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Waggenerwheel

UT Austin Review

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I encourage all current students at UT to post with their thoughts/experiences on here so that it's not just me. Especially those who disagree with what I say or who think that what I say is unfair or not representative. And prospectives should keep in mind that those who post may be more likely to be those who have had negative experiences in the program, and that it's easier to complain about the downsides than espouse all the good things. 

With that in mind, this is my review. 

 

THE PROS

-The atmosphere in most seminars is collegial and collaborative. For the most part, graduate students are kind and respectful, even when objecting to/arguing with each other.
-Graduate students are great. By and large pretty supportive of one another. People who attend social events are generally amenable to making new friends. Etc.
-There’s an attitude among a lot of graduate students that we should be working to make graduate student life at UT better. There are various plans in place to work toward this.
-Graduate student life seems to be on the upswing; it’s improving.
-Some seminars have reputations for being really great (having really engaging discussion, etc.). 
-Free coffee during normal day hours.
-The faculty do practice job interviews for people who are going on the market.
-We have a pretty good placement record for a school of our ranking.
-Austin is a cool city. There is a lot of live music, and there’s usually something going on. It doesn’t get very cold here. And something a lot of us were pleased to find is that Austin is neither prairie nor dust and tumbleweeds. It’s actually pretty lush. There are a lot of rivers and creeks, and dense, lush foliage. There are oak trees everywhere. And lots of pecan and pomegranate trees. There are a lot of greenbelts all over the city, as well as just outside the city. The greenbelts have great hiking, and many of them have swimming holes. People in Austin tend to be very friendly, and very liberal (but not intensely so: this is Texas, after all).
-You get a free city bus pass as a UT graduate student, which is really nice.
-Groceries are relatively cheap, and the main grocery store in Texas (HEB) is fabulous. You’ll never want to shop at another grocery store again.
 

CONS

Transportation
-Austin has amazing public transit relative to the rest of Texas, but meh/slightly below average public transit relative to the rest of the U.S. Many areas, especially those around campus, have reasonably decent (average relative to the U.S. for a city this size) public transit, but other areas have essentially zero or extremely limited public transit options.
-If you live further than 4-5 miles from campus, public transit starts to become a bitch. We’re talking 1-2 hr. long commutes to campus. Unfortunately, those also tend to be the cheaper areas to live.
-Austin is kind of sprawling, and most of it is arranged around a massive, extremely complicated highway system. It confuses siri and google maps, making it extremely stressful to navigate. It also makes it difficult to safely walk or bike to certain places.
-Traffic in Austin is awful. All cities are going to have some traffic issues, but Austin is much much worse than it should be given its size (population less than 1M). Look it up if you want to see what I mean. It’s bad.
-Parking around campus is expensive.

Funding/Cost of Living (easily the #1 biggest con)
-The base funding package at UT (i.e., TA stipend) is about 13k for students coming in without an MA, and 15k for students coming in with an MA. If this sounds like it’s not enough to support yourself in Austin, that’s because it isn’t.
-(It might be enough to support yourself in other places that have lower costs of living. But it’s not very realistic given the rent prices in Austin. It might be if you lived frugally, lived pretty far out from campus, or had 2+ house/flatmates, and worked a summer job.)
-If you were to get a summer TAship or AIship every summer, that might be enough. But you shouldn’t count on getting one. My understanding is most students who want/need those in the summer don’t get them.

The students I know who are not on one of the few, coveted fellowships that actually cover cost of living in Austin (only a minority of students in each cohort are these fellowships) either (a) receive additional financial support from their families, (b) spend their summers living at home with their families, or (c) work other jobs during the summer. Ultimately, it’s not so bad in the grand scheme of things to have to spend 20-40 hours a week working at Starbucks in the summer. We’re getting paid to go to school and that’s wonderful and awesome and we shouldn’t forget that.

With that said, other ranked phd programs generally pay students enough to cover year round cost of living (at least rent and basic necessities), including during the summer. Why? So that we can do research, work on publications, and work on our prospectus/dissertation. UT Austin does not do this, and it does not provide enough opportunities for graduate students to fund themselves over the summer (especially international students, who aren’t allowed to work outside of the university, and get stuck going home over the summer when they can’t get a summer job with the university/department – this is actually a really big problem).

