Graduate School & Tuition

On first glance at my #SciFund Challenge pitch video and description, some people were concerned/confused about my statements that any extra money I was able to raise would go towards my tuition costs.  One person stated

Also, extra goes to tuition? I thought the dept pays for that or work hard to be a [Teaching Assistant] for that. The stipend/salary is never enough to cope with the inflation in general (now and before)

I’ll talk more about this in this post, but first, take a look at Figure 1 below.

9 month income minus tuition of 9 and 12 credit hours compared to New Mexico's minimum wage (left) and "discretionary income" after essentials (right)

The plain fact is that graduate student support can vary a lot from place to place, and it varies even more depending on the field.  I’m sure that there are a number of schools out there in which being a graduate student is actually worse than having a minimum wage job (especially outside the sciences) and I should consider myself lucky.  In the most extreme cases, it can lead to Ph.D. students and holders being on foodstamps.  But one of my motivations for participating in this current round of the #SciFund Challenge was to try to actually do something to address this.  I’m usually able to get some funding (from a variety of sources, from student government, my professional organization, my university college, etc.) but never able to cover everything 100%. Looking at the right side of Figure 1, monthly income after basic necessities is at a 15 year low.  This is assuming you live on campus, eat on campus, don’t drive a car, and don’t want to travel anywhere.  A change of any one of those things will probably put you at a net loss each month.  The low pay, combined with the necessity to travel to promote my work and further my career, weighs heavily on a person after doing it for a few years.

About my specific situation?  I’ve been a TA before, but right now I am being supported as a Research Assistant which means I do not teach any classes.  To qualify for the position I am required to enroll in at least 9 credit hours, which also qualifies me for subsidized “health insurance” coverage.

The state of funding for all the sciences, including astronomy, makes mini Keanu sad. The awesomeness of the SDSS telescope makes him happy, but sometimes it's just not enough.

The university rules are beyond both my and my department’s control.  There’s always been a lot going on behind the scenes with the graduate students and the administration to try to address this, but to no avail.  Recently the university administration has recently (finally!) nodded in the general direction of the problem once we made them realize that graduate admissions are suffering because of all of this, but any action will probably proceed on a timescale of years.

I do not seek to maintain the status quo in how we fund some aspects of astronomy, or science in general.  My efforts in preparation and during this current round of the #SciFund Challenge have benefited me in other ways, but that’s the next blog post!


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  1. Pingback: Motivation | Ryan's Adventures in Astronomy

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