Wednesday, August 26, 2009

How we fund grad students

As new grad students flood onto campuses across the US, I just got around to reading this piece in Science from a few of weeks ago about Roald Hoffman's idea for changing the way we support grad students in the sciences and engineering. Most S&E grad students in the US are supported by a mix of teaching assistantships (TAs), research assistanceships (RAs), and fellowships. A typical S&E grad student at an American university shows up and is supported during their their first year by a mix of university funds and pay for teaching. They then often make the transition to being supported as an RA by research funds obtained by their advisor through research grants. (Some remain as TAs - this is more common at large, public institutions with large undergraduate teaching needs.) Some relatively small fraction of S&E grad students are supported instead by fellowships, awarded competitively by agencies like NSF, DOE, DOD, NIH, etc. or by private foundations such as the Hertz Foundation.

Prof. Hoffman suggests that we should move to a system where all grad student support is fellowship-based. The idea is that this will (a) fund only the best students; (b) allow students much greater independence since an advisor will no longer be able to say "You have to do boring experiment #23 because that's what the grant that's paying your salary says we're going to do"; (c) result in better mentoring b/c faculty will no longer view students as "hands". Now, there's basically no way to see how such a drastic change in the system would ever happen, but it's worth looking at the idea.

As someone lucky enough to have a fellowship in grad school, I understand the appeal from the student side. Independence is great - it means that you and your advisor are freed from the stress of worrying that your grant won't get renewed when you're in year 3 of your program. It means that you are a free agent.

However, I think Hoffman's idea would be a disaster, for two main research-related reasons (not to mention the challenge of how you'd handle TA duties at large places that suddenly had many fewer grad students). First, there is little doubt that this would skew an already tilted system even further in favor of the top, say, 20 institutions in the country. Right now it's possible for good researchers at second tier universities to write grants, hire students, and do research. Imagine instead if the only source of student support were competitive external fellowships. It's all well and good to talk about overproduction of PhDs, and say that drastically reducing the number of grad students would be good for employment and salaries. There is a point to that. However, you would effectively end research as an enterprise at many second and third-tier schools, and there are a fair number of really good programs that would go away. Second, since federally funded fellowships would presumably only go to US citizens, this idea would drastically reduce international PhD students in S&E. That, too, would be a mess. Some of our best students are international students, and whether or not they stay in the US after their degrees, training these people is a valuable service that the current US system provides.

It is worth considering other funding schemes, though. I know that in the UK students are supported through their PhD, rather than on a schedule set by external grant deadlines. Perhaps some of my UK readers could comment on the pluses and minuses of this approach.


Jacques Distler said...

TAs are not going to be affected by this, because TA salaries are paid out of University teaching budgets, which are not fungible with research grants.

RAs are a different story. Those research grant proposals had a lot of blah-blah, about the mentoring of graduate students, to justify funding those RAs. But there is a legitimate question as to whether the NSF's mentoring dollars are better spent directly funding student through fellowships rather than indirectly, through RAs.

On the other hand, you have a point: some research proposals simply can't be carried out, without graduate student RAs to assist in the work.

In that case, the argument can be made for (and the NSF should fund) graduate student RA support being included in the grant. But that's, at least, an honest argument, instead of the usual blah-blah about mentoring graduate students.

You also have a point that graduate students with fellowships are free agents, who'll tend to gravitate towards top-tier institutions, to the detriment of the second and third tier. That's true, but I think that's the point -- the students are, thereby, acting in their own best interests, finding the graduate programs that best suit their needs. Which is exactly how you want your mentoring dollars to be spent.

To your last point, about foreign graduate students, I think the real answer is to acknowledge that we are actually competing with other countries for the best minds in S&E. Offering fellowships to the top foreign graduate students is a relatively cheap way to attract talent from abroad.

MattPatt said...

I'm not sure it necessarily follows that fellowships would free students from having to work on particular experiments because grant X requires it. My own personal salary is paid for by a fellowship at the moment, but that doesn't mean that the lab equipment I use or the experimental time at outside facilities also comes free. It's still true that if I want to use our shiny new monochromatic X-ray source paid for by EFRC money, I'd better be using it to study novel catalysts rather than novel superconductors. Now, I wouldn't necessarily be working in this particular lab if I didn't have an interest in that anyway, but I'm still limited in the areas I can explore, and it still has to do with the kinds of grants my advisor gets. I imagine theorists might have fewer problems along these lines, though.

Ms.PhD said...

To address the points you made:

1. parenthetically, re: TAs. Senior undergraduate students can do this. So can postdocs. There is no need to panic re: who will grade your tests. Or you! You could grade the exams yourself!

2. Quotas work, more or less, for college admission and for most fellowships. They could work for this too. The idea is that each institution can have a maximum number of Joe Schmoe's named fellowship recipients. Sort of like members of congress. Problem re: top 20-only solved.

3. re: international students, I disagree that it's a good thing to ship all our best students in from elsewhere. We need pressure to maintain and improve US education, rather to trying to get off cheap by buying students elsewhere.

