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what nonacademics should understand about taxing graduate school

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There are many bad provisions in the proposed tax legislation. This isn’t even the worst of them. But it’s the one that most directly affects my corner of the world. And, unlike the tax deduction for private jets, it’s one that can be hard for people outside of that world to understand.

That proposal is to tax tuition waivers for graduate students working as teaching or research assistants. Unlike graduate students in law or medical or business schools, graduate students in PhD programs generally do not pay tuition. Instead, a small number of PhD students are admitted each year. In exchange for working half-time as a TA or RA, they receive a tuition waiver and are also paid a stipend—a modest salary to cover their living expenses.

Right now, graduate students are taxed on the money they actually see—the $20,000 or so they get to live on. The proposal is to also tax them on the tuition the university is not charging them. At most private schools, or at out-of-state rates at most big public schools, this is in the range of $30,000 to $50,000.

I think a lot of people look at this and say hey, that’s a huge benefit. Why shouldn’t they be taxed on it? They’re getting paid to go to school, for goodness sakes! And a lot of news articles are saying they get paid $30,000 a year, which is already more than many people make. So, pretty sweet deal, right?

Here’s another way to think about it.

Imagine you are part of a pretty typical family in the United States, with a household income of $60,000. You have a kid who is smart, and works really hard, and applies to a bunch of colleges. Kid gets into Dream College. But wait! Dream College is expensive. Dream College costs $45,000 a year in tuition, plus another $20,000 for room and board. There is no way your family can pay for a college that costs more than your annual income.

But you are in luck. Dream College has looked at your smart, hardworking kid and said, We will give you a scholarship. We are going to cover $45,000 of the cost. If you can come up with the $20,000 for room and board, you can attend.

This is great, right? All those weekends of extracurriculars and SAT prep have paid off. Your kid has an amazing opportunity. And you scrimp and save and take out some loans and your family comes up with $20,000 a year so your kid can attend Dream College.

But wait. Now the government steps in. Oh, it says. Look. Dream College is giving you something worth $45,000 a year. That’s income. It should be taxed like income. You say your family makes $60,000 a year, and pays $8,000 in federal taxes? Now you make $105,000. Here’s a bill for the extra $12,000.

Geez, you say. That can’t be right. We still only make $60,000 a year. We need to somehow come up with $20,000 so our kid can live at Dream College. And now we have to pay $20,000 a year in federal taxes? Plus the $7000 in state and payroll taxes we were already paying? That only leaves us with $33,000 to live on. That’s a 45% tax rate! Plus we have to come up with another $20,000 to send to Dream College! And we’ve still got a mortgage. No Dream College for you.

This is the right analogy for thinking about how graduate tuition remission works. The large majority of students who are admitted into PhD programs receive full scholarships for tuition. The programs are very selective, and students admitted are independent young adults, who generally can’t pay $45,000 a year. Unlike students entering medical, law, or business school, many are on a path to five-figure careers, so they’re not in a position to borrow heavily. Most of them already have undergraduate loans, anyway.

The university needs them to do the work of teaching and research—the institution couldn’t run without them—so it pays them a modest amount to work half-time while they study. $30,000 is unusually high; only students in the most selective fields and wealthiest universities receive that. At the SUNY campus where I work, TAs make about $20,000 if they are in STEM and $16-18,000 if they are not. At many schools, they make even less. (Here are some examples of TA/RA salaries.)

Right now, those students are taxed on the money they actually see—the $12,000 to $32,000 they’re paid by the university. Accordingly, their tax bills are pretty low—say, $1,000 to $6,000, including state and payroll taxes, if they file as individuals.

What this change would mean is that those students’ incomes would go up dramatically, even though they wouldn’t be seeing any more money. So their tax bills would go up too—to something like $5,000 to $18,000, depending on their university. Some students would literally see their modest incomes cut in half. The worst case scenario is that you go a school with high tuition ($45,000) and moderate stipends ($20,000), in which case your tax bill as an individual would go up about $13,000. Your take-home pay has just dropped from $17,500 a year to $4,500.

What would the effects of such a change be? The very richest universities might be able to make up the difference. If it wanted to, Harvard could increase stipends by $15,000. But most schools can’t do that. Some schools might try to reclassify tuition waivers to avoid the tax hit. But there’s no straightforward way to do that.

