Monday, November 11, 2013

Price Check : You

A former PhD student of one of my colleagues recently added up the cost to their advisor/institution of their graduate education: salary, tuition, benefits for n years. It was a large number. Add to that the cost of the research (this can be considerable). Then evaluate the result, however you want to attempt to measure that in tangible or intangible ways (knowledge advanced, papers published, career opportunities for the former student).

[Note: I am talking about the typical case of a STEM graduate student who receives full support during their graduate studies -- salary, tuition, benefits. In this post I am ignoring the issue of low pay for grad students, not because I don't care about the issue but because I want to discuss other financial aspects of the grad school experience.]

In this particular case, the former student (who is not an academic and who has a successful career that involves thinking about money) was just musing about 'worth'. Was it 'worth' it to the advisor, department, institution to spend all that money on this PhD? In this particular case, the advisor's answer is yes (I happen to know), and I will take the liberty to speak on behalf of the institution and say yes as well. This is a good result.

I was impressed that the former student was interested in putting a price tag on their graduate education for the items that have specific costs. If you are in a STEM field or another field in which you are paid to be a graduate student (including as a teaching assistant), do you know how much your graduate education cost(s)? For example, if you are a graduate research assistant paid from a grant, do you know what the actual amount to the grant is (not just your salary)? You may not know, as advisors don't routinely share this information; I don't, but not because it is a secret, it just doesn't occur to me to mention it. If you are teaching assistant, your department may be paying your tuition and benefits in addition to your salary, which may or may not be the same amount as for a research assistant depending on institution-specific policies.

And how much does your research cost? You probably know (or knew) some of the costs, for example if you turned in receipts for conference travel. But do you also know the costs (rate) for any analytical, computational, or other methods that have user fees? This is not a judgmental question with a right and wrong answer; I'm just curious.

Whether those costs turn out to be 'worth' it to anyone (including you) is another question -- one that is too big a question for my post-grading brain to handle right now, though it is interesting to contemplate how each of us measures long-term worth in this particular context.




32 comments:

Claus Wilke said...

To put some numbers out there: A good rule of thumb is a graduate student costs $50,000/year. Multiply by five years and you arrive at $250,000. That's direct cost. If you want to factor in indirect cost, add another $100K or so over five years. (Depends much more on the institution, though.)

cookingwithsolvents said...

I've mused about this as well and have only done the 'ballpark' math in my head. It's a pretty big number. My conclusion was that a very relevant comparison would be to achieve a similar-highly trained worker in the private sector. I'm 99.9% sure that would cost significantly more. Therefore, the question for society is what kind of job are we doing at directing the training at both basic and 'applied' science (sci + engineering) + the medicine and the arts etc. to enrich human life?

Thank you as always for a thought-provoking post!

Krzysztof Sakrejda said...

I'd like to add that graduate student pay is relevant to this is-it-worth-it question because I see graduate students hamstrung in carrying their research to fruition (publication, etc...) by financial struggles which could be resolved by a small amount relative to the whole investment.

Anonymous said...

My adviser was always really open about this kind of thing, and being curious, I asked. I also was put in charge of ordering some of the supplies that I needed for my work. Same is true at my postdoc now (actually I'm currently in charge of all supplies budgeting and ordering, and have been asked for feedback on grant budgets). But this seems normal to me. How else are future profs supposed to learn this kind of thing if they are not trained?

I do think that I was "worth it" for my grad adviser, as my preliminary data led directly to getting a grant funded which then was used to pay my salary/benefits subsequently (and my adviser's salary as well). Then again, my adviser was a smart guy and I was working off of his previous data, so without me he'd probably have gotten the data anyway. *shrug*

Anonymous said...

Although I have never calculated a total, I do know the costs of the component parts (tuition, health insurance, salary, research, what parts of that come from my department versus the university, etc.).

