In her recently published book, “The Professor Is In“, author Karen Kelsky makes the assertion “Do not take out new debt to attend graduate school.” I would go further than this and say do not pay for graduate school. What I mean by this is, only attend graduate school if, after tuition and living expenses are deducted from your stipend it’s still a positive amount of money.
“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds nought and six, result misery.” – Charles Dickens
How funding is arranged differs by field of study. In STEM areas it’s often a basic stipend augmented by a research assistantship and a teaching assistantship. Some schools will use the term “full funding”, which doesn’t necessarily mean they will provide adequate support to actually live where the school is located – run the numbers yourself. Also make sure that the funding is guaranteed for a reasonable length of time to finish your studies.
If you’re studying internationally, your support should be increased by whatever the premium is for international student tuition.
For my graduate studies, both Masters and PhD, the funding was enough to cover a very meager lifestyle with enough extra for 1 big splurge. By meager I mean living in a basement studio apartment or with roommates, not eating out often, not being able to travel and not having a car. By 1 big splurge, I mean you could have ONE of the things in the proceeding sentence. Some of the people I studied with would travel once a year internationally to go home and visit their family. Others drove a used car. Others would eat out at cheap restaurants regularly.
It’s easy to misunderstand this. When I accepted an offer for PhD studies, I thought that my support was net of tuition. It turned out it was before tuition was deducted, which substantially decreased it.
I’m ok with the graduate student lifestyle, but many – especially those who have been working – find it painful.
Being a TA means that you help a professor run their course. This could mean marking, running a tutorial, running a lab or helping develop part of a course. Often universities will have related duties that will be considered equivalent to a TA unit – part time jobs around the department that need to be done.
The workload is usually supposed to be around 10 hours per week. Graduate students *SHOULD* object if more than this is required, but this can be a tricky fight to get into. Expect the department to push back if you try to draw the line.
The RA component of your support usually is for research work with a faculty member, often your supervisor.
Both the RA and TA should pay more for students working on their PhD compared to their Masters.
This is when you are the sole instructor for a class and run it yourself. This is EXCELLENT experience, and in a future post I’ll discuss why I think everyone should do this at least once. It’s a dangerous way to secure part of your funding. Teaching, especially in the early days, can be very time consuming. It would be counter-productive to delay graduation because teaching is taking up so much of your time.
I would recommend avoiding this – beyond one time for the experience.
Part Time Work
I’m impressed by people who tackle graduate work part time. To my mind, graduate studies is a full time endeavor. If you’re not able to do it full time, I’d suggest asking yourself if it’s really the right choice for you.
If the only way you can pay for graduate studies is to work on the side, I’d caution against entering the program.
What It Means If They Want You To Pay
If a department expects you to pay beyond your support to study there, it tells you they don’t think you’re very good. The implication is that they’re happy to have you as a paying customer – a student, but not as a researcher.
If the department has mixed feelings about you, it will be hard to establish yourself as the kind of academic that can get a tenure line position down the road. I would take this as a strong vote of non-confidence in your academic future.
How this is expressed can take different forms. They might ask you to do a terminal masters – unsupported – and tell you that you can use the time to form a connection with a faculty member there to study with. This is probably more to get your tuition money in the masters program than to help you get into a PhD. They may tell you that you’ll be funded for the first year and have to get a professor to fund you after that. I’d be quite cautious about such an arrangement. Probably I’d make a commitment to myself to leave if no faculty were willing to support me after the first year in such a situation.
At the end of the day, graduate students do a large amount of important work in academic departments for a very low salary. If the department isn’t willing make this very low salary something that’s possible to live off of, I would recommend not studying there. If none of the school you apply to offer you enough funding to live off of, I’d suggest doing something other than graduate studies.
Did your graduate funding cover your living expenses? Is there a situation where you would have studied somewhere that didn’t give you enough funding to live off of? For people who studied in the humanities, what was your funding like?