So, what goes into a grad school aid decision?

(In IMHO because this is bound to include some personal experiences in addition to factual information, plus it includes a request for advice. Also, paging higher ed admin dude Hippy Hollow)

So, good news: I’ve gotten my first offer for PhD admission.

Bad news: my batting average isn’t very high so far, so it’s not like I’ve got a lot of schools to play off each other.

The current prospective school has what I believe to be the standard layout of aid for graduate students: some are RAs and do research, some are TAs and teach or grade, and some are GAs (the G stands for ‘graduate’ but the joke is that it stands for ‘generalist’) and do light office/admin work, or become the department chair’s right hand for a little while, or do any number of other things. I’ve been offered a GAship for the fall.

First of all, I’m curious what kind of discussion goes into deciding which prospective admissions receive which kind of -Aship. I’m in the social sciences (Economics, to be specific). I have no idea how the department decides which student to give what kind of assistantship.

Second, as I said, my offer included a GAship. I have no idea what the prestige level of the various assistantships is, but my assumption is that Research > Teaching > Graduate, based on the value added to the university. Further, my application and resume both showed an interest in teaching. I have experience as a teacher and trainer, and frankly I think I’d be much happier doing my teacher dance in front of undergrads in Fall 2011 (after doing the requisite year as a grader) than I will be doing administrative work. Thus, two questions:

  1. Is my impression of what a GA does mostly correct?
  2. If so, is it worth contacting the department to ask if I can get a TAship rather than a GAship? I’m loathe to look a gift horse in the mouth, here.

This depends very much on what you’re studying. There are many areas where you absolutely should be getting a full tuition waver + stipend for your full time there with minimal teaching. If that’s not offered, you suck and should do something other than grad school. There are other areas where almost no one gets money.

Dopers need more infos.

But in general, time spent teaching is time not spent getting done with grad school. That said, if you want to teach, having teaching experience is a good thing.

I have no idea what a GA is. We probably called it something else. Please describe.

I was a grad assistant which gave me free tuition plus $200 a month - this was in the early 80s. I was assigned to a professor to help them out and I switched professors a couple of times. Most of what I did was grade papers and easy stuff. I used the electronic test scoring system so that made it real easy for me. For one professor I helped run a computer simulation game and that was fun, I got to teach a few classes for that. I was a MBA student.

We need more information to answer. Based on my experience (tenured proffie at a research university in ph.d. granting department) my response is,

  1. RA is better than anything else as you might get some pubs.
  2. TA could be better than GA as you get some teaching experience. But it also could suck up all your time and GA probably won’t.

When we admit Ph.D., the top ones get put up for (and hopefully win) university fellowships, the rest get TAs and rest get nothing.

IMHO, to enter a Ph.D. program you should be offered full tuition waiver and an ongoing source of stipend/support for 3-5 years. They may not know exactly what the support will be (RA, TA, etc.) but they should tell you that something will be there. Anything else, indicates that you are lower on priority list, i.e, not as strong of a candidate. Which means that you will have a harder time getting a job post degree and if you went into debt to get the degree you are in a bad situation.

This works at a general sense but each situation is different.

  • Economics has more potential for non-academic jobs so going into debt for a Ph.D. MIGHT make sense. Economics also tends to eat its own and you many drop out without completing a degree.

  • The quality of the dept/university matters. If you have been rejected from your dream schools and are getting piddly offers from lower tier schools, this likely means that you are not a top prospect.

My $0.02.

Your best bet is to contact the department for more details. Wait a day or two and see what ideas folks post here. Questions?

  • Tuition waiver?
  • GAship just for the fall or ongoing?
  • How many years of support?
  • Is it guaranteed?
  • Can I become a TA? (Not a hard sell, if you can teach the material then it is in the dept’s interested to give you a class)
  • When do I have to decide?
  • Are there current grad students I can contact?

Get it in writing and don’t worry about playing off schools. It probably won’t really work. Feel free to mention that you are considering other offers (if you really are) but bidding wars are rare.

Also, if you have a chance to visit, visit.

When I was in school it seemed a lot of people went where they got the most money (assuming the schools were about the same in reputation.) Or in some cases they went to the only place that gave them money.

Thanks, everyone. Let’s clear up a few things - I was sure I’d forget something relevant.

First two pieces of info: As I said, I’m in Economics. As I didn’t, my aid package does include a tuition waiver. The aid package is tuition waiver + GA salary in exchange for “around” 20 hours of GA work per week. The GAship will be renewed for up to four academic years as long as I’m making satisfactory progress toward a degree.

What other information have I surely forgotten to include?

That sounds like a pretty standard GA package these days. In my case I was supposed to work 10 hours a week but nobody tracked the hours , I was almost always under 10 . I might have gone over 10 a few times in 2 years.

Sounds like a good deal. Make sure it is in writing. Seriously.

Once you get there, you might find that there is flexibility in switching things around but you will always have the GA-ship as a foundation and that is key.

In my dept (sociology), I think GA is a catchall term, and RAs and TAs are specific kinds of GAs. RAs are definitely higher status than TAs. But, I suspect that there are department-specific definitions for these terms. We do not have any grad students doing administrative work.

Keep in mind, once you’re there, if you really want to teach and do a great job of schmoozing and impressing professors, you might be able to talk yourself into a TA-ship for your second year.