1. I know these things because my advisor funds very, very little of my life and I write my own grants.

2. It's not that much -- I'm at a cheap school and (importantly) do cheap research.

What I've never really factored in is stuff like space, non-consumables, or common-use equipment.

Anonymous said...

My grad students (PhD, 4-5 years TTD) cost about $500k each when everything is included (salary, tuition, fringe, research costs).

Curt F. said...

Price and cost can be very different things. Determining what it "costs" for the school to perform and publish your research is very difficult. Determining the price the schools pays for your stipend, tuition, and research supplies is probably easier. I don't have very much confidence, however, that the two are related. Specifically, is the tuition charged to (grants in the name of) a graduate student correlated in anyway with the institutional costs incurred by the institution because of the graduate student's presence? I am skeptical. When I was a graduate student, tuition was ~$30,000k per year, regardless of whether I took any classes or not. I think the school just liked to bill grants for tuition, since it was a way to transform federal dollars into the school's general fund.

Geoknitter said...

I think that many don't think about it and the responsibility that this places on them, particularly in the current global economic environment. However, I was recently pleasantly surprised to receive an email from a former student who had left after one semester of poor performance. The student had left science for a while but had since returned. The letter was very thoughtful and full of remorse for wasting my time and government funding. Since it sounds like they are now on track, I no longer even think that it was necessarily a waste! I was pleased to see that level of introspection.

Anonymous said...

As an international student in the UK, doing a "cheap" humanities degree, my figures for a three-year PhD are:
Tuition: approx. £38000
Stipend: £36000 (one of the generous ones!)
Travel: £500
Used macbook: £500

So about £75000 for three years (£1 = approx $1.5).

No benefits but no taxes either. National health care.

Anonymous said...

I was thinking about this same topic the other day but in a different context. I was thinking of the many women I know who either have had to put their careers on hold and get behind their male peers or who ended up in different tracks because they wanted to have a family and didn't have a stay at home dad kinda spouse. Having a family shouldn't be a career killer but somehow it is for many talented and dedicated women scientists.

Through our lack of support for these women we are encouraging the smart, hard working female scientist in our country to either not reproduce or to have to loose ground or often leave career tracks because of having kids. This just seems stupid and short sighted to me, especially considering the financial investment our country has already put into them up until that point. When most of the women I know say they would have been right back into things if they had some options like part time for awhile while kids are very young, affordable, high quality childcare on campus, etc.

Anonymous said...

I am at a public R1 where graduate tuition is not onerous. A student salary plus benefits, overhead, and tuition costs about $50k per year; when I factor in travel, computer upgrades, software licenses, and supplies, it probably comes to about $60-65k per year (we do theoretical work). I talk to my students about this stuff periodically. It started when I got a new big grant and the students saw the notice and commented what a huge amount it was; I took that opportunity to tell them about overhead and all the stuff that gets taken off before they get their stipend. Jaws dropped, that's for sure. Since then, I talk about it periodically, with each new crop of students.

Anonymous said...

At least five years ago the Canadian government put a price tag of 1 million CDN on a PhD. That is from kindergarten all the way through. They were trying to decide on the savings of admitting immigrants with varying levels of education.

Keep in mind that is the number the government feels it contributed and excludes any money from endowments, private research grants, matching funds and so on.

EscapedWestOfTheBigMuddy said...

Let's see it must have cost my graduate institution the best part of half a million, but nearly all of it was grant funded, so in some sense the school came out ahead (the uni got to skim some overhead and the department got my data and results and the prestige of having "a lot" of graduate students).

Then I had a series of post-docs. That cost the grants more per year, but again it is all win for the school (thought there is always the question "would that other candidate have been a bigger win?").

All told the funding agencies have a heck of a lot of money invested in my education and now I have taken a job as a prof at a very small state university where I am encouraged to do all the research I can with no space, no equipment, no time off, no funding, and no assistants.

Hard to see how my graduate and postdoc research adds up to that much. Will I produce sufficiently better student outcomes on account of having been a researcher for so long?

