Erika Fong, a fourth-year computational and systems biology student, is currently deciding between doctorate offers from programs across the country.
UCLA’s offer sticks out: It is the only university that did not offer her any initial funding.
Each UCLA department offers its students different types of funding. These include fellowships, also known as merit-based awards, and teaching and research assistantships. Students can also obtain funding through financial aid, extramural fellowships and other jobs on campus.
Due to budget cuts and increased student fees, it is becoming increasingly difficult for departments to fund UCLA graduate students, said Claudia Mitchell-Kernan, vice chancellor of graduate studies.
More and more students are now taking out loans to pay for their graduate studies.
Currently, over 85 percent of doctorate students receive funding from UCLA, said Mitchell-Kernan.
But this percentage may soon decrease as department expenses increase while budgets remain the same or lower, Mitchell-Kernan said.
Though Fong said she will not base her decision on funding, she is concerned that UCLA is not guaranteeing her any financial support.
Fong is choosing between bioengineering and biomedical engineering programs at UCLA, UC Irvine and Boston University. Both UC Irvine and Boston University have guaranteed her more than $20,000 of funding for the first year, while if she decides to stay at UCLA, Fong would need to find funding through outside fellowships and teaching assistantships.
“The UCLA bioengineering department has less money, which makes finding funding more difficult and stressful,” Fong said.
Fong said she is lucky, however: Since she worked in a laboratory as an undergraduate, she will be able to be a teaching assistant for the classes taught by the lab’s principal investigator.
A teaching assistantship covers student fees and tuition, and grants students a monthly stipend. Because of the increase in fees, it now costs departments more money to fund teaching assistants, and because their budgets have not increased, they cannot fund as many students.
The slow decline in teaching assistantships is a major problem facing the political science department, said Joseph Brown, the graduate student affairs officer of political science.
“There is no guarantee that students will be able to TA. It is very competitive,” he said.
Due to the state of the economy, it has also become more difficult for students to obtain fellowships, making TAships even more desirable, Brown said.
“In a good economy, top students apply for fellowships so they won’t have to TA,” Brown said. “Because there are fewer fellowships offered, these students are now TAing and taking away TA spots from other students.”
For the 2010-2011 class, the percentage of students receiving funding will remain, as in past years, at approximately 50 percent, Brown said. But this is only because the class size has decreased from over 20 students to 15-17, due to budget cuts.
Though UCLA is facing hardships, the university is determined to continue providing students with offers that are comparable to competitive institutions.
“Based on the merit and strength of an applicant, most students receive between two to five years of support,” Mitchell-Kernan said.
There are university departments that are increasing graduate funding. UCLA’s graduate division, for example, has increased the number of special fellowships it offers to students in the upcoming year, Mitchell-Kernan added.
Some departments have also not been hit as hard as others.
Zachary Burkett, a master’s student in integrative biology and physiology, has had no trouble obtaining funding.
Last year, Burkett worked as a teaching assistant for the life science core classes, and this year, his lab has been paying him to work as a full-time graduate student researcher.
“I came to graduate school to do research, so it’s been great to get funding without having to TA,” Burkett said.
For many graduate students in the sciences, whether they receive funding depends on how many discretionary funds the principal investigator in their lab has, Mitchell-Kernan said.
“I have been very fortunate, despite economic issues,” Burkett said.
“The main problem for my friends is summer, because there are fewer TAships. Some are looking for jobs outside the university, such as waitressing, and others are simply going home for the summer because they can’t afford staying,” he added.