Thursday, March 28, 2013

Stipends: A waste of funding?

A little while ago the subject of teaching assignments came up among some colleagues (as it is wont to do).  Specifically, we were discussing which PIs had habits of sticking their students on repeated teaching assignments and which PIs didn't have their students teach unless they really wanted to.

I was a little surprised that one of the very well-funded synthesis groups here had an abundance of TAs. One of the students (him/herself a TA) explained it thus: "We don't like to waste money on paying people." The point was that they viewed grant money as primarily for supplies and fancy instrumentation. For instance, they'd shelled out quite a bit of cash recently for some fancy chromatography and microscopy equipment.

It was an interesting perspective, and I'm not sure what to think of the philosophy.

I've seen PIs before who tended to put students on TA quite frequently -- for their entire PhD, in many cases. But those have typically been groups with little-to-no funding, where available grant money wouldn't even cover a meager grad student stipend.

I've also seen well-funded PIs who limit their students to two semesters of teaching (or whatever the departmental requirement happened to be), regardless of external fellowships available to the individuals in their lab. In those cases, a large portion of the available grant money is devoted to stipend/tuition expenses.

So a lab that has plenty of cash that it needs to burn and decides to burn it by buying valuable (but not essential) upgrades--that's different.

It might be a subdiscipline thing. I suspect that "hard" synthesis groups -- methodology and total synthesis -- tend to rely more on a TA culture (perhaps the funding situation is less predictable here?). In contrast, most biologically-oriented organic groups seem to find the funding (from training grants and other sources) to keep their lab RA-based. Additionally, some grants have specifications.

Even so--can personnel costs be considered a "waste"? The word I would suggest is "investment." But it might be because I think a well-trained, happy chemist with decent instrumentation/supplies is more valuable than a slightly nicer MPLC.


  1. To have funding and still force senior PhD students to teach is pretty crappy in my opinion. You can get done way faster if you don't have to teach at least a year or two at the end. I'm guessing the type of profs who do that are the ones with the "6-7 days a week, 10-12 hours a day, you live and breathe chemistry or you get out of my group" type of requirements. I would not have flourished in that type of environment. and its not the best way to have happy, mentally stable grad students in my opinion, but it works for some.

  2. 4 years into a synthetic PhD, teaching from day one, I find the 6-8 hrs per week of paid TA'ing to be (usually) a welcome break from the hood and literature searches, and a time to pass on general problem solving to the pre-meds and random Shulgin wannabe. Distracting, a bit, but more valuable is building the versatility (i.e., forgiveness) needed to communicate our technical skill. Although I have lab mates who despise the teaching requirements, their resistance reflects a lack of self trust that manifests in failed optimizations of their own projects. I see (and insist that others see) teaching is an integral part of a terminal degree. Without ernest attempts and pointed failures at communication, we never question our own certainty.