(This is my third post on statistics graduate school. You can read the first, on coursework, the difference between a Masters and a PhD, and proving your worth here, and the second, on advancing to candidacy, writing the dissertation, and having fun in grad school, here.)
Many of the questions I get when I tell people I’m working towards a Ph.D. are related how I pay for it. So, here’s the dirt. Most doctoral programs in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) will not admit a student to their program unless they are also prepared to support the student financially – either until they have completed their dissertation or for a certain number of years. When I was admitted to UCLA, my acceptance came with four years of guaranteed funding, for example. That guarantee meant that I would have some way to pay the bills for at least four years, but as it has turned out I’ve only used about two of my guaranteed years and filled in the financial gaps other ways.
My first year, I was supported by a first-year fellowship from the UCLA statistics department, which paid my (out-of-state!) tuition and provided me with a stipend to live on, with minimal-strings-attached. By that I mean I wasn’t required to complete additional work (e.g. either research or as a teaching assistant) however my funding was contingent on my GPA and a few other academic factors. Because the only requirements were academic, that freed me to focus completely on my studies in my first year. But of course, academic funding of this type is rarely year-round– the first-year fellowship only paid my stipend during the academic year, leaving the summer uncovered. Luckily, I was chosen as one of UCLA’s Chancellor’s Prize recipients, which provided a stipend to cover living expenses during my first two summers at UCLA.
During the summer after my first year, I started working part-time through a National Science Foundation grant at UCLA, called Mobilize (you can read more about that project here). By the time my second academic year rolled around, the grant’s Principal Investigator had asked me to join the project more officially as a Graduate Student Researcher (GSR). GSRs are often considered more prestigious than teaching appointments, but I have never really understood why. This GSR appointment was a so-called “50% appointment,” which is the standard appointment for a graduate student. It means that you work 50% time (20 hours a week) in exchange for having your tuition paid and receiving a salary/stipend. The only exception to this 50% or 20 hours per week rule is during the summer, where graduate students are allowed to work 100% or 40 hours per week for the university – although some students get around this rule by having additional jobs off-campus during the school year.
Although having a 50% appointment seems like a good idea, having time in your schedule for a variety of experiences during graduate school can be important to gain skills. For example, last year I chose to reduce my time as a Graduate Student Researcher with the Mobilize project to a 25% appointment to allow me to gain experience as a teaching assistant. (Technically, I am a teaching “fellow” because I have advanced to candidacy.) By reducing my time with Mobilize, I was able to also have a 25% appointment as a TA with the department, which means that I was a TA for one class each quarter. All of my classes were upper division classes aimed at undergraduate statistics majors, and I typically taught two sections of the course as a TA. The professor for the class would see the entire group three times a week, and then the class would be broken into two to engage in a discussion section led by me. In addition to my hours prepping and in class, I also held office hours and helped professors grade exams which is great experience to gain during graduate school.
As an aside, most TAs at UCLA do not grade homework for the classes they teach. Instead, there is an additional student (typically a graduate student, but sometimes an advanced undergraduate) who is hired as a grader. Unlike PhD students, Masters students are not given funding guarantees when they enter the department, so they must either pay their tuition outright or try to find a job as a TA or grader. Students with guarantees (usually PhD-level students) are given first preference for these positions, so Masters students generally end up as graders.
The past two summers, I have also been working with an off-campus group called the Communications Design Group as an intern. And this coming year, I will be supported by two university fellowships: the Collegium of University Teaching Fellows fellowship, which will allow me to design and teach my own course, and the Dissertation Year Fellowship, which (much like the first-year fellowship) will allow me to focus specifically on finishing my dissertation this year.
My wide variety of funding sources is relatively typical for a graduate student at many universities, and especially the statistics department at UCLA – but this piecemeal approach often sounds strange to people at other schools or in other fields. Sometimes an offer of funding will come directly from your advisor, who will essentially pay you to work in their lab or on your dissertation project year-round. Some departments require everyone to teach most every quarter, and don’t offer a lot of alternatives for funding. No matter what, money is yet another place where Ph.D. programs usually differ from Masters programs. All respectable Ph.D. programs should be providing an offer of funding when they admit students, but Masters programs are typically out-of-pocket on the part of the student. Yet another reason to pursue the PhD, in my book!