Post Academic

Going to grad school, part 1: Money matters

In the spirit of Caroline’s thoughtful observations on surviving grad school, I thought I’d explore what goes into the process of making a decision on which graduate school to attend in a series of posts.  For those of us searching for full-time academic jobs in literature, this time of year is pretty much the end of the annual tenure-track market, where you have either just gotten a position, are waiting to hear how searches are concluding, or figuring out how to get by to go through all this again next year.  Under the circumstances, it’s easy to forget that this time of year is also when grad school applicants are getting their admission offers, beginning a process that many of us might be/are at the end of.

Using my own experience as an example, I’m revisiting what went into my decision and how/what I would change with the benefit of hindsight.  One caveat is that funding opportunities back in the late 1990s was a lot better than it is now, although it would’ve hard to imagine back then that grad students could subsist on less than we got just a decade ago.  Indeed, many of the most practical aspects of choosing where to go are completely out of anyone’s control, particularly structural issues such as whether there will be jobs after you finish school and what fields will be in demand.

We’re looking for readers to weigh in on all parts of the process, from your own experiences in deciding to go to grad school to questions about the process from future students to those of our friends and colleagues who are now on the other side of the process.  How did you decide to attend the school that you did?  Was it a good choice based on the right reasons?  What would you tell students now after you’ve learned what you know now?

Money Matters: I don’t know about anyone else, but there was a certain idealism in deciding where to go to school that makes more practical issues appear secondary–I decided to pursue grad school (in the humanities, no less) in the first place, so I set aside many practical concerns to begin with.  Despite this idealism, I ended up making the pragmatic decision, though it may have seemed contrarian at the time (more on that in a later post): Simply put, I took the offer that funded me the most generously.  UC Irvine presented me with a great funding package, which included fellowship money for the first 2 years, after which I was guaranteed teaching for what seemed to be a more than adequate amount of time.  The other offer I was weighing at a seemingly more prestigious school gave me teaching right from the start but no fellowship money, which may or may not have been due to administrative snafus; funding at School 2 was more competitive across the whole University, so getting teaching was a pretty good deal.  Still, the intangibles made me take the less lucrative offer seriously, which even included the very, very wrongheaded idea of paying tuition for a year so that I could get used to school without jumping straight into teaching.

In addition to the relative financial boon that the UCI fellowship provided, the money also reflected a number of factors that would be important through the whole graduate school process.  More fellowship money at the beginning of the Ph.D. program meant that I could finish almost all of my coursework before I started teaching, which (theoretically, at least) should have expedited the process of taking my qualifying exams, then starting the dissertation by a couple of quarters.  It also suggested that the department had more resources to support students, which included research and travel budgets built into my package as well as money to apply for in a more general pool.

Looking back, I can say I made the right choice, but there are even *better* reasons for the decision that I couldn’t have foreseen before starting grad school.   More than a decade(!) later, I’d advise prospective grad students to take the money when they can, since there are no guarantees about financial security at the end of the process in the form of a tenure-track job — or even in the course of getting your Ph.D.  As I experienced towards the end of the process, the funding practices you might have expected based on precedent can change quickly when department and school budgets feel the pinch.  It’s kind of like the way NFL players want as big a signing bonus as possible in free agency, because the back-end years that inflate the size of the entire contract aren’t guaranteed.  Of course, the big difference is that grad school offers are in the thousands and NFL contracts are in the (tens of) millions!

Next up: What first impressions can tell you…

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