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Benefit of external funding for phd?

  1. Aug 13, 2014 #1
    This year I'll be sending out PhD applications (to the USA) for 2015 onwards. I'm also applying to an external scholarship (from my home country) and it seems I have a good chance. Note, this funding is for one year. More specifically it pays tuition fees and a lower end stipend for one year.

    I was wondering: what is the motivation to get external funding?

    What I've understood so far from the American system is that funding is usually guaranteed if you get admitted to an upper end university (although sometimes via TAing). (*) Hence why should I do the effort of obtaining external funding? Two things come to mind:

    (1) Build up some savings. Suppose I get the external funding and also TA, then I can save up some nice money. However, it seems likely that the money for tuition won't double, and I even think some (most?) scholarships won't give the stipend if you already get a stipend from the university(?) Maybe the virtue is then that one simply doesn't have to TA, leaving more time for the actual PhD, getting a head start in research?

    (2) A PhD applicant is probably more desirable if he has his own funding. However, I will only definitely hear back about this scholarship in February, which is also when a lot of universities make their decision, so it seems unlikely it could influence their decision. Is there a way to let it improve your chances? (Remember though, it's only for one year...)

    What would you say? All insights into the funding system in America is helpful! (I've looked a bit into it, but it's quite something.)


    (*) I've often come across the statement that getting into a PhD program without funding is a polite rejection. Indeed it makes sense: they're not convinced enough that they're willing to pay for you, but if you're willing to work for free they won't send you away. I suppose external funding can be useful for this, but it seems unlikely that one would be motivated to go to a school that is not interested. Either way, my particular funding is only for one year so that doesn't seem relevant here.
    Last edited: Aug 13, 2014
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  3. Aug 13, 2014 #2


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    It seems to me that this is the most important benefit. Teaching is fun but very time-consuming. Your main goal in the first year is to prepare for qualifying exams. If you don't have to TA, then you will have much more time to devote to this purpose.
  4. Aug 13, 2014 #3


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    Bear in mind my experience is with the Canadian system, but from what I've observed the benefits of external funding (in no particular order) include:

    1. Many departments will limit the number of incoming students based on the number they can guarantee support for over the coming years. Therefore external funding can result in the opportunity to work in a specific sub-field, under a specific mentor that may not otherwise have the funding allocated to take you in as a student. Perhaps as a (1b) this can generate a trickle down effect as well - maybe you would otherwise have gotten in, but it frees up a spot for someone else.

    2. Scholarships, from what I've seen, have a snowball effect. If you look at most application forms there's a spot for previous awards and therefore, often, points are awarded for previously obtained scholarships. This can be very important later on down the road if you're competing for post-doctoral fellowship funding. I'll throw in a (2b) as well, that it generally becomes a nice additional bullet to your CV. Such things tend not to carry as much weight if you leave academia, but the weight isn't necessarily negligible either, depending on the industry.

    3. Like you speculated in your number one, many departments will offer "top up" funding and this can make a huge difference in terms of the lifestyle you can afford. And yes, this can eliminate the need to TA. While I think TAing is an important aspect of graduate school, cutting down to a half TA or avoiding it even for a semester or two can free up a whole lot of time that can help you finish that much faster.

    4. Usually such scholarships make you put together a project proposal, which is a valuable exercise. Starting your PhD with a roadmap can really give you focus and perhaps identify some crucial aspects of the project that need attention sooner rather than later.
  5. Aug 13, 2014 #4


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    1. Works the same in the US. Outside support will not go into your pocket--your department will use it to cover their costs for you, allowing them to support an additional grad student with a TA-ship. It's true that you can get a pass from TA-ing if you bring your own support.
    2. Outside fellowships definitely make you desirable, possibly to the admissions committee and definitely once you get in. My son won a 3 year NSF fellowship, attended the #1 (or #2 or #3--the top few schools change places with each other in the rankings from year to year) physics department, and thesis advisors/lab directors were fighting to get him to choose them.

    As Choppy says, it also looks good on your CV.
  6. Aug 14, 2014 #5
    Thank you :)

    So is it generally possible to do a half-time TA on top of external scholarship, in case the latter gives a lower end stipend?
  7. Aug 14, 2014 #6

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    Who does the other half?
  8. Aug 14, 2014 #7
    I merely asked since Choppy implied it.

    So I would have to make sure I get external funding that pays at least as well as TAing, otherwise I might regret it.

    Above it has been implied that if I use my external funding, the uni can give the teaching assistantship to another student. However, where does that leave me after my first year, when my external funding runs out?

    EDIT: It seems some universities do offer the equivalent of half a TA though. If a standard TA is 20h/week, I've found some unis that also offer 10h/week
    Last edited: Aug 14, 2014
  9. Aug 15, 2014 #8


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    In my experience, yes.

    A full TA works out to basically leading/marking two undergraduate laboratories per semester. A half TA reduces that to one. What they won't do is let you teach more than a full TA.

    Obviously there may be differences between schools. I can see why some wouldn't allow it. If you have N labs to teach, you need N/2 TAs. If a handful of those decide they don't want to accept those TAs, then you're left scrambling to find TAs.
  10. Aug 15, 2014 #9
    On the topic of being able to TA part time: it will also depend on the terms for the fellowship/scholarship. I know of a fellowship at my school that explicitly prohibits taking up assisstantships for pay (fortunately it pays better than both RA's and TA's!), and discourages seeking outside employment as well.

    If external funding comes in the form of a "fellowship" or "prize", I have observed (and have been told) that -for whatever reason- it has an snowball effect. People who get them end up getting more of them as they advance in their career.

    US grad schools IME (after having applied to 12 of them) get back to you at the end of February the earliest, but can make you an offer even in April and beyond. You could inform the grad schools in Feb/March with your scholarship/grant news.

    But I'd be a little worried if you're getting accepted only on the grounds of having the scholarship. What happens when that runs out? Will you have any guarantees of getting a TA/RA in the following summer/following year? This is a very important thing to consider and I personally would not go to a school that cannot guarantee to provide you with support like the rest of the students. I actually turned down one school that I liked but had well below average TA salaries (almost unlivable for the area) and that couldn't guarantee summer support for all students. Visiting the school and getting the low-down straight from the faculty members and grad students is extremely important.
  11. Aug 15, 2014 #10


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    When I started grad school nearly 40 years ago, I was a "half-time" TA (like most of the other first-year grad students who came in with me) with 4 labs per week, about 70-80 students total. The other "half-time" was for our own classes. Maybe things have changed since then! :bugeye: :smile:
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