Built on Facts

Paying the bills

As a graduate student, you’re an adult on your own. You have to find a place to live, food to eat, and a way to get around. Like most of the necessities of life, these things cost money. Where to get it?

There’s three major options.

1. Teaching Assistantships. You are hired by the department in which you study to teach classes to the undergraduates. This is what I do now. In my case it requires about 9 hours of blackboard time a week, and another three or so grading and lesson planning. It’s a lot of trouble and it doesn’t pay all that well, but for a 12-14 hour/week job of fairly low stress we’re frankly probably being compensated fairly generously at least on an hourly basis. But it still doesn’t add up to riches, and so TAs live the stereotypical frugal graduate life. Aside from the time required, there’s a limited number of TA spots and a lot of grad students. You’re guaranteed a job for your first two years. After that, you’ll get a spot if you apply and there’s one available. There’s no guarantee one will be.

2. Research Assistantships. You’re hired by your advisor (or equivalent) to work in their lab or research group. It pays about the same as a TA position. The number of hours worked is vastly higher – greater than full time, usually – but then again what you’re doing is real research work that will eventually land you a Ph.D. if all goes according to plan. The major downside is the fact that the money doesn’t come from magic. Your advisor has to get that money from somewhere, and there’s often not a lot of it in those grants that the professors wrangle up. Have a proposal or two turned down by various sources of funding and suddenly grad students might find themselves SOL.

3. Fellowships. These are like scholarships. An organization gives you a particular amount of money for a specified time period. Sometimes it’s no strings attached – they just give you money and you do your research thing free in the knowledge that you’re not going to be starving for the duration, and that your advisor doesn’t have to support you. Sometimes a fellowship does require you do do particular things, but money’s money.

In my email today I received a very interesting email about a fellowship that’s being made available at my university. It’s similar in concept to being a TA, but you work with public school students for ten hours a week, with a couple extra hours designated for planning and meetings. The goal is to inspire kids who are interested in science, and give them some exposure to what real working science is like – from someone who was their age not all that many years ago. Well hey, (thought I). that’s pretty much what I’ve been doing here. I’ve always loved science, and as my girlfriend and other of my non-scientists friends can tell you, if anything I’m too eager to launch into explanations of the phenomenon du jour. And what do you know, this fellowship pays better than the TA salary I make now. I’d call that icing on the cake, but really it’s close to a couple extra cakes with their own icing.

So I plan on applying. Over the next couple days to weeks I’m going to focus more on more elementary presentations of physics. Usually I shoot for about a sophomore-engineering-student level while trying to give a wide range for people on either side of that level of mathematical knowledge, but since I might be teaching pre-college students I’m going to do a little more work at that level. Don’t worry, there’s going to be no compromises. Just instead of college-level with additional explanation for the non-math-experts, it’s going to be high-school-level with additional explanation for the mathematically inclined. This will be temporary – I want to give the application reviewers a look into my thought processes during their consideration. And should I have the honor of being accepted, I’m going to devote some portion of the posts to the ongoing progress, both about what I’m teaching and about the experience itself.

Keeping my fingers crossed!


  1. #1 Kobra
    February 3, 2009

    Good luck. I hope you convince at least one person that science is awesome, because it does make a difference.

  2. #2 Paul
    February 3, 2009

    Good luck Matt. As a biased reader of your blog I would have to say there is no one better who would represent the basic principles of that program than you.

  3. #3 TBRP
    February 3, 2009

    Good luck, Matt. It seems like this fellowship would be a good match for you. I’ve really enjoyed your blog, and I bet the public school kids would really benifit from having you in there.

  4. #4 joemac53
    February 3, 2009

    Hey, Matt, if you could use an endorsement from a public high school physics/math teacher, give me a shout. I have enjoyed your blog and your way of thinking.

    I once had a student teacher with a PhD in Physics from MIT. Once he ratcheted down his explanations, he did a great job and became a successful high school teacher.

  5. #5 Uncle Al
    February 3, 2009

    you work with public school students for ten hours a week

    Get on yer bum and apply for Food Stamps, now a nice credit card. You cannot purchase off-shore bell peppers, but Maine lobster is A-OK. Ride the golden palanquin of social advocacy wherein nobody is allowed to stand.

    Go into management where “attrition” is a metaphore. Folks chained to the oars are guaranted to drown when the ship founders. Even the big bald sweaty guy pounding the drum has a flotation device.

    < http://www.govtrack.us/congress/billtext.xpd?bill=h111-645>
    “National Emergency Centers Establishment Act” …if the national emergency requires large groups of people to be rounded up and detained. Happening right now in your House of Reprehensibles, Washington, DC

    “Law to Remedy the Distress of the People and the Nation”

  6. #6 Karl Withakay
    February 3, 2009

    Even though I’m a network engineer in the IT field, I retain information pretty well (such as from my real engineering classes), and over the years, I have enjoyed tutoring both my best friend’s oldest nephew and my best friend’s wife in high school and college physics.

    Unfortunately, it was just general college physics, and I lamented to her that physics makes more sense and is more fun when it includes the calculus.

    I’m hoping someone else I know will need help with either high school or college physics again at some point; I guess I can always wait the 16+ years for my friend’s new baby to take high schools physics.

    A lot of instructors of basic physics teach equations with a smattering of explanation, but it is really rewarding when you see the light bulb of understanding go off over someone’s head because you just explained something in a way that allowed them to actually understand what it means for the first time.

  7. #7 tcmJOE
    February 3, 2009

    That sounds like it could be a very good fellowship. Is it just for A&M students, or is it a Texas/national thing?

  8. #8 Carl Brannen
    February 4, 2009

    Good hunting!

  9. #9 altin ├žilek
    March 7, 2011

    Good luck, Matt. It seems like this fellowship would be a good match for you. I’ve really enjoyed your blog, and I bet the public school kids would really benifit from having you in there.

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