Adventures in Ethics and Science

Bitch Ph.D. links an interesting op-ed piece in the Washington Post about the challenges of being a single parent and paying for grad school. Given the academia/parenting discussion we’ve been having here, I figured this was another relevant issue to consider.

I’ve mentioned before that the standard practice in science Ph.D. programs in the U.S. seems to be that students get tuition plus a stipend that, depending on the local cost of living, ranges from barely-adequate to almost-comfortable. There are also a good number of U.S. Ph.D. programs in the humanities and social sciences that offer the same deal to their students, although the stipends are frequently less than those offered by science programs and the number of students admitted to such Ph.D. programs is smaller. (At the same university, my Ph.D. program in chemistry enrolled 56 students the year I entered, while my Ph.D. program in philosophy enrolled 7 of us.)

But, some of the comments on the Bitch Ph.D. post make it look like there are a good number of students in Ph.D, programs who are not getting this kind of support — and thus, are either relying on parents or partners for financial assistance or are going into debt. Also, students in masters programs and professional degree programs (M.D., J.D., etc.) are usually presented with a bill rather than support.

How do these funding patterns (i.e., whether you have to come up with the money to go to school or whether the school covers the costs) affect the choices you’ve made (or are anticipating) about what kind of education and career path to pursue?

Here are some other related questions:

  1. How do you feel about universities using terminal masters programs as money-makers? The university where I teach doesn’t offer anything beyond masters degrees, and, as a public university, the masters tuition is much more affordable than the masters tuition at the private university up the road — but our masters students are definitely used to pump cash into the system in a way our undergraduates are not.
  2. There are some schools that offer a Ph.D. track and a terminal masters track in the same department. In many, if not most, cases, the Ph.D. students get the full ride and the masters students get to come up with their own tuition. But, it’s not unheard of for some of the students who start out in the Ph.D. program to leave with a masters — which they only had to pay for in their time and sweat. Is this a problem?
  3. Are there many fields where there’s an expectation that students applying to Ph.D. programs will have done a masters somewhere else first? Even if there’s not an expectation, does this confer a clear advantage to the applicant to the Ph.D. program? (Does this mean you have to spend money to get money?)
  4. What if a program offers its students tuition and a stipend for fewer years than it realistically takes to earn the degree? Is this better than nothing, or does it seem like a bait and switch?
  5. How much does it matter where the money is coming from? Some of the Bitch Ph.D. commenters describe programs where the advisor, rather than the department or the university, is expected to scrape up the money for his or her students’ tuition and stipend. But when grant proposals aren’t funded, what happens to the students? And beyond the financial issue, how does this affect the student-advisor relationship?
  6. How heinously high are international student fees? Are they about the same regardless of the degree program (undergrad, masters, Ph.D., professional), or are they noticably higher for some?

I’m really interested to hear what things are like out there. And, if you have tips to share with starving students or those considering the starving-student track, lay them on me!

Update: For more discussion of these issues, see Retrospectacle and e pur si muove. And, check out the comments for more links of interest!


  1. #1 Gabe
    July 27, 2006

    I earned my MS at CSU, Sacramento. I lived with my parents and worked full time for the two years. I also did some part-time teaching. The total cost for tuition(2000/semester) was $8000. Not including books and miscellaneous expenses. I paid for it on a semesterly basis. Pretty good from what I can tell. I was given an $800 award for my last semester from the university for being generally awesome. I left the college without any loans.

    The international fees were practically double the regular fees.

    I don’t even know what an advisor is. I, for better or worse, avoided them and used the school schedule to plan everything for myself.

  2. #2 ck
    July 27, 2006

    1. I’m in a terminal MA now for philosophy (UMSL) so I will withhold any comments until graduation. Too, I haven’t the experience in another program to compare.

    3. Going for a PhD in religious studies, I’m finding quite a few programs expect an MA in religion or a related field (such as an MDiv or a philosophy degree). Since I haven’t applied or gotten accepted yet, I don’t know how much advantage it confers in schools where they don’t explicitly ask for this…except that most of the grad student profiles I’ve seen have an MA. So I’d say it does give an advantage–if anything, in helping shape your focus. Coming out of a BA, I’m not sure I’d have a strong set of goals.

