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.

  1. This information all seems pretty accurate. I wonder though, about how much stipend policies vary between the natural sciences and social sciences (which is where I am ensconced currently)? I imagine that natural science grad students have the advantage of being able to assist in research in more tangible ways, while social science people (particularly in policy-relevant areas, e.g. economics) can get hired doing advocacy-type work for university-associated think tanks etc.

    That sort of work doesn’t involve getting your hands dirty as much, but it also carries some disadvantage because working for an institution with a clear policy focus might “tag” you for the rest of your career… Or so one might speculate. I don’t know very many natural science PhD students, but I wonder how much the sorts of work needed to get a stipend can vary…

    • Hi, Nick! I can only speak to my own experience, but it may help clear up some of your questions. I got my Masters in a pure natural science program,and am now working on my Ph.D. in an interdisciplinary social science/natural science program.

      During my Masters, we could either get an RA (Research Assistantship, which required 20 hours/ week working on a lab or field project) or a TA (Teaching Assistantship, 20 hours/week teaching and grading).

      Now, I have one year of TA-ing and the rest of my time is RA-ing. There are specific tasks and hours requirements associated.

  2. Overall, I think the attitude presented here regarding the grad stipend is correct. Couple of things I would add from my background in a chemistry department:

    1) Additional income may be available in the form of fellowships, which can be internal or external. I received an extra $2k/yr the first two years of my PhD as a recruitment offer (internal fellowship). Other awards may be funded by companies, scientific societies, funding agencies, or named memorial scholarships.

    2) I think most chemistry grads would disagree with the 40 hour work-week described here, especially the 20/20 split of research/teaching if you’re on dual appointment. The teaching workload depends on the course being taught, and I would expect the advisor to still push the student for the same research output of an RA. As for the research hours, some advisors are results-focused, meaning that you can get away with ~40hrs if you are efficient and lucky (or if you’re being neglected). But I have heard of PIs that do track hours spent in lab, with the minimum requirement typically being in the 60hrs/wk ballpark.

  3. “Since your student loans don’t accrue interest while you’re still enrolled.” This is true for a very small range of student loans – like Perkins and Subsidized Stafford Loans.

    Also, I’d recommend looking up what the living wage for your grad school’s city or region is. Base grad student pay at UBC is ~18,000, which is less than half the living wage for Vancouver. Depending on the level of financial support you receive, you may need to make difficult financial decisions – are you willing to spend 4-5 years not being able to save for the future or start a family, sacrifice visits home, and possibly take on more debt?

  4. Do not hesitate to ask the stipend question either! I have been shocked with how many prospective students have not brought this up… If you are not comfortable talking to the P.I. About it you should definitely be asking the graduate students. I also agree that cost of living is a very important question that often goes over looked. You need to know ahead of time if you are going to be looking for roommates or not…

    A. Thaler… What is this mystical thing you speak of? This personal life? 😉

  5. Another thing to keep in mind is that schools are constantly updating their stipends in an effort to appear ‘competitive’ with other schools. What this may mean is that students who enter your program after you may be offered better stipends. Fight for your right to equal wages!

  6. I couldn’t help but giggle at “In short, your stipend should allow you to maintain a decent quality of life while focusing on your research.”

    It’s a nice idea, but I would say that in areas where cost of living is high, you might (will) get completely screwed. Where I am is a good example: I am getting my PhD at the University of Hawaii. Depending on which site you ask, the cost of living here is 60% or so higher than the national average. Housing alone? 140% higher. The university itself says that the cost of housing, food and personal expenses is about $14,000 for the school year, so about $19,000 a year if you stick around for the summer.

    I just received my W2 from the University of Hawaii. My stipend BEFORE taxes? $17,605. So I make $1,400 or so less than the cost of living, and that’s not even counting if I want to actually live nicely. And as a GA, I get paid more than the TAs.

    Suffice it to say other funding isn’t just an option, it’s a necessity here. For most of the years I’ve been in school, I’ve taken out student loans—as much as $15K a year—just to live paycheck to paycheck. Others, thankfully, I have gotten enough external work to get through taking on less debt. My point is, don’t expect your stipend to be a living wage everywhere. Some schools just don’t pay that, so if you chose a school for its other merits (the advisor you want, location, etc), you should get an idea in advance of what kind of quality of life your stipend pays for.

    • Thanks for sharing Christie. You’ve summarized the point of this article nicely. Obviously there is a major difference between what a stipend “should” cover, and what a stipend actually covers. This is the reason why we need to talk about the financial aspects of graduate school before your program start, not after the bills pile up. For a graduate student to be on a full stipend and still need to take out $15,000 worth of loans every year is, frankly, embarrassing to their program.

      Of course, the entire point of this article is “if your stipend does not provide a living wage, then you do need to discuss with your advisor what this means for you ability to commit 100% of your time to your thesis.”

  7. I have the same problem as Christy, in that my stipend does not even begin to cover the cost of living. A few months ago, I calculated my cost of living vs. my actual costs of housing, insurance, gas, and food, and I came up $20,000/year short. Grad students at my school get paid between $14,000 and $25,000 per year (there is a pay ceiling at my school that does not allow advisors to pay us more than that, even if their grants will cover it). Meanwhile, people in my state qualify for public housing assistance at a salary of $54,850 for a single person. In my state, single people who make under $1211 per month qualify for food stamps. I make $900/month, but I do not qualify because grad students are listed as “part time,” even though I work FAR MORE than 20 hrs/week and am not permitted by my University of have an outside job. I do not expect to be paid extravagantly, but it is ridiculous for Universities to pay Grad Students so little that they qualify for FOOD STAMPS, while at the same time expecting those students to teach undergrad students at the university level. I know PhD students at my school who have started with zero student debt and ended grad school owing $80,000 in loans

    Many students just starting grad school don’t know that they are getting screwed over. I certainly didn’t – I was excited that my school was paying me at all. It’s time for universities to show a little respect to the grad students who work their asses off for the university, and without which the entire university would grind to a screeching halt. We don’t want much, but it would be nice to be paid enough to afford food.