already got a full slate of things to create. There are compositions to write for several ensembles. There is a score to pen for an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, which the Department of Theater Studies will put on in the fall. There is also an earlier piece to polish up for a major woodwind quintet that’s interested in recording it.

Those projects also will give Daniels a chance to finally break in some new recording equipment that he hasn’t had time to touch, as well as become more familiar with a composing program that is a desired qualification in his field.

Such plans are the reason why, starting this year, The Graduate School is guaranteeing summer research fellowships for all first- and second-year PhD Students. The financial support, in the works since 2011, helps students spend their summers working toward their degrees rather than working to pay the bills.

“The summer is a crucial time for PhD students to focus on their academic work because they have so many responsibilities the rest of the year,” says Paula D. McClain, dean of The Graduate School and vice provost for graduate education. “Summer research funding helps ensure that students are able to dedicate those months to their academic pursuits and dissertation research.”

In the past, PhD students could compete for summer research fellowships from The Graduate School, but many, especially in traditionally underfunded areas like the humanities and social sciences, did not get summer funding.

Now, any first- or second-year doctoral student who applies for a summer research fellowship will get one, while the competitive fellowships will be reserved for students in their third year or above. For this summer, The Graduate School has given out 248 research fellowships to first- and second-year students.

The school's efforts to provide increased financial support for its PhD students got a boost in April, when it received a $7.5 million gift from The Duke Endowment. The gift includes $5 million to create endowed summer research fellowships to support doctoral students.

Cynthia Robertson, associate dean for finance and administration at The Graduate School, estimates that 60 percent of all PhD students in the arts and sciences had summer funding in past years, and that percentage varied widely depending on the discipline. The guaranteed fellowships, she says, bring that number up to 82 percent.

The guaranteed funding also puts Duke’s year-round stipend in the top five among its peer institutions. Each fellowship covers tuition and health fees while providing a $5,500 stipend for three months. Because that stipend averages out to less per month than during the academic year, students are allowed to get up to $1,700 for the summer from other sources, such as part-time work or other fellowships.

“These fellowships guarantee year-round support for our first- and second-year students,” Robertson says. “That’s a step toward achieving our long-term goal, which is to provide full funding for everyone for all twelve months.”