    Oh, and languages–some of the reason for the required MA as prereq is because they figure you’ll have gotten your German, French, what have you, at least in part. I’ve gotten Spanish (degree), Hebrew and Greek (reading prof) but due to my focus, will need Sanskrit and probably German. (I’ve even been told a second master’s is appropriate before I start an MA)

    As far as funding patterns, I have loans from an MDiv which I started and didn’t complete, so I opted to continue to work full time and do my MA part time. In considering PhD programs, funding is key. Even though we’ll be a two income household, the incomes will be academic stipends. It’s tough, knowing that I’ll be earning about one third of what I am now, for several years. And watching my science/medicine friends get *real* money for their programs is just painful.

    That’s my (at least) two cents.

  3. #3 ck
    July 27, 2006

    Oh, and I’ve done teaching assistantships and grading slots in my MA. Which is good for money, but added onto a 40 hour workweek and two classes…. yeah. I’m busy.

  4. #4 Colst
    July 27, 2006

    A chemists viewpoint, which I imagine will be similar to your own experience.

    My funding has been a few different ways:
    1) Teaching. In exchange for being a teaching assistant, the department pays a chunk of the tution (not quite all of it) plus a livable (at least for someone without dependants) wage and some minimal health benefits.
    2) Research. Primarily (perhaps wholey, I’m not really sure) from my advisor’s funds. The pay isn’t quite as good as teaching, but in theory lets you get more done and finish sooner.
    3) Fellowships. I’ve had two types of fellowships. One was a small amount offered for the first two years on top of teaching or research pay. Basically a way to encourage better students to come. The other, which I have now, is more substantial and is in place of other pay. A condition is that I’m actually not allowed to get other funding (although I’ll be volunteer-teaching anyway).

    I haven’t done this one, but it’s possible to have a lighter teaching load and get paid both by your advisor and the department. The pay for that option comes out somewhere inbetween what you’d get for research and what you’d get for teaching.

    “But when grant proposals aren’t funded, what happens to the students?”
    You can somewhat tell how well-funded a prof. is here by how long his students teach for. Since time spent teaching is time not spent doing research, profs whould generally like you not to be teaching. All students (except the few that come in with a fellowship) teach at first, partly because they haven’t picked an advisor. Even once they have, profs will generally keep them teaching at first before investing in them. Well funded profs, particularly if they have some sort of time-crunch (like a tenure decision) coming up, will tend to take students off teaching sooner than more poorly funded ones. The exception is for classes that the prof is teaching, where they often prefer to have their own students assist them even if it takes away from research time.

    “Are there many fields where there’s an expectation that students applying to Ph.D. programs will have done a masters somewhere else first? Even if there’s not an expectation, does this confer a clear advantage to the applicant to the Ph.D. program?”

    I’m not sure how it affects admission, but it seems to hurt as far as time to completion. According to a C&E News article on an NSF report, getting a masters adds about 2.5 years. I’d guess the average length of a masters program is about that same time, which suggests that coming in with a masters is a neutral factor (as far as time goes) once the PhD program is actually started.

    The same article supports what I said about those funded by teaching taking loger than those funded by other means.

  5. #5 Julie
    July 27, 2006

    Funding was a big deal for me — I considered going for an MD, but wasn’t keen on having to take out the $300K in loans. I am well aware that I would make back the money and be much better off financially in the long run, but chose to take the biomedical PhD route because all my tuition is covered by a Department of Defense grant, and I have a stipend off of which to live. For me, choosing between two PhD programs in the same city, stipend value was a large deciding factor. I live in a very expensive city, and the difference between $20,5000 and $24,000 can be a lot, especially when my rent on a small apartment is over $1000/month.
    My program is the kind where the masters students pay tuition and PhD students do not. The first two years, our stipend is covered by the program and in essence comes from the masters’ students tuition, which is why last year, three times as many masters’ students were accepted as PhDs. After the first two years, however, thesis advisors are expected to cover the stipend for their graduate students. This creates a problem as several of the labs in which I was interested had to turn me down, since the advisor could not guarantee funding for me, and I did not want to wind up doing 5 years of volunteer laboratory work.
    We don’t have the problem of free-riding PhD turned masters’ students, as leaving with a masters’ degree is not an option. As I approach taking my comp exams, I am starting to wish I attended a school where that was an option — fail your comps, leave with a MS. Here, fail your comps, and you have totally wasted two years and have nothing to show.

