Bargaining with grad schools
February 17, 2005 7:07 PM   Subscribe

I'm in the process of applying to grad school this coming september and have already received two letters of acceptance. One of the two offers is better than the other--however, I would rather attend the other school. How do I go about trying to encourage them to match or better their offer?

I will be visiting their campus this coming week to meet with a number of professors, so I'll be in the area. Who do I talk to? How do I broach this matter?
posted by vernondalhart to Education (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Can you be a bit more specific? What field? And where are the schools located -- the difference in the cost of living may mitigate the difference in the amount of the offers. Also, were the offers fellowships or assistantships?

There are a lot of different options for funding, but they depend a lot on the field; and they might not depend so much on the particular department.
posted by casu marzu at 7:26 PM on February 17, 2005

If you have a chance to talk to the chair, talk to the chair. Otherwise, you want to talk to the head of the admissions committee. You can probably figure out who that is from their website. Be direct, but not crass. The way you stated it here is fine.

Remember, they've already show their hand: they want you. It's completely possible (even likely) that they have some extra money set aside for people just like you. They've definitely seen this before, and they won't lose any respect for you simply because you're taking some practical factors into consideration.
posted by mr_roboto at 7:28 PM on February 17, 2005

Just be friendly and forthcoming. Let them know you have a tough decision. You prefer their program but you have an offer of aid from a different school.

As Mr Roboto said, since they have accepted you they will now and try to get you to come. If the funds are available, they may try to make an offer.

As long as you are honest and forthcoming there should be no problems, and they will either sweeten the deal or not based on their ability to do so. The only time I have ever seen this backfire on a student is when they were too cocky about their own perceived value and managed to alienate the faculty in the process. Otherwise these are normal discussions for the grad schools to have this time of year, especially for highly desirable students.
posted by Tallguy at 7:37 PM on February 17, 2005

Talk to the admissions counselor or financial aid of your desired school (or the department chair, if that's what they do in grad school) and let them know. My son is entering college in the fall and an old friend who works in college administration said that this kind of thing is not at all uncommon (playing off one school's financial package off against another's).
posted by Doohickie at 7:38 PM on February 17, 2005

I've definitely heard of this kind of thing. I went to a "So You Want to Go to Grad School" thing this winter (I want to go the year after next) and one of the people who came to talk had literally just asked for some scholarship money, and they were like, Okay, here you go.
So asking? Can't hurt.
posted by SoftRain at 7:41 PM on February 17, 2005

Well, my best guess is that you would want to find out who's on the admissions committee for your incoming class, and talk to them. They're usually the ones who decide which prospective students get which fellowships. In all likelyhood, the chair of the admissions committee signed your letter of acceptance.

That said, here's some unsolicited advice which you're welcome to take or leave. First, make sure that the "better offer" is really better — cost of living can make a huge difference in the amount of money you have left to lead the archetypical "student lifestyle". For example, Stanford may give you a higher stipend than Cornell, but once you factor into cost of living in Palo Alto you might end up worse off there. Try to meet some fellow grad students when you visit, and ask them what their thoughts are on the subject.

Second, from my (limited) experience, you may not have too much luck twisting the admissions committee's arm. (My experience consists of sitting on the graduate admissions committee for my program, once, about two years ago.) Generally, if an admissions committee thinks you're a good catch, they'll make you the best offer they can; and the pot of money they have to hand out is pretty limited. Don't take this the wrong way, but there are, in all likelyhood, umpteen other talented people with backgrounds pretty much identical to yours, but would prefer the lower-paying school even without their deals sweetened. And that goes double if the lower-paying school is more respected than the one offering you the better deal.

On preview: well, I see that most people above have contradicted what I just said. For what it's worth, my experience is in physics, where things tend to be pretty democratic in this regard. Other fields may well be different.
posted by Johnny Assay at 7:42 PM on February 17, 2005

I see that most people above have contradicted what I just said. For what it's worth, my experience is in physics, where things tend to be pretty democratic in this regard.

