Saturday, January 29, 2022

Graduate stipends and tuition - a bold move by Princeton

I will write more about actual physics soon, but it has been a very busy period with other commitments.  In the meantime....

Princeton did something remarkable this week.  They raised their graduate stipends across the board to $40K/10 months, roughly a 25% increase.  That's already quite impressive, but the really wild change is less readily apparent.

It's important to understand how graduate students are paid on research grants in the US.  Grants pay for the stipend + indirect costs ("overhead") on the stipend + tuition remission.  "Tuition remission" is some effective graduate tuition rate.  Indirect costs ("overhead") go to the university and are meant to pay for things like keeping the lights on and the buildings air conditioned and the cost of running the office that does the financial reporting, etc.  Indirect cost rates are set by negotiations between the university and the US government.  Rice's indirect cost rate right now for on-campus research is 56.5%.   

Tuition is trickier.  These are funds meant to cover the university's cost of graduate education.  Different universities do different things with that money they take in on grants for tuition remission - usually it covers things like support for first-year grad students, part of the TA salary pool, etc.  In STEM doctoral programs in the US, students do not pay tuition out of pocket.  It is either waived by the university (for incoming students supported on fellowship or TA, for example) or paid through research grants for students supported by external funding.  (Note that this is money that doctoral students never actually see - that's why it's dumb that every few years (here is the 2017 example) someone in Congress tries to argue it should be taxed.)  It's unclear what a true fair value is for doctoral tuition; grad students are much more independent than undergrads, and when they are doing purely thesis research it's not clear how to think about their educational costs.  Rice has a "tuition remission rate" of 38.5%, rather than a fixed dollar amount, with the idea that this strikes a balance between beginning students taking a lot of courses and later students working only on their thesis.   That means that if our graduate stipend is $S, then on a federal grant the total cost of a doctoral student at Rice is \( (1.565 + 0.385)\times\) $S.   

Anyway, along with raising stipends drastically, Princeton also cut their graduate tuition rate to zero (!).  That means that a graduate student at Princeton will cost less on a grant now than before, even though they have jumped up stipends by 25%.  

This is pretty radical.  The university is going to take in many millions of dollars less on grants to do this, but given their roughly $38B endowment, they can afford it.  Even if they took a $40K hit per grad student per year, the $100M of "lost" income would only be 5% of their operating budget.  I assume that this also plays well against the criticism that elite institutions don't spend enough of their resources.  No idea what the implication is for, e.g., their professional masters degrees in engineering, where they surely charge students (or their employers) substantial graduate tuition.

The long-term effect of this will be interesting and complicated.  I would think that STEM faculty at other comparably wealthy universities will turn to their administrations and ask why students are so much cheaper on grants for Princeton faculty.  This zero doctoral tuition approach would require wholesale restructuring of financial models at most US universities.

Update:  President Eisgruber has publicly announced the tuition change here in his state-of-the-university address.

Saturday, January 15, 2022

Brief items - papers, packings, books

 It's a very busy time, so no lengthy content, but here are a few neat things I came across this week.

  •  A new PRL came out this week that seems to have a possible* analytic solution to Hilbert's 18th problem, about the density of random close-packed spheres in 2D and 3D.  This is a physics problem because it's closely related to the idea of jamming and the onset of mechanical rigidity of a collection of solid objects.  (*I say possible only because I don't know any details about any subtle constraints in the statement of the problem.)
  • The Kasevich group at Stanford has an atom interferometric experiment that they claim is a gravitational analog of the Aharonov-Bohm effect.  This is a cool experiment, where there is a shift in the quantum phase of propagating atomic clouds due to the local gravitational potential caused by a nearby massive object.  (Phase goes like the argument of \(\exp(-i S(x(t))/\hbar)\), where the action can include a term related to the gravitational potential, \(m \times \Phi_{G}(x(t)\).)  At a quick read, though, I don't see how this is really analogous to the AB effect.  In the AB case, there is a relative phase due to magnetic flux enclosed by the interfering paths even when the magnetic field is arbitrarily small at the actual location of the path.  I need to read this more closely, or perhaps someone can explain in the comments.
  • A colleague pointed out to me this great review article all about charge shot noise in mesoscopic electronic systems.  
  • Speaking of gravity, there has been interest in recent years about "warp drives", geometries of space-time allowed by general relativity that seem to permit superluminal travel for an observer in some particular region.  One main objection to these has been that past proposed incarnations violate various energy conditions in GR - requiring enormous quantities "negative matter", for example, which does not seem to exist.  Interestingly, people have been working on normal-matter-only ideas for these, and making some progress as in this preprint.  Exercises like this can be really important for illuminating subtle issues with GR, just like worrying about "fast light" experiments can make us refine arguments about causality and signaling.  
  • Thomas Wong from Creighton University has a free textbook (link on that page) to teach about quantum computing, where the assumed starting math knowledge is trig.  It looks very accessible!
  • People recommended two other books to me recently that I have not yet had time to read.  The Alchemy of Us is a materials-and-people focused book from Ainissa Ramirez, and Sticky: The Secret Science of Surfaces is all about surfaces and friction, by Laurie Winkless.  Gotta make time for these once the semester craziness is better in hand....

Saturday, January 08, 2022

Condensed matter and a sense of wonder

I had an interesting conversation with a colleague last week about the challenges of writing a broadly appealing, popular book about condensed matter.  This is a topic I've been mulling for (too many) years - see this post from the heady days of 2010.

He made a case that condensed matter is inherently less wondrous to the typical science-interested person than, e.g., "the God Particle" (blech) or black holes.  This is basically my first point in the old post linked above.  He was arguing that people have a hard time ever seeing something that captures the imagination in items or objects that they have around them all the time.  The smartphone is an incredible piece of technology and physics, but what people care about is how to get better download speeds, not how or why any of it works.  

I'm curious:  Do readers think this is on-target?  Is "lack of wonder" the main issue, or one of many?