The lack of guaranteed sixth-year funding would hurt any humanities graduate program, but it is particularly damaging to the students in RPC for a number of reasons. For one, 37% of current RPC graduate students are international.This ratio allows us to build coalitions among extremely talented scholars which reflect the commitments to global projects visible in affiliated organizations such as the Center for Global Culture and Communication. Yet the restriction of sixth year funding puts these students into deep precarity, threatening our visas before we ever have a chance to interview for tenure-track positions even when we are on track for five-year completion.
Additionally, many RPC students entered the program without MAs, a track that requires us to complete an extra year of coursework and an MA project. With no sixth year, a student who completes their prospectus and comprehensive exams as fast possible still has less than two years to complete the dissertation. This is out of pace with the already difficult three years of candidacy available to students who enter with an MA. Additionally, we are often ineligible for university fellowships, such as the presidential fellowship, that require us to declare candidacy by the beginning of our fourth year. With a shrinking number of assistantship positions, a decrease dictated by the university's new policies, it is highly probably that even the most enterprising students will be limited to a five-year program, a timeline well below the 8.9 years average to comparable dual MA and PhD programs. Those of us who accepted Northwestern’s offer to earn dual MA and PhD did so because we were informed that a sixth year of funding was essentially guaranteed.
To succeed in a job market that becomes more competitive by the year, it is no longer sufficient just to have a completed dissertation. In addition to completing our dissertations, RPC students regularly use the 6th year to publish articles in academic journals, teach classes that reflect our dissertation topics, win conference awards for dissertation chapters, and network for upcoming job openings. This is built into the structure of our department and our discipline, a structure to which current students have already been committed. These accomplishments are all but necessary to acquire a tenure-track job in rhetoric. Historically, these are categories in which Northwestern RPC students excel, but without this sixth year funding, we find ourselves underserved against students from competing universities.
Further, pushing unprepared candidates onto the job market will affect the department's long-term ability to recruit the best graduate students. On the heels of our recent recruitment weekend, what strikes us most is how consistently prospective students asked about placement rates and the work the university does to support them through job applications. Many of us feel that, despite the fantastic students and faculty in our program, we cannot in good conscious recommend prospective students attend Northwestern, particularly if they do not already have MAs.
We acknowledge that the University has an interest in ensuring students do not take longer than they need to complete their degrees. The best way to do this is to ensure that we have the financial support to finish our degree on an appropriate schedule by guaranteeing sixth year funding. Six years is still well below the median time to completion for PhDs in rhetoric (and the humanities overall) yet provides graduate students crucial time to be prepared for the job market while also furthering the university's interest in incentivizing graduate students to graduate in a timely fashion.
Thus we, the graduate students in Rhetoric and Public Culture, join with Northwestern University Graduate Workers in calling on Northwestern University to guarantee sixth-year funding opportunities for all current and future PhD students.