Should grad students be paid to finish promptly?

The Faculty of Forestry, Geography, and Geomatics at Laval University in Canada has what is, as far as I know, a novel approach to encouraging grad students to complete their degrees promptly: financial incentives. The plan (here, in French) translates roughly as “financial support for success”.

I can’t read French, but a Francophone correspondent summarizes the incentives to Ph.D. students as follows (and tells me that Google Translate does a reasonable job with the document):

  • $3000 for passing the project exam and comprehensive exam before the end of your 4th term
  • $3000 at the end of your 7th term if your committee reports favorably on your progress
  • $4000 if you submit your thesis before the end of your 9th term (i.e. before the end of your 3rd year). Note that Ph.D. programs in Canada are a bit shorter than in the US, so while finishing in 3 years is very quick even by Canadian standards, it’s not as extraordinary as finishing in 3 years would be in the US in ecology.
  • $500 for every paper you publish in a peer-reviewed journal before the end of your 12th term (i.e. end of your 4th year)

So in summary, if you’re doing good research, demonstrate your capabilities, and are quick to finish, you could earn as much as $10,000, plus $500 for every paper you publish. That’s a lot of money for a Canadian grad student.

Note that at least some Laval forestry, geography, and geomatics students do have other sources of funding, such as support from their supervisors, but I don’t know any details of these other sources.

The money for the incentives comes from the university, which has a dedicated fund to support graduate student success. It distributes that money to faculties, mostly according to the number of students. Each faculty then has to come up with its own plan as to how to spend the money to support graduate student success.

I’d never heard of such a funding system for grad students before, and so was surprised when I heard about it. Also curious to learn more, just because it is such an unusual way to fund students as far as I know. And since the average length of graduate programs is drifting upwards in many places (at least, people say it is; I don’t have data), I can imagine many of you are curious as well.

More commonly, timely progress through a graduate program is enforced by deadlines. Students are obliged to pass certain milestones by certain deadlines, on pain of having to withdraw from the program or perhaps lose their funding (typically, ecology grad students are guaranteed funding only for some specified number of years). Of course, in practice these deadlines might not be enforced (students might be granted extensions, for instance), but their mere existence is intended to keep students on track. Timely progress also is enforced in all sorts of less-formal ways, even as prosaic as a supervisor asking a student, “So, how’s your work going?” Seen from that perspective, financial incentives to finish quickly can be seen as substituting “carrots” (incentives) for “sticks” (deadlines). Or perhaps supplementing sticks with carrots, since deadlines and financial incentives aren’t mutually exclusive.

There are lots of obvious questions one can ask about this sort of incentive system, which I assume must’ve occurred to the relevant faculty and administrators at Laval. I emphasize that in writing this post, I’m not judging the Laval program at all. I know nothing else about the Forestry, Geography, and Geomatics Faculty at Laval and so am in no position to judge whether their funding system is a good choice for them. (Plus, since the system is new, they themselves can’t yet be sure if the system will succeed) My interest is not in Laval specifically, but rather in the general issue of what sort of rules, practices, and incentives work best for ensuring that graduate students complete their programs in a timely manner.

What do you think? Are there circumstances in which it makes sense to pay grad students to finish promptly?

15 thoughts on “Should grad students be paid to finish promptly?

  1. I think a lot of grad students already have much larger financial incentives to finish early. The difference between a graduate student salary and a researcher salary can be $40-50K a year in some fields, which would dwarf this kind of incentive. I do not know what the salaries in forestry are. Perhaps the salaries are low enough that this incentive is warranted.

    IMOH, if there are financial incentives they should go to advisers. Now there a strong incentive to keep grad students interminably. I have seen advisers loathe to lose their productive senior grad students, now that they are trained, keeping them on a year or two beyond when the students were benefiting from being in the lab, keeping them financially in a state of protracted adolescence into their 30’s.

  2. Greetings,
    One thing that I think needs to be taken into account is tuition fees. In Brazil, most Masters and PhD programs are free (at least the good ones), and most students are able to receive additional funding, so they don’t have to work to sustain themselves. The funding we receive is usually lower than if we had a different job in the same field, but it’s usually enough to make a living (in some cases just barely).
    Considering this, an option would be to, instead of giving gratification or monetary prizes, I think it would make sense to change the amount of funding according to the student’s progress. It could increase with publications and with getting things done on time or decrease slightly if the progress is less than satisfactory without good reasons.

  3. I’m not sure they’re matching the solution to the problem. If students are taking a long time to finish or aren’t publishing, what are the reasons for that? I doubt it’s a lack of motivation on behalf of the student. Problems in the project planning? Weak supervision? Those aren’t necessarily in control of the student, so trying to incentive the student himself/herself is rather dubious. Money is not going to fix the underlying issues hampering productivity in labs with poor mentoring/planning abilities.

  4. This could be very problematic. Ideally, a student graduates with some nice results and within a reasonable time (no 10 year PhDs or something). I feel that putting all the pressure on the student can create all kinds of problems, just like the other people already said.
    Here in Switzerland, there is a system in place to motivate you to graduate on time. A Swiss PhD typically takes 3-4 years (starting after you leave uni with a masters degree, or equivalent). Officially you should finish in 3 years, which means that most funding for PhD students (scholarships that pay their salary) lasts only for those 3 years. This really sucks if you need some more time for whatever reason, because there may not be any salary even though you’d still need to work.

  5. I agree that too much pressure on students to finish in a given timeframe could be stressful for students. However, in some places (the US) I think the ambiguity in how long a phd should last, and how much is required for a phd unnecessarily prolongs phds and as a result lead to stress.