Some students would take on more loans, and simply add another $60,000 of graduate school debt to their $40,000 of undergraduate debt before starting their modest-paying careers. But many students would make other choices. They would go into other careers, or pursue jobs that don’t require as much education. International students would be more likely to go to the UK or Europe, where similar penalties would not exist. We would lose many of the world’s brightest students, and we would disproportionately lose students of modest means, who simply couldn’t justify the additional debt to take a relatively high-risk path. The change really would be ugly.

All this would be to extract a modest amount of money—only about 150,000 graduate students receive such waivers each year—as part of a tax bill that is theoretically, though clearly not in reality, aimed at helping the middle class.

It is important for the U.S. to educate PhD students. Historically, we have had the best university system in the world. Very smart people come from all over the globe to train in U.S. graduate programs. Most of them stay, and continue to contribute to this country long after their time in graduate school.

PhD programs are the source of most fundamental scientific breakthroughs, and they educate future researchers, scholars, and teachers. And the majority of PhD students are in STEM fields. There may be specific fields producing too many PhDs, but they are not the norm, and charging all PhD students another $6,000-$11,000 (my estimate of the typical increase) would be an extremely blunt instrument for changing that.

Academia is a strange and relatively small world, and the effects of an arcane tax change are not obvious if you’re not part of it. But I hope that if you don’t think we should charge families tens of thousands of dollars in taxes if their kids are fortunate enough to get a scholarship to college, you don’t think we should charge graduate students tens of thousands of dollars to get what is basically the same thing. Doing so would basically be shooting ourselves, as a country, in the foot.

[Edited to adjust rough estimates of tax increases based on the House version of the bill, which would increase standard deductions. I am assuming payroll taxes would apply to the full amount of the tuition waiver, which is how other taxable tuition waivers are currently treated. Numbers are based on California residence and assume states would continue not to tax tuition waivers. If anyone more tax-wonky than me would like to improve these estimates, feel free.]

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Written by epopp

November 18, 2017 at 5:29 pm

it’s not you, it’s the job market

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It is very hard for young people to not take the job market personally. If you get interviewed and you get turned down, you can always ask: “What could I have done differently?” This is a very bad way to look at things. Why? Because in many cases, you can be perfect and still not get the job. Why? There are way more good candidates than jobs.

A real example. A few years ago, Indiana sociology did a job search in Fish Science.* So we advertised for Fish Scientists and, man, oh man, did we get a great batch of junior level Fish Scientists. The top twenty or thirty Fish Science applicants has pubs in American Fish Review, the American Journal of Fish and Social Fish.** The output of the top ten Fish Scientists would outpace any program in the country. It was amazing. Then we flew out three amazing Fish Scientists. And, once again, they had some amazing Fish research. Solid stuff.

So we settled on a young Fish Scientist and zey turned out amazing. Great colleague, good in the classroom and zey continued to do top notch Fish Science. Sometime last year, I decided to check in on the other junior Fish Scientists. Of course, I couldn’t remember everyone but I did remember a fair number of the top 20. Almost every single one I could remember continued to publish. Some went to other top 10 or 20 programs and have become starts in Fish Science.

Lesson? We often pretend that we picked the #1 absolutist and bestest candidate. But the truth is that many people could do the job and excel. I am happy with the Fish Scientist that we got, but I could easily imagine others doing well in that job or doing well in my job. If you are on the other side, it is easy to tell yourself stories but the truth is that the process is random and noisy. Job markets are like weather patterns, broad in outline but chaotic at the local level.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!

*No, it is not an allusion to animals and society, or the person who wrote about the auto-ethnography of playing with their dog. And no, we didn’t do a search in ichthyology.

** Of course, we should also include Fish Problems.***

*** Ok, ok, let’s include Fishography. Happy now?

Written by fabiorojas

November 17, 2017 at 5:00 am

yes, even mediocre students deserve letters of recommendation

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Yes, I believe that letters of recommendation are garbage. But if we continue to require letters, faculty have a moral obligation to write them. Why? Part of being an educator is to evaluate students for the public and as long as they subsidize us professors, we need to satisfy the external demand for assessment.

Sadly, many professors take an opposite view. Students often report that professors turn them down. That happened to me all the time in graduate school. Letters were a precious commodity reserved for the best students. That is simply wrong.  In a great post at Scatter, Older Woman explains why you should write letters for most students:

The combination of a high workload per student who needs references and claims that all letters should be excellent or not written at all leads many instructors to refuse to write letters for any but A students or students they know well.  But is this fair?

Her answer?

