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Why do Master's (and espcially non-thesis) students find it hard to get funding?
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taro_curly Offline
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Why do Master's (and espcially non-thesis) students find it hard to get funding?
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I am not sure if this question has been addressed before on Edulix. I am sure that it has, but here's my take on it for those who are interested. Hopefully,

1) it will give you some insight into why professors behave the way they do
2) it will start you thinking about how you might make yourself more appealing to professors.

(Considering the number of times that I see the question "What do I do to improve my chances of getting funded?" asked here, I seriously hope that 2) does happen as a result of reading this.

DISCLAIMER: I have only been here for less than 2 semesters, so my understanding of how things work might be a little unpolished. It would be great if seniors like ritendra, lfa and others (I am terrible at remembering people, so forgive me if I have missed you) who have been here a lot longer can comment on this.

What it's like on the other side of the fence...

Since the professors are the ones who decide whether or not to pay you, it makes sense to see things from their perspective.

Like everyone else, professors would like job security. In academia, the magic word for this is "tenure." When a professor gets tenured, it basically means that it is going to be very difficult to fire him. In other words, the professor has job security. Until he gets tenure, he can lose his job at any time. The reasons could be anything from "you are not publishing enough" to "your student ratings are consistently poor" and even "you are not bringing in enough grants to the department."

...and graduate students care about this because...

One of the major factors that decide whether a professor gets tenure is his publication record - how much he publishes and where he publishes them. The more publications he has at the top venues in his field, the better his chances of getting tenured. To get papers accepted at the top conferences/journals requires a lot of good work to be done. This is where the graduate students come in, since they are really the ones who do all the work. The professor may have the idea, but realizing that idea and solving all the nasty problems that crop up on the way to doing it is the graduate students job. The better the student, the more likely he is to solve the problem quickly and elegantly, and the better the chances of the work being considered worthy of publication at the top venues.

(There is another take on this which is that the more you publish in good locations, the easier it is to get your grant proposals accepted which means that you can hire more great graduate students (obviously the good students will go where the good money is) and you can get more great publications and the happy positive reinforcement loop continues).

So the professors are always constantly on the lookout for bright, hard-working graduate students.

...but even Master's students are bright, so why do we still have it so bad?

Getting a student up to speed and to a point where he can start seriously contributing to the professor's research is time-consuming. Depending on the background and grasping ability of the student, it can easily take a year and often more. So in all probability, by the time you learn all the fundamentals needed to get off the ground and get a feel for the work that the professor is doing, you, as a Master's student, are already half-way through your Masters. Now you have only about a year to make some significant progress. This is not easy.

Even if you do make good progress, and get a good publication out of it, it is almost certain that there will still be work left to be done after you leave. In that case, whoever follows you has to again be ramped up which takes time. Now if you were a PhD student, you would be around for 4 years or so and in that time, a lot more would have been done since you would have been working on it continuously.

Ok, so that explains why it is hard for thesis Master's students. But it still doesn't explain why it's nearly impossible for non-thesis students?"

When you opt to write a Master's thesis, you are actually saying that you plan to tackle an actual research problem. While for a PhD dissertation, the work that you do has to be substantial and has to advance the state of the art in the field, this is not necessarily true for a Master's thesis. However, you are still tackling a real problem. And that means that the work that you do can translate into a publication. This brings your advisor that much closer to getting tenured.

When you opt for a non-thesis Master's, you are basically saying, "I don't really care about research." This is a massive turn-off for professors, because when you do research, you HAVE to love it, otherwise there is no way you would be able to cope with the frustrations and disappointments that will inevitably come your way. It is only if you love what you do will you sit up nights and hammer away at a problem till it finally gives way.

Think about it like this; if someone you cared about had to have major surgery or else they would die, what kind of surgeon would you rather have, someone who really cared about saving the patient's life, or someone who would try just enough to avoid getting sued for malpractice and not care what happened to the patient beyond that? While it may not be a life or death question for the professor, it is a question of having a job and not having one, of being able to provide for his family. And in that case, he wants to hire someone who says that he (the student) cares about his (the professor's) research.

