Friday, November 19, 2010

Art & Si

As longtime readers know, every once in a while I venture out of Science World and interact with colleagues who inhabit different parts of the academic planet. Most of these interactions are very interesting, educational (for me), and fun. Some are disconcerting. Like this one:

During a meeting to discuss research funding, including for students, a professor from a discipline in which grants are rare thought that a professor in a rather more grant-rich field had put together an unrealistic budget for research involving a grad student. Let's call the first professor "Art", and a committee member, from a similar field as the professor who constructed the budget, "Si".

Art, pointing to the budget line for the student's salary, said: Look at this! The budget has a month of salary for the grad student to do field work in the summer!

Si: Yes.. that looks reasonable.

Art: What?!?! Why does the student need to be paid? It's for field work, so presumably the professor is paying for the student's food and travel and whatever. The field work is even for the student's own thesis research, so the student has to go on the trip. Why does the student need to be paid?

Si: Umm... because the student will be working and the student is not a slave?

It was big news to Art that many of us pay our graduate students to do research in the summer: to work in the field or in the lab or in an office in front of a computer. It somehow seemed excessive to Art that students would get their travel paid AND also get a salary while doing research that benefited their own thesis.

Art thought that we paid our students a research assistantship only for research that is unrelated to their thesis research. The scientists and engineers on the panel were stunned that anyone would think that.

Some of the things we learn from each other on these multi-disciplinary panels make us all feel good, as if our intellectual boundaries have been stretched. This was not one of those times. I felt strangely sad that it was news to Art that we pay our students to do thesis research. I was glad that faculty summer salary from grants was not an issue in our deliberations.


mOOm said...

Why was it sad?

EngineeringProf said...


I'm puzzled: why are your colleagues vetting grant proposals, and especially the budgets in these grant proposals? At your school, do grant proposals have to go through some kind of internal review among faculty? Do you not have freedom to submit grant proposals on your own, without approval by any other faculty meeting? Perhaps I'm spoiled by my own circumstances, where I don't need to get approval for my budgets from any other faculty member (only from our Sponsored Projects Office).

Anonymous said...

Art once told Si where I work that admitting students to the graduate program and making them pay tuition (and work for free) was the mark of an outstanding graduate program.

I don't know that we ever convinced Art (also the dean) that no graduate student in her right mind would come to the one hard science grad program in the US that made you pay for PhD work.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I have heard this as well - that in humanities and social sciences, "RA" really means that you work 20 hours a week on someone else's research, doing the grunt work. Like, doing interviews, or data analysis. You might end up on a paper as a result, but probably not. As it's been explained to me, you either get the "reward" of publication OR of payment, but not both.

I've even heard some of the non-biomed biologists talking this way from time to time. And not just the old geezers either...

Also wtf, does Art think that the guy doesn't have to pay rent on his apartment during the summer while he's out doing field research? I don't understand...

Anonymous said...

If people in Art's field had money to adequately support graduate students, Art's standard of "how things are done" would be very different.

As it is, this conversation only points to how difficult things are in the humanities/arts at most institutions. I don't think all scientists fully appreciate the have/have not aspect as it is lived elsewhere on campus.

Female Science Professor said...

That's what made me sad; that it is so difficult to get grad support in Art's field that it seemed strange to pay a student to do thesis research in the summer.

This was an internal grant committee. Of course external grants only go through an administrative review/SPO.

Bashir said...

Art/Humanities is such an academic bizzaro world. I don't know how they do it. I always felt better about my graduate school experience after speaking with some humanists.

Pagan Topologist said...

When I was a math grad student in the 1960's the assumption was that a research assistantship paid only for research not related to one's dissertation research. I was admitted to two graduate schools that did not offer me any financial aid. I would have attended one of them if I had had the money.

But, I think this is part of a larger disconnect between different fields, and mathematics is at the interface, so we see a bit of each side. Specifically, it is in many fields considered unethical in the extreme to publish a joint paper with one's grad student. I published a joint paper with my advisor while I was a grad student, but it had NOTHING to do with my dissertation research. His putting his name on any publication resulting from my dissertation work would have been considered completely wrong. I did once publish a joint paper with a former student a few years after she graduated, and it did relate to an insight I had had concerning her dissertation work, but I would never have done so while she was a student. I hope and believe that no one else in my field would do so, either.

Curt F. said...