There are a lot of graduate and professional programs out there with widely varying degrees of selectivity. Virtually all of them require three letters of reference for an application to be complete. Getting those three letters is a nightmare for some students because they have trouble tracking down their past instructors and some they do track down refuse to write for them for reasons ranging from the student’s mediocrity to the instructor’s sabbatical or general busyness. I have had conversations in which I tell a student that the letter I could write for them would not be a very good letter and the student would say: I don’t care what it says, I just need three letters. I’ve also talked to honors students who have done independent projects and have one or two excellent letters nailed down who are still desperately shopping for somebody, anybody, to write their third letter, because no matter how good the first two letters are, the application will not be complete without the third.

My view is that all of us who are regular faculty (either tenure track or non-contingent adjuncts) should treat writing letters of reference as an often-annoying but important part of our job. These letters should be honest, and we certainly owe it to the student to tell them honestly if the letter we would be able to write would be tepid or contain negative information that would not help them. We also owe it to the student to ask them about their plans, about their perceptions of the selectivity of the program they are applying to, and whether they have done their homework in selecting a program that fits their qualifications. But if the student feels they want or need the letter anyway after this disclosure and discussion, we should write the letter.

Correct! Basically, letters are not the special property of A students. Many graduate programs simply want to know that the person did decently. Instructors are not required to write special letters for everyone. Most students just want a few sentences explaining that they showed up and did relatively decently. In fact, I think it is totally ok to write one form letter for decent, but not great, students that you can customize as you see fit. It is a requirement for large, public institutions.

Heck, you can even write short and honest letters for crummy students. A real example: In my first year teaching, a dude name Jiffy* asked me for a letter. He was a really weak student. C in intro sociology and seemed spaced out. I said, “sure, but the letter will reflect your current grade – C.” He said that was totally ok. All he wanted was a study abroad letter and all it needed to say was that he attended class and was passing. And so I wrote that letter. All I wrote was a paragraph saying that he showed up to class and would answer questions if called upon. That’s it.

I never did hear back from Jiffy but I Googled him a year ago. He’s now a successful dentist. And you know what, if I helped some dentist enjoy a semester abroad, that’s not a bad thing.

Bottom line: Quit your whining and write that letter. If you don’t think it is part of the job, get another job.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!

*Not a real name.

Written by fabiorojas

November 16, 2017 at 5:08 am

Posted in academia, fabio, teaching

new post-doc program in inequality at harvard

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From the home office in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a new post-doc is announced. An excerpt from the program description:

Social and economic inequality are urgent problems for our society, with implications for a range of outcomes from economic growth and political stability to crime, public health, family wellbeing, and social trust. The Inequality in America Initiative Postdoctoral Program seeks applications from recent PhD recipients interested in joining an interdisciplinary network of Harvard researchers who are working to address the multiple challenges of inequality and uncover solutions.

The postdoctoral training program is intended to seed new research directions; facilitate collaboration and mentorship across disciplines; develop new leaders in the study of inequality who can publish at the highest level, reach the widest audience, and impact policy; and deepen teaching expertise on the subject of inequality.

The Award

The fellowship is a two-year postdoctoral training program, with an optional third year conditional on program director approval and independent funding. The salary is $65,000/year plus fringe benefits, including health insurance eligibility.

The award will include appropriate office space; a one-time grant of $2500 for the purchase of computer equipment; a $10,000 research account to support research-related expenses; and up to $2500 per year reimbursement for research-related travel.

Check it out!

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!

Written by fabiorojas

November 15, 2017 at 5:01 am

sociological science v. plos one

A few days ago, the Sociological Science editors released a report that discusses their journal’s performance over the last three years. I was also reading an interview with the editor of PLoS One, Joerg Heber, These two items show how these journals operate in different ways and the long term results of their editorial policy choices. Before I move on, I want to thank each journal for making their work transparent. Sociological Science and PLoS One have shown how to do scientific publishing in ways that make editorial decisions more transparent.

PLoS One: The idea is here is simple. PLoS One will only evaluate papers based on technical criteria and ethical standards. In other words, they only thing that is judged is whether the evidence in the paper actually matches the claim of the paper. No judgment is made about whether it is “high impact.” Basically, if it is competent, it gets published, assuming the authors are willing to pay the fees. Papers are blind reviewed, but authors are given many, many chances to fix flaws until either (a) the author gives up or (b) all flaws are addressed.

Long term impact? PLoS One now publishes about 20,000 papers a year. Acceptance rate? 50% in 2016, down from about 66% in earlier years. PLoS has published fewer papers than before, probably due to the rise of Science Advances (the open access branch of Science).  Also, PLoS One has a decent impact factor (2.8 in 2016) given that, by design, they published a lot of marginal materials.

