Is there a time off policy for graduate students receiving stipends?

Date: September 2019


Dear Deans,

Is there any policy for graduate students who receive a stipend (TA/RA/GA/GRA/Fellowship) for holidays and personal time off? There seems to be considerable confusion around this in my department, with answers ranging from “staff holidays only, no academic holidays” to “completely dependent on your adviser”. As workers we want and need to be able to take time off, but we also don’t want to cause problems by inadvertently taking too much time off. Clearly open communication with one’s adviser is a potential solution, but without any guidelines the scenario is ripe for abuse and misunderstanding. The only concrete guidance from the graduate school I have been able to find so far are the policies on how many hours of work TA/GA/RAs should be doing, which does not answer my question. A normal job would have policies on vacation and sick days, but as graduate students we seem to be continually caught in the twilight zone between student and employee.

Thank you for your help,

Seeking clarification


Dear Seeking clarification,

Graduate assistants certainly are entitled to holidays and time away because Cornell recognizes that everyone needs time to rest, relax, and recharge. The official policy is detailed in University Policy 1.3, but I’ll summarize it in case you’re not excited about perusing the rather dry 20-page PDF.  I’ll also share some valuable feedback we received last spring from a number of stakeholder groups who advised the Graduate School on ways to further clarify how time-away works for graduate assistants.

The university used to maintain two distinct calendars because classes were held on days when the rest of the university was on holiday, such as on Labor Day.  Thankfully, current academic and university calendars don’t schedule instruction on university holidays so the calendars are now in synch. There are generally 12 holidays each year: Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving and the following day, and winter break (generally six working days from December 25 through January 1). If an assistant is required to perform assistantship duties during these holidays (e.g., animal care, critical ongoing research projects) provisions must be made for equivalent time off on a non-holiday weekday. Days on which classes are not in session but the university is open (e.g., spring break, January intersession) are not automatic holidays for graduate students appointed on assistantships. 

Policy 1.3 offers the following language on non-holiday vacation time:

“A graduate student on an assistantship who needs time away from his or her assistantship responsibilities should confer with the special committee chair and faculty or staff member responsible for oversight(s) to create a way for the student to complete his or her responsibilities at a different time or in a different way.”

In spring of this year several DGSs and student members of the GPSA asked whether vacation time policies could be more clearly defined. The current approach offers flexibility, but also leaves some significant room for interpretation. Policy 1.3 was last updated in 2013 so the Graduate School committed to reviewing and clarifying the policy to provide more explicit language related to graduate assistant vacation time and to revise the language about the two different calendars (University vs Academic). We empaneled an advisory group of student representatives from the GPSA, and also sought input from all DGSs, from the academic deans, and from the General Committee of the Graduate School (our governance body that includes faculty and students). Each stakeholder group wholeheartedly advocated for clearer language in the policy and a defined number of vacation days each semester. We are advancing their recommendations through the process to formally update Policy 1.3 by the start of the spring 2020 semester, and the General Committee approved changes to Graduate School legislation on this topic effective as of January 1, 2020.

The very nature of Ph.D. study makes it unlikely that any policy, no matter how clearly articulated, could truly prescribe how graduate students manage their time. In the process of becoming an independent scholar students pour immense amounts of effort into their studies and scholarship, following lines on inquiry in unexpected directions while pursuing new areas of knowledge. That’s rarely a 9:00 – 5:00 endeavor. Managing time will always require establishing clear expectations and goals with your advisor, keeping lines of communication open, meeting deadlines, and setting personal boundaries for when you need to step away from your studies and research. Those are all skills that students should actively develop and practice as a way to achieve work-life balance. The university policy on assistantships is designed to ensure that all students are afforded that time away while also providing enough flexibility to accommodate the different needs of students across 80+ fields of study.

Finally, if you feel that you are being prevented or discouraged from taking reasonable time away from your studies, research, or assistantship it’s important to speak up. First, raise the issue respectfully with your advisor or assistantship supervisor and see if you can reach an agreeable outcome. If you are unable to find agreement consider including the DGS in your discussion. If you are still unable to find a resolution you can contact me and we’ll work together to reach a solution.



Jason Kahabka
Associate Dean for Administration