Should grad students chase the money?

Oct 27 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Since we've been talking about grad student applications this week, I noticed that Dr. Zen had a post up about choosing a grad program. Normally a purveyor of decent advice, Dr. Zen has the following to say:

Deciding on a grad program is a complicated choice. Do you pick based on the institutional name? The program? The advisor? Here’s a way to simplify your decision.

Which program will pay you the most?

Money talks, bullshit walks.

I’m not saying you should choose only by that criterion. But it is a quick way to shake out who wants you the most.

I couldn't disagree with this more. While I understand the importance of the stipend when it comes to supporting oneself and possibly family in these situations, how much does your sanity cost? How about your lifestyle? Can I give you an extra grand a year to be at my beck and call at all hours? Will you routinely put in 16 hour days for an extra $2K? How much will it cost for you to sell your free will and self respect?

I'm going to hope the good doctor was joking, because disregarding little things like student happiness, departmental/lab culture, graduation rates and your interest in the research being done, all in the name of a couple extra bucks is, in my mind, profoundly stupid and short-sighted.

But hey, it's just 4 - infinity years of your life, right? You can survive that. And you'll have more money to pay for therapy if you end up in a lab that breaks your soul.

15 responses so far

  • HCA says:

    Another thing worth noting, on the more strait-up economic side: how much is the stipend relative to the cost of living in that area?

    My PhD program pays me more than 150% of my MS stipend, but because of the dramatic differences in cost of living at the two locations (mostly due to the rent), I'm basically at the same level. I know other students who get paid the same dollar amount as me, but some can barely afford housing while others bought fairly large homes in their area.

    That's something I will weigh when it comes to post-doc positions. The bottom NIH post-doc salary goes a lot farther in Tampa than it does in Boston.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Of course, then you have to live in Tampa.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Differences can be considerably more than $2K. But even so, when it comes to grad student life, that difference can be huge. Not everyone starts from the same position of relative economic privilege and comfort, PlS.

    Also it can matter whether you get payed as an RA in your PI's lab, have to TA substantial amounts, etc.

    Those are of considerable impact on your ability to succeed and to advance in your program. This is not just about "lifestyle"

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    Think of it as you "get to" live in Tampa, and you "get to" TA. At my university, we would require teaching experience as a qualification for faculty hire criterion.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Not everyone starts from the same position of relative economic privilege and comfort, PlS.

    And not everyone has the same tolerance for the varying degree of "mentoring" some PIs provide. All I am saying is that one's grad experience is more complicated than the dollars.

  • BugDoc says:

    "I’m not saying you should choose only by that criterion. But it is a quick way to shake out who wants you the most."

    I understand that everyone has financial considerations, and these may differ depending on the city you live in. However, it's wrong to say that stipend offers can be interpreted to mean which program "wants you the most". Our student stipend is set by our large umbrella program, and we as individual faculty or departments have no say about it. All of the students who come into the program get paid the same amount.

  • Dr. Dad, PhD says:

    My approach was to not even consider money when looking at schools.

    By doing that, it became very clear which schools were the best for me, and which ones would be a challenge.

    I really didn't see much variation in stipend levels amongst the schools I applied to, although that could be due to the fact that most of my applications went to programs affiliated with med schools and tended to have bigger pockets). I should mention, though that I chose these programs because I wanted to be translational, not because they had higher stipend levels.

    I also want to mention that stipend rates often have a lot to do with funding sources. Private schools have a greater ability to set their own stipend rates tan public schools, and as such $$$ may not translate into 'how much they want you."

  • HFM says:

    In the humanities, I think this is valid - some people get fellowships, while some have to scrape by on TAships and outside jobs, and this forms a persistent hierarchy within the department. You might be better off as the chosen one in a lower-ranked school than as the red-headed stepchild of a higher-ranked school.

    But in all the science programs I applied to, everyone in the program got the same amount. There was significant variation in the amount they got, but that was related to how much money the school had to give.

    Incidentally, I turned down an extra $3K/year (plus slightly lower cost of living) to be where I am now. Don't regret it...yet, anyway.

  • Pramod says:

    As DM pointed out, the difference is often way more than 1K or 2K. I had to choose between going to a really good school (A) that paid me X and another really good school (B) that paid me 1.25X. I chose to go to B for a number of reasons, one of which was the money. It was not that I wanted more money, but I felt that the money correlates with other stuff that might be important.

    I'm still not sure if I made the right decision overall. However, I think I was right about the money aspect of it. This place has made the non-academic parts of my life amazingly smooth - which I think is mostly because it's a filthy rich university - which in turn is probably why they're able to afford to pay us more.

  • Luna says:

    This is the worst advice on choosing grad schools that I have ever heard!

    Of course I understand ditching an university that offers you no funding; but really, particularly in the sciences and engineering, grad student stipends do not differ all that much. In every case that I know of, you can afford to live on them, even in the most expensive of places. Of course you can't afford expensive clothes or cavier or to buy a house, but that is not what going to grad school is about.

  • Mac says:

    Money matters but straight up dollars in stipend is not a good way to weigh this out. I went to excellent school A in the middle of the country and could afford a decent apt and then a rental house, my brother went to excellent school B on the west coast and made more in stipend and could rent a room for the money -shared kitchen, shared bathroom. So cost of living is a big factor. Also my lab was incredibly rich in resources and my department had internal grants for students that helped pick up additional costs (gas, conferences, special research equipment, etc). I could have a made a little more money elsewhere but the stuff I needed to succeed was what I really needed out of the program. Finally, yes the mentoring aspect is huge. I believe I literally had the best advisor - no amount of money could make up for having someone else. I would say grad students shouldn't ignore the money aspect but don't fixate on it above all other things.

  • Joseph says:

    It also is correlated (over time) with how sound the department and university are financially, and with ability to reliably procure grants. Both of these are IMHO critical factors, particularly the latter for your own long-term survival if you intend to stay in academia.

  • I would advocate chasing the money - but in terms of your advisor's funding potential, not the stipend.

    And I second the cost of living advice - in one place I looked, grad students regularly bought their own houses, and that wasn't because the stipend was higher...

  • Esteban says:

    Jobs, Jobs, Jobs, If possible students should chose a school, where most graduates have been able to get goos postdoctoral positions and later good jobs. Many schools keep track of this information.

  • Cam says:

    Disclaimer: My family situation kind of made the decision for me and I actually declined two PhD offers and just did the MS.

    If your tolerance for career risk is lower and if money is the dominant factor go for the top programs. But to tell you the truth if you can't handle the future job risk that goes with the Ph.D just get an MS and go into industry. You can always get an MBA after your BS in Biology, even 10+ years after you graduate, with your biotech / pharma company employer to pay for it! Sorry, I don't mean to sway would be PhDs, just a dose of reality. Ask yourself who is your authentic self? Do you fit in best with the sleek mercedes / BMW-driving chic crowd? If you do, perhaps the PhD isn't your best bet anyway. More prestige and money will follow other careers.

    Best advice I have in picking PhD programs is find out what lifestyle you want during and even after. First question is "is the cadre of admitted students similar to you?" If GRE scores / GPA are tops in a particular program and you're only so-so, forget applying there. I tried that with no success.

    Harvard and other ivy league Ph.D programs (from my coworkers that got PhDs there) are possibly more stressful with higher expectations on the student but, yes, they may lead to better jobs. On the other hand, you can always win the jackpot and discover something truly revolutionary in science, perhaps in any setting. Remember to consider your possible passion for teaching. There are excellent PhD programs where the research is not emphasized as much as the teaching. Those won't be necessarily the top Universities at a first glance.

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