Most graduate students receive their funding through the PSU physics department as Graduate assistants (either as Teaching Assistant or Research Assistant). Some students bring their own funding in form of scholarships or fellowships, such as NSF Fellowships or other organizations. Moreover, PennState offers its own fellowships/scholarships that cover tuition & salary, which is sometimes only offered for the first year and sometimes for the whole PhD. Additionally, PennState and the Physics Department offer cash prizes for excellent performance in Research, Teaching and Outreach that are paid on top of the regular assistantships or fellowship.
This document tries to give an overview of the various funding sources available to PennState graduate students. We will try to keep it up-to-date, but we cannot guarantee that all information are accurate and up-to-date in the future. This summary is mainly meant to collect relevant references and give a good idea of what a PSU physics graduate student can expect in terms of funding. Please refer to official department information for more detailed information. Let us stress that this article would not have been possible without the support and advice of Professor Robinett (Director of Graduate Studies) and Ms Deering (Graduate Coordinator).
PSU funding for fall & spring
Fall and spring semesters.
The funding discussed here is provided during the fall semester (August till December) and/or the spring semester (January till May). This means this funding alone pays you only during 10 months during the year. To receive a salary during summer, you will need to find summer support through teaching or through a research assistantship. You could also use this time to do an internship in a company or lab, or you could travel through the world. It all depends on what you want to do and if you need a salary to cover your expenses or if you can live on savings during that time.
Why you need graduate assistantships.
Graduate assistantships are usually available to provide financial support during spring and fall semesters. Having an assistantship will automatically enroll you in PSU Student Health Insurance (unless one declines by showing evidence for another health insurance). The health insurance is covered for the full year (if you teach spring and fall) and is highly subsidized by Penn State. If you have any dependents, their health insurance will also be subsidized, but you need to enroll them yourself. More information can be found on the website. Another important feature of the graduate assistantships is the coverage of your full tuitions, which can be up to around 16,000 $ per semester for non-PA students (including international students). Finally, graduate assistantships allow you to apply for the Summer Assistance Tuition Program (STAP) which covers your tuition during summer semesters if you need to take official credits during summer (for instance, because you want to schedule your comprehensive exam during summer). In summery, graduate assistantships pay you and ensure that all tuition costs are covered.
Types of graduate assistantships and their salary.
There are two types of graduate assistantships:
- Teaching Assistants (TA)
A teaching assistant is usually hired as half-time position with a maximum of 20 hours of teaching per week. Realistically, teaching will take 10-20 hours per week on a rather variable schedule depending on what classes you are responsible for and what the course instructor asks you to do (recitations, TA meetings, gradings, lecture substitutions, proctering, attending lectures, office hours, LRC hours etc.). In most cases, the work is fairly pleasant and quite professional. You get to know students and you can really make a difference in their education. Depending on your work load, you will have also time to do research and/or to take classes. It is important to note that the tuition coverage through this program does not really involve money, because the department is reimbursed for their tuition coverage by the university to which the tuition is paid. This is a big difference to most research assistantships where the tuition coverage is actually paid from your advisor’s grant money that goes straight to the University.
Salary: Teaching Assistants are usually paid as rank 13 of the minimal salary for half-time positions in the following table. In 2014/2015, this is at 9,382.50$ (per spring or fall semester) with monthly payments 1,876.50$ (before tax).
- Research Assistants (RA)
A research assistant is usually hired as half-time position with theoretical maximum of 20 hours of work per week. Realistically, you are paid by your advisor and you will need to agree on a realistic workload. Usually, research assistantships are a great opportunity to do lots of research without having any other responsibilities. Research assistantships are usually paid by your advisor or some faculty that you will work for during the time of your assistantships. In particular, they will also have to cover your tuition during that semester which can be up to around 16,000 $ depending on if you are a PA resident or not. However, once you have passed your comprehensive exam, you only have a dissertation fee (unless you are still taking classes for credit) which is less than 2,000 $. Because of this, many faculty advisors will only start hiring you as research assistants once you have passed your comprehensive exam. Also remember that tuition coverage involved real money because it is actually paid from your advisors grant to the university. Also keep in mind that the actual money that is paid to the university is often twice or even more than what you get, because using grant money also leads to an overhead payment and additionally Penn State charges some fees (around 13% during the semester) on top of the research assistantship payment.
Salary: Research Assistants are usually paid as rank 14 of the minimal salary for half-time positions in the following table. In 2014/2015, this is at 9,855.00$ (per spring or fall semester) with monthly payments 1,971.00$ (before tax).
