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Nearly free Graduate School - I'm Confused

  1. Feb 2, 2012 #1
    Some of my TA are like 23 year old people who are graduate students. One of them said that when they applied for graduate school he had a hard time getting in because they were looking for foreign students but he got in. He said they gave him money just for like going to graduate school or something and because he's "TA ing" for a course in his major that he got more money or something. He said he has roughly like 800 dollars in fines to pay a semester and that is it.

    I'm really confused. I though that graduate school was for rich people only and because my parents don't make 200 k a year I'll be all on my own for graduate school. Being that some of my TAs are here basically free pursing a degree makes me wounder if I can actually afford graduate school and actually go. I have no problem being in school for a long time and paying essentially nothing for graduate school. I wasn't aware that someone like me who isn't filthy rich can actually go to graduate school. The TA who told me this is part of the most represented group of people in the academy like myself. I was shocked by this. When I applied for my undergrad a couple of people who I went to high school with got in completely free and I didn't get one penny, but they were also female, their parents didn't go to college, minority, etc. and she was only like 4 class rankings ahead of me, there were many people like this...

    I'm kind of confused... thanks for any advice...
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 2, 2012 #2
    It depends on what area you plan to go to graduate school for. Some receiving more funding than others.
  4. Feb 2, 2012 #3


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    Where did you get this idea in the first place? Graduate programs don't normally cost a whole lot more in tuition as undergraduate programs do.

    There are two types of graduate programs that exist in this regards. There are programs (such as Physics, Chemistry, English, etc.) where many, if not all graduate students are employed by the University to teach undergraduate courses and labs in exchange for free or very reduced tuition and a small stipend. There are also research assistant positions where professors at the university have grant money that allows them to hire graduate students and their tuition is waved or paid for by the grant/department.

    There are also graduate programs such as Medicine or Business or Economics where there aren't any undergraduate courses or labs that are suited for graduate students to teach (although I guess we don't call people who go to med school "graduate students"). There also may not be the kinds of research programs funded by the government that allow departments to have research programs that would hire students to allow fee-waivers.
  5. Feb 2, 2012 #4
    Professional schools (MBA, law, medicine) are often very expensive.

    Graduate school in most academic programs are more reasonable. Many departments offer tuition waivers and stipends in association with work as either teaching or research assistants.

    (BTW, econ departments often do offer funding.)
  6. Feb 2, 2012 #5


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    Really? I've never heard of this, although that department was the one I wasn't sure if I should mention.
  7. Feb 2, 2012 #6
    Hah, yeah grad school is "free." Typically the programs where grad school is free, grad school is hard and time consuming. Some programs have students working 70+ hours a week, and in the end there's a yearly stipend ~$20-26k. So if you want to work 70+ hours a week and make ~$20-26k then sure, it's free. You'd be pretty crazy to go to graduate school with the angle of free education, though I'll admit it's nice :).

    Also, graduate schools don't look for foreign students. A lot of foreign students apply because the universities in the US include the best in the world.
  8. Feb 2, 2012 #7
    That's one great thing about science/engineering. You work as an indentured servant for several years, but that can be a great deal. I didn't pay a cent from graduate school and I got a small stipend. Even better, my undergraduate loans were deferred which means I could avoid paying them (with no interest) for as long as I was in graduate school.

    For science and engineering, cost isn't a problem. Now for MBA's, medical, and law school, that's another issue. Also, graduate school isn't free, you pay (and you pay a lot) with labor, but I think it's a good deal.

    It also makes sense for hard times. If the only job you can get after getting a physics Ph.D. is delivering pizzas, you are in fact in great shape. You just keep delivering pizzas until the economy improves. If you go to law or medical school, delivering pizzas is not an option since you are under a ton of *non-dischargable* debt, and by the time the economy improves, you are going to be under more and more debt as interest builds up. Being an indentured servant isn't the best thing in the world, but it beats being a debt slave.

    Also, if you get your physics Ph.d., and you decide that you hate physics, no problem. Don't do physics. If you go to medical school, and decide that you don't like being a doctor, you are stuffed.

    Yup. I complain a lot about science and engineering education, but this is one thing that I like about Ph.D. programs.
  9. Feb 2, 2012 #8
    You get what you pay for- since grad school in the sciences is generally not a good economic decision they have to pay you a little bit to sweeten the pot, as it were.

    Now programs which are good economic decisions (medicine), you'll have to pay, and quite a bit.
  10. Feb 2, 2012 #9
    why would you say it's not a good economic decision?
  11. Feb 2, 2012 #10
    Minimum wage, long hours for a number of years, at the end of which one is not in a necessarily better position than they were right out of college?
  12. Feb 2, 2012 #11
    A career in science looks like this (for the median scientist).
    1. After your bachelors spend 6 years working for roughly what you could make working full time at a fast food restaurant
    2. After your phd spend about 5 years in a postdoc making roughly what you could make as a manager at the same fast food restaurant
    3. Leave science for a programming/IT/etc type position, making only slightly more than you could have made straight out of college.

