The Federal Sequester Slashes My Dissertation

Most of you are familiar with the federal sequester, the automatic across the board spending cuts in discretionary spending meant to help reduce spending deficits and balance the budget. (Ironically the main drivers of deficit, like entitlement programs, were exempt from these cuts, but that’s a different issue). Most of you are also probably familiar with the poster child of the sequester, FAA furloughs, which Congress has just passed a “band-aid” to prevent (whether the FAA furloughs were necessary is, again, an altogether different issue). Unfortunately, research and education programs were hit particularly hard by the sequester.



I’m a graduate student  in Biology at Florida International University. Usually, grad students pay the bills by being teaching assistants (TA). At most university, grad students TA for Fall and Spring semesters and have the summer off to do research (usually unpaid, but we pro-rate our stipends to still get income over the summer). At FIU, TAs are required to teach 3 semesters, Fall, Spring, and Summer. Needless to say, this makes getting  research done immensely difficult, especially for field ecologists who have pressing needs to be elsewhere (Australia, Maryland, in the Everglades, out on the water in Key Largo, there are a few examples of places we need to be other than teaching). Most of us have managed to find external funding (NSF, EPA, or research-assistantships from our advisors).


This is me, not TAing and getting my dissertation going

I have a generous fellowship through FIU that gave me two years free from teaching, which have been very productive. Unfortunately, my fellowship ends in August. Which means I’d have to TA three semesters a year again without obtaining another source of income. Which means my ability research would be shot for at least a year, or until I manage to find other sources of funding.

How The Sequester May Have Hurt My Dissertation

I applied for, and received, a fellowship through the Smithsonian to cover my salary next year, pending a budget resolution, which would free me from having to TA. Unfortunately, the sequester happened, and Congress cut the Smithsonian’s budget by about 6% from 2012 levels. Of that 94%, Congress has actually only given the Smithsonian 75%, making the Smithsonian’s current operating budget for 2013 somewhere around 70% of 2012 levels. My fellowship is in that missing 30%. (At least, this is how it was explained to me by my sponsor at SI. Also of note, the sequester is why the Smithsonian is closing galleries and exhibits [and yes, the link is from Fox News and yes, I did that on purpose]).

Currently, I’m trying to work out a solution with FIU that would allow me to get my research done while I wait on word from the Smithsonian as to whether or not they’ll get the remaining 25% of their budget. It looks like we’ve come up with a few viable alternatives, but nothing is yet in writing. In fact, FIU may not even have a TA position available for me, as my advisor didn’t request one because we thought I had the Smithsonian fellowship. Best case scenario: The Smithsonian gets the missing 25% and manages to fund my fellowship, at least in part. This looking increasingly unlikely. Worst case scenario: The Smithsonian doesn’t get its full budget and FIU doesn’t have a TA spot available. At that point, I become unemployed (or at least unpaid). This is more likely than I’d prefer, although I’m reasonably confident I can avoid that. Next-to-worse case scenario: I have a TA spot, but I have to TA on campus rather than online: My dissertation will be delayed for at least a year and the quality of the work will decline substantially. Most likely scenario: A get a TA spot to TA an online class, which resolves most of these issues. This is, hopefully, the most likely resolution, but frankly, it’s still too uncertain.

Needless to say, the past month has been quite stressful.


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