International Students in STEM: PhD Funding

Welcome to the American academic atmosphere! It is very different, isn’t it? In fact, the US universities run PhD programs in a soft money driven approach (based on temporary grants, fellowships, and contracts from government and companies), especially in Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Even in the best scenario, this whole funding issue is something that can stress out any foreign graduate student. In this site, in a series of articles, I will cover many topics specifically for international students studying in the USA. But this article is mostly about keeping graduate funding intact, so that you don’t drop off in the middle of the PhD.

Why would you trust me? Well, I worked in four different research groups in two different universities and one facility management along with multiple teaching assistant positions in four different departments and federal labs. In acronyms, I was a TA, GRA and GA. Let me ask a few questions in this post which I will answer later, because self-reflection is important once you start your PhD program before you take someone’s suggestions.

1.      What is your career goal? What exactly is your plan after PhD? You might be in your first semester only, but if you don’t have a plan then there is a good chance that you might not get the right job immediately after your graduation. The US job market is highly competitive. So, if you are just planning to go back home once you are done with your PhD, that is one story. But if you are planning to stay here to become a professor or work in an industry that adds other dimensions.

2.      What is your motive for PhD? What exactly brought you into the PhD program?  Is it because you really love to do research, or without assistantship you don’t have the means to pursue a graduate degree in the USA? There is nothing wrong with any of those. I am not here to judge you on how passionate you are because every person has a different background, and not everyone is privileged. But you need to ask yourself this question during PhD, because PhD can spiral down in episodes of failures. Unless you are committed to a PhD, you might lose the degree and some valuable years of your life.

3.      Do you like your research? You might be interested to do something and take admission to a specific program, but could not get funding to do research in that topic you intended. This is a common issue that PhD students face. Funding only allows a certain number of PhD students to work on a specific project.

4.      Your Professor is not the same person you expected? It is pretty common not to have a good professor that you can like. The reality is that friendliness or supportive attitude is not a quality that is carefully scrutinized to recruit a professor in a university. Moreover, many professors are also under stress for their tenure positions and securing competitive research grants. So, you might not find advisors friendly or helpful when you need them. At the same time, without grants it is not possible to finish your PhD research.

5.      Who is a better advisor? Many PhD students think that old professors are more experienced and have deeper connections in academia. That is true, but not necessarily that translates into your success. Some groups are publishing high impact factor journals. But that might be related to some specific projects, not yours. Young professors work very hard to get tenure but that can also stress you out. Are you willing to take that load? Are you planning to learn more or publish more? Do you wish to become a professor or willing to get connected to the industry? There are tons of questions regarding these issues besides maintaining funding.

6.      How is your financial condition? The PhD timeline is not fixed. For some students, it takes less than 4 years in the best cases. For some others, it might take over 8 years. On average it is 5-6 years. That scenario raises the question of your return on investment (ROI) in your respective field. Imagine, you have a family to support financially. You might be delaying the future of your family members and your own earnings during PhD.

7.      Are you happy in your life? This is not something that is being discussed in graduate schools. By default, you are accepted as hardworking cheap labor. Moreover, your PhD group or employer might not be friendly. Are you willing to sacrifice these years of life without knowing the end goal? Graduate school is often related to higher degrees of mental illness, anxiety, and depression.

8.      Can you blend into America? I know it is not as easy as it sounds. But it is one of the skills people often miss, especially when they find a number of students from their own country. What is your plan to make you more marketable beyond your research group and back home community? Are you a likable person? Do people request you something they don’t ask others? Are you invited to informal meetings or social activities? Integrating into the mainstream American culture takes time, but we often hear that connection matters to get jobs, which is a true statement. Good social interactions with professors, staff and fellow students often help to get valuable information about research activities with funding. and eventually help to land in a good job.

9.      Are you planning to switch to Masters? Many students fail in the qualifier exams, lose funding or interest to do research. Nothing to be ashamed of. Be yourself, but you need a smart exit strategy so that you can land in your dream job or don’t lose the respect of the community. In fact, I personally know a number of such cases, and helped some of them to get into good careers. Let’s discuss what options are available for you.

10.  Do you feel that you are on an endless journey and need help?  You are not alone. Life needs support and proper guidance. Keeping continuous funding while achieving academic progress is a challenge for international students, especially when they can’t apply for many fellowships. Have you thought about the opportunities beyond university groups like national labs or professional research organizations to continue your PhD research? If not, let’s discuss how to prepare for such opportunities.

No matter what your funding situation is, try to think beyond what you have heard in graduate schools. Don’t worry! UGI is not associated with any university or other organizations to serve their purposes. UGI is only standing for you so that you can avoid unintended consequences. Just make an appointment so that you can plan for your PhD, job and internships.