Yesterday I found myself face to face with a lost sheep: a PhD student who wants to do research on a topic we currently have no funding for. He’s got a reasonably cool research idea, and I like the guy. He’s sharp. A few years ago, I would have said “OK, let’s start meeting weekly and work to refine the idea. I don’t have funding for this at the moment, but you can be a teaching assistant for a while, and we’ll look for money later. We need a better idea of what you’re doing before we can look for money for it.” That is the way of the past. As funding gets tighter, the faculty have been informed that we can no longer have unfunded students, even temporarily. So instead I said to him yesterday, “I don’t suppose you have any interest in broadening participation in computing? Cause we have money for that….” Nope, what I have funds for has no relation to what he wants to work on. Can I help him with what he’s really passionate about? Nope, no money. “Try asking another faculty member,” I advised him. Everyone else told him the same thing. There’s no way any longer to support *his* idea–it’s got to be faculty member’s idea that already has money in hand.
Selecting a topic for your PhD dissertation is critical. You need something promising, but do-able within the time available. It has to be something you really care about, but also something that your advisor cares about and is reasonably knowledgable about. It’s already a highly constrained problem. Needing funding from Day One complicates things further. If I need to find the money before the student, then I need to organize PhD admissions around finding the best fit for my particular project. That may not be the best student available–it’s just the one who fits. It feels backwards–buy the shoes first, and then look for someone with the right size feet. It’s also not a time efficient process. If a grant proposal takes six months to be evaluated and I can’t hire someone until the money is in hand, then I may have to wait up to a year to find the person who fits in those shoes. My annual report for year one I fear will end up saying “so far I think we’ve found someone who might want to work on this. We haven’t spent any of the money yet. Can you give us an extra year?” And what if I make an offer of admission to the one person who fits those shoes, and they choose a different graduate program? My fear is that this will lead to 1) lots of unhappy students working on projects that are not their first choice, and 2) lots of projects with no labor available for a medium to long amount of time.
Are other departments restructuring the relationship between PhD students and funding? How are you approaching it? Our system is in flux, so all suggestions are appreciated.