  6. #6 Jonathan Ehrich
    July 27, 2006

    I’m applying to grad school in the fall, so I can’t really comment on the questions much at this point, other than #3.

    In Neuroscience, what I’ve been told by my advisors and others I’ve spoken to is that masters programs are pretty much nonexistent. Rather, a masters seems to be seen as 1/2 a consolation prize and 1/2 the kiss of death: it’s what they give you when they realize you’re 2+ years into a PhD. program and you can’t hack it.

  7. #7 sciencewoman
    July 27, 2006

    I’m in the natural sciences and have an M.S. in an applied interdisciplinary field and (almost) a PhD in a traditional discipline.

    First the PhD: Primarily, I’ve had a national fellowship which pays stipend and cost-of-education allowance. I have to pay my own health insurance and fees (~1000/quarter). I’m not allowed to work. The fellowship covers 3 years, so I wrote grants with my advisor and got RA funding for one year. The RA paid about 1/2 of what the fellowship does. Generally the fellowship has been a very good thing but the trick is that you have to apply for it before you have much graduate experience, which means you need someone to “turn you on” to the option in your first semester of grad school or earlier. A lot of people miss the boat.

    M.S.: I came in on an RA, hated the project, and quit it. With that I lost my funding. I looked around for other advisors but couldn’t find one I liked who had funding available. I ended up working part time (professionally) and getting a program scholarship to offset in-state tuition. The problem with interdepartmental programs like mine is that the traditional departments jealously guarded their TA slots, so that we couldn’t get them. Two lessons learned: Make sure you like your project if your funding will be tied to it, and stick with a traditional discipline for your degree, taking the courses you want in other departments to round yourself out.

    Both of my programs have had M.S. and Ph.D. options, and M.S. students could decide after graduating whether to go on to a PhD or work. It didn’t matter much for funding.

    One disturbing trend I see in my current dept. is accepting students without funding. And they are actually coming here! Is the job market really so bad that they are better off going into debt for 2+ years than trying to get a job without a M.S.?

  8. #8 Unlearned Hand
    July 27, 2006

    JD’s are unfunded unless by occasional scholarship. There was a much commented article recently in the W$J questioning whether law school debt makes sense given that the most lucrative jobs only go to a few and that there is a high attrition rate in the profession. Loan Repayment Assistance Programs are stepping in at some well-healed schools to enable students to go into public interest work, but not every school can afford them. An incentive is created for public-interest-oriented students to go not to the best school they can but to whatever school they can go to most cheaply.

    An interesting dynamic I haven’t looked at much would the proliferation of dual-degree programs where one of the degrees is a JD. These probably run as no-funding in terms of teaching/research-assistant stipends, and add to the cost of the education without necessarily substantially improving the earning power of the graduate. I can’t imagine many non-JD dual degree students go that way without funding.

  9. #9 Elia Diodati
    July 27, 2006

    It’s really exciting that you are addressing this topic, because people over on my blog are debating this issue of graduate school funding, like whether or not they should take up state-funded scholarships back home in Singapore. Unlike many scholarships here in the US, state scholarships come with strings attached, the most prominent of which is a work period of 6 years immediately after graduation. Would you accept such an offer?

  10. #10 Bill Hooker
    July 27, 2006

    In re: funding science PhD’s, you might find this interesting — mainly the comment thread.

  11. #11 Sean Foley
    July 27, 2006

    I did a terminal Master’s at a state university paying out-of-state tuition, which meant I left with about $40,000 worth of loans for 2 1/2 years of education. By contrast, my brother did a terminal Master’s in another field at a private university and ended up with at least twice that amount of debt. In a few weeks, I’ll be starting a PhD program in physical anthropology at another state university, though this time I have full funding plus a smallish stipend. Physical anthropology is in kind of a weird position between the biological and social sciences, especially my field (paleoprimatology), which could fit into the geology, biology, or ecology & evolution programs at other schools.

  12. #12 Bardiac
    July 27, 2006

    This is a fascinating discussion, thanks!

    Here’s an example from English:

    I entered with a year of fellowship, then three years guaranteed teaching. I got a dissertation fellowship for my final year. I also regularly worked as a research assistant and graded for people for extra money. I averaged about $13,000. a year, in a city where the cost of living is very high.

