Category Archives: Grad School

Graduate Student Stipends

If you’re in the United States, you’ll probably have noticed that there is a bill that is dangerously close to passing that will increase the tax burden on graduate students dramatically. This bill will tax graduate students counting their tuition waiver as part of their income, increasing their taxable income from somewhere in the $30k range to somewhere in the $70-80k range.

Carnegie Mellon and UC Berkeley have recently done calculations to estimate the extra taxes the graduate students will have to pay, and it does not provide happy reading. The Carnegie Mellon document can be found here and the UC Berkeley document can be found here. The UC Berkeley document also calculates the increase in the tax burden for MIT graduate students, as there can be large differences between public and private institutions (private institutions generally charge more for graduate education and have a larger tuition waiver, so graduate students at private institutions will be taxed more).

Most importantly, the document from UC Berkeley states:

An MIT Ph.D. student who is an RA [Research Assistant] for all twelve months in 2017 will get a salary of approximately $37,128, and a health insurance plan valued at $3,000. The cost of a year of tuition at MIT is about $49,580. With these figures, we can estimate the student’s 2017 tax burden. We​ ​find​ ​that​ ​her​ ​federal​ ​income​ ​tax​ ​would​ ​be​ ​$3,993​ ​under​ ​current​ ​law,​ ​and $13,577​ ​under​ ​the​ ​TCJA [Tax Cuts and Jobs Act],​ ​or​ ​a​ ​240%​ ​increase.​ We also note that her tax burden is about 37% of her salary.

This is a huge concern for those involved, but I think there are more dire long-term consequences at stake here for the STEM fields.

I chose to pursue a graduate degree in physics in the US partly because it allowed me the pursue a degree without having to accrue student debt and obtain a livable stipend to pay for food and housing (for me it was $20k/year). If I had to apply for graduate school in this current climate, I would probably apply to graduate schools in Canada and Europe to avoid the unpredictability in the current atmosphere and possible cut to my stipend.

That is to say that I am sure that if this bill passes (and the very fact that it could harm graduate students so heavily) will probably have the adverse side-effect of driving away talented graduate students to study in other countries or dissuade them from pursuing those degrees at all. It is important to remember that educated immigrants, especially those in the STEM fields, play a large role in spurring economic growth in the US.

Graduate students may not recognize that if they collectively quit their jobs, the US scientific research enterprise would grind to a quick halt. They are already a relatively hidden and cheap workforce in the US. It bemuses me that these students may about to have their meager stipends for housing and food be taxed further to the point that they may not be able to afford these basic necessities.

What Life is Like in Grad School…

Graduate school is tough. It takes a lot of perseverance and this can be emotionally and mentally draining. While it is important to work hard, it is also important to take care of oneself physically, mentally and emotionally. It is necessary to take vacations, and importantly, to do something else (sports, music, hobbies, socialize, etc.). Otherwise the scenes is this video will become an all to familiar reality…

Although this video is humorous, it does tickle a weird part of the graduate school experience that, unfortunately, too many can relate to!

Goodhart’s Law and Citation Metrics

According to Wikipedia, Goodhart’s law colloquially states that:

“When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”

It was originally formulated as an economics principle, but has been found to be applicable in a much wider variety of circumstances. Let’s take a look at a few examples to understand what this principle means.

Police departments are often graded using crime statistics. In the US in particular, a combined index of eight categories constitute a “crime index”. In 2014, it was reported in Chicago magazine that the huge crime reduction seen in Chicago was merely due to reclassification of certain crimes. Here is the summary plot they showed:

ChicagoCrime

Image reprinted from Chicago magazine

In effect, some felonies were labeled misdemeanors, etc. The manipulation of the “crime index” corrupted the way the police did their jobs.

Another famous example of Goodhart’s law is Google’s search algorithm, known as PageRank. Crudely, PageRank works in the following way as described by Wikipedia:

“PageRank works by counting the number and quality of links to a page to determine a rough estimate of how important the website is. The underlying assumption is that more important websites are likely to receive more links from other websites.”

Knowing how PageRank works has obviously led to its manipulation. People seeking to have greater visibility and wanting to be ranked higher on Google searches have used several schemes to raise their rating. One of the most popular schemes is to post links of one’s own website in the comments section of high-ranked websites in order to inflate one’s own ranking. You can read a little more about this and other schemes here (pdf!).

