Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Living on Living Stipends?

Most of the graduate departments I've looked at guarantee financial aid to PhD students that includes a stipend for living expenses as well as full coverage of tuition and fees. That's great--it makes the PhD a relatively inexpensive degree (except, perhaps, for opportunity costs). Problem is, the living stipend figures I've seen are very small, generally in the $14K to $18K range. Before taxes. That doesn't look to me like enough to live on, let alone enough to save on.

Can any of my readers who are or have been grad students (especially in the humanities) tell me a little about income as a grad student? Does the living expenses stipend actually cover the cost of living? Does the department offer additional work, or do you look elsewhere for employment above and beyond your stipend?

I'm hoping to figure out how much I can expect to make per year. My expectations on that point will help shape the financial steps I take in 2008--yes, I know that's a long ways away, but, like the Scouts, I'm a big fan of being prepared.


Strange Bird said...

It depends on where you're looking and the quality of life you hope to have there. With sacrifices, you can certainly live on $14,000 per year, especially in areas with a relatively low cost of living. It's just that no one said it would be pleasant, or that a school has any obligation to help you save. Being a graduate student is sort of a privileged position, anyway, you know?

HC said...

I didn't go into the humanities and I didn't have a stipend. (My master's wasn't the terminal degree in my department.) But between my savings, my work study, and my private loan, I basically lived on $17K/yr for those two years.

It depends on where you go. Big 10 U had a lower cost of living than I was used to, but not THAT much lower. I was able to swing a 1-bedroom for $650 by living a few miles off-campus, but many of my friends ended up living in group houses closer in.

Grad student parking permits were slightly cheaper than undergrad, at least if you took the low-access pass (I drove to a commuter lot that was 1/2 mile from campus and bused in, and then would sometimes park in one of the lots in the evening when they became more flexible).

While it was irregular income, I can say that getting into the occasional med school research study really helped put an extra $100 in my pocket now and again.

I wish I could answer your question more directly, but I think the culture of additional work varies from school to school and department to department. It would probably be worth emailing some current grad students at your favored schools.

English Major said...

strange bird, you're right, of course, that my school of choice isn't obligated to help me save, but it's still a priority for me to do so (I hope to make the maximum contributions to my Roth while I'm in school), and unless it will totally scuttle my academics, I'm willing to take on extra work to make that happen--it's just important to me to get a ballpark sense of the rough numbers involved and the choices others have made under similar circumstances.

You're right too when you say that being a grad student is a privileged position, but again, that doesn't mean that I don't want to be putting away money.

HC, thanks for sharing your experiences--it's very much appreciated!

Strange Bird said...

I'm sure you'll be able to save if it's a priority... most literature PhD students were not exactly comfortable but did okay, and many taught test prep on the side. If you want to funnel any cushion into retirement savings instead of heading out to the pubs, I don't see why you couldn't. :)

Sorry if my comment seemed a little... well, whatever it was. I remember being so irritated when graduate students complained about their pay, as if they *deserved* to make a good living at being a student. You don't seem like that type.

Strange Bird said...

I meant, "most literature PhD students... at my undergrad institution." Not sure that's always the case. Good luck!

3 Things About Money said...

I went to grad school in Boston and it was Very Expensive. But I wasn't in shock the way some of my fellow students were because I have lived pretty simply most of my life, knew all the tricks, and I did a lot of consulting on the side. You are in equally good shape to adapt to la vida grad student in my estimation.

My best advice to you is to plan on one year (maybe the second one) where you are still doing coursework and reflecting on your diss to not work so much, maybe not contribute the max to the Roth that year, and try to live on your stipend. The gift of unstructured time to learn, time in the library to read...it is amazing, even if it means living on top ramen. This grad school time is prob. the last time until you are on sabbatical that you will have that luxury of scholarship.

There are quite a few financial bonuses to grad school that no one ever talks about. Your clothes expenditures can go to zero, there is often free food to be had, temp jobs are very easy to come by, it is easy to become a medical guinea pig for extra cash, it is normal to e a grownup and live in a big collective house, and there are many entrepenurial opportunities (editing student papers?).

