Dreaming of Financial Incentives for Grad Students

incentive buttonLast 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?


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26 Responses to "Dreaming of Financial Incentives for Grad Students"

  1. Alicia says:

    Some of these things did exist in some of the older, cooler labs where I went to to grad school. The Chair of the Department used to give bonuses when a paper was published in the big Chem journals like Angewandte Chemie or JACS. Some small 2.0 Impact Factor journal… nah.

    The one that irked me the worst was the way scholarships were handled. If it was a smaller one (less than $6,000) then you could keep it free and clear. After that, you had to start taking hits from your stipend, effectively making it easier for your supervisor to have you (financially) when you were the candidate that won them. I had a friend who was a brilliant student, and so she kept raking in the smaller ones in addition to her national award. She was clearing $40,000 per year (tax free) without having the BIG national award (there are $17,500, $21,000, $25,000 $35,000 and $50,000 – she had the $17,500).

    As for the conference one: I was “forced” to go to an international conference every year. I brought a lot of my own funding, but I think a lot of profs think its a break from lab so it is a reward in and of itself. I used to always tack on a personal trip afterwards using their air fare so that it didn’t cost so much. I went to Europe for 2 weeks (1 week was conference) and spent less than $1,000 of my own money. Plus I had just received a small $1,250 award that covered all my expenses 🙂

    My qualifying was in my 2nd year – 18 – 24 months in. That’s just how my department does it, and since we’re technically a 4-year PhD (but most take 5,… I did), it was basically the midway point. I think it’s so much smarter than the Physics Department at my school that waited until 6 months before the defence was supposed to be. What if you failed?! You just spent 5 years on a Masters? Ridiculous.

    Sorry, it appears I have a lot to vent about and talk about regarding this since my comment is so long.
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    1. Emily says:

      That’s cool about the bonuses for publishing in big journals. It makes sense to me! Do you know how much they were?

      Hm, I don’t know how the smaller fellowships are treated at my university. I rather suspect that if they are less than your stipend you’ll still receive the same base stipend, but I’m not sure. In the system at your university, you would really have to luck out to find that sweet spot of receiving numerous small fellowships but no large ones (as well as have the merit to receive any).

      Yes, often attending a conference is reward unto itself. I should have applied for more, especially since there were travel funds available. I guess I just felt like my work wasn’t good enough yet to present and I had no idea what stage it would be at by the time the conference came around. Like I said in the post, I just didn’t keep the big goal of getting my research out there in front of me and got lost in doing the work itself.

      That is awesome that you consistently added personal travel on to your conference trips and especially the extra week in Europe. I will have to follow up with you about that.

      There were a couple people in my year who didn’t prelim until their 6th year, about 6 months before they defended. My prelim ended up being about 18 months before my defense. Really, those of us preliming so late were not going to fail. In my department, the late-preliming system just forces the committee to trust the advisor’s judgement, so if your advisor wants you to pass you will. It’s not a great system, which is why my department is pushing the prelim to much earlier. I wish I had had more committee input earlier.

      I’m glad my post sparked so many thoughts!

  2. ervinshiznit says:

    Interesting ideas. In terms of where would the money for this kind of thing come from, well it’s possible that students would graduate early enough that it would save the school money, even taking into account bonuses. It’s hard to say.

    Incidentally, my department does give a slight pay raise for passing the prelim. And we’re supposed to pass the prelim before the end of our 2nd year.

    Attending a conference could be seen as a bonus for me. At my school it’s a bit complicated but basically some of us are salaried, and some of us are hourly. I’m paid hourly. While typically I’m only allowed to work 20 hours a week (because we’re supposed to be fufilling doctoral thesis hours for the other 20), when I go on conferences, I’m paid for my travel time and all time spent at the conference. That means I report far more than 20 hours in a week, and because I went to international conferences I actually got paid overtime! Additionally, the per diem distributions for food were generous and I pocketed some of it.
    It’s not meant to be set up as an incentive…but it works out that way for the GRAs paid hourly. And even for those that are salaried, the per diem distributions are pretty generous and can be pocketed.

    My school/department doesn’t engage in the other incentives that you talked about. Would be pretty interesting if they did.

    1. Emily says:

      I was thinking about the graduating early thing, but do you think they would end up accepting more students? Which would only exacerbate the tight job market(s)… But if they keep the overall number of students the same, maybe there would be more funding for other types of positions.

      Hey, that’s awesome that your dept gives a bump for passing the prelim. But if there’s a hard deadline on it anyway it wouldn’t really work as an incentive, only as a reward.

      That is so interesting about the salaried vs. hourly issue and the overtime at conferences. I’ve never talked with a grad student who is paid hourly so I may follow up with you about that. I went to one conference before grad school where I got a per diem and I had a lot left over, which was great!