The program at UT is best characterized as a partially funded phd program, with a few students in each cohort receiving full funding through a fellowship.

If you think of the program this way, it’s still not such a bad deal in the grand scheme of things. If you have a fellowship, or you have family who can provide additional financial support, or you are comfortable working a summer job (or taking out loans), then you’ll be fine. Just don’t come here expecting to support yourself on the base funding package without working a summer job or taking out loans.

How funding contributes to quality of personal & professional life:
-Working a summer job makes it more difficult to focus on writing and research in the summer.
-It’s stressful. It’s harder to be productive, social, and happy when you’re constantly stressed about money (or for some of us, constantly having to ask our families for money during a time when they and we both thought we would be financially independent).
-The most common way that people socialize is by going out to bars and drinking, and maybe going out to eat. This makes it difficult to have a social life around here if you are on a tight budget.
-The places it’s most affordable to live are absolutely miserable to commute to/from via public transit, and expensive to commute to/from via car (between gas and parking). This makes even the most dedicated of us less likely to attend non-mandatory department events, and less likely to socialize with other students in places around campus in general.
-Funding/money is a very tense, taboo topic around here that most people avoid talking about. When it does come up, almost everyone immediately becomes visibly uncomfortable. Among a lot of crowds, there might even be a little hostility directed toward the person(s) who broached the topic.
-My hunch is that most people are either on fellowship or are receiving at least some additional help from their families (sometimes in addition to summer jobs). But this doesn’t mean that most people aren’t stressed about money – one of the two entry fellowships makes Austin barely livable (so money is still a bit of a struggle on it), and many of those who receive help from their families don’t receive enough help to live comfortably, or without a lot of money-related stress.

It’s worth noting, I don’t actually know anyone who is surviving on the base package without additional help (regardless of summer jobs). They might exist (if they do, they either live far out from campus or have 2+ house/flatmates, and probably have MAs). But if they do, I do not know them, and nobody that I know knows them. If you have spoken to other graduate students about it, chances are you have gotten a bunch of vague indications that everyone they know seems to be getting by. Uh-huh. The reason everyone seems to be getting by is because, I believe, almost everyone who isn’t on fellowship is receiving outside help, sometimes in addition to working summer jobs. Which is what you would expect in a partially funded program. So again, just treat UT as a partially funded phd program.

 

FACULTY

Pervs
-There are at least three known pervs among the tenured faculty who were going around doing pervy stuff at various points in the last decade. From what I hear, they have had stern talkings-to and have not been actively pervy in at least the past 3-4 years or so. (One might ask: why haven’t they been fired? The answer is, I don’t actually know. One or two of them might not have had firing-worthy offenses. But at least one of them did (from what I have heard via grad student rumor chain). My suspicion is that we’d go down several  rankings if these people were exposed or fired, and UT would be unable to climb back up since the faculty here are completely incompetent at hiring new people.) At least two of them have worked in recent years / currently work with female graduate students and have not made any problems for them. I haven’t personally heard of them being pervy to anyone since I’ve been here, or since anyone I’ve known has been here. But people should know they exist.
----You probably don’t have to worry about being actively harassed by anyone. But if you’re going to work with the pervs, you should be careful. If you’re a concerned prospective, you can PM me, or even better, email a bunch of female grad students at UT and ask them for names. At least a few of them will be forthcoming

Normal Sexism/Racism/Etc.
-I have noticed (and have heard people complain) that certain people (esp. women, some nonwhite people) are just generally more likely to have their questions dismissed in seminars. It’s not that uncommon for someone who isn’t a white dude to make a point that gets immediately dismissed, but then for a white dude to come back to that very same point (often crediting the person who originally said it, which is good) and then suddenly the point gets taken seriously. Some professors are better about this than others.
 

