An Unpopular Opinion
It’s the season for deciding if you should attend a graduate program. Here’s the single most important consideration: if a graduate program accepts you without adequate funding, you should turn them down.If a graduate program accepts you without adequate funding, that's a hell no. Click To Tweet
There are obvious exceptions: professional programs (MBA, law, med school), programs that have high placement rates into lucrative career tracks, and the like.
Also, if you’re independently wealthy, then knock yourself out.
The rest of us? No money, no way!
This opinion might be unpopular. If you’re in a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) field, full funding of graduate students is expected. Other fields? Not so much.
But it should be.
What’s Adequate Funding?
What do I mean by offering adequate funding? It should be enough so you pay your tuition, fees, and other education expenses, and have enough left over to cover modest living expenses, health insurance, taxes, etc. If you can only swing it by taking out loans or a side job, then forget it.
This doesn’t mean you should expect to live like royalty. When I was in grad school, most of the time I had a roommate, didn’t have a car, didn’t have cable, and didn’t eat out very often. I lived like a student and that’s okay.
But if you’re going to be living check-to-check, anxious about making it through the summer, using credit cards to cover necessary expenses, or taking loans, then you’re not paid enough.
How do you know if you’re going to be paid enough when considering a graduate program in a new city? That’s a discussion of it’s own, but you can start by looking at cost-of-living calculators and talking to graduate students currently in the program. Between those two, you should be able to judge how far your stipend will stretch.
Part of funding being adequate is that you have some assurances that it will cover you long enough to get your degree. Programs usually can’t guarantee funding because of budgetary uncertainties, but they should be able to say they expect to provide funding and have a good track record of funding current students until they graduate. Again, current grad students are a great source of information. An unscrupulous grad director might shade the truth here, but grad students will give you the straight dope.
Why Does a Graduate Program Admit Students Without Adequate Funding?
There are two reasons.
The first and most likely is they are not that into you. The graduate program is saying, “Sure, if you want to come on your own dime, then we’re willing to give you a chance. But we’re not willing to put money on it.”
An unfunded or partially funded grad student is low-risk for the graduate program. If you drop out, it’s no skin off their nose. You’ve paid for part (or all) of your cost, and you’re just one more seat in the classroom, one more pair of hands in a lab.
By not funding you, the program is saying they think you’re a marginal case. You might succeed, you might not. Either way, they’re not interested in making that bet.
Whether it is true or not, do you want to be in a program who thinks of you as marginal, at best?
Even worse, for financial reasons some graduate programs are pressured to accept paying students even knowing they are likely drop out. That brings in revenue for the program and the university. If you pay for a year (or more!) and don’t get a degree, administrators won’t lose any sleep.
The other option, which is common in many non-STEM fields, is that the program genuinely wants you to be part of the program, but they don’t have the resources to support you.
But this is still a strong sign you shouldn’t sign on the dotted line. On the small scale, this could mean the program doesn’t have the resources it needs to support its graduate students. On a bigger scale, this might mean the field as a whole doesn’t need more people with graduate degrees. Either way, this is not the place for you.
A Second Unpopular Opinion
A graduate program that can’t afford to adequately fund their graduate students shouldn’t exist. It should either find a way to increase funding to match the size of its program, shrink its program to match its funding, or get rid of the program altogether.Hey, Universities: Graduate students provide valuable contributions to teaching and research. If you can't afford to pay them, you don't deserve to have grad students. Click To Tweet
Want to know what you should do? Follow the money.
Image from the Met Museum