Students get paid for working? Of course they do! That's just common sense, and it's shocking that Art thought otherwise.

Next thing you know Art will probably say that since students get paid for working, they must be employees of the university, and that the payments they receive are "wages" or maybe a "salary". Or that students injured on the job would be covered by "worker's compensation". Silly Art!


Art's ignorance is a lot less disturbing when you realize that most modern day graduate students are in a weird middle ground between "student" and "employee". They get paid, but they're not employees. They aren't eligible for workers compensation, at least not in all states, and they don't pay social security tax.

How's a guy who thinks of students as, well, students and workers as workers supposed to remember all these nuances?

EliRabett said...

You guys need to go to the Deans and Provost and make it a RULE that all students who work on an internal grant project get paid. The net effect will be to bring Art into your world

Anonymous said...

I am a graduate student in a science field, which typically gets a lot of grant funding. Not in my department, however. My advisor and about half of the other professors never apply for grants. There's no reason for them not to, but since the department ensures TAships for us unfunded students, they have no incentive to. (Trying to help us succeed in our research careers does not seem to be a high priority.) Oh, and yes, the department is highly respected, and is in one of the top schools in the country.

So I have been TAing non-stop since getting here, with no foreseeable end. I will probably be TAing while I am actively writing the dissertation, applying for jobs, etc. We get no travel funding even for conferences within the country where we have a paper (and this is a field where conferences are the main publication avenue and getting a paper accepted is non-trivial). It's like being a humanities student but being in competition with well-funded students from everywhere else. Can you tell I'm tired and bitter?

Anonymous said...

As an 'Art' grad student myself I have become resigned to having no money, no perks (& by 'perk' I mean the sorts of things Si-people have as standard), ever (including no job at the end of it).

Recent conversation between me and a new Engineering PhD student, 'Si', whilst I was buying a new notebook (as in, a pad of paper):

Me/Art: I shall buy this notebook as it is cheap.
Si: Why are you buying a notebook?
Me: Erm, to write my research notes in.
Si: Doesn't your department give you notebooks?
Me: ???????
Si: My department gives me notebooks.
Me: I'm having to pay for my own language classes, in the language that I'm researching for my PhD. No, my department does not give me free notebooks.

(nor, whilst I'm at it, any inter-library-loans, any office space, any subsidised printing, any grants, any subsidies, any computing equipment...)

Female Science Professor said...

Anon 11:41 - I was a TA my entire time in grad school, including summers, and I paid my own way to most conferences. Later, my advisor told me that he wrote about this in my reference letters -- that somehow, with no support from him -- I succeeded with my research, got more done than the guys with RAs, published etc. I'm not saying it's right or fair to not even try to support a student, or that I would do the same thing our advisers did to us, just that you should feel proud of what you are accomplishing in adverse circumstances. Maybe it will help you in the end. And later, if you pursue an academic career, you can try to be a different kind of adviser.

Anonymous said...

Wow, it's interesting to see science people piling on Art. I'm sure Art would be delighted to see a shift in the culture that made it possible to pay his grad students to do their own research. It's not hostility to grad students that's behind his reaction. It's just sheer amazement that other fields have grant (and other!) resources that let paying students to do their own research be the norm.

I bet he came away from this encounter even more disturbed than FSP. Next thing he'll learn is that science TAs get paid more than TAs in his discipline. That's the way of the world, but it's no fun to be reminded of it for the Arts on the other side of the divide.

Anonymous said...

I am a PhD student at an institution where in the not-too-distant past, most students were paid as RAs to work on their research, but today, a majority of students are paid by fellowship stipends. The monthly amount on the pay stub is usually a bit higher than that of an RA contract, but it comes without any of the benefits, so it ends up being worth something like 10% less in a typical case. We have had a great deal of trouble communicating to the administration why we as graduate students dislike this change. Guess why? The administration is full of Arts graduates, and one of the major stumbling blocks is making it clear to them that the Science students receiving stipends are still doing the same work as the ones paid as RAs.

Anonymous said...

Funny. I switched from MLitt to a PhD in Analytical Chemistry, and watched the $16 k/ year go from a red to black on the budget sheet. It's just part of the very old cultural divide, but I think it's changing, if slowly. I know some speech folk who get a stipend now, for example.

plam said...

Anonymous@2:09: We had that change too. On the other hand, fellowships are not taxable here, while citizens and residents get healthcare just by living here.