    If a company came to you and said "we have one position to fill a decade from now- what we are going to do is hire 10 interns at sub-market wages. After five years, we'll fire half of them, and those that remain get a salary bump- still sub-market. After those five years, we'll fire 4 and one lucky winner gets the job." Would you think this was a good offer? Sure, you'll get paid while they train you, but unless you are that lucky 1/10, odds are the training is worth nothing anyway.
    Last edited: Feb 3, 2012
  13. Feb 3, 2012 #12

    Is your "If a company came to you and.." analogy tailored towards graduate school as a whole, or are you referencing the supposed horrors of post-doc? If the former, that's a pretty horrid analogy, since you still walk away with, you know, an education. I thought that's why one attends a university to begin with.

    It doesn't seem like it can, in actuality, be that bad. What do you think sub-market income is?
  14. Feb 3, 2012 #13
    Whether certain grad schools are better economically also depends on your cost benefit analysis... meaning the lifestyles and experiences of different grad school options will seem to weigh in differently depending on what you value.
  15. Feb 3, 2012 #14
    A phd is closer to job specific training than it is to a broad education. The problem is, very specific academic training isn't hugely relevant outside that setting.

    What ECONOMIC good is a phd level education in physics if you never get a job that uses it? An education might have personal value by itself, but it only has economic value if you can get someone to pay you to use it. The question was specifically about why a phd is probably not a good economic decision.

    Why can't it be that bad? Physics isn't immune from supply and demand issues. Many employed physicists are in the business of making new physicists. In steady state, how many of those new physicists can get jobs? Lots of competition for few jobs = low salary, lack of opportunities.

    The median for a new bachelors is probably 35-40k. For an engineer its more like 50k. A grad student makes 20k or so, so thats below market. The median for a bachelors with 6 years of experience is even higher, but postdoc is 35-45k.

    You make about as much after your phd as you could have made fresh out of undergrad.
    Last edited: Feb 3, 2012
  16. Feb 3, 2012 #15
    I don't think that's true. You can use things as a hedge. Also, something that I can sell for $4 is worth more than something that I can sell for $100,000, if the cost to for the first thing is $3 and the cost for the second is $200,000.

    Also, education is something of a "raw ore" you have to figure out out to create a package out of it in order make money.

    It really depends on the context. For most people in China and India, a Ph.D. is an totally awesome economic decision (and lots of people in this board aren't from the US). Also, if you in the US and aren't thrilled about the US economy and have to emigrate to another country, the Ph.D. puts you considerably ahead in the queue.

    The other question is "compared to what?" The fact that you can get education for free with no debt leaves you in pretty good shape.

    That certainly wasn't true for me. I've never had any job that didn't have a masters degree as the absolute minimum requirement, and for masters degrees, you have to pay the school lots of money.
  17. Feb 3, 2012 #16
    That's not been my background. Now granted I got my first job in the middle of the dot-com boom.

    First of all the wages are not sub-market. The market sometimes stinks.

    Second, an internship *is* a job. One mistake that graduate students and post-docs make is that they think that they are "students" waiting for a job, when in fact being a research assistant *is* a job. It's a low paying one, but that's the breaks.

    Third, most companies don't think ten years ahead. In my work history, the median time between layoffs has been something like three to five years. I'm not expecting to work at my present company in ten years, and either is anyone else, and if you give me five years of employee and a 50% chance of continuing afterwards, that's *fabulous*, because no private company in the US is going to guarantee that you have a job *next week*.

    Graduate students have more job security than most people in private companies. Boss could come in any moment and tell me that my division has been closed and I need to empty my desk. Usually in those situations, we are in the same boat, because he's likely been told that he has to clean out his desk.

    Also it depends on the alternatives. At the end of this all, in the worst case scenario, you are left with zero. With law school and med school, you are left with less than zero, which is worse, and if you are a Ph.D. student, you are reasonably sure that you won't get kicked out tomorrow which isn't true in the "real world."
  18. Feb 4, 2012 #17
    Also you have to ask the question "economic good for whom?". The current system is wonderful for universities, and you could also argue that it's great for society as a whole. You have people that are working in labs for next to nothing, and they are making all of these great discoveries that produce a ton of $$$$ for universities, and also a ton of $$$$ for society, and the more you can squeeze work out of low paid scientists, the happier taxpayers are since they tremendous get social benefits while not having to pay $$$$ to the people that produce them.

    The entire economic system is based on the idea of getting someone to produce something that you can sell for $2X while paying them $X.

    Getting a Ph.D. is a great economic decision for society. Whether its a great economic decision for the person getting the degree is another question. Personally, it's not been that bad for me. I'm pretty sure that I would have ended up making more money if I had gotten a masters in finance, but at the same time I'm definitely making more a lot more money than I would have made with just a bachelors degree.

    No. That is the market. If people suddenly stopped applying to graduate schools, you'd see stipends go up. The market can be quite cruel and harsh.

    If you do a postdoc, but why do a postdoc?

    Starting salary for a quant on Wall Street is 100-120K (and that's down from previous years), and goes up with experience, although how much of that is cohort and how much of that is treatment, I do not know (i.e. I don't know how much of the salary jump is due to people getting paid more money for experience (treatment) and how much has to do with getting hired a few years ago when the baseline salaries were higher (cohort), and I don't know if anyone really knows). High end computer programming jobs go for 75K.

    Also, I lot has to do with the topic of your Ph.D. I simply could not have gotten the jobs that I got with the experience that I had with just a bachelors degree. The other thing is that my experience may be an outlier, since I don't know whether my experiences are relevant or irrelevant to people out there with different situations.
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