The UNC Graduate School will not offer the Doctoral Merit Assistantships or five-year Royster Society of Fellows Fellowships for the 2021-2022 academic year.
The five-year Royster Society of Fellows and the Doctoral Merit Assistantship programs provide each fellow with full tuition, fees and health insurance, according to the UNC Graduate School website. The five-year Royster program also includes a travel allowance for fellows to present research at conferences and pursue other opportunities.
The Graduate School is no longer offering the programs due to expected budget constraints.
This latest decision creates one less opportunity for new graduate students, coming after the History Department announced in September that it would not accept applicants to its graduate program for the 2021 admissions cycle.
The Graduate School made the decision to halt the five-year Royster Society of Fellows and the Doctoral Merit Assistantship programs to ensure support for its continuing graduate students, according to an email sent to campus faculty on Oct. 30 by Julie Montaigne, the director of fellowships at the school.
Montaigne said in the email that the halting of the programs is a “temporary pause.”
Graduate School Dean Suzanne Barbour said in a statement that the decision was difficult for leaders in the school, but it was financially necessary.
“We determined the most appropriate use of our resources is to support our current cohorts and their progress to degrees,” Barbour said in the statement.
In a typical year, the Royster Society of Fellows program supports more than 20 incoming doctoral students, and the Doctoral Merit program supports approximately 40 incoming students, according to UNC Media Relations. Usually, a student’s academic program nominates the students for the fellowship in January and the graduate school sends offers in late February or early March.
The UNC Graduate School will continue to offer certain funding for the upcoming academic year, including the Master’s Merit Assistantships, Native American Incentive Fellowships, North Carolina Excellence Fellowships and Weiss Urban Livability Program Fellowships.
The graduate school will also continue to offer Dissertation Completion Fellowships, including the Royster Society of Fellows' one-year dissertation completion fellowship.
Kurt Ribisl, chairperson of the Department of Health Behavior, said he worries that if the pause extends beyond one year, there will be an adverse effect on UNC’s ability to recruit top students. Ribisl currently oversees a department with several fellows.
“I sympathize with the challenges that we are facing as a University as our revenue has shrunk and our deficit is growing substantially,” Ribisl said. “So, there are many tough decisions that are gonna need to be made, and this is probably one of the first ones that we are seeing in the University that is affecting our academic mission.”
Iliya Gutin, a graduate research assistant in the department of sociology and current recipient of the Doctoral Merit Assistantship, said as a graduate student, he finds it difficult to support the school’s decision because the programs have helped him fund his education.
He said he was surprised by the decision but is not shocked because of UNC’s budget shortfalls related to COVID-19.
“Generally I think that support for graduate student fellowships is probably a very small piece of the pie,” Gutin said. “It is one of the first things that I have heard to be cut, which kind of surprises me. So I feel like, it makes me wonder what was prioritized over that.”
Ribisl said there will be a harsher impact on the doctoral program because both the five-year Royster Fellowship and the Doctoral Merit Assistantship will be cut. The graduate school’s decision could result in one to two fewer doctoral students coming to his department.
Ribisl said recipients of the Royster Fellowship and Doctoral Merit Assistantships benefit UNC by engaging with professors in exciting research projects and enhancing classroom discussions.
“The students who have gotten the Doctoral Merit or the Royster really enrich our training programs because the students are usually just really bright and really committed to research and making a difference in public health,” Ribisl said.
Gutin said the dissertation fellowships are very helpful in allowing students to not have to teach or look for other opportunities to stay funded.
“Working on the dissertation is all-consuming and also you are on the job market, so that is kind of a full-time job as well,” Gutin said. “The fewer opportunities for (funding), the tougher the situation for graduate students.”
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