Sunday, May 20, 2007

They Pay You?

This weekend I was chatting with one of my neighbors about where her son might go to college after he graduates from high school next year. One of her priorities for her son's college education is that he not have to take out immense student loans. She remarked that I must have had a lot of student loans from all my years in grad school. I explained that I didn't take out any loans for grad school because I had an assistantship that paid tuition and a salary, and that this was common in many of the sciences. (I spent a lot of time in grad school filling out paperwork so that my undergrad loans were deferred until I finished my Ph.D., but fortunately I didn't have any new loans.)

She thought this being-paid-to-go-to-school thing was a bit of a 'scam'. I've heard that sentiment before, including from some of my relatives who didn't understand why I didn't have to pay for grad school when their children or other people they knew had to pay for other types of graduate programs. I suppose part of the disconnect relates to the fact that it's not obvious to the average non-scientific citizen that the physical sciences are important. We scientists could do a better PR job with this. I don't know if there's any way to avoid at least some of the "I hated (insert math, chemistry, and/or physics) in school" response, but it would be nice if there were less of this and more understanding of why what we do is important, or at least important enough for universities to pay graduate students in these fields.

I haven't even been able to convince some of my own relatives, though, so I don't have any illusions about it's being easy to change the general view of (non-medical) scientists. I've even had relatives say to me "It's too bad your parents had to pay so much money to put you through graduate school", but then when I tell them that my parents paid no money to put me through graduate school, they say "You mean taxpayers paid for that?", as if it's somehow a waste of money, even if they aren't sure whose money is being wasted.

My neighbor's father seems to be in the same situation with respect to his relatives, or at least with respect to his daughter: he is a science professor at the same university where I work.

27 comments:

Peggy said...

The trouble is that most people equate "going to school" with sitting in a classroom for a few hours a day. I think that PhD science programs are really more like apprenticeships than "school" - after taking classes your first year, you spend almost all of your time learning the science trade under a "master." At least that's how I used to explain it.

Dr. Lisa said...

I guess my response would be, "Yes, they paid me to go to grad school. Do you know how many of your little Johnnie's classes I taught?" Sure, I had some research money, but I mostly TA'd my way through grad school, and that experience was wonderful for me. (And the students, too, I hope!)

Female Science Professor said...

Yes, but this is a woman who, despite having a professor-father, thinks I get summers 'off'.

DC said...

I tried to pull a TA gig during my Master's degree, but got beat out by all the Ph.D candidates. Definitely the way to go though.

agradstudent said...

At least one of the undergrads in my program (a sophomore at the time) didn't know you could get paid (or even get tuition covered) for grad school in our field. !!!!! I filled him in, though.

PonderingFool said...

Just don't tell them about overhead. They might go through the roof.

The sciences are set-up in certain respects like the trades. You have an apprenticeship (graduate school at Peggy mentioned). Then you take a journeyman (a new name is needed there) position (post-doc) and then over time, a select few become master who oversees the next generation of apprentices and journeyman.

Jenny F. Scientist said...

Likewise, I've had to explain approximately 500 times that I don't have classes, I work in a lab all day, 60 hours a week. Just like their jobs, but I work more. I tell the in-laws that I'm a very poorly paid technician and a seriously underappreciated teacher.

But seriously. It's not like we sit around all day in lectures. For six years.

Speaking of, even the academics around here ask what I'm doing for the summer. Ah, working. In lab.

EcoGeoFemme said...

These are probably the same people who think "ABD" means you're almost finished with the degree when, at least in science, the work required for the dissertation swamps the work necessary for classes. I always try to explain that the work I'm doing as a student is identical to the work I will do as a grown-up scientist but with much less responsibility. It's not like doing homework sets that don't have any relevance outside of the classroom.

I wonder how the opinions of lay people are influenced by exposure to those with advanced degrees in the humanities. One time I was talking to my sister about how grad school works for me and she compared it to her friend who got a Ph.D. in foreign language or something. She said her friend did it the "regular way". I guess that means she did a whole lot of class work, then only started dissertation work once she was a candidate. And that dissertation maybe became a book or something, but did not get published as journal papers. Probably people don't realize that some of the interesting science stuff they hear about on NPR was work done in part by grad students. :)

I like the apprenticeship comparison.