And by choosing to do a non-thesis Masters, you are saying the exact opposite.

...so that is why...
  • Professors look for students with prior research experience, even if not necessarily in the same field. Because those students have a better understanding of how the game is played. They know what to expect and they know how to work to maximize productivity. Which means that they might be able to do useful work faster. Which might lead to a paper sooner rather than later. Which means that the professor is that much closer to tenure.
  • Professors prefer students who have actually relevant work/research experience even more. Because those students can get up to speed on the research faster, since they probably don't have to brush up on the fundamentals too much. Which means that they will be productive sooner. Which might lead to a paper faster, and perhaps even more than one. Which means that the professor is that much closer to tenure.
  • Professors in other departments will still take non-thesis Master's students. Because when you are working there, you are not really involved in the core research. You are a support guy writing code/doing some other work which help the specialists from that field solve the problem that they are working on. You serve an important purpose there. You bring in expertise that the others in the group don't necessarily have. You are freeing them from having to deal with issues not directly related to their work, thus leaving them free to concentrate on the problem that they are trying to solve. Which means that there is a better chance that they will succeed and can publish a paper based on their findings. Which means that that professor is that much closer to tenure.

It all boils down to this...do you have the skills to bring a professor closer to tenure? If the answer is an emphatic yes, your chances of funding go up significantly. If the answer is anything less, then you have your work cut out for you.

I am not very active on this forum any longer. Most PM's will not receive a response.
(This post was last modified: 04-03-2009 01:46 PM by taro_curly.)
04-03-2009 12:11 PM
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OzWiz Offline
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Post: #2
RE: Why do Master's (and espcially non-thesis) students find it hard to get funding?
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KUDOS AMEIGO KUDOS ... gr8 work

Applause Applause Applause
04-03-2009 12:42 PM
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samkum2 Offline
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Post: #3
RE: Why do Master's (and espcially non-thesis) students find it hard to get funding?
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Wow Its was lovely know the other side of the coin!Thanks a Lot tarun for such a wonderful insight!ApplauseApplause
Now I know What I am going to do exactly![Being a PhD Funded Student]Wink
Senario is very much similar to India...Quite similar things happen here as well

But One question..
What about the Professors Who are already Tenured?
Why would they mind taking Non-thesis...Just a thought...


But Shouldn't this be in Eng/Science Forum or PhD Forum...Many more eyes has to read this

No one comes in this forum...Sad

Mods Do the Needful Please....Smile

I am NOT at all active on Edulix any more..Sorry about that. If you are Chemistry major (and chemsitry only) {NO Chem. eng.} and need evaluation just email me on samkum2@yahoo.com
04-03-2009 12:58 PM
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Avalon Offline
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Post: #4
RE: Why do Master's (and espcially non-thesis) students find it hard to get funding?
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Brilliant post !!!

BTW in larger universities (like mine) u can funding thru other dept and surprisingly those profs prefers non thesis student. Very Happy
04-03-2009 01:11 PM
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taro_curly Offline
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Post: #5
RE: Why do Master's (and espcially non-thesis) students find it hard to get funding?
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(04-03-2009 12:58 PM)samkum2 Wrote:  What about the Professors Who are already Tenured?
Why would they mind taking Non-thesis...Just a thought...

There is one important point that I did not mention because it did not quite fit in with the "all you are doing is strengthening your professor's case for tenure" theme of the post.

And that is that getting grant money is not easy. And in a climate like this one, it is bloody damn difficult (NSF grant proposal acceptance rates 6 months ago were down to 1 in 20). So now, the professor is looking for - pardon the crudeness of the term - the most bang for the buck. So he's basically looking for a smart, motivated, diligent graduate student. A non-thesis student is perceived - and usually not incorrectly - as not giving a damn for research. In that case, would he really be sufficiently motivated to overcome the difficulties of research? Probably not. In that case, there is no point in spending the hard-earned grant money on him. Might as well give it to someone who will appreciate it more.

The money problem holds for untenured faculty as well, but it is my opinion that tenure considerations overshadow monetary concerns.

