Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Too Efficient By Half

When I was a grad student, my advisor had to decide whether to give a Research Assistantship to me or to another grad student. In an alarming moment of frankness, he told me that, although I had earned this RA, he was going to give it to the other student because he knew that I would get a lot of research done whether I was a TA or RA, whereas this other student would only make research progress if he were an RA.

I have thought about that incident from time to time over the years. When using precious RA money, sometimes you have to make a difficult decision about when and on whom to spend the money. Grants have a finite lifetime (even with a no-cost extension or two), and it is essential that the funds be optimized. Most PI's have had experiences in which RA funds did not result in much research activity*, even when students were not also taking classes or preparing for preliminary exams. Such experiences should be avoided if at all possible.

* Example: I once paid a student an RA during a term in which the ratio of wedding planning to research was something like 20 : 1. I am rounding up the second number to create a positive integer value.

One way to stretch grant funds is to give a student a 50/50 TA/RA split appointment in a particular semester. Reasons for a split appointment can include financial considerations related to grant budgets or a student's wish to TA a particular class (but not to teach as much as a full TA appointment).

I have found that, in general, motivated and efficient students will make excellent progress with their research whether they are a TA or not (or a split TA/RA), and less motivated and inefficient students will make no research progress while on a TA appointment and some progress while on an RA appointment. This is something my former advisor knew decades ago.

But would I make the same decision he did? Now that I've been advising students for a number of years, I can understand his decision more than I did at the time, and I also now understand why he told me the basis for his decision. I think that I would be very tempted to make the same decision he did, but in the end, I don't think I would.


Unknown said...

I believe your advisor made a serious error (here's where my econ frame of mind is fully evident). One of the goals of graduate school is to prepare future professors. Professors have to find a way to complete research projects while also teaching classes. If a graduate student is unable to simultaneously teach and make progress on their research, they are ill-suited to the profession. Better to be denied an RAship in grad school then tenure in the academy.

Now I understand that all-research posts are more common in your field than mine, but I guess I'm a rather romantic academic. I take the pbk motto "Love of learning is the guide of life" from both sides. I believe PhDs should be bestowed on those who are both lifelong learners and lifelong teachers.

Ms.PhD said...

Oy, I can see both sides of this story.

But I hate the "we're pushing you harder because we think you can handle it" mentality.

If this other student was such dead weight, why not get rid of them? Then they could have given the RA-ship to you.

Or on the flip side, why do we continue to have TA-ships be linked to financial support?

At the schools where I've been, the TA-ships were sought after because they provided additional income to the student. They were not used as a substitute for RA-ships.

I think this is probably better, although I know some students who wanted teaching experience, while their advisors thought it was a 'distraction.'

And I knew some students who found that teaching was what kept them getting up in the morning, when their research was stuck or moving very slowly.

Seems to me that the problem, as usual, has to do with management.

It's hard to choose students who have the right stuff for an academic career. It's hard to push them just enough. And it's hard to kick them out when it's clear they don't and that you'd be better off cutting everyone's losses.

Here's a question- whatever happened to the person who got that RA-ship that you should have had? Did they go on to a successful, star-studded academic career?

Arun K. Subramaniyan said...

This is a scenario I have seen repeat in various forms in academia (Perhaps this is true in all working environments. I don't know). The person who works well most often gets dumped with more work and people who hardly work keep getting away with it. I think in a research group this kind of load sharing by the professor severely affects the morale of other students. Of course each student has to be motivated to do her/his own work (usually they are) but I don't think it is fair to ask a good student to subsidize a lazy student's education.

Female Science Professor said...

The person who got that RA that term never did much and didn't get an academic job. I don't know what he's doing now.

The_Myth said...

My background isn't in the sciences [except perhaps the social ones...], but my PhD program habitually gave RA assignments to International students while those of us who spoke English [including English-adept International students] often had 2 sections of 2 different classes to TA. We found this unfair and complained because the workloads were hopelessly unbalanced.

So, the alternative became 10 hours RA + 10 hours TA. Oddly enough this too became unfair because guess who got the low-work RA and TA assignments? It was distributed a little better than before, but not much.

I was one of a few who always seemed to get assigned the high-stress, work-intensive TA assignments. I had very little time to get my own work done because I seemed to always be grading papers and meeting with needy students, eventually burned out, and quit. Guess who almost without fail always earned their degree PLUS a professorship here in the US?

Yet, I [a Pennsylvanian] once TA'ed with 3 International students [I think they were from China, Japan, and Korea] and we all worked very well together with the professor. It seemed clear to me that this sort of reverse-discrimination keeping the International students away from teaching the undergrads potentially hurt everyone. It also contributed to me not earning a degree. And I think that's now a common reality that everyone in a decision to grant funding needs to consider.

Anonymous said...