Mike3550 said...

I, too, have confronted this with undergraduates at my university. I agree with dr. lisa -- most of my friends get through grad school by teaching or being a TA; anyone who does not think that is work has obviously never stepped into a classroom (though I think that it is less difficult than being a H.S. teacher).

Also, I get the impression that people think that we gaid paid like professors when we are in grad school. In fact, in many places across the country, the TAs get paid less than a living wage in the community in which they live.

Finally, if you think it is hard convincing your friends that physical sciences are worthwhile, imagine trying to convince someone that the social sciences are valuable. I have even had a somewhat difficult time explaining it to my father who is a very conscientious person and holds a PhD in the physical sciences.

Jessica said...

I've seen hundreds of students do well in school, get their degrees and move on to great jobs and careers because they were able to help pay for school with loans. This is the American citizen's investment in our own future!

Most of the students I have known who have been on assistantships, fellowships and/or loans didn't live high on the hog either. Many of them just barely scrape by and I think for the most part, the taxpayer funded student loans are definitely a wise investment in America.

Summers off? LOL funny. Many of our professors don't "teach" over summer but they are usually busy writing journal articles which are required for tenure at any major research institution!

Lisa said...

When I am compared to grad students in other disciplines in which they have to TA constantly just to make ends meet, while still writing books or papers or whatever they do in the other field, I say I get paid more because of supply and demand.
I presume other people's fields are important, even if I don't see their value, because the people in the field are not idiots and have no reason to waste their lives, so they must be doing something worthwhile. But some fields have tons more people than places in grad school, and not as much government/industrial interest in their work, while in science and engineering there we have to pay people to get enough of them in grad school.

TW Andrews said...

Uh, as far as I can tell grad students in sciences get paid because they work, and they work a *lot* harder than their counterparts in other disciplines.

Being a TA in a French literary studies program (for example) is not that hard or time consuming. Hard science grad students pretty much live in the lab, from what I know.

Med school is about the only exception I can think of to this. Even law school doesn't require the kind of hours that science programs do...

Anonymous said...

I have dealt with the same criticism, the simplest solution I have found is to tell people that I did not take out loans and my parents did not pay for graduate school because “I WORKED TO PAY FOR MY GRADUATE EDUCATION” …no other explanation or justification needed!

Professor Staff said...

I get this all the time. People are also surprised to find out "how little" I teach. The general public does not understand the significance (in time as well) of running an active research lab in a hard science or engineering program.

The best explanation about paying PhD students is to liken it to a job or an apprenticeship. The public often thinks "research" means sitting under an apple tree dreaming, or something like that ...

formerpoorgradstudent said...

Better to fund someone getting higher education who will be able to support her/himself later on than fund someone on welfare that will always rely on the taxpayer. Or at least that's what I would say to your neighbor...

EcoGeoFemme said...

People are also surpised that tuition/state funding does not cover the education of undergrads. They don't know that overhead from external funding for research pays for part of it too. So without faculty bringing in grants with grad students to do the lab work, the undergrads would have to pay even more than the already outrageous tuition they pay now.

p.s. I hope I didn't offend anyone with my earlier comment that referenced humanities students (I certianly didn't mean to!). Of course that work is important and books are as valuable as journal papers. But I think many subjects in humanities are more familiar to many people (like my family, for instance), i.e. they can imagine what a dissertation in history is, but it's harder to figure out how a series of bizarre sounding experiments becomes a dissertation.

Ancarett said...

Speaking as someone who's on a university committee tackling the whole issue of graduate student funding, I know that we don't all understand each other's systems all that well. My science colleagues tell me that the rest of us on the arts faculty should be getting more grants to fund our graduate students better and don't seem to listen when I tell them that will limit the graduate students' research options too much.

If I'm funding a graduate student on my research program, I'm going to expect them to work in my area and publish with me. Yet almost all of the graduate students who work with me research in only vaguely related subfields. They would feel stifled and their work wouldn't be nearly so original if they were tied to my program.

