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I have just been offered a spot in a 2-year full-time masters program at a university in the US. It is very research-focused with a requirement of only a few courses. In the admissions letter they also offer me a full research assistantship (RA) for up to 12 months and say that graduate students typically receive RA support for 2 years contingent on satisfactory performance. The work from the RA is integrated into the graduate course of study. It is somewhat confusing to me why the RA and the Masters program are kept separate as it seems like almost all students would also be a RA. I have two questions related to this:

  1. What are the benefits of this separation from the university's point of view - Is it mainly the ability to kick out students with bad performance?

  2. I may be able to acquire substantial external funding. The offer letter states that the stipend that I receive as a RA would only supplement any external funding to a specified level, meaning that my overall salary would remain unchanged. However, if I get substantial funding this could perhaps allow me to not have a RA/TA position for 3-12 months. Would this be of any use to me? For instance, could I perhaps not have an RA position over the summer to allow me to get some time off?

Edit: This is a prestigious university and my sense is that the department/research group does have good enough finances to provide funding for both years.

2. Edit: The funding is unconditional in the sense that it is simply awarded towards the masters degree without any specific requirements. It is a tradition in my home country to award young students with scholarships to assist them in taking education elsewhere. The organizations providing the scholarships then hope that these students return to their home country after their studies abroad (which many do).

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    It may be that the locus of the decision on RA funding and admission to the program are separate (e.g. a PI determines whether you get RA funding but a departmental committee determines whether you get admitted to the program.) – Brian Borchers Mar 6 '16 at 17:09
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    At my school, all budgeting is on a year-by-year basis, so even if we know that a grant will have money in future years, we only make one-year contracts for GA stipends. Our faculty also only have one-year contracts; having tenure means you are guaranteed another contract next year, but it does not mean that you have a multi-year contract. The key thing I would take from their statement is that they normally fund for two years. – Oswald Veblen Mar 8 '16 at 11:41
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This is very difficult to answer authoritatively because each program is different but here are some reasons:

  1. As @Brian Borchers noted, sometimes the admissions and RA funding committees are separate. At some universities, admissions is handled by the department while the RA funding has to be petitioned from the graduate school.

  2. At some places, the lack of funding in the 2+ year is a weeding mechanism. Weaker students aren't offered funding, so they are disappeared (or they pay full fare which is even better than disappearing).

  3. University or department finances may be such that they are not permitted to make a 2 year commitment. They hope that funding will continue but they are being cautious.

  4. They may hope that rather than a university RA position, you will be switched to an external grant funded RA position. They can make a stronger case for funding "unfunded" students this way.

  5. Something else.

The best thing for you to do is to talk to the director of graduate studies AS WELL AS to current graduate students in the program. People on the internet can't tell you which scenario it might be.

  • Thanks for the detailed answer! This is a somewhat prestigious university and my sense is that the department/research group does have good finances so this removes some of the different reasons. Do you have any answer to my second question? – pir Mar 7 '16 at 20:24
  • Note that there is no correlation between prestige and insecurity over financing. Even departments in the top R1s in the USA are having their budgets slashes, TA/RA positions minimized, and asked to consider consolidation. p.s. Re: 2nd question. You should ask one question per "question." I'd split the second question into its own post. – RoboKaren Mar 8 '16 at 17:44
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The university funding bodies have their own conditions on the use of the money. Id est, it is probably tied to certain projects, it can only be used for certain expenses, and so on. Plus, each professor would get a certain number of students, and you may not get to work with Prof. Smith, the coolest guy in the department.

If you bring your own funding, your possibilities grow. Your supervisor only needs time for you, as opposed to both time and money. Your funding would have different rules, but hopefully it would allow you to work on a topic of your interest (why would you apply for it otherwise).

Also, the conditions may be more beneficial, for example, you may have more travel funds available to you.

Why would you want to skip the university's RA altogether? I can think of two cases: their stipend means you have to work on something you don't like, or that the combined workload of both your grant and the university's is too much.

  • Please see my updated question. My funding does not have any rules, but there's not enough for the entire program. – pir Mar 8 '16 at 11:15
  • @pir it doesn't change what I said: if you are OK with the conditions of your stipend, you get two salaries; and if you don't like them, you can avoid them for a few months. – Davidmh Mar 8 '16 at 11:18
  • Ah, I think you missed an important point. The stipend from the university will only supplement external funding to the specified level, meaning that I will never be able to increase my salary. – pir Mar 8 '16 at 11:45
  • @pir I don't thing it changes anything. If your country grant pays you enough, you can live on it for a few months without having to do what the stipend requires of you. Having your own funding gives you more freedom of choosing how to spend it. – Davidmh Mar 8 '16 at 12:15
  • Ok. So you would think that it wouldn't be an issue to simply take a leave from the RA position or quit it a few months before finishing the degree? – pir Mar 8 '16 at 12:39
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By offering an RA-ship you are being given something additional, which is in the package. You can't avoid it. This additional will also determine the length of your annual contract which is tentatively considered as two years long.

After graduation, you would have gained two separate things MS degree and RA experience.

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