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Classification of Research Fellowships and Research Assistantships Held by Graduate Students

Queen’s, like most Canadian Universities, supports graduate students financially as they train to become researchers and to develop research skills that assist in qualifying them for advanced degrees. Since January 1, 2013, two distinct designations have existed that differentiate the types of financial support provided by a faculty member to a graduate student. In most cases, payments to graduate students from research grants awarded to a faculty member are classified as Graduate Research Fellowships. This distinction acknowledges that the primary purpose of the award is to provide financial support to a graduate student to pursue research directly linked to their program of study, and is accepted as financial assistance toward completing the degree requirements through acquisition of research training. In contrast, a Research Assistantship is work-for-hire performed by a graduate student as an employee. Compatible with the policies and ruling of the Canada Revenue Agency, Graduate Research Fellowships are classified as awards (T4A), whereas Research Assistantships are employment (T4).

The Principal Investigator (professor/supervisor) must distinguish between the two classifications, and will specifically recite facts to support the classification of the payment as being either Graduate Research Fellowship (T4A) or payment for work done by a Research Assistant as an employee (T4). The Principal Investigator will be responsible for making this determination based on the criteria in Table 1.

Table 1. Decision elements in determining whether a graduate student receives income in the form of a Graduate Research Fellowship (GRF) or as employment as a Research Assistant (GRA)

Element Graduate Research Fellow Graduate Research Assistant
Primary reason of the faculty member for appointing the student To assist the student financially; to contribute to a funding package to support the student in their graduate studies. To perform duties that contribute to the faculty member’s own research or academic and professional gain.
Primary reason for the student in accepting the appointment Financial assistance to support the student in the completion of degree requirements through the acquisition of research training and skills Financial gain
Nature of activities to be performed by the student Research activities relate to the student’s own thesis, project or graduate studies, though typically contributes to the faculty member’s research program as well. Tasks include those necessary to learn to become a researcher, part of a team and operate in a laboratory or research setting. At any given time, GRFs may be primarily involved in coursework. Not directly related to the student’s own thesis, project or graduate studies. Tasks may relate to data acquisition, data entry, analysis, lab maintenance, literature search, record keeping etc. to assist the faculty member in their research.
Nature of the interactions between the faculty member and the student Usually collaborative in nature; the faculty member is an academic mentor/supervisor to the student Student takes direction and instruction from the faculty member in an employee/employer relationship
Degree of independence of the student As much as is appropriate for the student’s level of training Limited. Tasks and activities are set out by the faculty member and/or others with managerial responsibilities in the laboratory or research group.
Compliance with the School of Graduate Studies’ 10 hour/week guideline No, the 10 hour guideline does not apply since the student’s activities associated with the appointment are directly related to his/her graduate studies Yes, the 10 hour guideline applies since the work does not contribute to the student’s graduate degree requirements
Status of appointment Student receiving a Graduate Research Fellowship Employee
Tax implications
  1. T4A is issued; since it is treated as a fellowship related to the student’s enrolment in a qualifying graduate degree program, the income is fully exempt: Income Tax Act s. 56(3)(a).
  2. Income will not impact students’ RRSP deduction limit
  1. T4 with source withholdings from each payment (federal income tax, provincial income tax, CPP, EI).
  2. To reduce income taxes, students may take into account tuition fees (Tuition Tax Credit)
  3. Employment earnings can alter student’s RRSP deduction limit
Benefit implications in the event of an injury  

The incident would be reported to the university’s liability insurance carrier

The incident would be reported to the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board 
Employment Insurance Income received in the form of a GRF is not insurable earnings. Benefit dependent upon total earnings and takes into consideration other forms of income
Canada Pension Plan (CPP) Income received in the form of a GRF is not pensionable earnings. Employment earnings contribute to CPP credit

What this means for Graduate Students

Graduate Research Fellowships are exempt from taxation, but should be reported as income (Income Tax Act s. 56(3)). There is no source withholding of Canada Pension Plan (CPP) and Employment Insurance (EI) contributions associated with a Graduate Research Fellowship. These deductions do apply to employment income earned as a Graduate Research Assistant.

  • Students receiving a Graduate Research Fellowship are not entitled to Employment Insurance (EI) benefits. The conditions for EI eligibility can be found at www.servicecanada.gc.ca/ei. EI benefits would be determined based on employment related earnings. For a student taking a maternity or parental leave, the School of Graduate Studies provides a $5,000 bursary to funding eligible doctoral students who take a one term (or longer) parental or maternity leave to have a baby or adopt a child.
     
  • Status with respect to the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) is not determined by tax status; the WSIB makes its own determination quite independent of the CRA's determination. In the event of an injury occurring on campus, the incident would be reported to our carrier (CURIE) and the University's liability insurance policy would respond.
     
  • Graduate students who receive financial support in the form a Graduate Research Fellowship are not employees, and are therefore not entitled to vacation pay.