Professors are always on the lookout for good students. They will hire a non-thesis student if they are convinced that he can do them some good. Unfortunately, the label of non-thesis does not create a great first impression.

I didn't put it in Engineering/Sciences because it would get snowed under in next to no time.

And it's about Master's students. It doesn't belong in the PhD forum. Although PhD students would do well to remember that all that they are doing is contributing to their advisor's tenure application as well, so they too can get booted if they are not furthering that cause.

I am not very active on this forum any longer. Most PM's will not receive a response.
(This post was last modified: 04-04-2009 12:05 PM by taro_curly.)
04-03-2009 01:12 PM
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Post: #6
RE: Why do Master's (and espcially non-thesis) students find it hard to get funding?
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Wonderful post! Smile

Thanks.. Smile
(04-03-2009 01:12 PM)taro_curly Wrote:  A non-thesis student is perceived - and usually not incorrectly - as not giving a damn for research. In that case, would he really be sufficiently motivated to overcome the difficulties of research? Probably not. In that case, there is no point in spending the money on him. Might as well give it to someone who will appreciate it more.

Hmmm what about univs like Columbia where there is no thesis option(in EE dept)!!
(This post was last modified: 04-03-2009 01:19 PM by Tesla.)
04-03-2009 01:16 PM
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RE: Why do Master's (and espcially non-thesis) students find it hard to get funding?
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(04-03-2009 01:11 PM)Avalon Wrote:  BTW in larger universities (like mine) u can funding thru other dept and surprisingly those profs prefers non thesis student. Very Happy

These comments are useful, because they are pointing out holes in the original post. That's great! Keep them coming.

The big "conditions apply" for my original post is that it deals only with professors from your parent department and why they don't often care for you.

Professors in other departments would prefer non-thesis students because non-thesis students only have to juggle their duties as an RA/GA and their courses and not have to worry about a third complication.

Assuming that we are dealing with the CS department here, you could say that students doing a thesis are perceived as being closer to "computer scientists" than the non-thesis ones who are definitely not "computer scientists" but more "engineers." Since professors in the CS department are computer scientists themselves, they prefer to have students who are like them. Professors in other departments who hire CS graduate students are usually looking for "software engineers (which is really a hoity-toity term for "computer programmer")" anyway and non-thesis students fit this bill.

I am not very active on this forum any longer. Most PM's will not receive a response.
(This post was last modified: 04-03-2009 01:28 PM by taro_curly.)
04-03-2009 01:22 PM
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RE: Why do Master's (and espcially non-thesis) students find it hard to get funding?
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Nice information!! Applause

1 more question:
Up to what degree does the RA help in getting a good job?

-- Life is a Gamble where you search and you ramble
04-03-2009 01:25 PM
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Post: #9
RE: Why do Master's (and espcially non-thesis) students find it hard to get funding?
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Goodwork.... dude

Thoughtful.....
04-03-2009 01:26 PM
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ritendra Offline
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RE: Why do Master's (and espcially non-thesis) students find it hard to get funding?
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Very good post! Only once in a while in the last few years have I seen someone who writes precisely and informatively, in a way that makes me look forward to reading their posts. You are one of them.

I agree to much of this. So a related question to answer is - how do the MS (non-thesis) students who do get funded, manage to get one? Your point is universal for almost all fields, except maybe CS. With a CS degree, people outside of the department can sometimes consider you to be a cheap and affordable programmer. Many of the non-thesis students who get funded do so in the area of Web development or programming. In these cases, the professor has little interest in the student's research skills or his career development. In fact, they may prefer students who are not writing theses since that can be a variable-duration commitment on the part of the student, thus hampering productivity in the funded project. This may explain Avalon's point as to why some professors prefer non-thesis students. I am pretty sure most non-thesis students gets funded for a non-exploratory non-research component of a project.
04-03-2009 01:33 PM
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RE: Why do Master's (and espcially non-thesis) students find it hard to get funding?
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(04-03-2009 01:16 PM)dineshbabumm Wrote:  Hmmm what about univs like Columbia where there is no thesis option(in EE dept)!!