      1. ervinshiznit says:

        True, they could just accept more students. It’s hard to say.

        Well, the pay bump for passing the prelim does incentivize us to try to pass it early. The department really encourages us to pass it our first semester. But yea, it doesn’t really serve as an incentive to actually graduate early.

        Yea it’s a bit strange to be paid hourly. There’s a larger explanation to be had, which I can talk about over private channels if you’d like.

        1. Emily says:

          Oh yeah, if you have the option of doing it much earlier that makes sense for the student. What’s your department’s interest, though? Does something else change with your status when you pass like being able to TA…?

          Sure, I’ve been meaning to email you anyway. I’ll do that soon!

          1. ervinshiznit says:

            Good question. I’m not sure exactly. Maybe they want to make sure we’re up to snuff? But I don’t think that’s it really, because our prelim is on undergraduate material! I never actually thought about that.

  3. E 2 says:

    I like all of these ideas, although I think they’d have to have different emphasis depending on field. For instance, paper publication is not as relevant as an incentive during grad school in my field, since few people are able to collect enough data to publish before their last year in the program. Also, even having enough funding to totally cover the cost of 1-2 long distance conferences a year would be amazing – we get a dollar amount that basically only covers airfare and registration if you have to travel, and we have to look for outside funding or use personal money to make up the difference.

    Scholarship policy is tricky, as Alicia mentioned. My school has switched from “matching” external funds up to a certain dollar amount, which was great if you got small and medium sized grants, to making you take a stipend hit of 25% of the grant (unless it was big enough, like NSF, to totally replace your stipend), and now back to partial matching but only up to a pretty small amount, and only for direct research expenses, so it doesn’t give you a pay bump. The only “incentive” left is that if you do bring in at least a year of external funding that covers your entire stipend and health insurance, you…get guaranteed enough funding to hopefully finish the program! Because the average graduation time at my school, based on program design and requirements, is a year longer than the actual guaranteed funding package. Sigh.

    In conclusion: I like all your ideas. But in terms of where the money would come from, probably most schools have a lot of holes to plug before they can start giving extra.

    1. Emily says:

      Thanks for the field-dependent feedback! Yeah, if there’s money to go around it should be allocated for conference registrations and travel. We had to front $1,000 for a conference for Kyle this summer – it was all reimbursed, but that’s not chump change if we had to pay in part or in full ourselves! I agree that universities have more important demands than rewarding their excellent grad students.

      It really would be nice to have a financial benefit as well as the benefit to the CV of winning outside fellowships. You do all the work to apply to many and when you win one or more your life doesn’t change. That is nice that there could be a longer time of guaranteed funding, but it doesn’t really matter if you’re left high and dry at the end.

  4. Andnowlights says:

    I work in academia with students from all disciplines and I’m married to a (non-STEM) PhD student and while all of these ideas are nice in a fantasy world, I think we’re overlooking a huge fact when it comes to grad school: it’s not a job (in the traditional sense). Grad school is definitely something that people enter into in order to better their career in the long term, not for short term financial gain. If they’re not motivated to finish these things on their own, why are they there? If a student isn’t motivated to finish their degree/publish a paper/go to a conference for their own CV and future career, there’s absolutely no reason for a school to invest even more money in them. It seems like the most successful students are those that are motivated to finish school with their own motivation, not because their school is about to cut their funding because they’re in the 5th year. Giving students more money for things they should be doing anyway encourages people to stick around PhD programs for WAY longer than they need to be around taking funding from other people/projects that haven’t been given a chance yet.

    1. ervinshiznit says:

      That’s true, but considering the research we contribute partly on the behalf on the university (and from an intellectual property standpoint, they own everything), we’re not getting paid anywhere near the fair market value, even if you include the value of tuition that we’re not paying (and as one of my professors from undergrad put it, graduate tuition money is “funny money”).

      That’s not to say that I think they need the proper motivation to begin with. Working on a problem for years is certainly something that requires motivated people. I just think that the pay isn’t reflective of the work we do.

    2. Emily says:

      Thanks a lot for your comment and the criticism of my idea! Like I said, it really is a dream, and you pointed out a lot of the potential issues. I wasn’t really thinking (and this wasn’t apparent in the post because I didn’t use numbers) that this would result in grad students being paid well or give them a reason to put off graduating. I was actually thinking that base stipends could be even lower and for the incentives to just provide some differentiation among student performance. But that could also run into problems if a student is underperforming but it’s beyond her control like advisor issues. So it’s not well-thought-out at this point, obviously! I think the strongest suggestions I made are the ones that reward the student for actions that directly affect the advisor/deptarment’s bottom line like winning fellowships or advancing more quickly through the program (assuming it results in an earlier graduation).

