11 thoughts on “How can the NSF help improve the career-life balance for graduate students?

  1. I’ve mentioned in a previous post, grad school, and postdocs to a lesser extent, essentially delay one’s becoming a “full” adult. You cannot easily start a family, purchase a home or new car, and otherwise settle down because of the low salary, poor benefits, and temporary nature of the positions. I doubt it will happen, but I think PhDs and postdocs should be paid significantly more. Consider that at either stage one would earn 50-100% more if they took an industry position over academic/institutional one (tuition costs cannot explain the gaping difference, it is a full time job in any case!). I don’t think paying on par with industry for a given level of experience is feasible, but certainly more than they are paid now. Benefits are another aspect that could help improve the work/life balance. For example, maternity/paternity leave is often paid in STEM companies, but rarely at universities and institutions, at least below the level of tenure and tenure track positions. I’m not sure all grad students get employee provided healthcare either.

    I keep saying “more money” ” more money”, but frankly I am skeptical much will change. I think many bright young minds forgo grad school, while less talented people to go for it since it keeps one in the young adult and student’s life “bubble” a bit longer until. I’m done and over with grad school, and am doubtful I would repeat it if the clock were winded back, but here is to hoping it can be improved future scientists and engineers!

    One last thing, in case I sound like a bitter PhD who was just being lazy and greedy. I had a great advisor, engaging work, and prolific output in patents and papers. But work is only one part of life, and now I find myself five years behind my first college buddies in most of those other aspects of life. Maybe a PhD will pay off overall by the time I’m 40 or 50, but now, a few years past, I sometimes ask myself if it was worth it.

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    • A place to start would be for NSF to require, or strongly incentivize, graduate programs to publish data on the funding of their grad students so that prospective grad students could more effectively do “comparison shopping” when choosing a graduate program. Among graduate programs that do not guarantee their students’ funding, it can be very difficult for students to tell the difference between programs that usually provide students with adequate funding when they need it and would only leave a good student unfunded in the unusual case of a severe budget shortfall vs. programs that usually do not fund their students and only occasionally help good students when there is a budget surplus. Yet, this distinction will make all the difference in the world to the student’s experience and success in graduate school. Students in the former type of program are able to focus on their research and academics, while students in the latter type of program have no choice but to prioritize working for, applying for, and searching for, funding, devoting as much time to this task as it takes to stay solvent, and squeezing their academics and research in around the edges. When it is always probabilistic whether you will have an income next semester, the default expectation really matters!

      In an ideal world, prospective grad students would be able to see anonymized statistics from each of the graduate programs they are considering (including both averages and measures of the variability) on:
      1) the annual salaries/stipends of the students (in net, after all tuition costs have been covered),
      2) the amount of unmet financial need, or need met only by loans, of the students (important for distinguishing between students who have low stipends because they don’t need to earn enough to live on vs. students who are being paid less than what they need), and
      3) hours of work per week that the students devote towards obtaining their funding (on tasks they would not have done anyway for educational or research purposes). This last item is important because, even when students succeed at obtaining enough funding to support themselves through grad school, if it is the better part of a full time job to accomplish this, as has been happening to more grad students since the recent economic downturn, this does not leave enough time for research and academics and denies the student the opportunity to get a quality graduate education.

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      • This might sound like an “outside the box” idea, but a big part of the cost of going to grad school is the cost of basic housing near the university. It seems that in some locations building/zoning codes, and other barriers, are making it prohibitive to build the kind of small, simple, affordable apartments that graduate students need. If there is anything NSF can do to help achieve progress on this issue, it would greatly improve the situation of many graduate students.

        “Maslow’s hierarchy of needs” illustrates the necessity of having basic needs met before one can achieve greater things. What this means for graduate students is that successful scholarship is best supported when access to adequate housing is not an issue the student has to spend much time and energy worrying about.

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  2. I think that this has to be done through the PIs. Right now, PIs are driven and evaluated by how many publications they have. This leads to PIs constantly wanting more out of their graduate students, leading to a loss of balance. I think training PIs on how to be better juggling their career aspirations with the lives of their graduate students is needed.

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    • Yes. Sometimes I actually wish that the work hours grad students put in working on research were counted and tracked, so as to ensure that the total work load is appropriate given the number of academic credits the student is receiving and/or their contracted employment as a research assistant.

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  3. I think it has to be institutional, just as family and medical leave is institutionally guaranteed at my institution for all tenure track faculty. Graduate students need to be able to have lives too and start families — but if they are on a research grant, that is often made impossible. NSF could “stop the clock” on research funding for both PIs and/or grad student or postdoc researchers by extending the time on the grant to allow researchers some family leave.

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    • Yes, graduate students need minimally adequate benefits and maternity/medical leave policies in order to make the graduate school option feasible for more people. This is especially true of PhD students, since it usually takes the better part of a decade to get a PhD these days, which is a long time to go without a situation that provides adequately for one’s basic needs. One specific example that has not yet been mentioned is that graduate students need to have access to disability insurance for the sake of their security.

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  4. Perhaps NSF should form a committee, including plenty of grad students and post-docs, to analyze these issues further, consider the ideas that have been generated by this discussion forum, and create a set of formal recommendations for what NSF should do to improve graduate education.

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  5. Anything NSF can do to incentivize innovation, rigor, and impact, not just the count of publications would help. Much of the extreme pressure on graduate students is caused by the extreme pressure on scientists, in general, to generate as many publications as possible per unit of time, at any and all cost.

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  6. One thing NSF is already doing that helps moderate grad students’ work loads is keeping the GRFP application relatively brief, the time period of funding relatively long, and the amount of funding ample to cover basic costs of living in most places. But even so, not all highly qualified candidates ever have a chance to compete for this award. Developing a competitive application takes months of full time effort, especially for those whose graduate research is very different from what they did as an undergrad. Getting that kind of time available to work on the application can be impossible for those who need to continuously work full time prior to grad school. Even after entering grad school and obtaining some sort of graduate student funding mechanism, getting time available to work on a GRFP application would be at the discretion of the mentor, who may have short-term goals more important to them than the student’s long term-funding situation. And for those who enter graduate school on a very brief funding mechanism (i.e. one semester of funding at a time), if the amount of time and effort necessary to obtain each semester’s funding is too great, the constant urgency each semester of needing to find another funded position to be able to stay in school for the following semester can make it untenable to allocate a large amount of time to a fellowship application process that is highly uncertain and definitely does not provide any funding until the following year. Even for those who are supported on their institution’s most coveted admissions fellowships during their first year of grad school, getting free from the lab bench for a substantial amount of time can be impossible. It is unfortunate that NSF loses some of its best potential fellowship applicants because they need to support themselves.

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