The key thing is that in grad school you are living poor, but there is an end in sight, so there isn't the devestating loss of hope that real poverty can effect. You'll be okay. Do what you love, the rest will follow...

yelowblnky said...

I am currently a grad student in engineering, and my stipend is around 19K. I actually have not been able to save very much in grad school since I do not have a car, and I have chosen to live close to campus (about 10 min walk), and the rent is very high for the location. I spend about 50% of my income after taxes and healthcare on rent. (I am hoping to change that this year by moving.) It really depends on where you end up going and the cost of living there. I have a friend at a different school who is doing an anthropology phd. She has been able to get jobs teaching at a community college as an adjunct faculty in order to supplement her income. (This is after she got a master) I also know some lucky graduates who have managed to get great paying tutoring jobs. I have been reading your blog for only about a month, and I think if anyone can pull off living on a grad student stipend, it is you! You can also take out a student loan to supplement the cost of living. (A lot of grad students do that, and I am trying to avoid that.) Good luck!

mOOm said...

We pay $14.5k minimum for "9 months". Our better fellowships pay $21k for a year. We're in upstate NY. You can work in the summer to make extra money, though that will slow your progress towards the degree probably. When I was a grad student I got to teach some classes in the summer for extra money. I still ended up borrowing some money. As I was a foreign student I couldn't work off campus. Some of our foreign students though are getting internship deals in the summer where they do get paid expenses.

When you factor in the free tuition it's pretty good.

deb said...

I get ~20K/year (before taxes) in a science grad program in San Diego, not exactly a cheap rent area. I share a 1-bd with my boyfriend - our rent is quite a bit below market value and that took awhile to find, but has really paid off. We ride the bus (free for students here) rather than drive our cars and deal with gas/parking costs, though I still have to put up car insurance costs. And we like to eat good food (though more at home than at restaurants). Despite all of this, I've consistently put $200/month in my Roth and saved an additional $1K+ each year for travel. I don't earn any other money.

So it can be done, though a bit of luck helps (like our great rental deal) and cutting back on "stuff" is necessary (as well as dealing with weird people on the bus!).

For my BF, tutoring undergrads has really helped out to supplement his stipend (he makes about 3K less than I do in a different dept). Other students work part-time retail/service jobs to make a bit extra. Some take out student loans, especially those who have gotten used to the non-student lifestyle.

Anyway, just some personal experience. You'll figure it out :-)

S/100/30 said...

My grad stipend is $1600/month for nine months of the year. (My dept guarantees summer support, but the rate varies depending on what you're doing. It always exceeds the stipend rate, though.) I live in a fairly low-cost area of the country (but not dirt cheap -- the nice houses near the university are in the $300k-$400k range).

On the one hand, my experiences might not be too relevant because I also have a husband who makes a good salary. On the other hand, we live quite comfortably on less than $1600*2/month, but that's after our savings and retirement deposits have been made. So the best I can say is that it's often pretty easily to live well on the stipend when you're not worried about putting away money.

In my department, we're not allowed to take outside jobs. Exceptions are sometimes made if it's a prestigious consulting opportunity, but the thought is that being a student is supposed to be a full-time job.

Being in a technical field, we can supplement our stipends with highly paid summer jobs. And we have many career options, so we don't face the tenure-track-or-Starbucks terror. Nonetheless, we do lose people because of financial issues. Last year, quite possibly the best student to pass through my department in a decade left after one year to "go make some money" at Google. (Although in his case I think it was more about opportunity costs than about not being able to make it on the stipend.)

One thing I'd warn you about (with the caveat that this is based entirely on reading humanities academics' blogs!) is checking how many years support is guaranteed for. My department will support anyone making reasonable progress, including our eighth year student. But I get the sense that it's more common for hum. departments to cut most students off after four years even though there's no expectation they'll actually have finished by then...

English Major said...

These are amazing, amazing comments, and I'm grateful for every one of them. Thanks, readers!

story girl said...

I'm married to a grad student, not in humanitites but in engineering. When we lived in the midwest, he made about 1300 a month, now he makes about 1800 and we live somewhere with a slightly higher cost of living. His health insurance through the school here would be about $15 a month for him alone, but we pay about $300 for the two of us.