Who knows.

Anonymous said...

Objectively I know that the grants are between the funding agency and the university but I think of them as effectively mine as the PI because I think mostly of my time and effort advising students. So even though it is not my money that is being invested (for better or worse) in these students, it is my time, and a lot of it. How is that measured? When a student succeeds I don't care about the cost (in time or money), but when a student wastes my time and money, I am very aware of it.

James Annan said...

I'm puzzled by your analysis of this in terms of "cost to the institute". In the UK, the vast majority of costs (AIUI, I'm not personally involved) are borne by grants that were awarded specifically to be spent on these things - when you include overheads, the education provided is bringing a profit to the institute, even in purely financial terms. Extra money paid for teaching, is (presumably) offset by the fees paid by (or on behalf of) the undergrad students who are being taught.

Maybe I'm missing something...

Phindustry said...

Very well put

Anonymous said...

I assume that I cost about twice my salary, but I'm not sure who pays for each part (I'm even on mixed TA/RA support right now). ABD students take one credit of full-time equivalency, so upper level students are less expensive. That is the point at which most students switch to an RA position and the advisor is responsible for paying tuition. I think the department covers it for your first year and your advisor for your second year.

I am the purchasing person for our group and have gotten some estimates for various capital expenses. Any individual submitting a purchase request is required to look up the price and report it to me when submitting their order.

I also know how much my shared-user instruments cost per hour. That is information that you can look up but is not commonly known. But I am thinking about applying to R1 jobs, so this is something I try to pay attention to.

Anonymous said...

"I'd like to add that graduate student pay is relevant to this is-it-worth-it question because I see graduate students hamstrung in carrying their research to fruition (publication, etc...) by financial struggles which could be resolved by a small amount relative to the whole investment."

Indeed. Also, having substandard computers and/or office/lab space can make people much less effective workers... and the computers (and backup storage, etc.) in particular are generally pretty cheap compared to the students' salaries, yet this is often overlooked.

Anonymous said...

Why single out graduate students? Every employee costs a lot more if you look at their 5 year total cost including all the peripheral costs (health insurance, 401K, social security etc.). In the end, you are talking about the average cost of doing scientific research, which is on the whole lower because of the lower pays and benefits of graduate students and postdocs that do it. I feel that society, as a whole, would greatly benefit if more resources were allocated to research, as I feel that there is certainly a greater number of capable people who could chose research as their profession and repay by many folds the meager investments made in them.

James Annan said...

The whole point of the "we need more scientists" meme is to push down the cost of such. If Acme Co really needed more scientists, they could easily find them at higher salaries...or even pay for some of the training.

But this is digressing somewhat from the topic. Perhaps a more pertinent question would be whether the degree is worth the cost *to the student*, but the value of both varies wildly between institutions let alone countries.

Prof-like Substance said...

I teach a grad class that delves into grant budgets as one aspect of the course. The students were universally surprised that their tuition was being paid from somewhere (grant, TA support, etc.). I guess they assumed there were tuition free for some reason.

Arvind said...

I am a senior graduate student at a private university in the NorthEast. I've been very interested in this questions for a while and did some back-of-the-hand calculation as to how much my graduate education ended up costing my advisor. Including tuition, salary, conference travel, publications and benefits/fees, it comes to about $500k over the course of 5 years. This of-course does not include one time costs like new equipment, etc. but includes recurrent research expenditure.

Anonymous said...

@James Annan "The whole point of the "we need more scientists" meme is to push down the cost of such. If Acme Co really needed more scientists, they could easily find them at higher salaries...or even pay for some of the training."

Whether the cost of a graduate student doing research is worth it or not is not a that big a digression from the value placed on research by society. A person does not cease to exist if they don't go for graduate studies in research. They could have a negative impact on society at the same or much higher investment, for example, by going to work for Acme Financial and helping to cause the next Great Recession.