Since the antecedent is false, why bother with the consequent? If there is no thesis option, then there is no question of giving thesis students preference, is there? So now it boils down to a tug-of-war between the MS and the PhD students for funding, and we all know how that works most of the time.

DISCLAIMER: I don't know the first thing about the EE department at Columbia and how easy (or dfficult) it is for an MS student to get funding there. If it is non-existent, then you know why based on my original post. If it is possible to get funding, then the professor really has to get some sense of sincerity and ability from you and then he might be willing to loosen his purse-strings.

I am not very active on this forum any longer. Most PM's will not receive a response.
04-03-2009 01:35 PM
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Post: #12
RE: Why do Master's (and espcially non-thesis) students find it hard to get funding?
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Another amazing post from taro. Doing full justice to the poster of the year tag!

I hope I can submit a paper for publication before I leave for US!
04-03-2009 01:37 PM
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RE: Why do Master's (and espcially non-thesis) students find it hard to get funding?
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(04-03-2009 01:12 PM)taro_curly Wrote:  
(04-03-2009 12:58 PM)samkum2 Wrote:  What about the Professors Who are already Tenured?
Why would they mind taking Non-thesis...Just a thought...

There is one important point that I did not mention because it did not quite fit in with the "all you are doing is strengthening your professor's case for tenure" theme of the post.

And that is that getting funding is not easy. And in a climate like this one, it is bloody damn difficult. So now, the professor is looking for - pardon the crudeness of the term - the most bang for the buck. So he's basically looking for a smart, motivated, diligent graduate student. A non-thesis student is perceived - and usually not incorrectly - as not giving a damn for research. In that case, would he really be sufficiently motivated to overcome the difficulties of research? Probably not. In that case, there is no point in spending the money on him. Might as well give it to someone who will appreciate it more.

The money problem holds for untenured faculty as well, but it is my opinion that tenure considerations overshadow monetary concerns.

Professors are always on the lookout for good students. They will hire a non-thesis student if they are convinced that he can do them some good. Unfortunately, the label of non-thesis does not create a great first impression.Then again it all comes down on how to proove the professor that you are sencere and dedicated to research with out any research backgroud so far in UG!

I didn't put it in Engineering/Sciences because it would get snowed under in next to no time.
aaahha Lovely Posts like this Doesn't get snowed so easily brother...
And it's about Master's students. It doesn't belong in the PhD forum. Although PhD students would do well to remember that all that they are doing is contributing to their advisor's tenure application as well, so they too can get booted if they are not furthering that cause.
Exactly the reason for saying PhD forum!Smile I being a PhD learnt certainly learned very import lesson here...Smile

I am NOT at all active on Edulix any more..Sorry about that. If you are Chemistry major (and chemsitry only) {NO Chem. eng.} and need evaluation just email me on samkum2@yahoo.com
04-03-2009 01:54 PM
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Post: #14
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Superb post Applause. Thanks for all the info.

I really appreciate your writing skills. Very nice.
04-03-2009 02:01 PM
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RE: Why do Master's (and espcially non-thesis) students find it hard to get funding?
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(04-03-2009 01:35 PM)taro_curly Wrote:  Since the antecedent is false, why bother with the consequent? If there is no thesis option, then there is no question of giving thesis students preference, is there? So now it boils down to a tug-of-war between the MS and the PhD students for funding, and we all know how that works most of the time.

Well actually I asked this specifically because you had mentioned "A non-thesis student is perceived - and usually not incorrectly - as not giving a damn for research.". When we don't have that opportunity, what can we do!!

Quote:DISCLAIMER: I don't know the first thing about the EE department at Columbia and how easy (or dfficult) it is for an MS student to get funding there. If it is non-existent, then you know why based on my original post. If it is possible to get funding, then the professor really has to get some sense of sincerity and ability from you and then he might be willing to loosen his purse-strings.

RA is not possible but getting TA is remotely possible.. In general funding is extremely difficult for MS students at EE dept in Columbia.

My friend doing MS got TAship though..
04-03-2009 02:09 PM
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