Matt at Built On Facts spots an Inside Higher Ed article that I missed, showing that grad students at South Carolina get $9,500 a year, and uses it as a starting point to comment about grad school salaries:

The difficulty of living as a graduate student varies heavily on what you’re studying. Take at the law school model, for instance: you don’t get paid at all, and tuition is very expensive and not waived. But the upside to that is that you’re not in school very long, you can live comfortably on loans, and once out you can probably get a high-paying job which can pay down your debt fairly quickly. So lack of pay is not in and of itself the problem.

[...] In total though, the long duration of science (and physics especially) graduate education combined with the uncertainty of employment afterwards translates into salaries a lot better than the nine thousand dollars above. The graduate schools that I received offers from generally offered stipends a little north of $20,000 a year, with tuition waived.

This is exactly right. When I was a post-doc at Yale, the nascent grad student union tried to recruit one of the grad students in the lab, who pointed out that the average salary that the union was demanding would’ve been a $2,000 pay cut for him.

My standard advice for students trying to choose a graduate school in physics is “If they’re not offering to pay you, don’t go.” You’re not going to be paid well anywhere, but grad school is not so rewarding that you should do it for free, let alone pay for the privilege. You’re going to be there for a good while, generating data and publications for them– if they’re not going to pay you a living wage for that, find something else to do.

The extension to fields in which it takes a long time to graduate, the job prospects suck, and you get paid less than $9,500 a year is left as an exercise for the reader.

Comments

  1. #1 Ben M
    July 11, 2008

    Are there really schools that charge tuition for physics grad students? Are there places that don’t at least aim to pay stipends for everyone? (I’ve heard of sort of sort of crisis-level stipend failures—”our grant fell through after all of the TA slots were filled, and the dean turned down our emergency request”—but is this ever standard operating procedure?)

  2. #2 Jonathan Vos Post
    July 11, 2008

    First of all, Arts and Humanities students have already been brainwashed with the Romantic notion that they should live in a garret, in quaint poverty, and reach Truth and Beauty by “systematic derangement of the senses” (to translate Rimbaud, or was it Baudelaire).

    Before I complete my California Public School Teaching Credential, at the end of the Spring 2009 quarter, I will have spent (or taken as Federal loan) an additional $5,000 on top of that much that I’ve shelled out already as a School of Ed grad student in 3 quarters. The professors, one of whom openly said: “Oh, you’re from the era when grad students actually did work,” recommended me for the joint Ed.D. programs with UC Irvine and UCLA, and apologized that the stipend/fellowship was only $3,500.

    Good evening, sir and madam. The specialty tonight is free range salmon with ginger, ponzu, and a balsamic raspberry reduction. My name is Jonathan, and I’m not really a waiter, but am back in graduate school for the first time in 33 years, and the fellowships have not kept up with inflation.

    Makes Physics look pretty good by comparison.

  3. #3 Eric Lund
    July 11, 2008

    Are there really schools that charge tuition for physics grad students?

    SOP where I work, and presumably at most places, is that for any non-TA tuition is generally charged somewhere. For an RA that will normally be one of the advisor’s grants, but if there is no grant to cover the expense the tuition will be charged to some other account, or the student directly. The place where I got my Ph.D. is unusual in that they don’t charge tuition to RA grants (or at least they didn’t when I was there).

    Are there places that don’t at least aim to pay stipends for everyone?

    There are cases where a company is paying somebody to go to grad school. Not so common in physics as in fields like engineering, and usually for a masters degree rather than a Ph.D., but the phenomenon exists. Naturally, the department does not have to pay a stipend in such a case.

    I have also heard rumors that at certain universities (most commonly large public universities in the Midwest) departments will often accept as many first-year grad students as needed to cover all of the TA slots and weed out the ones that do not make the transition to an RA by the beginning of the third year. The anecdata suggest that in the worst offending departments as many as half of the grad students are weeded out in this way (as opposed to not passing a qualifying exam or some other academic reason).

    There are also some departments that set a time limit (seven years, in the case of my Ph.D. department) after which you are basically on your own. That department implemented the rule well: there was a strong departmental culture of trying to have your Ph.D. students finish in five years, with some extra time allowed to deal with cases of bad luck or to avoid a need to rush a candidate to completion. (I needed some of that extra time, since one of my experiments failed due to what the NASA people call a first-stage motor anomaly.) But I could see such a rule becoming problematic in departments which routinely view their Ph.D. students as cheap labor and/or cannon fodder.

