Post Academic

Science Grad Programs Start to Feel the Pinch

Here at Post Academic, I am guilty of a few assumptions, and one of those top assumptions is that grad students in the sciences have it better. Labs can get funding outside the university, and their skills and achievements are easier to quantify and monetize.

Well, I’m not entirely right based on a recent post over at Female Science Professor’s blog. FSP must be an amazing advisor because she worked hard to get a smart student into a physical sciences grad program that looked like the perfect fit. It would appear that this student did everything right and got in. And yet …

He applied and was accepted, he visited the department, and .. the financial offer was so inadequate that there might as well not even have been one. The student would have had to get a job and take out loans to make it through grad school (just as he had done as an undergrad), and no one should have to do that in the physical sciences.

FSP moved quickly and helped the student get into another group, so this student is covered. He’s lucky. Not all advisors would have been willing to help that much, nor would they have understood the financial issues.

No one should go into debt for grad school, unless that person is rich or they have a guaranteed job upon graduation. (And the contract for that job should be signed in blood.) The fact that students in the sciences are having difficulties with funding makes me wonder just how bad it is in the humanities. Anyone care to share what funding packages looked like in your departments, and how did they stack up compared to previous years?

What I Don’t Know [Female Science Professor]

Challenges for Beginning Scholars: Breaking Into the Fellowship Cycle

Posted in Ask an Academic,Surviving Grad School by doctoreclair on April 13, 2010
Tags: ,

Image Source,Photobucket Uploader Firefox Extension

We’re “post academic,” but what about people who are actually academic? Well, Dr. E. Clair is the first poster to share his front-line academic perspective. He also has a sweet tooth, hence the image.

In the July 2008 Harper’s Index, I came across a statistic that stopped me in my tracks:

Ratio in 1980 of the number of NIH grants given scientists under age 30 to the number given over age 70:  17:1

Ratio in 2006:  1:13

Is it possible that senior scientists are so much at the cutting edge of their disciplines that thirteen septuagenarians deserve grant funding for every one in his or her twenties? Thirty years ago, the NIH certainly didn’t think so, when things were at the opposite extreme.

It turns out that these numbers aren’t anomalous, and have been a subject of intense debate in scientific circles in recent years. While in 1980 “researchers between the ages of 31 and 33 received nearly 10% of all grants, by 2006 they accounted for approximately 1%.” And a chart in an article with the provocative title “Are There Too Many PhDs?” would suggest that the age distribution of NIH fellowships has climbed steadily upward over the past thirty years.

These numbers got me to wonder about whether something similar is happening in the humanities, though I haven’t been able to find any studies that would confirm my suspicion. Are senior scholars gobbling up all of the fellowships? It sounds counter-intuitive: American culture is obsessed with youthfulness. Yet an ideal of youthfulness doesn’t necessarily translate into supporting the young, and in a culture where “ageism” is much more likely to be used to describe discrimination against the old than discrimination against the young, a pattern of underfunding academic researchers at the beginning of their careers might easily pass under the radar.

More after the jump! Those older profs are gonna take all the eclairs! Image by Tamorlan, posted to Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons license.

The Schools May Be Broke-Ass, But You Don’t Have to Be

Image Source,Photobucket Uploader Firefox ExtensionThe HuffPo college section unleashed a flood of education-related financial woe yesterday. The Broke-Ass Schools this time include Syracuse, Penn State, and Maryland. The stories focused on undergraduates who found themselves in schools they can’t afford, but the lessons apply to future grad students as well. If you get accepted, don’t sign on the dotted line right away. Take a long look at the aid package the program offers.

Ask how long the package lasts. PhD programs often provide some form of fellowship; MA programs, not so much. Even the PhD program fellowships last only a year or two. As for teaching assistantships, if you get one, that’s great. But you should also ask how long these assistantships will last, as the school might cut you off if you don’t get finished in time.

Compare the aid package to the cost of living in the area. UCI had subsidized student housing, so making the rent was easy, but that’s not the case for all schools. And there’s more to your budget than rent. For example, when I arrived to grad school, I had been accustomed to Nashville prices, not Orange County prices, and my budget changed drastically. Speaking of budgets …

Set a budget, and make sure it is one you can stick to. People with fancy tastes don’t belong in grad school. Just do whatever it takes to make sure you don’t wind up tens (or hundreds!) of thousands of dollars in debt.

Anyone with a PhD or MA in the humanities cannot expect to make the kind of money that will erase a massive loan. There are too many risk factors involved. For example, you might get a job offer when you’re done with your PhD, but salaries vary wildly from school to school, especially when you compare public and private systems. You simply cannot predict where you will end up, so it is wise to play it safe.

Image by Sten from Wikimedia Commons.

Going to grad school, part 2: The intangibles

Following up on my post yesterday on the factors that went into my grad school decision, I wanted to discuss the intangibles that helped me make my choice.  Caroline’s post from earlier today on checking out the atmosphere of a department already addresses many of the points I wanted to make, but I figured I can give a concrete example of what she was discussing–plus, you can’t have a part 1 without a part 2.

The intangibles: I’d say that making a good impression cuts both ways.  For me, it was turning in a thoughtful, carefully edited application, which was a bit difficult since I was allowed to turn in my rushed, typo-filled undergrad thesis for at least one of my applications.  But once I was admitted to a few programs and schools started making their pitches, the initial vibe I got went far in my decision-making process.

