How and why students at US universities get funded
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Most prospective students have a vague idea that many students at US universities are funded as Teaching or Research assistants or via scholarships or fellowships. This post analyzes why US university system funds its students. If you understand the inner workings of funding, you have a better chance of securing it.
Some Universities award fellowships that are combined with tuition waiver and no work is expected in return. Needless to say, these fellowships are awarded to the best of incoming students and are very competitive. Some fellowship criteria could be decided by the donor and all students may not qualify.
Key information: Best Universities want their best students to give best research output without any burden to worry about working for their livelihood. So they simply give free money to the best.
A teaching assistantship involves helping a Professor with Labs and grading. It may involve actual teaching. TA gets a salary which may include tuition waiver and health insurance benefits.
Key information: Universities need reasonably cheap and qualified people to help with the teaching work. TA work is managed by department as a whole, not by individual professors. PhD students, and those who have excelled in concerned course earlier, are preferred. Never contact any Professor for TAship.
A research assistantship involves helping a Professor with research work. An RA is expected to complete research related tasks as assigned. RA gets a salary which may include tuition waiver and health insurance benefits. If you work as an RA with your own advisor, the RA work could be combined with your own MS and PhD thesis, so it saves some precious time.
Key information: Most of the innovative work at universities is actually done by RAs. It won’t be wrong to say that to some extent RAs make USA a superpower. And they cost very less. So the US Govt generously funds such jobs via NSF and other govt agencies who fund research work at the universities. Individual professors can apply for various grants that can support many RAs at any given time. This is the best hope for most of you. So it is important to write the SOP very carefully clearly mentioning the research interests.
Students may be employed by other departments or offices in the University on similar salary and tuition waiver as TA or RA, but they do not teach or conduct research. These positions are called GA or GANT (Graduate Assistant Non-Teaching). It is like a part time job. The schedules could be worked out every semester to avoid conflict with studies and exams.
Key information: In order to effectively function Universities need a lot of semi-educated cheap labor. If they hire staff they have to pay a lot more and will have complications like pension etc. Students are motivated and cheap – so universities hire a lot of them in various roles like Library assistants, Computer operators, receptionists, drivers and so on. For this type of funding one needs to keep trying. Making a lot of friends helps, because typically when a GA quits, his or her supervisor just hire someone they refer as a good worker, not really the best available candidate.