It's alarming that Arts graduate students don't get paid and then, even if they do get jobs, don't get paid as much as Science and Engineering profs.

Kim said...

That's a reminder to me that I need to tell junior/senior undergrads about grad school - especially, that they should expect to be paid, not to pay tuition. Students who don't interact with PhD students don't necessarily know this, and 1st generation college students especially don't.

Anonymous said...

I don't find it that strange. Grad students in my field (ecology) generally don't get paid during the academic year to do their own research. They have TA's or fellowships or curatorships or *occasionally* an RA from a generous advisor who's willing to let them exclusively do their own work. Most academic year RA's need to do at least some work for their advisors. That said, why would it be all that strange for the rules to change in the summer? I'm glad that some advisors (including my own) can support students during the summer on RA's and allow them to focus on their own work, but it makes summer an exception.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 11/19/2010 01:44:00 PM:

Agreed. And then worse: Art will find out that the science TA earns more than Art does as a faculty member. This will make Art so depressed he will think about leaving the profession because his expertise is so undervalued.

Ms.PhD said...

@Anon 11:41, I hear you about competing with other students who had more support, both for buying what they needed to do their projects, and having time to work without interruptions from student-related activities. Good luck. Seems to me that the economic divide in our country extends to research, and people from poor labs have a VERY difficult time competing with people from rich labs. It's like night & day.

re: being paid... I know a lot of Si faculty who believe that since they pay salaries of students and postdocs, that means the students and postdocs should write their grants and work on the PI's projects.

They do NOT want students or postdocs who have "independent" fellowships to feel entitled to work on whatever they wrote in their fellowship proposals.

That would use up resources and undermine the PI's own career trajectory!

They much prefer salaried employees who follow orders, even to the extreme of providing whatever results the PI asks for, even when it means manipulating the data to match expectations.

The idea of paying a student or postdoc to do their OWN work is outrageous to these PIs. Or, god forbid, presenting the real data that shows the PI was wrong (!) about something (!).

Besides, you only pay students if their thesis helps fund YOUR next grant. Right?

In fact, I don't know any PIs who don't act this way. I have yet to meet a PI who would gladly spend their own hard-won resources just for the good of... I dunno, bettering humanity or the world. It would be... illogical.

Isabel said...

"I've even heard some of the non-biomed biologists talking this way from time to time."

Yes actually this is pretty common for those of us not working on humans or model organisms. In my department RA's generally mean working on other people's projects, or we work as TA's, unless we get our own fellowships or grants, which we are pressured to apply for.

Anonymous said...

...reading comments has brought me to a world I'm horribly unfamiliar with. I'm a grad student in a Hard Science at a top 10 department.

We're paid 75% more than the base TA rate by our department simply to compete with other departments in my profession around the country.

Professors in my department are reluctant to put people on TA because they'd really rather have their students on RA so that they can get thesis research done. Yes, in my department RA = Support To Do Your Thesis Research.

Besides, your thesis research is going to be in the direction of things your advisor is interested in anyway, otherwise you wouldn't have joined their lab.

I routinely use about $500 in disposable materials a week. I've asked my advisor about it, he's unconcerned.

Anonymous said...

There is almost no funding when it comes to Art (social science and the humanities) programs. The sad reality is that most people think that our hard work and research is a waste of time and resources. It is amazing to hear support from someone in the sciences. At the university I am currently at, I know that a lot of funds are being redistribution to different departments in the faculty of Science at the expense of the Faculty of Arts -even though the majority of students at the university are in an Arts program

Notorious Ph.D. said...

This conversation brings up a question for me, a person in a Humanities field: Do grad students in science fields have to write grants (or contribute writing of parts of their advisors' grants) while grad students? Since we Humanities students had little funding other than TA-ships, writing our own research grants was part of the drill while we were dissertating.

On the other hand, the grants we could apply for were much smaller -- enough to pay for a short research trip or a year of low-level support so we could take a year off TA-ing to write. Nothing like the six-figure grants that I understand science researchers regularly go after.

Kim F said...

i agree with anon re: 1st generation students not knowing phd should be free. i paid for my own masters in an engineering field - because I didn't know you were supposed to apply phd and then drop if you didn't want to keep going after the MS. I naively thought that you should apply to what you really wanted. It was a total mess.

Now, in a phd program, my parents still can't believe I'm funded.

Zachary A. Jones said...

