Advice I Took For Granted For Grad School

amysquareOver dinner one cold winter night my last year as an undergraduate, my advisor casually mentioned that unless I was offered a stipend, it wasn’t really an acceptance into graduate school. This was specific to my case to a certain degree – looking for a PhD program in the environmental sciences – but his words stayed with me. When it came time to choose schools, the 5 years of funding Duke offered me made a large part of my decision as to which graduate school I attended.

In a world where PhD students begin bright-eyed and bushy-tailed but often graduate unemployed, I’ve come to reflect upon this advice a bit more. I’ve had 5 years of support, essentially as an employee, and am now on my own to find my path in the world. But I didn’t saddle debt for my graduate education and could choose to parlay many of the skills learned (writing, teaching, project management) to any other career, should I choose. Compare this to other students, who saddle enormous debt for a master’s or doctorate expecting that this guarantees them a job able to pay off that debt. Thank goodness I listened over ziti that night.Now that I’ve put some distance between myself and the application process (and seen a few applicants from the other side), I’m glad that I had the courage to be demanding back then. I’d be even more so now.

One place I applied, as part of a medical school, offered me a stipend as part of a research assistantship. But no health insurance. Have you checked the rates for individuals getting health insurance these days? Say goodbye to the stipend. Pre-existing condition? Forget it (true back then, but hopefully Obamacare has fixed that particular hiccup in social well being). Moving on…

The next place, a state school, offered me two years of funding. This is fairly typical for schools with strained and somewhat uncertain budgets that depend on the political whims of elected officials. While some of these schools have a reasonable expectation for renewed funding, it still puts them at a recruitment disadvantage, especially when aiming to attract students who value stability. In this particular case, I’d seen enough current students working a full-time job to pay living expenses while taking 4 years to finish their master’s. No thanks.

The final place offered a single position for the human dimensions of long-term ecological research. This convoluted story starts with a disciplinary lesson but ends with finances. Aside from being a token social scientist, funding was contingent with my staying in the ecology department. Given that most research interests change over 5 years and my initial meeting with my potential advisor wasn’t exactly a match made in heaven, I wasn’t willing to make that bet. If I switched to sociology? No funding for me. This, again, is a disciplinary difference, where funding in the social sciences is less common – but still present, depending on where you go and what their strengths are.

So I chose Duke. While I don’t always understand their finances, at least I have some. I made the right decision for a number of reasons – but largely driven by concern about finances that, at the time, I very much did not have at my disposal. However, in retrospect, many wealthier students might not have the motivation or the kind warning from undergraduate advisors. This may lead some to think that partial offers, not including health insurance or a plan for when your project changes, are acceptable.

The reason I write this now is also as part of the larger discussion about the number of PhDs produced, which is rapidly becoming recognized as too many. As a result, there is some discussion over limiting the pipeline to make the promise of a job at the end more realistic. With higher degrees of debt taken on and competition for stable long-term employment options rising, perhaps it’s time to re-think the finances of graduate education. Perhaps schools should offer less positions but fully fund them. The solution then starts with a bit of sage advice – if you didn’t get offered a stipend, you didn’t get in.


  1. Zen Faulkes (@DoctorZen) · March 28, 2013

    I think this advice may be more applicable to a doctoral program than a master’s program, though. There’s a big difference in costs and opportunities between them, not to mention the reasons people get into those programs.

    • Amy Freitag · March 28, 2013

      For sure, my experiences are through a PhD program. Incentives are for sure different in the world of master’s, but the issues are not completely different. One of my examples (and options) was a master’s in a place where many people take 4 years. And in the world of research master’s (MS) the issues are eerily similar to PhD programs. In many cases, we even compete for the same jobs afterwards.

    • David Shiffman · March 28, 2013

      Even if your Masters doesn’t offer a stipend or an assistantship, it’s still very important to plan ahead about your financial situation, ideally BEFORE committing to a multiple-year program. I’ve seen several people drop out because of entirely foreseeable (and in a few cases avoidable) financial difficulties.

  2. Al/ex/a/ndra Sutton (@aesutz) · March 28, 2013

    Sound advice. When I talk to undergrads about potential graduate studies, I always spend about 30% of our time talking about money: what to expect, what to demand, what to walk away from, what’s worth what. I suspect that too many professors/scientists feel too awkward to have frank financial conversations with their mentees/potential students, even when it could save that kid a world of pain.

    In some ways, it’s even a social justice issue — particularly for students coming from less privileged backgrounds (e.g. first generation in college/graduate school; working poor; new Americans, etc). The combination of insecurity about an unorthodox professional choice + lack of exposure to academia + lack of career planning guidance + lack of understanding of finances in general, but esp. of education = a doozy. And it’s unfortunate, because these are also the kids who are least able to absorb a financial or professional mistake.

    Agree that it’s one kettle of fish for professional master’s programs, where the curriculum/department is designed to train students to work jobs well (e.g. MEM/MBA programs). But for research master’s and PhDs, the same remains: no support means just that — no support.