That said, it always annoys me when people tell me that humanities and social science graduate students don't really work that much. Our grad students might not work as many hours in my direct employ, but they spend a great deal of time working on their own research, opening and closing the archives alongside the archivist so they can get to their materials, transcribing documents, hunting down inaccessible and almost forgotten material, then piecing it all together.

My father's a retired professor of engineering and my sister's active in the life sciences. I've got a very clear picture of how their system works and how much time their students put in. It's enormously demanding and in a very different structure than the arts. I will also agree that it's a lot harder to have a personal life and be a grad student in many science and engineering fields and I think that all the arts people I know recognize that these students more than earn their keep.

Anonymous said...

ha, try being a foreigner being paid with US tax dollars to do graduate school (never mind the 20hrs/week TAing for $10-12/hr). Now *that* is a scam! My PhD is in engineering and there were plenty of foreigners and no stigma attached to it. My home dept now (in a rather squishy science) has a lukewarm at best attitude toward foreign graduate students. It makes for annoying admissions committee meetings.

blueprairie said...

"ha, try being a foreigner being paid with US tax dollars to do graduate school"

Try being a veteran in the same boat. I met an awful lot of people in academia (including one of my professors) who absolutely frothed at the mouth thinking about the time and money being "wasted" on me when there were other, presumably more worthy candidates around.

cf said...

I've got an idea. This business of cluing in people to the fact that grants and fellowships pay for most of the graduate education in the sciences?

Let's just tell the girls and leave it to someone else to tell the boys, eh?

gs said...

IMO the analogy with apprenticeship is an apt one.

Note also that the military pays people while they train. Someone in officer school or other training is doing less actual work than an apprentice or TA/RA, but society willingly and correctly picks up the tab. JD, MD and MBA programs may be exceptions because of the earning potential they confer.

(OT: speaking of the military, blueprairie's remark disquiets--but,unfortunately, doesn't surprise--me. I entered grad school when the 1960s turmoil had barely subsided, and my veteran status was never an issue with the faculty or my peers.)

Before Dawn said...

I found this blog really interesting. I studied political sciences but have a great interest in physics, astronomy and other physical sciences. Why do you think so many people have had such terrible experiences with sciences in school, especially middle/high school? Personally, I had a terrible chemistry teacher and feel that my dislike for that field is primarily the result of my "trauma". Do you think there happen to be more bad or difficult teachers in the sciences, they are inherently more difficult for a lot of students, or what is it?

pluto said...

It's not obvious to most people that the physical sciences are important? I'll take your word for that, and I'm surprised.

I'm from outside the physical sciences, and have a possibly exaggerated respect for them. I assume that every little bit of pure research in the 'real' sciences, no matter how obscure-seeming, is worthwhile, because after all who knows what wonderful discovery it might indirectly lead to, blah blah.

It's social sciences and humanities that I thought had a far worse image among the general public. Writers in conservative newspapers love to seize on absurd-sounding topics for research projects in our areas that have just won a national grant, and crow about what a waste of public money they are. (As they usually are.)

I've never seen physical sciences come in for that sort of ridicule. Maybe I'm wrong and I just don't notice it.

Anonymous said...

You're right, many people do not know about TA ships and think it's all a scam. I've seen it too. Many end up taking student loans to support themselves through college.

Jurex said...

Thanks for sharing. This is really helpful.

Anonymous said...

The real scsm is when the graduate stipens, paid for by the US taxpayers, are given to foreign students, instead of equally or better qualified American students.

Anonymous said...

Why do you think so many people have had such terrible experiences with sciences in school, especially middle/high school?

I think a lot of it stems back to the fact that many teachers (especially at the elementary level) are scared of math and science. Very few elementary teachers have any significant scientific/mathematical background beyond the last course they took in high school. So, kids don't get a very strong foundation in maths because they're being taught by people who don't like maths - and who therefore tend to teach it differently than a maths afficionado would. When the kids get to middle school or high school, they may finally encounter teachers with decent backgrounds in maths/science, but the teachers' expectations often don't line up with the students' actual background. This can be a difficult situation and put off students.

Of course, the media's presentation of maths and science as hard and scary doesn't help matters either.