I was involved in a somewhat related situation.
I was a postdoc in BigName Lab at Top 10 R U,and a graduating grad student (whom BigName had the hots for and she for him, for all I could tell) and I needed to use the same equipment. I was on the brink of a big research breakthrough. BigName decided to let me go--do a postdoc elsewhere in favor of his super skinny grad student that he was preying on. She went into industry after graduation,never accomplishing as much as BigName hoped for (She never got results that held up from measurement to measurement although maybe a rendezvous with BigName ..I hope he held up. ha ha!). BigName got promoted to Head of the Department (where he is/was a major pervert...he and NY governors have much in common) and I made a big splash with my postdoc position elsewhere. Moral of the story: Yes, you can be successful despite the odds. I wonder if successful people are just always succesful and whether or not we would have a lot more to show for it without so many obstacles.

Anonymous said...

I think that I would be very tempted to make the same decision he did, but in the end, I don't think I would.

I wouldn't either. My reasoning in these kind of situations is that the very best students or post-docs can literally be orders of magnitude more creative, productive, and impactful (sorry about that fucking horrible word) than the mediocre. It is a much better use of resources to take a chance on nurturing someone who could end up one of these few, rather than simply pushing someone who would be a failure over the line to just-barely-making-it mediocrity.

In other words, this is a decision-making strategy based on the principle of aiming for achieving the maximum upside, rather than the minimum downside.

Anonymous said...

I had to TA my last year as a grad student. My advisor said that he was not going to pay me to write.
Plus he had just hired a new postdoc, and I was feeling a bit threaten by the guy, so TAing was sort of my punishment for not being a good colleague. I deserved it.

Anyway, I was invited to 2 international conferences based on my grad work and got 3 papers written along with my TA duties.

It was lots of work, but I loved my research and now I remember back on that time, I think "wow, you did so much". I TAed 2 classes: one was an advanced undergraduate class and the other a freshman class while writing my dissertation.

Willpower, that is all it takes.

Anonymous said...

What about a student's financial situation? Should that be taken into account? I have a student who has told me she doesn't need to be paid for her work, especially if not paying her would let me hire an additional and perhaps needier student (it would). Most of the time I think she should be compensated for her work regardless of whether she "needs it" or not, but I admit I have moments of weakness.

Anonymous said...

Ooh, taking the students finances into account. How I hate that, and yet understand the moments of weakness, too. It's completely discriminatory (how many men say they don't need to get paid for their work?). But, when you're trying to balance funds, it's very difficult not to take into account the fact that one of your fundees might find themselves out on the street with their pregnant wife, while the other will be just fine.

And, I think you answered your own question about why non-merit based awarding of RAs is a bad idea. It doesn't work. trying to help the mediocre student along, in what was apparently a chronic, as opposed to short-term deficit doesn't change outcomes in the long run.

We don't award TA's & RA's the way folks in physical sciences tend to, though.

Hermit, PhD said...

This is something very difficult to evaluate objectively from both sides. Of course, since I'm on the student side of the equation now I am predisposed to feel righteously outraged. But I've seen the price of not-very-productive graduate students and could understand his wanting to make research as easy as possible for him. Still tough though.

Anonymous said...

What many people seem to be forgetting is that, depending on the current whim of the granting agencies, one ungraduated student can be far more costly than a very productive one can be beneficial. Supervising graduate students is a constrained optimization problem and the constraints sometimes force us into corners we would rather not visit.

The same happened to me when I was a student and I said that I would never do it. Now I find myself scrimping on one great student in order to cover a less productive one. I will need to renew my grant before the impact of the great one can be measured but after the potential 'failure' of the weak one can be seen.

B said...

It seems unfair that because he couldn't balance his work you were asked to do more. I have been a TA 6 semesters and taught 3 summers, if I didn't get the same amount of lab work done no one took in to consideration that I had more demands on my time. So I put in more and more. Having RAship now is so much better.

Anonymous said...

I find that I structure my time much better and am much more efficient and productive when I am teaching and my time is tight.

Research shows that early career faculty who have balanced both research and teaching as graduate students are more successful than their counterparts who have not had to teach.

Sounds like this person was dead weight anyway, but maybe everyone missed out in this case.

Jackie M. said...

FSP: Another way of looking at it? Your fellow student needed that RAship; you did not.

Joan: If a graduate student is unable to simultaneously teach and make progress on their research, they are ill-suited to the profession.

First and foremost, this is a terrible management strategy. But so classic for academia!

Speaking as a female ex-grad student who never got her PhD (and who was denied an RAship early on because my advisor needed to fill TA slots, only to be denied a TAship later on when I very badly needed it) there is strong tendency in many academic fields to regard doctoral candidacy as weed-out programs, and tenure-track professorships as the only form of success. Not quite true: in my field, a PhD is worth approximately $10K a year more than my current masters degree for careers outside of the field. (In my case, these potential careers include information technology, image processing, optical engineering, generic perl/SQL/C monkeying, and education.)