    My anecdotal experience from having done a phd in an institution in the Europe where the funding and therefore length was fixed (3 years), and having seeing other PhDs in a large American university during my masters is that the stress associated with running out of time or funding to finish a phd is less than that associated with the fatigue of a seemingly never-ending one. Many students do not finish in three years, but can generally find 6 month to a year of funding to wrap things up. I doubt this (needing more time) would change much though if students were initially funded for four or five years. Deadlines are stressful, but also very effective at keeping you focused and productive. Plus as mentioned earlier staying in a low paying position for upwards of 8 years is not in the economic interest of the student.

    I don’t know about the details of this particular example, but I imagine is some places and disciplines where PhDs tend to run long, that having some incentive for students (and their advisors) to finish earlier would benefit the student.

  6. Sounds like ULaval’s system is relatively progressive – and rather different from Europe (+1 Benjamin).

    In France for instance – in ecology at least – the general rule is 3 years tops (the “stick” strategy). Unless you manage to prove both that you secured some additional funding and you have good reasons to extend a little. Because funding for PhD salaries comes often from ministries or funding agencies in fixed amounts, there is a strong pressure on PhD students to finish in exactly three years (you need at least one accepted paper to defend). The strategy of many is then to finish the thesis fast, and then work on papers without a salary (note you’ve got benefits from the state after having worked 3 years). Or start a postdoc without most of the PhD papers published, which is a different kind of stress, but not necessarily better. My impression from PhD students from Canada in general is that they manage to publish much of their PhD research while doing their PhD – but perhaps this is a biased view.

  7. I have heard of a few places in the US (can’t remember which schools off the top of my head) that have used similar incentives, although not to this extent. For example, some departments increase the graduate student stipend after you have passed your preliminary exams. I have no idea if this is effective or not, but I’ll bet that the departments that do so have some before-and-after data on when in their career students are taking their exams. It would be interesting to see if this also translates to students finishing their degrees more quickly. “Finishing quickly” isn’t necessarily a measure of success, but I would argue that the majority of ecology students (including me) take longer than necessary to finish their degree and much of this is due to self-motivation and/or fear of leaving the nest.

    • Yes, while I was at Georgia Tech, they switched to a system where students were paid more once they passed their qualifying exams. The goal was to get them not to drag their heels on taking the exams (since the purpose of the exams is to make sure the student has the background needed to undertake the dissertation research). I don’t know whether it has been effective or not, though.

    • After Calgary PhD students pass their candidacy exam, their tuition fees drop, which is a financial incentive to get your candidacy exam out of the way as soon as you can. But I’m not sure how much it affects student or supervisor/committee behavior. My sense is that when students go up for their candidacy is more determined by other factors.

  8. Hi all,

    First of all I think it is difficult to compare among countries or even universities, on top of different fees, different programs don’t ask the same from their students: for instance I understood that some universities don’t require their PhD students to take further courses, while in other Universities it is mandatory.

    On the carrot and stick policy, I think it’s an interesting way to encourage students to keep up with their projects. However I share Katiesci‘s concerns that those incentives could hurry the students to publish/submit while their research is not ready yet: instead of pushing a bit further, they could take the easiest path and get a reward for that? I think the student work should also be evaluated for its value, not the speed.

    Being a PhD student in the end of my fourth year (which already feels like eons), I experience social pressure from my peers (“When are you finishing? asked almost every weeks) and economic pressure (end of funding), I guess that a carrot would be nice to motivate me, especially because contrary to what it is commonly believed, a PhD is not always a promise for a (well-paid) job.


  9. Hi all,
    at the first glance I thought: Man, that’s a good idea. Financial incentives work good, ususally. So why not! But then I thought a bit more about it and came to the conclusion, that it only is like a subsidy for the “good ones”. I mean, finishing early (or on time) could mean that you are good at what you are dooing. Subsidising this sounds like a good idea, but as far as I know, this is (at least in Germany, but I also asume in other countries) already done with a lot of scholarships.So I am asking myself, why there needs to be an extra, university-funded scholarship for the top-notches? Already working and reasonably well known subsidy and scholarship systems are around! And as a PhD student (I totally agree with MB in the first comment) have a lot of incentives to finish their thesis as fast as possible (e.g. possibly getting getting a well paid job!).

    So all in all I would say: Sounds to be a good idea on the first look, but a bit overshoots the mark. However, beeing a PhD student myself (actually fully paid and employed by a German University and therefore without special financial pressure from that side, like university fees), having such extra-cash possibilities is nothing I would refuse if I was offered!

  10. Just wanted to say how interesting it was to see the reaction to this post on Twitter. Some people, including both profs and grad students, said that paying students to finish promptly was obviously a terrible idea. And some other people, again including both profs and students, said it was obviously a great idea. (Of course, there were others who just thought the idea was intriguing, or had mixed feelings, or etc.)

    Split opinions are of course unsurprising–they’re to be expected for any new idea that has potential good and bad features. But split opinions where those on *both* sides see their view as *obviously* correct is more surprising to me, and interesting. Hopefully it just reflects people tweeting their own first reactions, which were subsequently overridden by more thoughtful reactions.

    I confess that my own first reaction when I heard of this ideas was to think “What?! That’s a crazy idea! You’re just creating incentives for students to do rushed work!” Which I’m not proud of. But fortunately rather than just going with that first reaction and posting on it, I had a second reaction: “But wait, the possibility that you’re incentivizing rushed work must’ve occurred to folks at Laval. And they aren’t stupid or malevolent, they would never do anything that was just obviously a terrible idea. So maybe this is actually a good idea (or at least, if it’s a bad idea, it’s not *obvious* that it’s bad), and I ought to find out more about it.”

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