I was accepted first to the obviously more prestigious school of the two between which I was choosing, though how I was notified was something of a comedy of errors and a not-so-smooth sign of things to come.  I received a call one day, much earlier than I expected to hear back from schools, asking me to fill out a form which would help the department push for a better funding package for me.  At this point, my antennae went up, and, despite trying not to jump to conclusions, got the sense that I had been accepted to one of my two top choices.  The staffer on the other end of the call then figured out that maybe the admissions chair hadn’t contacted me regarding my acceptance, but had to, in some unofficial way, suggest to me that I was indeed in.  As a result, I made a quick appointment to drop off the form (the school was local), in order to confirm that I was accepted to the program.

Unfortunately, this very first interaction was pretty much par for the course with some of the basic operations of this particular program.  The admissions chair, after having a nice recruiting lunch with me, pretty much neglected responding to me emails and calls, something to do with a spring break vacation in the desert.  Then I found out later that my funding package might have been stronger if the department hadn’t gotten the (wrong) idea that I already had outside fellowships.  And I also discovered years later through a friend of a friend that I wouldn’t have fit in at the school, since I seemed too conservative, being a Stanford grad and all–this was the most stinging slight!  That isn’t to say they didn’t try hard to recruit me and that people weren’t well-meaning and trying to be helpful: Despite the fact that the admissions chair basically wasn’t doing the appointed job, the dept’s best- known “superstar” was really generous with her/his time and probably talked to me about my decision more than anyone else had.  All-in-all, though, I didn’t get a great vibe about how things worked in this program, even though I was much more inclined to attend due to its innovative program and the great location.

In contrast, I didn’t really want to choose to go to UC Irvine, which I wouldn’t have heard of except that some of my college friends had taken summer school classes there to avoid the weeder bio lectures at Stanford.  But somehow, UCI had pretty much the best critical theory program during the heyday of critical theory and, of course, Jacques Derrida taught there (although my closest interaction with him would be having him sign my drop card, with him filling in the scantron dots to make sure I wasn’t going to turn it into an add card!).  UCI was pretty much the opposite of the other option: Despite seeming like a totally uninteresting place to live that was not unlike the suburb in which I grew up, the administration was really, really together, producing a generous offer, helping me with my residency status, setting up plane tickets for me to visit, following up with me on pretty much every matter, and answering every question.  And it passed Caroline’s atmosphere test too: The students and prospective students all seemed like nice people who enjoyed going to school at UCI, joined together, in no small part, because Irvine was a boring suburb.  Now maybe it wasn’t going always be like this after the hard sell, but, between the better money and the stronger intangibles, it wasn’t really much of a choice.

Being a 20-something contrarian, I was able to turn things around in my head and tell myself that the practical, safe choice was also the less conventional one that I couldn’t imagine myself making: I was passing over a “dream school” that everyone in the world knows for a university I had barely heard of (sell that one to the parents!), as well as moving away from my friends and one of the more ideal late-1990s cultural scenes to a proto-suburb.  But one thing I learned from the process all those years ago that I should keep telling myself now that it’s okay to find myself in a position I didn’t really foresee and envision.  Sometimes, the right choices don’t have predictable or manageable outcomes, but that’s okay.

Surviving Grad School: Testing the Atmosphere

Posted in Surviving Grad School by Caroline Roberts on March 9, 2010
Tags: , , ,

To paraphrase a certain rapper who goes by the name of Pitbull, when choosing a grad school, think “MIAMI,” or “Money Is a Major Issue.” But it’s not the only one. The blog Thoughts Arguments and Rants offers smart advice regarding a grad program’s overall atmosphere:

And don’t just look at the individual students – look at the culture. This can be tricky, because cultures can change. But they tend to change slowly. A culture where everyone is competing to be the best student, and denigrating each other along the way, is going to be a bad place to be at grad school, and it will stay that way. On the other hand, a culture where everyone is trying to help everyone out will, in all probability, keep being a fun place to work for many years.

If you really want to get ahead, you may be surprised to discover that you can’t get ahead on your own. Your studying and reading might take place in a single room, but you won’t get anywhere unless someone is challenging, pushing, and even supporting you. You will also need to network and make connections in order to get slots on conference panels, chapters in books, and your first big job.

Speaking of jobs, the same rule goes for that, too. Even if you don’t have many choices for jobs after the MLA, don’t take a job just because it was offered to you. Ask yourself what the atmosphere is like at the school. Sniff out vague statements and faux-chipper attitudes. Talk to as many people as you can to find out the truth. No grad school or department is perfect, but the pros must outweigh the cons. If they don’t, you can do better. Either wait for another market cycle, if possible, or start taking your skill set elsewhere.

Advice for Incoming Grad Students [Thoughts, Arguments, and Rants]

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…

Grad School Programs Death Watch: University of Iowa

One of the cardinal rules of humanities grad school is that, if you’re going to go, make sure you get paid to go. Many grad school programs offer fellowships, but those fellowships are getting cut next year at the University of Iowa:

The UI’s graduate programs that were marked as needing more evaluation in a recent report won’t receive fellowship funding to recruit new students for the upcoming academic year, Graduate College Dean John Keller said Thursday.

Some of the programs affected include the following: “American studies, Asian civilizations, comparative literature, comparative literature (translation), film studies, German [and] linguistics.”

If you have a passion to attend grad school in any of these programs, what’s happening at the University of Iowa could be a trend, and it will be tougher to get funding. I’m not sure what people seem to have against learning other languages, as other nations encourage students to learn more than one language, but maybe someone will come to their senses.

14 programs won’t get new grad money [The Daily Iowan]
U. of Iowa Lists 14 Graduate Programs at Risk for Cuts or Elimination [Chronicle of Higher Ed]