Gimme this, gimme that…

The following fictitious dialogue summarizes some actual conversations that I have recently had with senior undergraduate physics students, who sought advice from me regarding their choice of a suitable graduate program.

Student: knock, knock… Hi Dr. B., how are you ? Happy New Year !
Me: Well, well, look who’s there, long time no see… Happy New Year to you. Come on in….
Student: Are you busy ? I was wondering if I can ask you a few questions…
Me: Uh-oh… let me guess, you found more errors in my notes…
Student: Haha, no, I have not really checked, lately… no, it has to do with graduate school. Do you remember the conversation we had a few months back ? I decided to continue on with my physics studies at the graduate level, and applied to a few programs. As it turns out, I have been accepted at two of them, and so now I have to make a choice… I could use your advice.
Me: Well, hey, first of all, congratulations ! Where have you been accepted ?
Student: OK, so, both BigTimeU (BTU) and OuttaYourLeagueU (OYLU) have made me offers…
Me: Way to go ! Both are great places. I am very happy for you. I am not surprised, with your undergraduate record I would imagine that you would be regarded as a strong applicant.
Student: Thanks but, now it’s the hard part… I have to pick one, and it is not easy at all…

What should I ask for ?
Me: OK, great, sure, let’s talk about it, I shall be happy to give you my opinion. First of all, let me ask you: aside from possible personal reasons, do you have any preference for either one, based on your research interests ?
Student: Well, you know that I have always been interested in ThatCoolField, and both BTU and OYLU have very strong groups… I have to say, though, I have looked at the web page of Famous Prof (FP) at BTU, and… I cannot help feeling that that is exactly the kind of research work that I wish to pursue…
Me: You know, I was thinking about that person as you were speaking… I mean, OLYU of course has Famous Too and NotSoBad Either, but based on what you have been telling me the few times we spoke about this, I also think that FP is probably the best choice. Have you contacted them directly to find out if they will have openings in their group ?
Student: No, not yet, there are other aspects that I need to consider. You see, OLYU is making me a better offer, from the financial standpoint. They are willing to help me with tuition, plus they pay their teaching assistants (TAs) slightly more. I did some math, and it turns out that at OLYU I would end up with almost 3K more in my pocket per annum.
Me: Oh-kay…
Student: So, I was talking to Fellow Student (he says hi, by the way), who was admitted at MiddleOfThePackU, and you know what he said ? He told me that they were willing to give him more money in order to entice him there… in fact, they basically made him an open invitation to ask for more, beyond direct financial support.
Me: Er… such as, what ?
Student: Well, for instance, they asked him if he would have any preference as to what classes to teach, as a TA. That got me thinking, since I am in the position to leverage a better offer from either BTU or OYLU. So, here is question that I have for you:
What should a potential graduate student ask for when applying to grad schools? In particular, what should a strong candidate ask for? I’m thinking both in terms of monetary gain and those things that will breed success in grad school and after grad school.

And the answer is…
Me: Well, let me ask you this first: if you were to make a decision based on research only, i.e., if at the end of a lengthy bargaining session with both places you could get both of them to make you the same identical offer, in terms of money, teaching assignments, what have you, which one of the two would you choose ?
Student: I think it would be BTU. I really like their program, and frankly I would like to work with FP.
Me: All right. In that case, this is what I suggest: contact FP directly and ask them if they have an opening in their group, and have them tell you whether they would consider you as a possible addition to it, after looking at your CV (obviously contingent on your course work performance during your first year at BTU).
Student: yeah but… what should I ask for ?
Me: Nothing.
Student: Nothing ?
Me: Yes, that’s right. Nothing. Nada. Zippo. Zilch.

Oh, come on, there has got to be something
Student: I do not understand. Why am I not entitled to seek the best possible offer, based on basic supply and demand economics ? I have a good record, I do not think of myself as “just average”. Why should I accept an average offer ?
Me: Your offer is not “average”, you have offers from excellent universities, and the opportunity to do research in world renowned groups. That is all that should matter to you. The only thing you should ask for (but they have likely offered that to you already), is for them to invite you to visit their campuses in Spring. If I were you, I would do my homework ahead of time, visit the two campuses, talk to potential supervisors, to former and current graduate students at both places and/or of those professors with whom I could work, and make my choice only, exclusively based on scientific and scholarly considerations.
Student: I hear you but… still, isn’t there really anything that I could ask for ?
Me: I am sure we can think of something, if you really want to ask, but the bottom line is: Anything that you could conceivably ask for at admission time is silly, petty, insignificant, pointless, and may even lead you to make a bad choice (e.g., you might decide to go to a place where you will end up with a heavier TA assignment, just because you make extra money that way — that would a bad choice).
Three grand more a year (and that is as much as we can be realistically talking about), are almost certainly going to be a drop in the bucket. There are many other factors that you should be considering, at that rate — Cost of living, availability of subsidized housing, health coverage, cost of traveling to see your family a few times a year, transportation — all of these things can drastically affect your disposable income. The point is, you won’t be rich as a graduate student, ever, no matter what. It is not meant to be a money making proposition, and to make money a determining factor is silly.
Student: Hey, wait a minute now, did you not once say that…
Me: Of course, you want to make sure that the financial part of the deal is reasonable, i.e., in line with the national average. But I bet that that is the case for you, given the places about which we are talking. The packages that they are offering you are likely to be reasonable, and almost certainly the best that they can put together. No one wants to risk losing a graduate applicant over two thousand bucks.
At that point, asking for more money (in whichever form, whether that be as tuition waivers or higher stipend) means giving them a funny impression, putting them in a bind by asking for what they don’t have and/or are in no position to give anyway, and likely undermining your chances of getting things later on — for instance, if you start out as the highest paid student in a department, there is a pretty good chance that you will passed over when it comes to internal university/departmental scholarships/awards.
Also, keep in mind the following: a) Departments are often times unable to do anything regarding tuition/fees of individual students, due to internal university or even provincial/state regulations. b) Your graduate supervisor can top off your pay using grant money. So, what you want to do is pick a supervisor who can do it, and has a track record of doing it. There is no point in putting pressure on the department.