  3. Peter Nelson · March 29, 2013

    I agree, generally! A couple of observations though…

    First, getting through school with little or no debt is clearly a goal that anyone considering higher education would do well to chase. That’s a no-brainer, especially considering the challenges of getting a job in the life sciences especially those that may not have anything to do with the pharmacological or medical fields. Still, a small amount of debt may even help establish your credit, but I hasten to add that “small” is situation-dependent and may change over the course of your study and, even more important, I am certainly no financial planning wizard.

    I think the advice applies just as well to those seeking a Masters as it does for the potential PhD candidates. Arguably, it may be even harder getting a job with “just” a Masters. I got both and worked (at non-science related jobs) between my Masters and PhD.

    If you can find a job straight out of college in the life sciences, use that experience and those connections to set the stage for your grad studies. Your employer may be willing to (partially) subsidize your grad education and then re-hire you when you finish. I worked for California Fish and Game (technically for PSMFC as a Fisheries Technician) while I was completing my Masters. CDFG provided a part-time job, boat access, material supplies, dive partners and much more. Of course my thesis was of direct interest to the research that they were involved in, so both parties benefitted.

    Don’t discount supporting yourself through grad school through teaching assistantships. Many of us have done it. Get a good sense for the availability of TAships though first. It helps to be a decent or at least enthusiastic teacher too. We all have to start somewhere–no one expects you to waltz in with a ton of experience–so take advantage of any training your school may offer in teaching. Of course, if you want to teach in your future career, experience as a TA is very helpful.

    Last, you can fund your own grad research. I’d argue that, sometimes, finding a great mentor who can’t offer funding may be a better strategy than choosing a fully-funded program with less to offer on an academic or intellectual level. Apply for those NSF pre-docs, learn how to ferret out RFPs and write proposals. There’s no better way to prepare for life after grad school and it’ll sharpen your thinking regarding your research, your grad committee will be pleased and impressed, and you’ll improve your writing skills. Plus, this demonstrates your early ability to think and work independently. Dependent on your advisor’s personality and policy, this also gives you some independence with regard to your choice of study. Be careful with this one though. Not only can this lead to misunderstanding, but it may also limit your advisor’s ability to guide you. And there will be times when you look enviously at your grad school colleagues with steady funding and a solid plan for their thesis/dissertation while you’re chasing grants and vacillating between birds and butterflies!

  4. Jim Gelsleichter · March 29, 2013

    Definitely sound advice, but it views things through a bit of a rosy filter that is the R1 institution. Students are generally supported through either teaching or research assistantships at these institutions, and certainly should make selections on the basis of these offers. However, it is important to note that a number of schools do not fit into this category and it is likely that enrollments in these programs will increase as students find it more difficult to get into programs at more established schools. That means that many students will not have the choices available to them that you did and may need to be less choosy.

    We receive lots of applicants from very qualified students and although we try to support as many as possible through GTAs and GRAs, we have a relatively young program and only a portion of the faculty have the grant funds to fully support a student. This is a reality of a mid-level graduate program and has to be considered. While I personally don’t like to take any students for which I don’t have full support for, the chances are that I will probably have to do it at some point. In addition, many of the people who I have declined to accept on the basis of limited funding has indicated that “they would come even without funding.” While I have declined such offers, the truth is that – if they are a strong student (which each was) – that they have limited choices and have decided that getting their graduate degree now is more important to them waiting for an opportunity with full support.

    In many cases, this is the student’s misstep – for example, when I first began at my institution and did not yet generate the grant support to fully support a graduate student, I had more than one student tell me that they would come work with me unfunded rather accept a fully funded position with another researcher simply because I was working on a charismatic species and the other person was not. In both cases, I declined the offer for the good of the students. It illustrates the need for better decision-making regarding this issue.

    In other cases, I have had moderately competitive students approach me for graduate opportunities, “demanding” full coverage because they took advice like this a bit too much to heart. In other words, they were told that any student in graduate school should be fully covered from start to finish. Again, my argument is that – yes, that is normally the case at larger R1 institutions – but not necessarily at all school and the development of Master’s programs at younger, less supported institutions has grown. Basically, students need to consider all angles. Getting accepted without support for at least a MS program is very common at a less-research intensive school.

    • Amy Freitag · April 1, 2013

      While I agree with your perspective from the point of view of smaller-school faculty, I still stand by my original advice. Reality is that getting an MS or PhD is not even close to a guarantee for a job, let alone one that allows you to pay off massive debt. At some private institutions, this commonly runs close to $50K a year. So thinking in the long term and about the real advantage those degrees give you, my broader message is that there perhaps need to be less graduate degrees overall to match the realities of the job market. Not to turn these degrees into an option only for the elite that can choose to pay, for whatever good those paying students bring to the university they go to. It sounds like you’ve tried to look out for your applicants and I hope you continue to do so.

  5. Ashley · April 4, 2013

    I couldn’t agree more. One of my greatest regrets about graduate school is not going somewhere where I would have stable funding. That, and having a better idea about how I would get along with my advisor.

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