One can imagine having more scientists and having them paid well too, because this country can easily afford to spend 2-3 times more on research than what it does right now. There are also more than enough problems in the world to be solved for a long time. The basic point is that scientific research almost always provides a good return on investment.

Are you saying that someone started a successful meme anticipating that it will catch on and result in eventual personnel cost savings for their enterprise?

Anonymous said...

The "costs" would appear relative to "savings" when many universities now use grad students to teach courses with exceedingly large enrollments.

While finishing my PhD I taught a 287-person Human Sexuality course each semester for three years. Each of my students were essentially paying $1200 (rounded down) to be in that 3 credit hour class (assuming in state tuition) for a total tuition of $344,400 each semester... in addition to the $104,400 from the second, smaller course of 87 students that I taught both semesters in my fifth year of funding.

It's really hard for me to care about the university "costs" to educate me knowing how I still needed food stamps and student loans to eat while they took in roughly $2.3M in tuition for my teaching.

Anonymous said...

Hmm, "worth" is not a good word. Grad students are costly for adviser. But it is true for the first two years. Training, taking classes, etc. Then adviser has skilled specialist for almost three years. But the price is ... the same. Can you find well trained worker in a field of computational science or medical physics with salary tag 50k (for USA)? To do a job with 12-14 hours shift? Good luck.

Anonymous said...

Annonymous 08:12:00 PM
Wait you were paid 50K to be a grad student? As a 3rd year postdoc I am still not paid that!

Anonymous said...

What does it mean to ask how much a grad student costs to the advisor? The advisor doesn't pay for the student out of his or her own personal money. If that grant money wasn't being spent on the grad student then how would the research - that generates more grants for the advisor and boosts his or her career, gets him or her tenure etc - get done?

How much does a professor cost to the university? In terms of the cost of a tenured prof's salary and benefits and the upkeep of his or her lab space etc.

I believe that the advisor benefits far more than the grad student thus the cost is more worth it to the advisor. In this day and age of over production of PhDs, many PhD graduates and postdocs end up unemployed or underemployed and having to switch to careers that did not require the degree. Their advisors however are probably still better off (in the sense of at least still having a job) than their former students and the students' research and contributions to building the advisors' labs still remains.

Anonymous said...

Re Anon 11/17/2013 09:01:00 PM

Oh FFS, enough with the indentured service whining. Nobody makes the graduate students go to grad school, they are actually free to leave if it's that horrible. I am sick of infantilising grad students, like they are all some doe-eyed country bumpkins caught in the siniser clutches of professors who trap them and never let them go. If you are a grad student, do research, ask around, find out if it's gonna be worth it to you, and leave if not.

Anonymous said...

I myself don't find grad students to be worth their price. A postdoc costs about the same at my institution (because of tuition) and they are much more efficient and rewarding to work with. Students are a vast amount of work when starting from scratch, and they're a far riskier prospect for the long run. Of course, my institution expects me to train students, so I do, but as long as this question is being asked, I'd rather hire a postdoc than a student.

FemaleScientist said...

A colleague of mine was asked at his thesis defense this particular question -- how much his PhD has cost, and whether he thought it was worthwhile. It was a Canadian university.

I do contemplate this when a PhD who could have gotten a position in science goes into quantitative finance. The money and time spent training them could have been better used. They definitely do not produce work proportional to the cost ($350k).

EliRabett said...

With institutions putting tuition and indirect costs on grad student stipends the amount of funding needed to support a post doc and a grad student have converged.

That, and the fact that universities support tuition and stipends for grad students is not a good place for graduate education. As more PIs start to shift their grad students to TAs the time to degree will increase.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

I had fellowships for all but one year of my grad education (that year I had 2 quarters of research support and 1 of TA), so I did not cost my institution or research grants much. The institution made well over $100,000 on a patent that I let them take out for an invention that a friend and I did on our own computers (he was also fellowship supported), so I'd say that the institution easily regained their investment in me. (They still ask me for money, though.)