Last night I literally dreamed about how my progress through my PhD might have been different if there were financial incentives in place. In the last few weeks I’ve been reflecting on what I wish I had done differently during grad school; I’m in that super-jaded place that a lot of people get to around the time that they defend.
I have found myself wishing that there had been clearer expectations set out by my advisor, my department, and my university (the first two are notoriously hands-off, and the last definitely does not have a reputation for intensity). It’s not that I didn’t know what really mattered about grad school, just that I wished that someone else had put some expectations in front of me like “attend at least one conference per year” – or that I had set those kinds of guidelines for myself so I wouldn’t have let myself get so bogged down in work. The forest for the trees, you know?
Another kind of related frustration about grad school is the financial compensation. On the one hand, we should be grateful that our tuition is paid and that we actually get a stipend. On the other hand, we are being paid much less than our market worth and there is really not much differentiation between a grad student who is exceeding expectations and one who is falling short.
In the real world/private sector (I imagine) people’s salaries and bonuses are to some extent a reflection of the value they bring to the company. At my university, we do get a small cost-of-living raise every year, but the base pay rate is the same no matter how senior you are in your program. It’s rather disheartening to earn effectively the same salary year after year, knowing that the only way to change it is to graduate.
In my PF-inspired grad school fantasy world, students would be incentivized to progress through their programs through salary increases and bonuses.
Publishing a paper: Papers are arguably the chief product of academic research, so they are very important to get out the door. One of mine is currently languishing in the draft stage, so I wonder if I would be pushing more if there was some money on the line. Students should receive a bonus for each paper they publish. The bonus should be calibrated to the quality of the paper somehow, for instance scaling with the impact factor of the journal. It should also be sizeable for the first author (or split among co-first authors) and minor for middle authors.
Attending a conference: Similar to publishing a paper, students should get a bonus for attending a conference because they both get their research out there and have an opportunity to learn and network. The bonus should be higher for a podium talk and lower for a poster and perhaps be capped at one or two per year. This would be on top of having travel expenses paid for.
Passing quals and/or prelim: My department is currently trying to push for the preliminary exam to be much earlier. I didn’t prelim until my 5th year, which wasn’t atypical, but they are trying to get it into the 3rd year, and there is resistance. I bet if students went up a tier in pay upon passing their preliminary exams (and/or qualifying exams), they would be pushing their committee members to schedule their exams as early as possible! I think this would likely reduce overall time to graduation as well, which departments are very concerned about.
Winning an external fellowship: If a student can win her own pay and/or research funds from an external body instead of depending on the advisor/department, she should definitely receive a reward. My department gives a one-time bonus to students who win the NSF fellowship, which provides three years of a higher stipend and some other funding, and I think that’s a great idea. But I won a fellowship for my second year and I just received the base stipend with no bonus. 🙁 Anyway, what I think might be even better than the one-time bonus for those 3-year type of higher-paying fellowships is for the department to keep paying the higher stipend amount for the remainder of the student’s time in grad school. It stinks to get used to living on a high stipend that you got for merit and then have a big decrease in pay when it runs out. Maybe for a shorter fellowship, the one-time bonus or a slightly higher pay rate for just that year is more appropriate.
Taking on extra lab management tasks: I think that if one student in a lab is disproportionately burdened with lab management tasks (isn’t there always one?), he should get a pay bump for doing those tasks that are really not meant to be done by a student. After all, he is sparing the lab the expense of hiring (part of) a manager to take care of it.
I realize that there is almost no way this system would be adopted – where would the money come from? – but it is interesting that departments already do one of them (that I know of). The most obvious next one to implement, I think, is to pay students differently depending on how advanced they are in their programs (pre- or post- quals or prelim). I think it’s obvious that more advanced students bring more value to their advisors (which, conspiratorially, is why advisors are sometimes reluctant to graduate their students just when they are the most productive) so they should be paid more as well! But there may also be issues with training students to be motivated by rewards instead of being self-motivated – academia isn’t known for being lucrative, after all. But a girl can dream!
Does your workplace have transparent productivity or merit-based salaries or bonuses? What other grad school behaviors would you want to incentivize and are any incentivized at your university? Would you have had a different grad school experience if these incentives were in place?
photo from Free Digital Photos