I think this is why it might be useful to get some context from vernondalhart. Although my first impulse is to agree with those who say you should just come right out and ask, it's also important to realize that different academic departments, and different academic disciplines, are frequently quite isolated from each other, so they develop wildly divergent cultures and practices. Economics of the field is important as well -- in some fields money is easier to come by. So advice based on experience in one field is not necessarily applicable in another.

So, what are ya studyin' vernondalhart?
posted by casu marzu at 7:57 PM on February 17, 2005

Response by poster: All right, I guess I could clarify things a bit. I'm going to start my MSc in Mathematics, and the two universities in question are in Canada.

The second deal, which I've said is better financially includes cost of living as near as I can tell - not only are they offereing me more money, but as far as I know, it's cheaper to live there too.

As for the type of funding offered, none of what I've seen so far was in the form of fellowships - mostly a mix of TAships and RAships, as well as a couple odds and ends sorts of scholarships.

This changes a fair amount if I get the NSERC scholarship, but I won't find about that until after I've accepted either offer, likely.
posted by vernondalhart at 8:03 PM on February 17, 2005

The type of funding makes a huge difference, remember. I am on a combined TAship-RAship at the moment, and it's killing me! If you are teaching, make sure you are not expected to get a substantial amount of research done.

Okay, after that piece of unsolicited advice... Talk to the person who signed your letter of acceptance- they are likely to know about you. Try to make an appointment before you go, since the days when prospective grad students visit are quite busy for professors on acceptance boards. Smile and say "I understand" a lot. Make sure you know why you would rather go to this school, so you can tell them when they ask you.
posted by copperbleu at 8:26 PM on February 17, 2005

Well, I will say this: I have known graduate students who basically negotiated the terms of their RA-ship directly with their supervisors (usually also their dissertation advisor). The University or department often sets a minimum stipend level, but you can go up, or be paid under the table. However, I somewhat doubt the likelihood of that unless you've already worked for the supervisor for some time and the supervisor is particularly well-funded.

You might be able to find additional money from the department, University or outside sources, of course.
posted by casu marzu at 8:47 PM on February 17, 2005

I'd avoid TA'ships as much as I could, because from my experience it takes too long time for little in return -unless of course you like teaching.

I strongly believe that the major prof and the other faculty is more important factor. Number of grad students per program, curriculum and the such would be higher in my list of priorities. Go talk to students too. There's a sayin' "it does not matter what your PhD is about but who it is with"

You're going to be in math! you are not going to have enough funding -get used to it :-)
posted by carmina at 9:22 PM on February 17, 2005

My experience is in Humanities, not Science, but here goes: If there's a graduate program chair, you might also want to approach him/her and review the offer (this will be part of their job-- talking to incoming students). A package made up almost entirely of TAships is something to go over closely. How much are you actually getting paid? Will they waive tuition (at my University you still have to register, and pay tuition, before you'll be considered for a TAship, thus effectively cutting a thousand bucks from your paycheque per semester)? What are the numbers like-- how many students, how much marking, how many hours in class and in your office? Are they expecting you to take a full class load as well as teach (something also done in my department, where all incoming grad students are sent a letter saying that they are expected to take two classes in their first semester, teaching or not, and a lot of people run into difficulties with trying to balance the workload because of it)?

Also, money is one consideration, and cost of living and so on, (and travel home, as well) but the most important thing is to find a department where you will feel comfortable, where you will be recieve good supervision, and where there are faculty working in your area who can help your career along in its next stage. What carmina says-- that who you do your degree with is important-- is worth noting, too. Would you consider doing your PhD there as well, or is there someone at the University whose recommendation could make or break your doctoral application down the road? Or perhaps someone on faculty whose backing will help you to get further grants or scholarships? All those things count for more in the mix than straight finances.
posted by jokeefe at 12:30 AM on February 18, 2005

Response by poster: Thank you. You've all given me a number of good things to look into before I head over to visit the University in question, and a number of questions to be asking when I get there.

As it stands, both universities are very good in my field, but it really depends on what subfield of mathematics (for example, one of the has a very strong Functional Analysis department) I want to study. So we'll see what happens.
posted by vernondalhart at 8:02 AM on February 18, 2005

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