I think it's perfectly reasonable for them to pay or win tuition if they want to come here- that's what I would have to do if I went to almost any other country as a non-citizen. Until we have some global educational exchange network, I fail to see why universities are so bent on this myth about talent.

The truth is most of the best American students opt out of academia because the pay is terrible and the respect is nonexistent. American students have better options to be treated as adults with a future, so they take them.

3. This crap about grants requiring student labor is ridiculous.

We have way too many PhDs floating around without jobs right now.

What we need is some recognition that good work can be done in staff-type positions, with or without a PhD or any kind of long-term job security or tuition attached.

A technician is basically just a graduate student who isn't taking classes. A postdoc is just a graduate student who already took the classes and has a few more years of experience and a little more independence. "Staff scientist" just means a really old postdoc. You get the idea.

So I'm going to propose that you please quit freaking out. Change needs to happen. I think any limits on the number of PhD students is a good thing. It will be painful for a while, but when are scientists not complaining about funding, space, publishing or staff? Never. Scientists have been complaining about the same things since the dawn of time, and nobody has done anything about any of it.

Anonymous said...

I think it is a really dumb idea. It will just shift the onus from the PI (grant writing) to the student (fellowship writing). The number of students will change only if the overall funding is decreased. Most beginning grad students may be extremely smart, but do not understand what scientific research is. I do not think it is reasonable to expect them to come up with a research plan and (even worse) judge them on that basis. We already do a little bit of this while admitting them to grad school and that process is pretty flawed.

I curious as to why everybody thinks that there are too many PhDs floating around. I rarely (if ever) see an unemployed PhD who is not a bum by choice. I think a PhD is a wonderful course of study compared to other advanced degrees. Apart from learning, one has the time to really get in touch with oneself - something that is completely lacking in undergraduate and other rat-race advanced degrees.

Douglas Natelson said...

Well, I knew that this one would spark discussion.

Jacques, often some of the money used to pay TA salaries comes indirectly from grants via overhead return. Also, I do want and expect students to act in their own best interests. I just have a feeling that a system entirely based on fellowships will increase the gulf between the haves and have-nots, so to speak. Regarding foreign students, I understand your point, but I cannot foresee any member of congress getting up and voting for giving US taxpayer money directly to foreign students with no strings attached.

Ms. PhD, trust me, I'm not freaking out. I even do some of my own grading. I also think that the present system could use some reform. I just don't think that Hoffman's idea would have sufficient upsides to balance the negatives.

Realistically, it is likely (and I think in Hoffman's view desirable) that a switch to fellowship-only support would reduce the number of students who go to S&E grad school, because there would probably not be a 1-1 shift of resources from grants to fellowships. People will, as you suggest, budget in staff and technicians, and keep their grants relatively large, and the pool of money actually available for fellowships would probably be considerably smaller than the pool supported by RA funds now. I think it's murky at best to say that this is automatically a good thing because the students who do get to go have fellowship support. We both know how grant evaluations can be. I guess it sucks to be a would-be student who can't get a fellowship, then. I think the end result of a realistic fellowship-only system is that a lot of people who want to go to S&E grad school either can't, or have to pay their own way. It's not clear to me that this is a net good.

Regarding foreign students, at least in physics I think you're mistaken about tuition. Americans who do PhD study, e.g., in the UK or Holland or France do not have to pay out of pocket for tuition. People want to come to the US to study not because they are willingly complicit in being exploited, but because they think they can get a valuable educational experience here.

To sum up: I fully recognize that the current system has flaws, and I think that there are changes that can be made that would improve matters for everyone. However, I think that a fellowship-only system as proposed by Hoffman would not have enough benefits to outweigh the negatives.

amy said...

Interesting post, Doug. It might be a good idea to shift the mix of directly funded students vs. students paid off grants as RAs, but I think eliminating direct grant funding would be a big mistake. Unlike Ms. PhD, I don't see huge masses of unemployed PhDs around (at least in Chemistry--and neither does the ACS survey) so reducing the number of PhD chemists doesn't seem like a worthy goal if it wrecks research capabilities at tier 2 and 3 schools. (YMMV by field, obviously) Research at such schools is also hugely beneficial to undergraduate education, so it seems like a good thing to support.

One thing I have noticed while recruiting for my lab is that a fairly large number of incoming grad students have a general area they are interested in, but lack the experience and/or detailed knowledge to propose an interesting, feasible, or realistic project for their PhD. It has been way more effective to attract good students by providing an outline, and letting them fill in the details. Such students are talented and capable, but undergraduate education would have to be substantially reworked to make it reasonable to have them propose something for a fellowship before getting some experience. This is particularly true for "newer" or "hybrid" fields which undergrads don't get to see much of in traditional science educations.

In my department, most students TA half loads (which are considerably less than half the load I taught as a TA at a huge state school in the US) throughout their PhD. This seems to work well for both PIs (holds down costs) and students (get experience teaching and have relationships with more of the department).

daniel said...
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