What about the teaching part ?
Student: I can tell you do not really have a strong opinion on this subject… But, seriously, what about the teaching ? If they gave me the option of picking the course(s) for which I am going to be a TA, is it not worth looking into making a judicious choice ? Surely there are courses that are less time-consuming, or where I can acquire valuable teaching experience…
Me: I think that trying to negotiate the courses for which one will serve as a TA is even sillier. First off, how do you know which ones are the easiest ? It depends on how they are set up, on the professor, on a host of things. Teaching a lab is often seen as the most demanding assignment, but if you end up grading 500 papers per week, I can guarantee that you won’t get much research done (and yes, I have seen that). This term, I taught a course with 400 plus student. However, homework assignments were computerized, and so all the TA had to do was run a 3-hr tutorial session once a week — hardly a very time-consuming proposition. But, if I, the professor teaching the course, for some reason did not believe in computerized homework, the TA would have been stuck grading. How would you know that ahead of time ?
But more importantly, irrespective of the course(s) to which you are assigned, you want to make sure that you will be a TA for the shortest possible time. Ideally, after your first year you ought be paid as a research assistant (RA). But that has nothing to do with the department — it is your individual advisor who “buys you out” of teaching. You have to discuss these things with potential supervisors during your campus visits next Spring.
Student: Yeah but… what about the valuable teaching experience ?
Me: Well, in my opinion, and based on my experience, it is not that valuable, in terms of enhancing your employability. In academia, in the best case it will not be regarded as extended enough to be significant, in the worst case people may even find it odd that you elected to spend time teaching instead of focusing on research. I do not know about industry, but I would be surprised if they valued teaching more than research.
Student: OK, how about asking for money to attend a major conference every year ?
Me: Guess….
Student: Er… pointless ?
Me: Yup.
Student: Why ?
Me: Going to a conference without anything to present is a waste of time and taxpayers’ money. On the other hand, if you have something worthwhile to present, because you have completed a significant piece of research work, your major professor will shell the money to send you to a conference to present it, because it’s in his/her best interest to do so.

Barking up the wrong tree
Student: It seems to me that you are basically saying that it is not so much about the department, as much as it is about the supervisor.
Me: Yes, that is my opinion. You see, once you identify the right person, a successful scientist with whom you think you can establish a good professional and personal relationship, things will fall in place by themselves. The person will buy you out of your teaching because (s)he wants you to focus on your research, send you to conferences, and eventually try and place you well at the end of your studies, in order to establish and maintain the reputation of a scientist whose students do well afterwards. There is not much more or much else that the department can do for you, really.
Student: OK. Well, thanks for the advice. I am going to chew on this a bit.
Me: Hey, it’s always a pleasure.
Student: Oh, one last thing…
Me: That’s a great Steve Jobs impersonation…
Student: When are you changing that silly blog title ?
Me: Oh, get outta here !

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3 Responses to “Gimme this, gimme that…”

  1. GMP Says:

    This is an awesome post, Massimo. The only thing I would like to add is that sometimes it’s not a good idea to go to a certain place because of only one professor; I have seen it happen and then the prof moves to another school or has no money and the student is left hanging. I think choosing a very good school with ideally several people in a desired area (in addition to the professor one would ideally want to work for) is prudent, especially for international applicants who may not have a chance to meet the professors before enrolling.

    • Massimo Says:

      Oh, absolutely, and even without considering the (relatively unlikely) case of a professor moving to another school, in which case the student often time can follow the professor, sometimes things between a student and a professor do not work out for all sort of reasons. So, yes, I agree with you, that is my sentiment as well even though from the post it is not clear. Thanks.

  2. GaussBrain>MyBrain Says:

    I would absolutely agree that a student needs to have more than one PI they want as an advisor to pick a school. I’d even go so far as saying one should look at schools where there is a variety of subfields represented. Undergrads are typically not exposed to every possible field or are biased because of profs in their undergrad institution.
    While money should not be a deciding factor that does not mean that you shouldn’t get every dollar you can. I haven’t seen PIs giving extra grant money to specific students but some schools do have “topper” fellowships given out only before you accept an offer. They can also be significant, $5k or more on top of a gra/gta. My advice would be to see if your school or department has these and to specifically ask the department secretary about them, just to show you’re aware of them. After that I would keep them waiting until the deadline, there is no good reason to accept before the deadline and waiting can get to $$$ for doing almost nothing (at least it did for me).

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