Dec 162009
Authors: Seth Anthony

At this time of the semester, when everyone’s thinking about registering for spring coursework, one big question is how many credit hours you’ll take. Standard practice for undergraduates is to register for somewhere between 12 and 18 credit hours each semester. You add up three credits from a lecture course here, one credit for a lab course there, and by the time you graduate, you’ll have amassed about 120 credit hours worth of work.

Generally, the amount of time you spend in class, and therefore amount of work you’re expected to do outside class, are roughly proportional to the number of credit hours your enroll in. You might register for fewer credits, for instance, if you anticipate holding a part-time job or being heavily involved in a student organization next term.

But for many graduate students, credit hours are something of a fiction. Just do the math ­­— 72 credit hours are required for a doctoral degree, divided by the five or more years a Ph.D. often takes, works out to six to eight credits per semester — a half-time load for an undergraduate, but most grad students are expected to put in 40 to 60 hours of work each week.

If there was simply a different ratio of “work expected” to “credit hours” earned for grad students, that’d be one thing. But in some departments, grad students are told to register for 15 to 18 credit hours for the first few semesters, and then to register for as few credits as possible later on in their academic careers, while still putting in the same amount of time on the job.

There’s some logic behind this — particularly when more senior graduate students are supported primarily by research assistantships, which means our professors’ grants pay for our stipends and tuition. Faculty have a vested interest in conserving their limited funds, and so do grad students, who have to pay for student fees ourselves. Because of this, many grad students will only register for one or two credit hours if at all possible. However, these practices also have adverse consequences.

First among those is the loss of health insurance benefits. As research or teaching assistants, we receive few perks, but one of those is $500 per semester toward the cost of CSU’s student health insurance plan, a value that’s slated to go up $650 next year. But because of rules within CSU’s finance and human resources departments, this benefit isn’t given to students who register for fewer than six credit hours — despite the fact that a grad student registered for two credits is often doing the same amount of work as one registered for 15.

Additionally, many graduate students still carry student loans, whether from their graduate or undergraduate programs. Student loans are typically deferred while you are still in school, but unless you register for at least five credit hours, the university reports that you’re not a full-time student, and it can be difficult to convince the holders of your loan that you’re still deserving of loan deferment.

Grad students shouldn’t be placed in the unfortunate position of choosing between saving our professors money and receiving important benefits that save us hundreds of dollars each semester. Even worse, when grad students register for lower numbers of credits in later years of their program, they no longer receive these benefits, which amounts to a pay cut for making progress toward your degree.

This situation could be resolved by creating a “dissertator status” for graduate students, like the University of Wisconsin does. At Wisconsin, a graduate student who has passed his or her preliminary exams and is working basically full time on research alone is flagged with a special status, registers for a standard number of credits (typically three), pays the appropriate level of tuition and fees and then receives a standard set of benefits, while the university receives an appropriate amount of tuition money.

At CSU, this status could ensure graduate students hold on to important health insurance benefits and student loan deferments as well as standardize practices across graduate programs. It’s worth looking into.
Seth Anthony is a chemistry graduate student. His column appears Tuesdays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to

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