With the increased use of citation metrics among the academic community, it should come as no surprise that it also can become corrupted. Increasingly, there are many authors per paper, as groups of authors can all take equal credit for papers when using the h-index as a scale. Many scientists also spend time emailing their colleagues to urge them to cite one of their papers (I only know of this happening anecdotally).

Since the academic example hits home for most of the readers of this blog, let me try to formulate a list of the beneficial and detrimental consequences of bean-counting:

Advantages:

  1. One learns how to write a technical paper early in one’s career.
  2. It can motivate some people to be more efficient with their time.
  3. It provides some sort of metric by which to measure scientific competence (though it can be argued that any currently existing index is wholly inadequate, and will always be inadequate in light of Goodhart’s law!).
  4. Please feel free to share any ideas in the comments section, because I honestly cannot think of any more!

Disadvantages:

  1. It makes researchers focuses on short-term problems instead of long-term moon-shot kinds of problems.
  2. The community loses good scientists because they are deemed as not being productive enough. A handful of the best students I came across in graduate school left physics because they didn’t want to “play the game”.
  3. It rewards those who may be more career-oriented and focus on short-term science, leading to an overpopulation of these kinds of people in the scientific community.
  4. It may lead scientists to cut corners and even go as far as to falsify data. I have addressed some of these concerns before in the context of psychology departments.
  5. It provides an incentive to flood the literature with papers that are of low quality. It is no secret that the number of publications has ballooned in the last couple decades. Though it is hard to quantify quality, I cannot imagine that scientists have just been able to publish more without sacrificing quality in some way.
  6. It takes the focus of scientists’ jobs away from science, and makes scientists concerned with an almost meaningless number.
  7. It leads authors to overstate the importance of their results in effort to publish in higher profile journals.
  8. It does not value potential. Researchers who would have excelled in their latter years, but not their former, are under-valued. Late-bloomers therefore go under-appreciated.

Just by examining my own behavior in reference to the above lists, I can say that my actions have been altered by the existence of citation and publication metrics. Especially towards the end of graduate school, I started pursuing shorter-term problems so that they would result in publications. Obviously, I am not the only one that suffers from this syndrome. The best one can do in this scenario is to work on longer-term problems on the side, while producing a steady stream of papers on shorter-term projects.

In light of the two-slit experiment, it seems ironic that physicists are altering their behavior due to the fact that they are being measured.

Crises in Confidence

While pursuing a PhD in physics, it seems almost inevitable that at some point one will suffer a crisis in confidence. This is usually accompanied by asking oneself some of the following questions, especially if one is intending to go down the academic route:

  1. Am I good enough to be here?
  2. Should I leave with a Masters degree? Have I been in graduate school too long to leave with just a Masters degree?
  3. Should I start developing other skills to make myself a more marketable candidate to pursue other careers?
  4. Do I really like this enough to continue doing this?
  5. Have I made a huge mistake in going to graduate school? My friends who started working right away seem happier.
  6. Is the modern academic climate, where there is pressure to publish, where I want to be?

Obviously, I can’t answer all these questions. Everyone’s answers will be different. The reason I bring these questions up, though, is that they are on everyone’s mind, that is, unless you are going to be the next Feynman. Even the most successful of graduate students will likely go through periods where they are low on confidence.

The only thing that one can do is be honest and work to the best of one’s ability. Despite the immense pressure to publish, I think it is worth pursuing a project that will enable one to say after graduate school, “I accomplished A and I developed skills in B” and not “I published X papers”.

I also think it is worth talking to older graduate students and postdocs about how they combated their periods of low confidence — it may help you get through yours. Talking to one’s advisor about these issues can also help, but be wary that they are sometimes far removed from the graduate school experience.

I think that everyone can and should acknowledge that there is certainly a large element of luck involved in determining one’s scientific path. Sometimes you roll double-sixes and sometimes you roll a two-three combo.

Related: Inna has also written an excellent article about her experience in getting a PhD. You can read it here.

Non-sequitur: I was recently at another beam time run and as with most runs, got little sleep. As fatigue starts to kick in at 4-5 AM, I sometimes (for some bizarre reason) find myself listening to a song on repeat. “Ageless Beauty” happened to be the one this week, a cover of a song originally sung by Canadian group Stars: