1 How To Do Money Before, During & After Grad School | The Billfold

How To Do Money Before, During & After Grad School

How I Always Imagined Graduate School


Work. Work at least two years in a career hopefully related to what you plan to do your PhD in. Why?

  1. Hopefully you will get an idea if you really want to dedicate your life to whatever your topic is. (PS: more on should you go.)
  2. You give yourself a chance to save money before you go to school.
  3. You can start your retirement fund. Say you put 10k in a Roth IRA by the time you’re 24 and you pull at age 70. Assuming a real rate of return, taking into account inflation, of 4% you can expect $60,748 from that investment. The magic of compound interest! If you wait to contribute until after you get your PhD and are 30, then that $10k now only compounds to $48,010. I’ll take my extra $12k, thankyouverymuch. For more info on retirement planning and starting early, see the Boglehead wiki.

I worked for 6 years before I went back to school, mostly because I didn’t think I wanted a PhD. I felt really old when I returned to school at age 28, but I had $50k in a high yield savings account plus another hunk of cash invested for retirement that made me feel a lot better about the uncertain cash flow in the years to come. While you’re working, try to avoid lifestyle creep. You won’t feel bad about it now because all of your friends will also have shitty low paying jobs, so save as much as you can.

Time your health care. If you have vision or dental at your current job, now is your time to indulge. Right before I left my job for grad school, I found out I needed a tooth implant. Thankfully, my job let me stay an extra week (!) to keep my dental insurance and the whole thing was covered except for my bovine bone graft (my sister: how’s your cow mouth? me: moo!).

On the other hand, while student health insurance is an annoying HMO, there were no more copays for doctor’s visits. I ended up needing physical therapy for a repetitive stress injury from typing too much — 15 visits to PT with no copay! I don’t think it helped the underlying problem, but I got a free, relaxing 30 minute arm massage once a week.

Do your specialized health care before you go and your routine care after, though check the student health plan for details first. After the horror of the tooth implant, I’ve always paid extra for the student dental insurance, though I think it probably costs more than the two cleanings I get a year. Worth it for the peace of mind to me.

Don’t go if you’re not funded/only go if you’re really sure. Everyone says not to get a PhD unless you get a funding package (or are independently wealthy). They are right. What’s a good funding package? 5 years of tuition support, 5 years of fees and health insurance, 2-3 years of stipend, and opportunities to teach or research in non-stipend years. <– You do want these to be optional, in case you get a fellowship that would cover those years.

If you get a fellowship that pays, see if you can save it for your non-covered years. Good fellowships to check out are the NSF (science and social science) and Ford (most subjects, underrepresented minority background). In addition to saving before I went and getting full funding, one of my personal conditions for going to a PhD was whether or not the program offered me an outside option. By this I mean, if tenure-track academic bliss was not in the cards for me, could I get a solid job in a city I liked that would pay decent cash? This is true for many science and some social science programs. This is not true for many humanities PhDs.


Minimize teaching. Academia functions by exploiting low wage workers to teach undergraduates. That’s you. Depending on your field, teaching may or may not be valued in the job market. You’ll probably want to do at least a little. But you want to strategize this. Try and teach multiple sections of the same class: double or triple the money but still only one prep. If you’re going to be teaching something where you have to do all of the preparation, make sure you’re getting all of the credit and are listed as the instructor of record. Look for short term teaching gigs in executive education, summer school, summer preparation courses for incoming students, and winter terms. You can usually earn just as much money as a longer term gig in much less time. You want to do your best by your students, but never forget that you are getting a PhD to advance your career, not theirs. Don’t get sucked into their drama. Send them to appropriate resources depending on their problem and your class: counseling, writing center, research computing facilities. Grade problem sets and quizzes during class if it’s expected that you attend and you’re not lecturing, obviously. Students appreciate getting things back quickly and then you have more time to work on your own projects.

Develop marketable skills. This is going to help you both during graduate school and if you need to take that outside option and quit academia. Computer programming, statistical programming, data scraping, GIS, and grant writing are all good options. Science people probably do fancy science things that they can do for pharmaceutical or technology companies. Your university may well offer free trainings on many of these things.