  4. #4 RobertC
    July 11, 2008

    On the other hand, the Graduate Students in my wife’s history program got a decent stipend, mostly adjunct taught for extra pay on top of that, and after 5-6 years in Grad. School about 3/4 landed tenure-track jobs straightaway. I’m 2 years into a postdoc, and wondering if the perception of the humanities might be a little off. Of course, people have to make their own decisions, but prospective grad. students (and postdocs) have really got to look at the placement of graduates from their program. If your going to suffer in poverty for a decade without any hope of a job, what is the point?

  5. #5 CCPhysicist
    July 11, 2008

    Every university charges tuition to somebody. If you don’t see it on your bill, its because it came out of your pay before you got paid (a pre-tax benefit). Way back when I was in school, the stipend was tax (and FICA) exempt so it did not make any difference if they paid us and we paid the fees or if they paid the fees. The out-of-state fee waiver was handled internally like your fee waiver is handled today. And, as I noted on Matt’s blog, I actually saved money while in grad school. And we weren’t poor. We often lived in the fanciest neighborhood in town, renting a faculty sabbatical house.

    But, just to be clear, that money is all budgeted from somewhere. If you are a TA, it is part of the cost of having you rather than an adjunct teach that section and will be charged to the tuition paid by some undergrad’s loan or to a research grant or (more likely) to the overhead (i.e. indirect cost recovery) collected from that grant.

    I like the understated way #3 talks about the demand for 1st year students to teach physics or chemistry labs at the State Engineering University, although the way they get weeded out doesn’t match what I heard out of Purdue from the chemistry side. The qual was taken by the end of the second year back then.

    Comment #4 must be talking about a top rated history department, but success does breed success. Since they all work as adjuncts with full teaching responsibility to pay their costs, they leave with the teaching experience needed to get hired in that area at a university. If they also have a good pre-professor program to mentor those students, so they all leave with a teaching portfolio etc etc, those results are not surprising.

  6. #6 JBL
    July 11, 2008

    Re Ben M: when I applied for graduate school (PhD) in mathematics, one school accepted me but didn’t offer funding. I gather they did their acceptances before they knew what their funding was, or some such. This is a known practice in mathematics, but I think (or at least hope!) that most applicants treat such offers as rejections rather than as acceptances.

  7. #7 jeffk
    July 12, 2008

    I have also heard rumors that at certain universities (most commonly large public universities in the Midwest) departments will often accept as many first-year grad students as needed to cover all of the TA slots and weed out the ones that do not make the transition to an RA by the beginning of the third year. The anecdata suggest that in the worst offending departments as many as half of the grad students are weeded out in this way (as opposed to not passing a qualifying exam or some other academic reason).

    It’s not so clear to me there’s even a difference. My department doesn’t literally kick out people who are still TA-ing after a few years, but they definitely start with at least a 1/3 more than they need for cheap TA labor and then use the qualifying exam to get rid of them. I consider myself lucky to have barely slipped past.

  8. #8 Jonathan Vos Post
    July 12, 2008

    Let me thank the late Professor Edward Riseman, PhD, COINS Department University of Massachusetts, and his partner, Al Hanson, who just retired.

    There was a rule at the Amherst campus of that university that, if one earned more than some specific number of dollars per semester as a TA or an RA, tuition for that semester would be waived.

    One semester, I fell $100 short of the threshold. I told Hanson and Riseman. The immediately added a line item to one of their research projects (I think it was the VISIONS project for real-world scene analysis on DEC-10) for $100, earmarked to me. I had to pay zero in tuition that semester. It gave me a chance to take a seminar with The father of Machine Perception, the great Oliver Gordon Selfridge, grandson of the founder of Selfridges’ department stores. See more on that Selfridge at Wikipedia.

    I also got to take Category Theory free, and more Graph Theory, and simultaneously get 95% of the way to an MBA in Poetry under the Pulitzer Prize-winning James Tate.

    So the TA and RA pay can be pathetically low, but knowing how to Play The Game can get useful benefits.

    And I don’t mean as in “friends with benefits,” so stop snickering. I did have to decline an attractive student who said: “Professor, I’ll do ANYTHING for an A,” while unbuttoning her blouse. I was already spoken for, and counseled her on the unethical nature of her offer. And added: “why don’t you come back 5 years ago, when I might have agreed.”

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