  5. I’m not that familiar with life as a PhD student, but I can empathize with there being lack of monetary incentive. I work in government. There really isn’t much incentive or merit rewards. It’s mainly based on seniority. I do the same type of work and often do more work than some who are paid more than me…solely because they’ve been here longer.
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    1. Emily says:

      That does sound rough. I guess it’s what you sign up for when you work for the gov, though (or go to grad school). I assume you have good enough pay or benefits that you choose to stay and can just refrain from eyeing what other people do/get. :/

  6. Kelly says:

    I see your point, though I kind of agree with Andnowlights. It is somewhat demoralizing to be at a grad school level of pay, particularly if grad school ends up being longer than you want through no fault of your own. At the same time, publishing papers and attending conferences are expectations that go with the territory in my opinion (fulfilling performance expectations vs. above and beyond resulting in a merit increase).

    But I do like the idea of pay raises after prelims – that does feel to me like there is a “promotion” of sorts as you are moving up a level and you are now a full-fledged PhD student.

    What is harder for me to grasp is how a STEM post-doc makes not that much more (sometimes only $5K starting out) than a straight out of bachelor’s technician, for 5-7+ more years of training and experience! Just have to comfort myself that postdocs have the opportunity to have larger jumps in salary at given points, whereas techs are limited to COL increases mostly.

    1. Emily says:

      I think the answer is to just get out of academia as fast as possible! Anything other than a TT job seems to be very underpaid, at least if they can argue it’s still training. If Kyle doesn’t get a postdoc at one of his top-choice labs I’m definitely going to be arguing for him to get a real job or an industry or national lab postdoc. Yes, the income potential for a PhD is much higher than for a BS even if they start out with the advantage to the BS… but after a while you realize potential doesn’t pay your rent!

  7. Grad school is kinda intimidating for me because students in this level do a lot of academic research and article review. More than that, they are expected to have mastered the field so they must know many experts/scholars and their work. My sister is a PhD student in UCLA they are required to attend conferences and receive additional points and to publish an article in journals. Such expectations!
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    1. Emily says:

      What are these “points” you speak of?

      Don’t be too intimidated! I’m sure with your sister in a PhD program you have a good idea of what goes on – mostly a grind. :/

  8. I found it very frustrating that the departments already assumed I knew what the “expectations for grad school” were. I had very little advisory counsel on where I was headed and what I was doing. I relied mostly on discussions with other members of the program to try and figure things out. I think sadly this is a result of the professors being their mostly to do their own research and not really to guide students.
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    1. Emily says:

      That is very similar to my story, I’m sorry to say. There is a wide range among professors in how much guidance they really give their own PhD students, and it’s a rare one who pays much attention to an undergrad or master’s student. I also didn’t handle things well on my end, especially coming from a program and previous labs that were much more hand-holding.

  9. I’ve always been grateful for the merit-based raises and bonuses I’ve received and could never understand why academia operates differently. When I worked at my university during grad school, I was staff, not faculty, and I definitely saw a discrepancy in our salaries. As staff, our salaries were market-rate and performance-based whereas the faculty seemed locked in based on their level (PhD, associate prof, assistant prof, etc) and not rewarded for their successes in the field. Not fair at all, in my opinion.
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    1. Emily says:

      That’s an interesting perspective. There do seem to be two classes/tracks within academia: faculty + trainees on the academic path like grad students, postdocs, and adjucts vs. staff. I’m glad you felt your salary was fair and that your accomplishments were financially acknowledged. I only know a handful of staff members at my university well but come to think of it I’ve never heard them complain about their pay as academics are wont to! I will definitely look into get a staff position at Kyle’s next university – I’d love to keep working at the same place as him.

  10. Shouldn’t your raises reflect your contributions? Granted being an academic is different. I know my brother in law does a lot of side grant work that brings more money. I think my year end bonus reflects how much incremental value I add to the company versus someone else.

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    1. Emily says:

      That’s a great situation for you, then! I’d love to have a steady salary and an potential bonuses. Yes, academia is very different. That’s a cool side business for your BIL – is he a grad student or in some other position?

  11. I really like your ideas! In graduate school in the arts or humanities, there are even less bonuses and financial incentives. I just got my M.A. but knew that I couldn’t pursue academia further. I wish that there were more incentives that reflected the market value and worth of the students.
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    1. Emily says:

      I hope you are finding more satisfaction with the expectations and pay in your post-MA jobs! I need to learn more about the lives and finances of grad students in those kinds of fields so I can write for them as well.

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