Consult. These marketable skills and the contacts you have left over from when you worked before you went to graduate school are going to get you consulting gigs. If you’re doing work for pay, consulting is often preferable to research assistant work. RA work at my school is usually in the $20-$30 an hour range. Consulting I would make $50-$100 an hour or get big lump sums for projects.

Where to get consulting gigs? Former work contacts, state and local agencies who hire for short term projects or for grant writers, connections through your advisor. Ask for money if you’re working on projects for a professor unpaid. I think work in graduate school should get you one of three things (assuming you have some basic research experience and training — if not, go ahead and take a low paying research assistant job to start): lots of money, a short time frame, and an “in” for data or other types of access you could not get another way. Two out of three isn’t bad for a job. Try to fit your consulting into defined periods of time. Winter break is great. I always told myself I’d catch up on my own projects then, but usually I watched every British crime drama known to man. Summer break is okay at the beginning of your grad school career, but better to work on a paper for publication or a dissertation project. However, come 3rd or 4th year it’s time to slow down or stop consulting and make sure you can graduate on time. Which brings us to …

Graduate on time. Few consulting gigs will pay a year’s worth of earnings. When you postpone graduating, you give up a year’s worth of income. The more you postpone, the worse it gets. See The Professor Is In for tips on graduating and the job market. I have not done this yet but am hopefully on track to!

Apply to more fellowships. Many are offered during graduate school or for the dissertation, not just for when you enroll. If your program isn’t specialized, don’t count on your program office to know all of the little fellowships out there. Instead, look at the CV’s of successful young PhD’s with your interests and apply to the fellowships they received.

Travel carefully. Grad school can have a huge cost for attending conferences. You’ll want a rewards card to try and store up airline points. Try not to stay in the conference hotel if you can Airbnb or stay at a Best Western nearby instead. If you have to stay in the conference hotel, get a buddy and share a room. See if your program, your conference, or your school has travel scholarships.

Pay your taxes carefully. Especially in the year you transition from working to a stipend, you may owe a big tax bill, and potentially a penalty (I did!). This is because your wages have withholding but your stipend does not, so your withholding is probably not enough to account for the extra stipend money. Stipends are taxable income. If your friends are not paying taxes on them, they are breaking the law. You will want to pay quarterly estimated taxes since taxes are not automatically withheld. If you are consulting and getting lump sum payments, you’ll need to be especially careful about this. You can deduct necessary schooling expenses like books as nontaxable and work expenses if you’re consulting. I’ve always been too lazy to go into the details on this, but it might be worth figuring out for yourself. I’ve had to buy the more expensive version of an online tax prep service to account for my additional income on a Schedule C.

Other tips: 

+ Since you can get away with dressing like a total schlep, avoid buying new clothes or do swaps.

+ My big indulgence while I was working was hard cover books. After the grad school, it was to the library for me.

+ If you have a significant other, shack up. Good for rent and the grocery bill. 

+ Track your money in a program like mint.com to help you make the adjustment.

+ You can’t contribute to a 401k or 403b while in grad school so try and make up for it by contributing the max to your Roth IRA.

+ Take advantage of the few perks that exist for grad students: free gym at the university and student discounts. The Ann Taylor near my campus weirdly has a 10% student discount that is not advertised that I only found out about when the person in front of me in line used it. Ask around at other stores near campus. I think City Sports and EMS also do a student discount. If your state does a sales tax holiday in the late summer, buy your laptop then.


Live like a graduate student: You’ve scrimped and saved for 5 years. Sure you can relax a little, but if you give yourself the same salary you had as a grad student and save the rest for retirement or a house down payment, you’ll be happy you did it while you were still used to the lifestyle rather than having to cut back later after you buy a house, a car, and a puppy.

Pay it forward. Many of the young professors I know remember what it was like to be a grad student. They pay it forward not just by giving great advice and being good colleagues, but by directing grad students to consulting gigs and doing little things like paying for coffee. I accept their generosity now with the plan to do the same for my PhD students in the future.


“Ruth Zweig” is the pseudonym of a doctoral candidate in the social sciences.


14 Comments / Post A Comment

This all sounds very smart, but a lot of this is not applicable to Ph.Ds in the humanities, where good teaching evaluations are currency. Which means you have to commit more time and energy than you’d like to every little student crisis that comes along.