It would have been enough for him to live on when he lived alone if he didn't have any debt - except that he did. When we first got married, my substitute teaching income just needed to cover our student loan bills (from our undergrad degrees). Now, our apartment is very expensive, for a number of different reasons, so I need to make a little more to make up the difference.

Several of his friends take out student loans to supplement their stipends. I see them, though, get their loan reimbursement checks and rush out to buy hundreds of dollars worth of clothes, or worse - stereos.

If you want to get ahead in terms of savings, a summer job or paid internship may be the way to go, but as an above poster mentioned, it will slow your degree progress because you will not necessarily get your research done. Also, since you already have professional publishing experience, and I'm not sure what your post-school plans are, you may have trouble finding an internship that interests you (since there aren't really academic/teaching internships).

S/100/30 said...

Also, I think The Invisible Adjunct is required reading for anyone considering grad school. It was only active for a year and a half and has been dormant for almost three years, but still one of the best resources out there. If you have time for nothing else, check out her posts in the "Academic Job Market" category.

Anonymous said...

Hello. I must commend you on your excellent posts, and I have been a silent reader all this while.

Grad school stipends, I would say are ok. Not great, and being an international student (which I know probably does not apply to you) you can't work off campus but still pay taxes etc so you've a worse deal. Moreover the teaching positions are only 9 months of stipend (~$10K). I think a lot of my friends try to find on campus work during summer, but it slows research. Fellowships, scholarships are the only source of respite for international students. However, you could surely find work off campus/on campus to supplement the stipend. And then it teaches you quite a lot about frugal living. Goodluck with grad school.

SF Money Musings said...

My sister received $1500 a month not including summers. Her tuition was already paid for by the school. Rent was cheap - $500, she only pumped gas into the car once every six months (unbelievable) and budgeted $100 for food which she only spent half because of free food at on campus events or work related meetings with food. she went to school in a small New england town so there wasn't much in terms of nightlife so entertainment spending was $50. Most of the entertainment was going to potlucks or going to classmates' place.

Haley said...

Hi E.M.,

I've been reading your blog for a bit now, and love it. And like so many, I now feel compelled to comment!

I was in a PhD program in anthro just outside of Boston for about 5 years, and got a 15K stipend in exchange for TA'ing a certain number of classes. Once that req. was met, any other classes I TA'ed for were pure income (about 3K each I believe) --you might ask your prospective depts. about this option.

I was definitly not able to save in any way, shape, or form while in school -- in fact I did the unthinkable and tapped into my 401K. Gasp! I lived frugally but comfortably in a working class neighborhood with a roommate, and found extra income with various PT jobs. The flexibility of the student lifestyle allows you to take the wierdly scheduled jobs, or jobs that only provide a few hours of work, which others are unable to swing. You can definitly cobble together a wonderful lifesytle as a grad student -- I quite miss it!

cami said...

Cool post. I'm a phd student in the sciences right now. Most programs I'm familiar with pay about 22k/yr and up with most of your tuition and fees covered. I don't have a second job right now, though I did when I was doing my master's (my program now is far more rigorous). I realize that means I won't be able to save as much, but for me the advantages of being able to finish when I want, far out way maxing out my Roth at this point. I probably spend more than others on food (not eating out a lot just high quality) , because I believe in taking care of myself. Also health care for our program is included (for the most part) which I think is a huge bonus.

Anonymous said...

Yes, it is possible. I did it in a relatively expensive area. First, you can work extra on the side. Things like tutoring, childcare, and other hourly work (if you have an area of expertise) pay very well.

Second, you can apply for additional scholarships and easily get them if you are a good student and have a decent background.

Third, the stipend covers just the school months, which makes it stretch easier. So, you need to plan to earn money every summer on top of whatever research you might want to do.

Fourth, you just need to decide to live on no more than the stipend and then do whatever it takes to meet that goal. This will mean reducing your lifestlye, which I think is worth doing for getting a PhD. You might get roommates and live in a really cheap group house. You might find really cheap student housing. You will eat out a lot less. And other steps like that.

Sense to Dollars said...

I went to grad school in the sciences in Hawaii--so I can tell you about living cheaply in a high-cost of living environment! I got used to living cheaply, so I now am able to live, on about half my monthly paycheck (~$1600).