Example: Let’s assume your advisor has a grant of 100,000$ and hires you as research assistant after you passed your comprehensive exam. Your salary will be 9,855.00$ and your PhD Dissertation Fee (Tutition after passing your comprehensive exam) will be 1,845$ making a total of 11,700$. However, due to additional fees the university will actually charge your advisor around 13% on top of that, so that your advisor will need to pay around 13,221$ for you. Finally, depending on the grant the university also charges an overhead of roughly 50% which means that your advisor can actually only use roughly half of the original grant which would be around 50,000$. At this stage, you will probably understand why faculty advisors will need to be very careful how to allocate their money.
There are some options to have a quarter RA and a quarter TA at the same time. In this case, tution coverage etc. will need to be decided by your advisor together with the physics department. Your teaching workload will be roughly half of the regular one which means less than 10 hours per week. It is important that you discuss various funding possibilities to find an optimal solution to benefit your research and educational success as well as your advisors grant size.
PSU funding during summer
Summer funding is usually more flexible than the funding during spring and fall semester. In particular, your advisor can individually decide on how much he/she wants to pay you as research assistant. Moreover, you are also free not to be funded at all and use the time during summer instead to do internship or to travel the world. Keep in mind that your health insurance is subsidized and paid through your salary during spring & fall semester, but you are still covered during the summer months even if you don’t receive university funding.
If you decide to work at the university, there are basically three options to receive funding during summer:
- Regular Teaching assistantships
There are usually summer TA packages that are comparable to a quarter TA with approximately 10 hours per week. Most of these packages consist of teaching plus some work for the department (like helping to design a new lab course etc.). There are even options to only teach half of summer (only around 5 of the 9 weeks period), but twice the amount (approximately less than 20 hours per week). These are limited, but might be very attractive if you want to travel a bit or attend conferences without waiving funding. Either way, the payment for summer TAs in the standard package is at 2,500$. Other options need to be discussed directly with the department.
- Course instructor for summer courses
For advanced graduate students (after passing the comprehensive, often only in their final or pre-final year), there is the option to work as lecturer for summer physics courses. These are more work, but also pay a bit more (even though usually not as much as an equivalent half RA position). It is a great opportunity to earn teaching experience on a more advanced level. Is expected to be very helpful if you want to apply for teaching positions later on (instead of more research focused academic career).
- Research assistant
Finally, your advisor can pay during the summer as research assistant. In contrast to spring & fall support, there are usually no tuition costs involved because you can use the Summer Tuition Assistance Program (STAP) to cover possible expenses for summer tuition (or you just don’t take any credits). Furthermore, your advisor is fairly free to decide on the amount he wants to support you. The standard rates for quarter RA and half RA can be checked in the following table under rank 14 for summer session. In 2014/2015, they are at 3,276.00$ for quarter time and at 6,552.00$ for half time. However, your advisor is pretty free to decide some other amounts.
- First summer package
For graduate students after their first year, there is a standard summer package where the department pays 1,500 $ and you are usually expected to teach with the regular package for 2,500$ totalling 4,000$ of financial support during summer. This allows you to do research with a faculty advisor without requiring any financial commitment of him/her. This is a great opportunity to get started into research.
PSU Fellowships & Scholarships
Beside the funding mentioned above, the University also provides additional financial support through Fellowships & Scholarships. There are two types of this support:
- Full support replacing TA/RA positions
There are great funding options that you are automatically considered for when you apply for graduate studies at Penn State, but there also some University fellowships that you can apply yourself once you arrived at Penn State. In either case, full support refers to the feature that you will not have to teach or be paid by your advisor (of course, you are still expected to work hard by doing research and/or taking classes). Most fellowships (often called University or Graduate Fellowships) are only for the first year of graduate studies and are not extended beyond this time, but there are also some that fund you for more years. Such full support fellowships are in many ways equivalent to a TA/RA position, namely you will receive the subsidies for your health insurance, you will be able to apply for the Summer Tuition Assistance Program in summer and you are paid by the university every month.
Most scholarships/fellowships of the university pay roughly 16,500-17,500$ (over 10 months period covering fall and spring semesters) plus some extra fellowship money provided by the department (ranging between 0-8000$). This money is usually directly deposited into your bank account (split in one half for each semester). Depending on your nationality and tax treaties, such fellowships might have significant tax advantages beside the fact that you are paid without needing to teach.
- Top up bonuses for outstanding performance
Furthermore, you can receive smaller cash prizes of a few thousand dollars on top of your regular salary (via TA/RA). These are provided through the graduate school or the department. Most graduate students receive a welcome bonus for their first year as part of their offer letter. Additionally, excellent students based on their first year performance (mainly grades) are automatically considered for the David H. Rank Memorial Physics Award of slightly less than 1,000$. Finally, every fall semester (in October) all graduate students are invited to apply for additional funding of a few thousand dollars that are provided by the graduate school and/or the department. Selection happens based on performance in coursework and research which means that usually a recommendation letter by your faculty advisor will be required. All graduate students are informed about the decisions in November.