When I started as a professor at Davis 20 years ago, the cost of in-state graduate student fees was $5,037 per year (including health insurance of $966/year). Today they are $19,378 (including $5,472/year in health insurance). Add an additional $15,102 if the student is from out of state or international for a whopping $34.5K/year. To be clear the faculty advisor pays this cost, NOT the graduate student. And that does not cover a stipend for the student to actually live. A 50% teaching assistantship pays around $2,583 per month, or $30,995 per year. So faculty need to budget $19,378 + $30,995 = $50,373 per year for in-state graduate students and $65,475 per year for out of state and foreign students. Whereas a first year postdoc salary, where the scholar already has their PhD and who works 100% time and takes no classes, is $55,632 salary + $11,905 benefits = $67,537/year.

So there is now a perverse incentive to employ postdocs rather than train graduate students, especially foreign graduate students, which leaves the obvious question of who is going to train graduate students? When hiring a graduate student at 50% time is almost the same cost as hiring a 100% time postdoc something is wrong with the system. In times past, graduate student fees for students on research assistantships used to be paid by the State on so-called “19900” funds, a benefit that was quietly eliminated last year. And way back when I did my graduate training in the 1990s as a foreign student the University waived my out-of-state tuition, rather than charging my faculty advisor. I can foresee a time when it will be cost-prohibitive for faculty to train graduate students, especially foreign students.

This is especially true if faculty are using extramural grant funds that have been charged full overhead, which is currently set at 59.5%, and will be 60% in 2023. What this means is that for each $100,000 in grant funds, only $40,500 is available as direct costs to pay salaries and benefits, the remainder goes to indirect costs.  So faculty effectively need to bring in $95,810 of extramural research funds annually to cover the expenses of a single year of an in-state graduate student, of which a total of ~$65K does not go the student ($45,477 goes to indirect costs, and $19,378 goes to fees and health insurance). And that does not begin to pay research expenses associated with the student’s project.

One way out of this is to have the graduate student take a teaching assistantship which covers their fees and stipend for the quarters in which they are teaching. But by definition they are working 50% time teaching during that quarter which leaves little time for research.

When I started as a professor 20 years ago this month, graduate students were a very small part of the research budget, because for the most part their fees were covered by the State, and the faculty were typically only responsible for the stipend. Training graduate students is a core part of the University’s mission. But it really is becoming cost-prohibitive to take on new graduate students and given projected increases in overhead rates and fees, I do not see this situation improving.