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Surviving Grad School: What to expect from your stipend

AndrewThumbWelcome to graduate school. If you’re enrolled in a Ph.D. program in the sciences, you should expect to get a stipend. Stipends vary significantly depending on the program and university that you’re enrolled in. Some schools guarantee five years of support, some only guarantee one. Masters programs may or may not provide a stipend. The quality of the stipend is not necessarily a reflection of the quality of your program, but reflect the economic realities of academia.

Often, new students think that any stipend is too good to be true. After all, someone is paying you to go to school! Because of this confusing situation, graduate students may be uncomfortable talking about their stipend or discussing financial issues with their peers and mentors. But that stipend is central to your success as a happy, healthy, successful graduate student for one very simple reason:

Graduate school is a job, and you should expect to be paid for your work.

Yes, graduate school is an investment in your future, and yes, it is unlike any other job you will ever have. In many cases, the work you do is independent and self-directed. You may have the freedom to set your own schedule. But at the core, you are working for your university and your advisor.

What to expect from your stipend

Your stipend is there to cover the cost of living while in graduate school. An appropriate stipend should cover the cost of reasonable housing, utilities, transportation, and  food. You shouldn’t expect to accrue any significant savings from your stipend, but you also shouldn’t be living paycheck to paycheck, either. Since your student loans don’t accrue interest while you’re still enrolled, you also shouldn’t expect to emerge from graduate school drowning in debt. In short, your stipend should allow you to maintain a decent quality of life while focusing on your research.

Although living in New York City is more expensive than living in Beaufort, North Carolina, stipends rarely vary as dramatically as the actual cost of living. Attending university in major urban centers means that you’ll live in a smaller space, have more roommates, or have a longer commute than if you enroll in a program at a more rural institution. To compensate, many major urban universities will offer low-cost housing for its students.

Nerdwallet has a pretty handy new tool that helps you figure out the cost of living throughout the US.

If your stipend does’t cover the cost of living, you’ll have to supplement your income by finding a part-time job, TA-ing for classes, or applying for additional research grants. Teaching and research assistantships are often built in to your graduate student contract, explicitly outlining the expectations for those positions. At my university, it was expected that 50% of your time be committed to teaching if you have a teaching assistantship.  This means that you won’t be able to commit full time to your research.

If you have to go outside of your university for extra income, be aware that many programs explicitly forbid students from working external jobs, or limit the number of hours you’re allowed to work. Regardless of how you supplement your funding, this is a conversation that you need to have with your advisor. They may expect you to work full time on you research project while the financial realities of graduate school preclude that level of commitment.

If you have to commit time and energy to supplementing your stipend, you need to address those expectations early in your graduate career. Numerous studies over the last 150 years have shown that working longer hours yields poor results. Henry Ford famously introduced the 40-hour work week after more than a decade of research to produce better worker efficiency. Don’t assume that you can simply do it all, both your personal life and your thesis will suffer.

If you think of graduate school like a job, then 40 hours of focused work per week is a reasonable expectation. Any less time would be unacceptable for most advisors. There will almost certainly be times where all-nighters in the lab are necessary and you may find yourself logging 80+ in the lab when your research gets exciting. Just don’t make a habit of it. While we’re thinking about graduate school as a job, remember, you’re not an undergrad anymore. There’s no summer break. There’s no month-long winter break. Expect 2 weeks of vacation a year, plus holidays. Any more is a bonus.

So now you’re probably thinking “wait, I thought you said that graduate school  is unlike any other job you will ever have… and that you have the freedom to set your own schedule.” This is true. Just because I’m arguing for a 40-hour week guideline doesn’t mean that you have to pull a 9-to-5 Monday through Friday, punching in at the office every day. No one is going to make you log your hours. But sticking to this mentality, maintaining a regular schedule, and ensuring that you don’t fall behind in you work will not only help your quality of life, but will make you a more productive graduate student and keep you moving towards completion.

Obviously this post represents only one person’s view of graduate school stipends. Please share your own perspectives in the comments thread if you so wish.

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