US public school physics PhD

  1. There is a PI at my institute who is amazing. She doesn't have funds for more than her 2 current students.

  2. My program is huge, and thus does not have the funds to support any PhD who doesn't get $$$ from their PI for research in the form of indefinite TA stipends. You are only ALLOWED to TA for your first 2 years. This is a huge point of concern for me: the only thing that kept me sane in my first year was teaching. I love it so much.

Given 2) would approaching her again with the following preposition be a legitimate way to work with her?

Working with her as her student but also working as an adjunct at a local community college?

concerns I have:

  • this would make my PhD take longer than if I were doing research full time (although arguably more enjoyable for me given 2), not that I haven't loved my research experiences in the past, but 2-4 years without teaching sounds awful)
  • would I be able to (reliably, there are only a few colleges in our area/not a city) make $20-30k as an adjunct to stay on par with what I would make as a TA now?

Edit after Buffy's points:

Regrading tuition the department says:

"If properly handled, PhD students do not pay tuitions, instead it is either waived, or paid by a research grant."

"Tuition costs for 6 credits at the in-state rate will be charged to the research grants as students move on to research appointments "

From the offer letter to the program:

"In addition to the offer of admission, we are offering you a position as a Teaching Assistant, for a maximum of four semesters. Thereafter, research grants are expected to provide research assistantships with a full stipend. We also will provide you with a full-tuition scholarship for the duration of your studies."

This is 2 year limit on TAing is actually rather common in larger departments nowadays.

  • 1
    Being an adjunct is not a way to earn a living. Seek fellowship funding or seek a PhD position at a better university that will fund you properly. Aug 22, 2021 at 18:32
  • 1
    As always, things vary by location widely. I supported myself entirely by adjunct teaching in NYC for about a decade, came with full medical benefits, etc. Aug 22, 2021 at 23:24
  • Isn't this what Phaedrus was doing in Chicago in Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance? Aug 23, 2021 at 20:01

4 Answers 4


Given 2) would approaching her again with the following preposition be a legitimate way to work with her?

Well, sure, it’s “legitimate”, and you are (by the sound of it) a grown-up and capable of deciding what’s good for you. But what you are suggesting sounds pretty exploitative to me (in the sense that you are offering yourself up to be exploited). Trying to put myself in the shoes of the professor, I don’t think I would feel very comfortable about being a party to such a scheme, knowing that that makes me a beneficiary of this type of exploitation, even if it was clear that you are entering into it willingly, and even if I did find the idea of working with you appealing in general. What I would end up actually doing in such a situation, I have no idea. Probably have a stern talk with my department chair and complain about how we are treating our grad students, and ask for their help in figuring out a more sensible solution, at the very least.

would I be able to (reliably, there are only a few colleges in our area/not a city) make $20-30k as an adjunct to stay on par with what I would make as a TA now?

I don’t know a whole lot about these sorts of things. But going on what I do know and the general stereotypes about adjunct work (which are certainly based on some kernels of truth at least), “reliably” and “adjunct” do not belong in the same sentence.

A couple more things that come to mind:

  1. Maybe one idea that comes to mind is to try to setup a co-advising arrangement where you work under this professor but also find a second professor interested in working with you and willing/able to provide the funding. The first professor herself might be able to help set this up if she wants to work with you, so you can ask her about it.

  2. I’m in a math department and we occasionally allow graduate students from the physics department to TA for math classes. Ask around if that’s an option where you are.

  • 1
    “reliably” and “adjunct” do not belong in the same sentence --- Do pass go, and do collect +1. Aug 24, 2021 at 8:13
  • Great points at the bottom of this answer! thank you :)
    – Lopey Tall
    Aug 26, 2021 at 16:00

This would be difficult. It would be easier and more profitable to do a work study position in your school, most likely. Most Adjuncts make low wages per course. You would likely need to take on 7-10 courses during the year to make the salary you described. This is not trivial.


Ack, this is a not-so-good situation. As in other answers and comments: no you will not be able to make a reasonable income from piecework teaching. It's not viable.


Some things surprise me. A time limit on serving as a TA seems odd. If the program is "huge" they probably need a lot of TAs. A lot of undergrads take physics, for example.

Also, if you aren't a TA (or RA, or such) then you will have to pay tuition. Even at State universities it isn't cheap anymore for residents of the state.

Then, there is the question of how much you can earn as an adjunct. I think you are overestimating it unless you do it full time - with no time or energy left over for your studies and research. Then subtract the tuition. Many adjunct positions don't come with benefits such as health care. A full time position at a community college would pay more and possibly make it feasible, though difficult.

As you present it, it doesn't seem feasible to me, but you may be wrong about the TA limitations. Most places will let you TA throughout your studies and will even make it more "interesting" later on, with responsibility for a course.

To make the same as an adjunct as you do as a TA is feasible, but the commitment is vastly different. Teaching 10-15 courses per year vs helping out or teaching two or three. Think of the time (and travel) issues.

I suggest that you look at other options and consider the trade-offs.

In thinking about why a university would impose a two year limit on TA positions, the only thing I can think of is that they have accepted far too many graduate students for the size of the institution. That seems like a red herring if it is the case. When I was a doctoral student (math - long long ago) the ratio of doctoral students to regular faculty was about 2-1.

  • 1
    I'll add that accepting a position as an adjunct might well be outside of the university's regs for PhD students. Aug 22, 2021 at 16:01
  • 1
    one thing to add that I should have clarified is that this is a STEM phd in the US, so I don't pay tuition
    – Lopey Tall
    Aug 22, 2021 at 16:35
  • that is a good point Scott, I had not thought of that, I figured how you are paid AFTER the department has fufilled its obligatory 2 years is between you and your PI
    – Lopey Tall
    Aug 22, 2021 at 16:36
  • I think you are mistaken about tuition. TAs (&RAs) don't pay tuition. But otherwise you almost certainly do. Grants may pay it, but you aren't getting a grant, it seems. Make sure you understand what you are getting in to. I think you have some misconceptions.
    – Buffy
    Aug 22, 2021 at 16:37
  • 1
    @danielhatton, yes, thanks. But an interesting typo.
    – Buffy
    Aug 23, 2021 at 20:12

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