Grad students’ leave of absence policy underway

Grad students may now have the option to take up to two years off with the clock stopped and would not have to reapply to the school.

Grad students’ leave of absence policy underway

During Danielle Docka-Filipek‘s third year as a doctoral candidate, her mother developed bipolar disorder and required constant care. Her mother and 14-year-old sister had to move in with her.

Juggling schoolwork with taking care of the two left Docka-Filipek with chronic migraines.

Now in her eighth year at the University of Minnesota, she says a break from school “would have made all the difference in the world.”

Complaints from students like Docka-Filipek factored into a committee’s review of policies, and now a change to allow students to take time off is nearly established.

There are several reasons graduate students might find themselves in need of time off — whether for medical, military or family reasons — and previously, students who took time off lost some of the limited time allotted to finish their degrees.

The Council of Graduate Students and the graduate school’s policy review committee worked to create a policy to allow students to take up to two years off with the clock stopped and not require reapplying to the school.

The current policy for doctoral degree programs is that all requirements must be completed within five years after passing a preliminary oral exam, said Belinda Cheung, a member of the policy review committee.

Master’s degree students have seven years to complete their degree, she said.

The President’s Policy Committee approved the policy for a 30-day comment period that ends July 31, said Michele Gross, director of the University Policy Program. She said the review period usually brings minor changes to a policy before it’s passed.

Cheung said the new policy option will likely go into effect in August.

According to the proposal, a college can deny a student’s return from leave based on serious crimes or other misconduct during the leave.

The acceptable reasons for taking a leave were purposefully left open in the policy, said Mandy Stahre, a member of the policy committee.

After discussing the variety of reasons for leaving, such as a bike accident or a natural disaster in a home country for an international student, the committee decided not to strictly define justifiable reasons.

Stahre found herself in a difficult situation last year when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and didn’t have the leave of absence option.

“It would have been nice to have that option,” she said. After missing a few weeks of class for surgery, she said she’s now about six months behind where she wanted to be in school.

“Work and life balance and flexibility are key,” said Emily Combs, incoming COGS president. Over time, this policy could help increase the graduation rate, which is currently 50 percent, she said.

Cheung said while the policy will likely improve time-to-degree statistics, the committee is mindful of the possibility that students will lose momentum when they leave.

Graduate students already have the option of enrolling in Grad 999, an actual course listing on OneStop. It allows a student to take time off and maintain active status, but doesn’t stop the clock, which leaves the student with less time to finish a degree, Cheung said.

Undergraduate students have the option to take a leave of absence. The policy is used regularly, said Tina Falkner, a member of the policy committee. It’s a contract with the institution to hold a spot.

The hope with the graduate policy is that it “sets up the expectation that you are coming back,” Falkner said.

Docka-Filipek said if she’d had the option to take time off school, she’s “firmly convinced” she would have completed her degree by now.