Art's attitude is why Unionization is very important, even at the RA, GA, & TA positions. Most universities only establish a campus wide baseline only after the creation of a RA, GA, & TA Union.

Becca said...

There is, of course, always a flip side. Art is probably *not* used to having grad students that *cannot* work on what they want- even if a truly once-in-a-lifetime opportunity comes up- because their labor is needed on the professors research. In an ideal world, student and professor needs would completely overlap, or at least there would be reasonable give and take. In reality, in biomedical research, nearly all 'fellows' are RAs... in the sense of being paid to provide data to support someone else's ideas. It's a sticky situation.

Anonymous said...

Re: Notorious
"Do grad students in science fields have to write grants (or contribute writing of parts of their advisors' grants) while grad students?"

In Bio-Med, NO, grad students don't have to write grants. The best advisers strongly encourage their students to apply for grants anyway because 1) it is important training for the student and 2) showing consistent grant-getting history is super important for getting a job later.

OTOH, bad advisers that use grad students as RA-slave labor will tell students it's a waste of time to apply for grants.

Isabel said...

Notorious: Biology PhD students who are not biomed or cell biologists are in the same situation as you for the most part. On the other hand the union has made sure we don't work more than 20hrs/wk at my university, and we get lots of grant writing experience:)

Anonymous said...

As a microbiology graduate student, I can say that there is an important concept missing from this discussion - "intellectual property". I am paid a stipend (small, but sufficient to live on since I'm in the lab 70-90 hours per week), to conduct my thesis research. Receipt of this stipend is contingent upon my satisfactory completion of courses, TAships, and continued research. But most importantly, this allows the university to own anything of financial value that I discover during my tenure here. I am an author on all publications derived from my research, but financial benefits belong to the institution.

Ms.PhD said...

@Anon re: Notorious,

You're wrong. Plenty of grad students are told that they have to write their PI's 6-figure grants for them.

Officially, this is not supposed to happen. But it is a widespread abuse and there are no safe mechanisms for students to report it.

Nobody seems to have a solution. My solution is to let everyone apply for their own grants regardless of job title, but universities don't like that because there isn't enough lab/office space for everyone who could be funded. And as long as there is tenure, no new space will be opening up anytime soon.

Most PI's will deny that this goes on, and it is a spectrum. Some ask for input; others ask grad students or postdocs to contribute only small sections or preliminary data figures.

Others assign entire R01s to teams of 3-4 students/postdocs and participate only by supervising/editing the final product.

Anonymous said...

I have once had a grad student write a grant proposal: an R-21 proposal that was to fund exactly his thesis project and nothing else. He did a beautiful job of the grant writing (better than I could do alone), but it did not get funded. We plan to revise and try again this year. (I have no other funding, so I really hope he gets it.)

Anonymous said...

At my university, scholarships offered by the university are a set rate and based purely on grades. Research groups also have their own grants and can offer their own scholarships to whomever they want. The university does not adjust scholarship rates with inflation. Last time the rate was increased, it had fallen bellow minimum wage (assuming a 35 hour working week, and most PhD students work much more than that). Many years have passed since then, and a group of Si students on a university committee asked if the rates would be increased any time soon, as they have once again dropped below minimum wage. An Art student on the committee (and also the postgraduate student representative on the university's student association) loudly voiced her opposition to such a thing, saying we are lucky to be getting anything at all.

I think a lot of the divide comes from the nature of PhD work in Si vs. Art. I was taken on by my supervisor to do a specific project he had funding for. I decided to do a PhD with him because the project interested me. If it weren't for me and the other students and post docs on the project, no research would get done, or it would at least take many times as long, since it is really a group effort. Art PhD students I know are doing their own projects. They find a supervisor whose job it is really to just help them out from time to time, but the project is the student's own.

Anonymous said...

At my graduate institution, the grad students were unionized. This resulted in a lot of tension about how many hours per week we were supposed to be working. For most of us, our research assistantships were listed as 20 hours. For those of us who were doing different RAs from theses, they limited their RA work to the 20 hours and performed their thesis work at will. They were able to pick their own hours for the thesis work, and schedule it as best fit their own productive hours of the day. For those of us whose theses were their RAs, they worked ridiculously long hours at the beck and call of their advisors. They were unable to protest or to schedule to better fit their own productive hours, because they felt that the only recourse they had was a grievance through the union, and they would fail such a grievance because performing the work was also required for their thesis.