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Educated Woman: The Grad-School Adventures of Micella Phoenix DeWhyse, Chapter 32: Money or Science, Who Do You Love?



I was struck by a query Jeff--my adviser--had one day. He was wondering how to recruit more students to the department, which seems to have an excellent reputation but lately has not had as many applicants as the faculty thinks they deserve. I asked what the students who chose to go to other places told them when they declined the offer to enter our hallowed halls. His answer: that the students hadn't come up with any explanations that the faculty finds useful. Part of me wanted to tell him that it was all about money, not love. Science grad students love science as much as they ever did. But they're getting wiser.

Another part of me told me to keep my mouth shut, which is what I did. Until now.

I'm about to expose some dirty little secrets. They're just my opinion, of course, but what isn't?

1. Students are getting hip to the fact that pay in graduate school can be like pay on the outside. The more you bring to the table, the more you deserve. And sometimes those who deserve more get more.

2. Although some departments and advisers have begun to play to this little tune, others have not. If I'm a competitive student, with a very good record and lots of promise, my decision on what grad school to attend will probably depend on pay, faculty, and facilities. In that order.

What's especially interesting is how many undergraduates are still uninformed as to how graduate school works. Many don't even know that if they go to school in science or engineering that they won't have to pay for it themselves. They won't live a lush life, but at least they won't shell out $100,000 like they would if they went to med school, business school, or law school.

That's a big advantage, but there are some downsides to the Ph.D. track: Law school and business school take a lot less time, and graduates of top medical schools, law schools, and business schools can expect to make big money when they finish. Ph.D. science graduates can expect another several years of low-income training followed by stiff competition for a few good jobs that may not pay that much. Engineers usually make out a little better with industry positions. But we're producing these Ph.D.s, and we don't always have a good place to put them and utilize them to the best of their abilities.

Poverty Is Just a Wee Bit Irritating

When did grad students become so cynical, so market based? Maybe it was when we realized how much we were giving up in immediate earning potential by delaying our entry into the workforce; poverty is just a wee bit irritating when our friends are vacationing in Europe. Maybe it was when we realized we could be consultants who work the same crazy hours as graduate students but make a whole lot more money and are treated with more respect. Or maybe it was when we realized that nobody--least of all those grad-school recruiters--bothered to tell us just what a crapshoot a career in science can be.

I don't know when. But what I do know is that, although grad-school pay is low for almost everyone, the pay structure, or lack thereof, can work in your favor if you, your adviser, or your department is fabulous. It can also cause a lot of pain if the funding isn't there.

For you newbies out there, or people thinking about extending their stay in school: One of the best deals is to get your own money. If you're lucky enough to secure a fellowship, either private or government, you can earn as much as $30,500 a year while doing research and working toward your degree. That's a whole lot of money by grad-school standards. That is, it's a lot of money if you can keep it. I have heard of students nearly being duped out of their fellowship money by a combination of university bureaucracy, department or adviser sleight of hand, or their own mismanagement. Leave nothing to chance.

And then there's the Research Assistant (RA) vs. Teaching Assistant (TA) question. If you love teaching, you'll want to teach. But a TA may not be paid as well, and there's more work to do, with hours spent in class, making up and grading assignments and exams, and office hours. And let's face it; you do want to graduate eventually. So if you aren't that interested in teaching, you'll want the RA position. But if you haven't always played nicely with your adviser (don't you just LOVE politics?), or if that project you want to work on isn't funded, or isn't funded well enough, you might not get it. And then, depending on who you work for, they might just decide to pay more ... or less. Why? Because they can. So tough luck.

Don't Ask, Don't Tell

Some departments have moved to a seniority system, in which the farther you've progressed in your program, the more you get. Others seem to have a "don't ask, don't tell" policy--what you get is between you and your adviser, and if they like you more--whether it's because you are smarter, work harder, look better, or brown-nose best--you get more. Scandal and intrigue. Still other departments just give everybody--slackers and superstars--the same amount. Less drama, but it can make those departments less competitive for incoming students.

But let's face it; without graduate students working as research employees, nothing would get done. We may not originate all the work, but along with postdocs we do all the manual labor to get those fabulous results, which turn into moneymaking propositions--and proposals--for our advisers.

Yes, we'll end up with a degree at the end--hopefully--which will allow us to move on to a slightly more lucrative postdoc or industry position. And then the elite few will compete with hundreds of others for the occasional faculty position. Sweet deal.

Cynical? Market-based? I prefer to think of it as savvy. We're giving up a lot in material comforts because of our love for science and facing an uncertain future. And some of us would like to eat more than ramen noodles and frozen food every now and then, or turn the heat up above 60 degrees in the winter, or keep our cars running. Is that too much to ask? Nope. Be smart, be savvy, and get what you can. If departmental administrators expend some of that brainpower on why they aren't getting as many good students as they expected, they'll figure it out sooner or later.

Comments and horror stories welcome about how money (or the lack of it in graduate school) made or ruined your life. One day we'll be able to eat fabulous food and wear new clothes. One day.

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