With tuition covered and a stipend, I netted about $1250 a month--and rent was half of that, with several roommates in a very small house. Fees and books, of course, were not free. I did not have a cell phone, but I had a surfboard, a car, a bike, and basically everything I needed--all by looking for deals or getting free stuff from other leaving grad students. It's a community, they will all know what it's like and share and help you out when you need it.

I was a grad student for 4 years, and it was the best experience of my life. I loved it, but I can't go back now that I know what it's like to make more money than I need. I was only able to (forcibly at times) save $25/mo. into my mutual fund.

Then again, I knew nothing about credit cards and the like, so I definitely wasn't living as frugally-minded as I do now. I definitely didn't eat cheaply, as the cost of produce and staples like milk and bread in Hawaii is astronomical. I ended up putting all my trips home to VA at Christmas and a few weeks during the summer (flights from Hawaii are EXPENSIVE!!) on my credit card--at $1000+ a pop twice a year, $8K. Not too horrible for the situation--those flights were definitely necessary to keep sane when one is 8000 miles away from home, but is not the ideal money situation, of course.

it all depends on what you want to get out of it. I had a friend who was so used to living off of Daddy's credit card that she kept right on doing it--and he had to bail her out multiple times. Eventually, he said no more. So, she took out a $40,000/yr student loan on top of her stipend, and is using that to live like a queen in a land of paupers. I can't figure out what she spends it on, besides clothes, honestly. her car is old, she lives in a cheap place to rent, etc.

On the other end of the spectrum, I had a friend who only ate/drank/whatever Slim Fast, whatever was cheap or free, and whatever was less than a dollar at the farmer's market. She never went out with us, really, and fretted over every single penny. At the end of 4 years, while I was $8K in the hole (plus undergraduate student loans), she had saved up a couple thousand dollars!! (Her parents paid for her flights home, though).

We were not allowed (and didn't have time anyway) to get other jobs besides our graduate assistantships. Check your contract with the school--this may just be because we were in science so they didn't want us compromising our NSF-funded projects.

Also, i second the get your funding availability in writing idea--i was guaranteed 4 years of funding for my master's degree, so there was no hardship when i was stricken with mono and took longer to finish my degree.

also, health insurance through the school/state programs is the BEST!!! copay for prescriptions and doctors = $5, student health? free.

Living Almost Large said...

We lived SD on a grad student stipend on bought a condo. Made a ton! Starting out DH made $18k, I make like $27k now. So we've been living on student stipends for 7 going on 8 years now. But now DH makes a real salary and boy are we living almost large!

But seriously you can't live now in expensive COLA and make out like we did. We were always frugal.

I'd personally reccomend going to somewhere that has a cheap COLA like DH's best friend. Stipend $22k and rent is $200/month, yep he's able to save. We always struggled and one accident would have sent us to the poor house. But luckily we both worked before grad school to save money to cushion us, which we used to buy a house, then we turned around and leveraged our condo to make sure we never had CC debt.

So moral of the story? Best Friend lives in Baltimore and makes about the same, but was able to save about 50%+ of his salary, get a pilot's license (not cheap), car, 2 new bikes, traveled to europe, turkey, india, africa, mexico, hawaii, etc. While we struggled to eat.

Live somewhere cheap.

Anonymous said...

what makes y'all think you'll have money AFTER you finish school? and since when do studnets have enough money to live AND save while in they're school? y'all are living in a dream world (or off some fat trust fund)

colleges have cheap health insurance, free clinics, cheap food, free health clubs, all kinds of books plus holidays, breaks, time off. try feeding a family of five, buying health insurance, cooking the food, paying for a health club (family) membership, paying tuition and putting into a roth. get real.

jps said...

I am a history grad student in a pretty expensive area, Santa Barbara and find that I manage okay on the aid. I have two years of fellowship and 3 of TAship. Although I haven't managed to save for retirement while in school, I have managed to save/cobble together funding for a research trip to South Africa and England, which I viewed as important to finishing my program in a timely fashion. Summer work helps, but it does slow you down. Grad school is so much more intense than undergrad that I think it would be really difficult to work during the school year.

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