Also, before going back to school, I worked for five years…in freelance film production. I actually make more money as a grad student.

ruth_zweig (#7,436)

@mirror_father_mirror I should have put a disclaimer saying that I know the most about the social sciences and my tips will be best for that. The two that I think need most adaptation are teaching (often required in the humanities) and consulting. As for teaching, I’d say focus on becoming instructor of record and having your own courses and syllabi, since that will serve you best on the academic market. As for consulting, focus more on grant writing and editing gigs. Consider doing grant writing outside of your direct field. I also don’t know the specifics on good places to get fellowships in the humanities. Do you have tips?

@ruth_zweig I think your advice is spot-on, including the advice to avoid teaching as much possible after you’ve got a few courses as instructor of record. I got hired into a cushy full-time gig (2/2 load) with one self-designed class and two years of being a TA leading discussion sections, and most of the people I knew at the time who got jobs within a year or two of defending had similarly weak teaching backgrounds. The people with more teaching experience, not surprisingly, took a lot longer to finish, and they seemed to struggle to get interviews and offers as much as the rest of us.

ruth_zweig (#7,436)

@angry little raincloud Congrats on the sweet gig! Glad to hear this resonates.

@angry little raincloud Was this for a Ph.D? Did you have fellowships for the other years? I have to TA every semester…I need the money.

aesir (#5,963)

Free food. Learn to be shameless. As a grad student you’re almost morally obligated to attend as many seminars, club meetings, and student-run conferences as possible for their free grub (which is the only currency that matters). Why yes, I will have a plate of pad thai in exchange for sitting through this statistics lunch seminar. Or LBGT club meeting. Or this lecture presented by Students for a Free Tibet. Get on student listhosts, check out flyers, etc. I usually get a good third of my meals this way, which frees up extra cash for the booze fund.

ruth_zweig (#7,436)

@aesir Holy grail: receptions for talks with food and wine!

yulya (#1,996)

@aesir my office is right next to an institute that has a lot of receptions throughout the year and we share a kitchen with them where they store the leftovers. “bring tupperware” is the best advice I ever got.

lemonhead3159 (#6,051)

I don’t have a PhD but I completed a Masters program a few years ago and agree with all of this! Especially not having to pay for it (or at least pay as little as possible), developing marketable skills, and graduating on time.

I went straight into a Masters program after finishing my undergraduate degree, so the only thing I would add is to set aside a small amount from every paycheck so there is a cushion waiting for you when academics are over (…at least for people who worked a lot during grad school, like I did). I really didn’t save and it caught up to me when I had to move for my first job and zero moving expenses were covered.

andnowlights (#2,902)

Oh man, “do not go into grad school unless it’s funded” TIMES A MILLION! Yes, this includes MFA programs in writing. There are a handful of MFA programs that do offer full stipends (some of which include more than I make in a year after taxes) and many of them are excellent (source: I work with MFAs). Other humanities programs do occasionally offer full scholarships in maters programs as well. They’re merit based, which means you have to work your ass off to get them and keep them, but they saved my sweet husband $50,000 in student loans. He (we) still had living expenses, but saving $50,000 in student loans is priceless in the long run.

But above all: if you cannot get into a fully funded PhD program in your field, maybe that field is not the best fit for you. It’s real talk and it hurts, but the programs that are worth getting into are also the ones that fully fund their students. There are a few exceptions to this, of course, but it’s largely a good rule to follow unless you’re totally cool with GIANT amounts of student debt that a humanities degree recipient may never pay off.

I’ve never been a grad student, but when I read “+ If you have a significant other, shack up. Good for rent and the grocery bill” I was like OH NO GIRL don’t make emotional/relationship decisions based on financial factors that is just a recipe for disaster.

ronswansonluva (#6,465)

@Lily Hudson@facebook Yes! That idea is terrifying.

Elsajeni (#1,763)

@Lily Hudson@facebook Well, I don’t know — to move in/not move in with my dude was a relationship decision, but exactly when to do it was mostly a financial decision. (Same for getting married, actually.) Maybe “If you have a significant other who you already plan to live with eventually”?

ruth_zweig (#7,436)

Also, technical note: you can only contribute to your Roth IRA in the years you have earned income from teaching, research, or consulting. When it’s just a plain old fellowship or scholarship it doesn’t count as “earned income.”

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