On top of this, it turned out that women in my PhD program had a statistically significant, fractionally much greater probability of leaving the program with a "terminal master's" degree. Finishing with an intermediate degree will cost women (and men) like me a lot more than our academic careers-- it will cost us hundreds of thousands of dollars and lost career opportunities outside of academia.

And, lest we forget, the difference between a "creative, outstanding, highly productive" researcher and a mediocre one is often whether or not they feel their supervisors are interested in both their work and their welfare. To return to the issue of gender bias: my field is a very patriarchal one. Many professors (yes, including female ones) seem to regard female grad students as bad bets from the get-go. And kudos to the FSP for being one of the exceptional women who persevered in spite of this environment... but as for the rest of us, let me tell you, nothing is more discouraging than an advisor who always seems to be waiting for a chance to abandon you.

Moreover, this old-fashioned management strategy selects not so much for talent or ability as for a very particular temperament... if you do view yourselves as mentors, please remember this. And consider that maybe some exceptional minds and talents are being lost to this very specific selection criterion.

Anonymous said...

What many people seem to be forgetting is that, depending on the current whim of the granting agencies, one ungraduated student can be far more costly than a very productive one can be beneficial.

This one reason why it is important to diversify, and not put all your eggs in just a few grad student or post-doc baskets. As a PI, if you have a diversified enough operation, with enough different grad students and post-docs, you are much more resistant to the failure of one of them, and can adopt a more "maximum your upside" strategy. If you only have a few trainees in your lab, you are forced to strategize from a "minimize your losses" standpoint.

That is no good for your career, no good for your trainees, and also totally fucking boring.

Anonymous said...


We are in different fields and, probably, different countries. Trainees are a small part of my research program but a disproportionately large part of how my granting agency allocates funds as they are a huge portion of my grant.

The types of constraints I face are common in many non-experimental fields for scientists of all career levels. This will shock you but there are countries with outstanding scientific research capacity where the supervisor is under considerable pressure to get students out the door in a timely fashion if she wants to ever get more student funding. This means either take fewer risks on potential students or, occasionally, make hard decisions about allocation.

Douglas Natelson said...

At the risk of massive criticism.... I've come to think that your advisor was somewhat fortunate even to have that option. At my institution, we simply don't have TA positions. I have no option to ask a student to TA for support for a semester or two if the grant timing works out inconveniently. As a consequence, I tend to be much more conservative in my hiring decisions than my colleagues at big public institutions. While no one likes to do it, they always have TA support to fall back on in times of tight funding. I don't. From the student perspective this is probably a good thing, as it forces me to be very mindful of everyone's progress. From the funding side, though, working without a net means I can't be as exploratory as I might like from the science side.

Female Science Professor said...

That's a good point. I definitely rely on the TA safety net for students who take longer with their grad program than the lifetime of the grant funding their research. And the flexibility of split TA/RA appointments is nice as well.

Anonymous said...

I have a quick question for the group that is related. I have an undergraduate student on an externally funded grant for the semester, and I have to decide whether or not to hire her for the summer. However, her current grant is non-renewable, so I'd have to pay her out of my own grant. This is possible but somewhat inconvenient, as it will prevent me from hiring another student. I'm rather disappointed in her performance so far - I come in earlier than she does and leave later. She's not big on taking initiative to find answers, even if it means pestering me. In the beginning of the semester, I had a lot more free time to spend with her, but now that's drying up, so I need her to make the effort to seek me out when she has questions. Also, she has missed a lot of work due to some health problems, but I'm beginning to get the impression that there is a bit of hypochondria going on. I guess the obvious thing to do is let her go after the semester ends, but I feel somewhat guilty in that this is a student from a school with non-existent research opportunities, so being her at my lab (I work for the gov't) is a big deal for her. Should I let her go? I have to decide very soon. How are my resources best spent in this case?

Kelly said...

I can't believe the question of gender didn't come up in this conversation. I've seen this happen again and again in graduate programs, including my own. The RA-ship goes to the student who needs it more (male), while the student who can do all the demanding work of TA-ing and still produce will get the TAship (female). I'd like to see a study on this phenomenon.

Mr. B. said...


For what it is worth:

I did a PhD in three years while a TA. It wasn't easy but in retrospect it certainly taught me a lot about hard work and organization. (I came in with an MS.)

Due to lack of funding two of my recent PhD students have supported themselves exclusively as TAs, something I am not happy about.

But, the first did extremely well and now has a very good job - without having to do a post-doc. Part of this is due to his people skills that he developed as a TA. A current student is also doing very well and she will finish expeditiously. Both of them won the U's TA of the Year award. One of them won a travel award to a national meeting and chaired the session he spoke in. The other also won a travel grant and she gave an oral presentation at a national meeting. And they both have lives outside the lab; the second student is expecting her second child shortly.

Great people and good examples for PhD wannabes.