Sociological Science: Also a simple idea – send us a paper, they peer review fast and give you a “yes or no.” There are no revisions. Then, after you pay the publication fee, it goes open access. The result? They get 100-200 papers a year and publish about 20-25% of them. The impact factor is not reported (I may have missed it).

Perhaps the most interesting thing that I saw in the Sociological Science report was an analysis of the “most senior co-author.” They find that 47% of the top co-authors are full professors. This is insane, given that full professors, by design, a small fraction of the population of sociologists and many of them no longer publish because they are deadwood or administrators. Post-docs should be all over Sociological Science since they are desperate for jobs and have a lot of new work. This fits my impression, expressed on Facebook, that Sociological Science tilts towards research that is more established. It makes sense given the editorial model. If you are shooting for well done articles but only give “up or down” decisions with no revision, you select out for older authors and more established work.

A comparison of both journals shows that open access publishing is successful. If you want a public repository of peer reviewed work, the PLoS One is clearly a winner. Sociological Science seems to have taken the position of a well regarded specialty journal, with an emphasis on more established authors. That is good too.

Readers know that I am a “journal pluralist.” I am very happy that we have both of these publications. Three cheers for Sociological Science and three cheers for PLoS One.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome 

 

Written by fabiorojas

October 5, 2017 at 12:01 pm

response to gelman on what retraction does and does not do

In our recent discussion about retraction, Andrew Gelman wrote the following:

I’m on record as saying that retraction is not much of a solution to anything given that it’s performed so rarely.

So I agree with you, I guess, and I’d probably go further and say that we can’t realistically expect papers that are fraudulent or fatally erroneous. Again, the problem is that there are so many papers that are fraudulent or fatally erroneous, that most of them aren’t gonna get retracted anyway.

We have to get away from the whole idea that, just cos a paper is published in a serious journal (even a top journal), that it’s correct or even reasonable. Top journals regularly publish crap. They publish good stuff too, but they also publish a lot of crap. And, to the extent that retraction is a way to “protect the brand,” I’m against it.

This comment made me think about the problem with litigation – while it may help the plaintiff achieve an outcome, it rarely solves any broader problem. This is because taking people to court is a lengthy, expensive and inefficient process. Retraction is really similar. It is simply not a tool meant for more systematic monitoring of academic work. It is a blunt tool meant only for really extreme cases.

What would I suggest? 1. Encourage openness and replication. 2. Institute rules so people can share data. 3. Create systems were discussions of papers can be appended to papers. These are all less expensive and more decentralized ways to monitor work.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome 

Written by fabiorojas

October 4, 2017 at 4:01 am

why is it bad to retract non-fraudulent and non-erroneous papers?

It is bad to demand the retraction non-fraudulent papers. But why? I think the argument rests on three intuitions. First, there is a legal reason. When an editor and publisher accept a paper, they enter into a legal contract. The authors produces the paper and the publisher agrees to publish. To rescind publication of a paper is to break a contract, except in cases of fraud. The other exception is error in analysis that invalidates the paper’s claim (e.g., a math paper that has a non-correctable flaw in a proof or mis-coded data whose corrections leads to an entirely new conclusion – even then, maybe the paper should just be rewritten).

Second, there is a pragmatic reason. When you cater to retraction demands, outside of fraud and extreme error, you then undermine the role of the editor. Basically, an editor is given the position of choosing papers for an audience. They are not obligated to accept or reject any papers except those they deem interesting or of high quality. And contrary to popular belief, they do not have to accept papers that receive good reviews nor must they reject papers that receive bad reviews. Peer review is merely advisory, not a binding voting mechanism, unless the editor decides to simply let the majority rule. Thus, if editors ceded authority of publishing to the “masses,” they would simply stop being editors and more like advertisers, who cater to the whims of the public.

Third, I think it is unscholarly. Retraction is literally suppression of speech and professors should demand debate. We are supposed to be the guardians of reason, not the people leading the charge for censorship.

So what should you do if you find that a journal publishes bad, insulting or inflammatory material? Don’t ask for a retraction. There are many proper responses. Readers can simply boycott the journal, by not reading it or citing it. Or they can ask a library to stop paying for it. Peers can agree to stop reviewing for it or to dissociate themselves from the journal. A publisher can review the material and then decide to not renew an editor’s contract. Or if the material is consistently bad, they can fire the editor.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome 

Written by fabiorojas

September 21, 2017 at 4:01 am