Giving a Shit
-This is not a nurturing department. No faculty member is going to encourage you to come to their office and talk about your work, your interests, or even just your term paper. If you want to work with a faculty member, or get their thoughts on something you’re developing, you’ve got to be prepared to fight for it / advocate for yourself. You will have to be the one to suggest and arrange every single meeting.
-First years have complained that there is no guidance. The first year here tends to be a struggle.
-In your time here, you will run into at least a few professors you want to meet with who will not be able to find the time for you, or who won’t be interested in reading your work. 
-Most programs have a graduate student representative sit in on faculty hiring meetings. UT does not. The rationalizations for this that the faculty have produced over the years are pathetic to the point of being laughable (most recently, for example, the rationale was that the faculty might say insulting, demeaning things about the people they consider hiring, and they wouldn’t want to expose a graduate student’s impressionable ears to that because it might influence them to dislike the person if they ended up being hired). Over the years they’ve made it clear that they are not reasons-responsive with respect to this topic, and we have given up on trying to get a representative in on those meetings.

Not Enough Faculty
-There is exactly one ethicist I know of who is known to work with graduate students who want to do ethics. 
-You get the sense from a lot of faculty that they are overburdened. I don’t know if it’s with their own research, or if it’s with classes, or if it’s with other graduate students, or what, but there are several faculty members who sort of act like they can’t find the time for graduate students who haven’t already gone above and beyond to impress them, or haven’t already tailored their research project to be extremely relevant to the faculty member’s own research. I would believe that the faculty really are overburdened (there are a lot of students here, after all – the size of the cohorts seems like it was designed with the idea that we had 3-4 more faculty members than we actually do). But I’d also believe that they just don’t care, or that it’s a mix. Either way, the upshot for us is the same.
-The department has funding for something like two senior hires and three or four junior faculty members (so I’ve heard). They have been trying to hire someone since before I and all the other graduate students I know came here, and for all those years they have been completely unsuccessful. Nobody understands why or how this is a thing. We all wish they would just get it over with and put out a job ad.
-Rumor has it that there are a couple ethicists in the works who might actually come here. But I wouldn’t bet money on it.

In other words, this is an environment where resources (i.e., funding, faculty time/attention, etc.) are scarce. This can sometimes breed competition and resentment among graduate students. I like to think that most of us don't let it get to us. But it can be hard. 

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Are Austin grad students unionized? If not, have y'all considered forming a union and bargaining collectively for better pay?

https://www.epi.org/publication/graduate-student-employee-unions/

Some choice quotes:

"As the Board noted in its Columbia decision, more than 64,000 graduate student employees are already unionized at 28 institutions of higher education in the public sector, including universities in California, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Washington."

"Union-represented graduate student workers also reported receiving higher pay than non-union-represented graduate student workers."

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I think these complaints are pretty universal for programs that are publicly funded (i.e. underfunded) institutions; and as you pointed out, the faculty are normally overworked at these places such that it exacerbates the problem (except for the perv stuff, that I have heard of UT before: one professor of mine explicitly told one of my female classmates *not* to go to U.T Austin because of their issues with sexually predatory behavior: she told me she confirmed this with current female students in the program. This was last year). 

Edited by VentralStream

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7 hours ago, Duns Eith said:

Do you have an ax to grind? I am wondering what justified this unsolicited review?

Does something have to justify it? I feel like this stuff should be out in the open for prospectives to be aware of, and I think it's sort of weird that we're all so cagey about it. My hope is that other students will comment with their experiences, maybe contradict me if they disagree, etc. There's just no real reason to not be super frank with each other about this stuff. 

For the record though, no, I don't have an ax to grind (or at least not much of one). Obviously I'm not super pleased with everything here. But UT's an alright place (my guess is it's average or slightly below average in quality of graduate student experience. My experience here has been overall positive. 

 

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6 hours ago, VentralStream said:

I think these complaints are pretty universal for programs at publicly funded i.e. underfunded programs; and as you pointed out, the faculty are normally overworked at these places such that it exacerbates the problem (except for the perv stuff, that I have heard of UT before: one professor of mine explicitly told one of my female classmates *not* to go to U.T Austin because of their issues with sexually predatory behavior: she told me she confirmed this with current female students in the program. This was last year). 

Yeah, you might be right. I don't have experience with other departments to compare it to, so these problems may well be universal. The funding, though, is particularly bad here given the cost of living, even relative to other colleges (maybe with the exception of one or two others). This much I have looked into. 

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On 4/8/2019 at 3:08 PM, Waggenerwheel said:

FACULTY

 

Forwarned is forearmed and one can warn others without exposing oneself or others to unnecessary risk.

Edited by Sigaba

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