I have not come across a thread which has funding queries answered or graduate funding explained. So, for all the newbies who are desperate for funding, here is how it works, why there are some do's, some MANDATORY don'ts and some more useful information.
What is graduate funding and where does it come from?
Graduate funding basically means that you get paid for doing some work for a Professor, a department or an on campus entity. Typically, graduate funding (and I am not talking about fellowships and scholarships here) come from three sources : research assistantships, teaching assistantships and graduate assistantships. Here is how each one works and where the money comes from.
1. Research Assistantship :
You work for a Professor, doing some work on a project, doing some research under him or working on your thesis which ultimately accomplishes the goal of the project he has started. In this case, the Professor would have written a proposal to a national (or private) funding agency (or company) that would have accepted his proposal and given him a grant of X USD which is to be utilized for this project over a period of Y years showing results on a roadmap he has drawn up.
2. Teaching Assistantship :
You work for a department (not necessarily yours since other departments offer out of dept TA positions), doing grading, taking classes (lab sessions), helping Professors set papers and supervising students and a host of other stuff. In this case the funding comes from the department. Each department will have a certain amount of money allocated for TAs from the funding they receive from the university. Again, in many departments, TA allocations are politically motivated and closely fought for (since there are a lot of implications in this regard which I will deal with later) and it is a strange scenario.
3. Graduate Assistantship :
You work for an entity on campus, like a counseling center, or the Information Technology Center where your expertise comes in handy and you get paid by that entity.
Why is funding so important for a student?
Funding is important because of two things mainly. It pays you a stipend enough to support you on a monthly basis and secondly, in most universities, an assistantship comes with a full tuition waiver, which means you just need to pay some mandatory tuition fee in the area of 1000 USD per semester. This is huge savings in terms of INR if you come to think of it and that is why the first question a student invariably asks of a university, even before jobs or internships is funding.
Why is funding important to the other entities involved and how does it work?
Like explained in the last question, if an assistantship is going to get you a full tuition waiver, then a student is extremely happy. But hang on a minute. The student's fee still needs to come from somewhere. Where does it come from? For an RA, it comes from the Professor's grant, for a TA, from the departmental account and for a GA, from the entity's source of funding.
Now, what you need to understand is that we are talking about a huge commitment here from these people. We are talking about amounts in tens of thousands of USD at the very minimum. Consider UMASS for example. The fee for one semester, everything included is roughly 13K USD. Per year that becomes 26K USD. Your stipend per month (at the minimal hourly rate of 21.25 USD at 10 hours a week) roughly translates to 11K USD a year. That equals almost 37K USD a year and that is huge money.
Also, when it comes to an RA, invariably, the Professor has to pay some percentage of the money he pays the student to the University. Just a random example, for every dollar he pays the student, 30% or 30 cents has to be paid to the university as per grant regulations (varies from place to place).
And this is the reason why funding matters so much to these people.
Coming to the case of a TA, since the department funds TAs (the scenario explained above is taken care of by the department) it becomes a little complicated. Different Professors have different TA requirements. Also, some Professors who are short of funds and don't want to lose a good student, try and waggle a TA for that student from the department. And it works out to be huge savings for him on his grant money. This is why it sometimes becomes very politically motivated in some departments (it is an occurrence, not a norm).
GAs are the easiest to deal with, since you are not tied to any Professor or department, but they are the hardest to get, since they are few and far between.
Why do Professors refuse to entertain RA questions from new students (invariably)?
Put yourself in their place. If you were supposed to pay someone, would you even commit to spending 40K USD per year on that person without even as much as a glimmer into the way he/she works?
Well, it is a different case if you have stellar credentials, superb recommendations and your work experience is so specialized that it speaks for itself. In that case, you may be able to negotiate for an RA even before you land up here. Otherwise, your emails are just going to go into the trash. My advisor receives like 50-60 mails like that in a day. I don't think he has the time or patience to sit and reply to any of those.
What are the added advantages of having funding?
In many universities, including UMass, the Graduate Employee Organization (or its equivalent) would have negotiated to get you some perks. For example, the assistantship may pay your medical insurance (percentage varies, at UMass, it is 100%), dental insurance (65%) and vision insurance (65%). For students (actually, for anyone in the US), insurance is a big deal. And I did not add it into the equation above. Depending on the insurance provider and the coverage, this could range from a few hundred dollars to 2000 USD per semester.
Wellness benefits qualify you for gym and fitness center reimbursements up to a certain dollar amount.
Some DOs and DONTs of funding :
1. Do not go write to a Professor about funding until you can prove that you are worth the investment.
2. If you get around to meeting a Professor, show interest in his work (and I hope it is genuine interest). DO NOT jump into funding in your very first meeting. If he has funding, he will propose it himself. You may bring it up with him sometime later if he has not talked about it since there are Professors who like to get their work done for free too.
3. DO NOT, and I repeat, DO NOT go to someone who has money because you want funding. Contact them only if you are genuinely interested in their work.
4. DO NOT apply for a Ph.D because funding is guaranteed and you don't want to spend money on your masters. This is a definite shortcut to disaster.
5. When you DO write a mail, keep it short, to the point and concise. DO NOT ask for funding in your first mail.
6. If you end up being funded, learn how the process works by helping your Professor with a grant proposal etc., so that you can understand the complications of the whole issue.
I will try to keep this as updated as possible with funding information. If you get any more, have any additions, clarifications or corrections, please let me know.
I am sure The_Observer
, Ancalagon The Black
and @[taro_curly] will have something more to add to this information. Please feel free to make this your own thread folks.