Thank you so much for your comments last week. You all helped me identify many sources of funding that can be broken into three main categories: in-house or university/department funds, external fellowships and scholarships, and personal funds. This week, I want to talk about university/department funds that some of us use to get by.
Departmental and university funding generally comes from three different sources: teaching assistantships, research assistantships, and block grant funding. I’ll take them apart one by one below and enumerate the pros and cons.
Teaching Assistantship (TA-ship) ““ a TA-ship is generally either a 25% (10 hours a week) or 50% (20 hours a week) time commitment. TA-ships can look wildly different from class to class ““ sometimes you’re leading discussions or labs, and sometimes you’re teaching lectures. Readers (people who read and grade exams for large classes) are often lumped in with TAs but they are almost always 25% appointments.
- You get to build up your teaching resume. Almost all post-docs and faculty positions like to see at least a little bit of teaching. It’s not crucial to be a great teacher (in fact, at research institutions, I hear that the goal is to be an A-grade researchers and a C-grade teacher), but it’s vital to have experience since teaching is always something that comes along with the appointment.
- You might find out you like to teach, in which case, the 20 hours a week or whatever spent in the classroom are enjoyable ones. It’s great to have the opportunity to explore various types of work (teaching, research, etc) while in graduate school.
- You can teach and keep your research interests separate. This will make more sense in a bit. Hold up.
- It takes up time, time you could be spending on your dissertation, time you could be spending to get done with grad school and on with your career. It adds nothing to your research and it doesn’t further your academic goals.
- It does not pay very well at all. For how much work goes into TAing, the wage isn’t particularly great.
Research Assistantships (RA-ships) ““ Generally speaking, you work as a lab tech or research assistant for your advisor or another professor in the department. You can work on their main project, or on side projects that are directly related to their main project. You are generally paid from their grant.
- If you’re lucky, you can work on something related to your research and get MORE publications. While you might not be able to directly work on your dissertation (sometimes you can, but it’s pretty rare), you can build up your publication resume, which is great for future academic work.
- If you have a good situation with your advisor, this could be a very mutually beneficial set-up: you get paid for doing work that is immediately interesting to you.
- You could be consigned to doing dull repetitive work which you are not interested in at all and which has absolutely nothing to do with your dissertation research. It could be tedious, time-consuming, and unrelated to your own work. It can take time away from your research.
- This is the biggest con, but it doesn’t necessarily have to come with the RA-territory (though it often does) ““ you may feel pressure to work on things your advisor finds interesting, not what you find interesting. If you’re getting paid to work on their projects and don’t have time to work on your own, then you may feel that it’d just be easier to find a dissertation topic that could be worked on under the RA-ship. This is one reason that I think RA-ships should be undertaken with care. They aren’t worse than TA-ships, necessarily, but it could lead to messy scenarios. By the by, this gets into a whole field of the goals and attitudes of the program towards their grad students. That deserves its own post.
Block grants and department funding ““ The university/department provides funding that matches how much you’d earn as a TA or RA. Generally, this only happens for one semester or quarter a year, with the student being required to have a TA or RA-ship for the remaining time. This is a pretty sweet deal.
- You get money! Not a ton, but as good as any other time.
- It doesn’t take any time! You just get money for being in good standing. Usually, this sweet deal only lasts when you’re taking courses, so enjoy it when it happens.
- None really. I mean, it’s usually a very limited time thing because the university can’t afford to give funds to people willy-nilly. Like I said, most programs, if they have something like this, use it for students who are near exams or in the middle of heavy course work.
The overall cons of all of these options are that they can be hard to get and the amount of money can be quite low, making budgeting very tricky. Budgeting takes time so it’s especially difficult when you already have to spend so much time working on the TA/RA work and your own research. While the financial stress is eased by any TA/RA-ing/departmental funding, it can still make graduate school a difficult experience.
These options vary in their availability depending on university, department, and whether you’re a Masters or PhD student ““ PhD students in STEM fields at private universities usually get the best financial deal. Still, if you’re getting your PhD, do not accept a program unless you get some funding ““ any of these options, honestly, are pretty good ones. I guess I can’t speak for RA-ships since I haven’t had any, but I’ve enjoyed my TA experience and I look forward to having more of it.
How about you? What have your experiences been? What are the pros and cons in your mind for these various funding options? Is there something big that I’ve missed?
Next week: external funding!