Thorvaldson Building on the University of Saskatchewan campus during the winter, covered in snow.
Pictured: Thorvaldson Building during the winter season at USask.

Reimagined Graduate Funding: Graduate community weighs in

In the fall of 2022, the College of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies (CGPS) council endorsed the Re-Imagine Graduate Funding (RGF) proposal to streamline the graduate funding systems within CGPS and allocate more funds to individual units.

By Kassidy Guy

CGPS is responsible for administering over $10 million in university funds, from general operating funds for graduate awards and scholarships to funding for graduate teaching assistantships. Over the years, the administration of these funds had evolved into a complex system of devolved funding agreements, centrally adjudicated scholarships, and several small streams of specialized funding, each with strict eligibility and application requirements.

When the working group was formed in 2021, they were tasked with analyzing the current gaps in funding policies and proposing solutions that streamlined processes and improved the recruitment of graduate students to USask, including introducing minimum funding guarantees for doctoral students. Through collaboration with CGPS leadership and individual units, the RGF recommendations were created and endorsed by CGPS council in October of 2022.

The major goals of the RGF working group included offering individual units increased flexibility and ownership over the distribution of graduate funding and improving internal processes so that CGPS and units can deliver funding to students faster.

An overview of the new funding streams introduced through the RGF project and the allocations assigned to each fund.

The existing funding system was replaced by four major streams: Student Support Fund, CGPS75th Recruitment Scholarships, Dean’s Doctoral Scholarships, and CGPS Specialty Funding Programs.

The Student Support Fund is a $4 million fund designed to be highly flexible, providing units with stable and easy-to-use base funds to support graduate students as Teaching Assistants, Student Assistants, and Research Assistants, or with stipends without complicated scholarship criteria.

The CGPS75th Recruitment Scholarship serves as a prestigious CGPS-branded entrance scholarship that enables units to recruit top master’s and doctoral talent to USask.

The New Dean’s Doctoral Scholars funding has been restructured to incentivize outstanding doctoral research, replacing the old Dean’s recruitment scholarships that CGPS has offered in the past.

The Dean’s Domestic Doctoral Scholarship is designed to incentivize high caliber applications in doctoral Tri-Agency competitions. Continuing doctoral students are only eligible for the Dean’s if they have applied for a Canada Graduate Scholarship – Doctoral program (CGS-D) award through one of the three major national funding bodies in the fall term of the academic year. Students who are not successful at the national level are considered for the Dean’s Domestic Doctoral Scholarship, valued at $24,000 per year for two years and encouraged to reapply for Tri-Agency competitions.

The Dean’s International Doctoral Scholarship is a separate competition designed for continuing international doctoral students because they are ineligible to apply for Tri-Agency funding. The scholarship offers recipients $24,000 per year for two years and the call for award applications is distributed prior to the winter term of the academic year.

As a result of the RGF project, the majority of USask’s doctoral programs now provide all newly admitted PhD students with a funding package of at least $20,000 per year for four years. For some departments that do not offer a PhD program, minimum funding guarantees have been adopted at the master’s level to better support student needs.

So far, 78% of USask’s graduate programs have opted-in to the minimum funding guarantee for doctoral students, representing 45 of the 58 departments that offer graduate programs.

Since the implementation of the RGF project in May 2023, individual units and departments across USask are adjusting to the changes and determining what next steps should be taken to improve it further.

Kerry McPhedran, graduate chair in Civil, Geological & Environmental Engineering has found that the RGF project has positively impacted students in his unit. “The [RGF project] allowed us to change guidelines within our department so that more students were eligible for funding and that’s opened a door for them,” said McPhedran.

As a smaller unit, the flexibility of the Student Support Fund has made it possible for Civil, Geological & Environmental Engineering to offer both PhD students and master’s students (receiving a CGPS75th scholarship) a minimum stipend, something that McPhedran hopes to see on an institutional level in the future, “Other institutions have minimum funding policies, so it’s obviously doable. I hope we can learn from them and implement that as well.”

“I think the new system is an improvement in essentially every way,” said Ian McQuillan, graduate chair for the Department of Computer Science, “What [our department] was up against was a lack of control, where different funds had different rules associated with them.” As part of the working group who developed the RGF project, McQuillan advocated for increased flexibility for how units award funding to students in their programs.

“It’s just the formulas [for how funding is distributed] that are off to me,” said McQuillan, regarding how he expects the RGF project to evolve in the future. “[CGPS] was trying to put forward the best formula they can and that was conscientious, they did a good job,” said McQuillan “But I think the weighting behind everything isn’t quite right.”

For other units, such as the Department of Music, the RGF project has been wholly positive. “Prior to this project, we didn’t really see grad funding offered to students, unless it was through Teaching Assistant experiences or if professors were able to supplement them with their grants as research assistants,” said Jennifer Lang, graduate chair for the Department of Music.

Beyond offering financial support to graduate students in the Department of Music, RGF funding has helped welcome music students to the graduate community. “They are seeing themselves as included in the body of CGPS as a whole and seeing the university as a place of support for them,” said Lang, “This funding relieves pressure and allows them to focus on experiencing all that graduate studies has to offer.”

As CGPS approaches a complete academic year since the implementation of the RGF project, the college is committed to listening to feedback from units to learn how the system can be improved.

“We tried something new and after a year of implementation experience, we’ll have a much better understanding of what works and what we need to keep working on,” said Senior Director of Graduate Student Services, Marc Usunier (PhD).  “For the next couple of years, it will be lots of testing, reviewing, listening and making changes from year to year.”

Moving forward, CGPS will continue to make tweaks to the program to maximize the use of the funding to attract top talent to the university and ensure that funding is being dispersed to best meet the diverse needs of departments.

To learn more about the Re-Imagining Graduate Funding project background and overview, visit the Reimagined Graduate Funding Updates page of the CGPS website.

To learn more about recent USask graduate award and scholarship recipients, visit the Award Recipients page of the CGPS website.

Together we will support and inspire students to succeed. We invite you to join by supporting current and future students' needs at USask.