    My department accepted PhD students only, accepted some with first year fellowships and guaranteed teaching, and some with only three years guaranteed teaching.

    After the three guaranteed teaching years, a student could usually get another year, and part of another. I know of one or two students who got two years of dissertation fellowship.

    I finished in five years; most people took 6-8 years. (I was a bit older, fluent in a foreign language, and had done some MA work elsewhere, both of which helped.)

    In English, most R1 universities accept “lots” of PhD students so they’ll have cheap teaching; they expect to lose about 1/3rd; of those who get the PhD, about 1/3 don’t get a TT job within 3 years. It’s dismal.

    People left our department with a terminal masters by choice, after PASSING comps or writing an MA thesis. If the department booted someone, they didn’t get a consolation MA, I don’t think.

    I don’t think a single parent could have done it; I don’t remember any in my department, at any rate.

    Professors in English mostly don’t fund students with research grants, or work with students on joint research.

    My current university has a small MA program, but it’s not at all a money maker. We serve students from the area who want personal enrichment, a chance to test-drive grad school, or who are teachers looking for a salary boost.

  13. #13 Chris
    July 27, 2006

    My program is unusual in that we get paid very well and have no teaching requirement. (Of course, my school also has no undergraduates…)

    I suspect that the focus on exclusive research allows students to make larger contributions and bring in more grant money. A million dollar grant is worth a lot more than a bunch of undergraduate tuition payments would be.

    Lastly, my program, as with many others doesn’t offer master’s degrees. If you can’t hack it after 2-3 years (or have extenuating circumstances) they might kick you out with a terminal masters, but it’s rare.

  14. #14 Amanda
    July 27, 2006

    In my area (speech language pathology), I would tell a student that if they can’t get funding at a particular university and they want a PhD they should apply to other universities until they get funding or rethink their career choice (admission without funding is a message that you aren’t of the caliber the program wants). Funding may be teaching or research based, but it’s usually available at PhD granting programs for students that they want.

    For what its worth, MS/MA programs in SLP are less likely to be funded – that is our terminal clinical degree. Like other professional degrees, funding is harder to come by.

    By the way, for the health related professions, NIH has some very nice loan replayment programs for clinical researchers (broadly defined) that are worth looking into if you are a student or postdoc reading the blog.

  15. #15 TheBizofKnowledge
    July 27, 2006

    I happened to come across your blog today while I was doing some research. I’ve been talking about this very thing with some associates, and it seems that many of them won’t pursue advanced degrees without getting some sort of funding and/or stipend up front — a bit reluctant to go into debt and all that….

  16. #16 Pinko Punko
    July 28, 2006

    Terminal Masters might be OK outside of science- in science no way. Many Biology programs essentially have rudimentary classwork that is really subsidiary to the true value of the grad student to the program- cheap, somewhat skilled labor. Qualifying exams are a joke at many biology programs as well, so many places, including super top places, that masters would be just a piece of paper, because they don’t have standards. I would say the same for Ph.D. programs. For every serious, dedicated student, there are 1-2 that are sliding by. The larger the program, the more anti-academic the environment that seems to grow out of the student body (in my experience). Ph.D. in Biology equals a 5-6 break from reality for some really smart, not very motivated people, not sure if they want to go right into consulting, or maybe patent law. It is super depressing, because there are some very serious students that get short shrift from such a culture. So basically, NO TERMINAL MASTERS in Biology.

    I know, I’m tough.

  17. #17 Lab Lemming
    July 28, 2006

    As I recently mentioned in my blog, our research school recently decided to top up all current and future scholarships by 2 grand per year. While this is great news, the sad fact of the matter is that as long as the record commodity prices continue, geology students will be able to get huge salaries by working in industry, so even a stipend increase won’t change the fact that they can earn obscene money if they get a mining job before the bubble bursts.

  18. #18 Colst
    July 28, 2006

    As far as terminal degrees, my school doesn’t have a separate program. Some small number of people enter with getting a masters in mind, some are debating when they enter, and some inted to get a PhD but end up with a masters. Any considering a masters seem to keep it quiet, particularly from the professors.

    I’d guess somewhere around 1/2 get a PhD, 1/4 get a masters, and 1/4 leave with nothing.