Survive and Thrive, Part 4: Show Me Where the Money Is!

Graduate students in the sciences have one tremendous advantage over their colleagues in the humanities: money. Once you get into grad school, you are almost assured of funding. Most of you will start as teaching assistants and then shift to a research assistantship as you progress toward completing your thesis. But although a TA or RA does provide a measure of financial security, the stipends are, shall we say, not very generous.

So, in this week's Survive and Thrive column I'll concentrate on the things you can do to ease the short-term strain of living on a miserly stipend. And I'll show you how, with a little extra effort, you can even lay the groundwork for your long-term financial health.

The first rule is don't use credit cards! Maxing out your cards to finance your education is a very bad idea. It may seem like free money that arrives just when you need it, but it is not. Plucking leaves off the plastic money tree could ruin your financial future before you even apply for your first post-graduate school job. Why? Two reasons. First, even if you get the best available interest rate, it will take you years to pay off your debts. Second, you will never get the best available interest rate.

Credit card companies deliberately tempt you with cards that carry high credit limits in the hope that you will miss payments. When you do miss one, they can lower your credit rating and charge you a higher interest rate. And even if you pay off the card, your credit rating won't necessarily rise. That may not seem important now, but it will a few years down the road when you want a loan for a new house. Don't believe me? Check out page 20 of the January 2001 Consumer Reports.

For most of the same reasons, you should try to avoid student loans. But if you are in really desperate straits, a student loan is infinitely preferable to a maxed-out credit card. The interest rates are much lower, and the repayment plans are less Draconian. If you think you need a loan, I suggest you first talk with your local financial aid officer (see box).

People in Your Neighborhood: The Financial Aid Officer

Most students ignore their financial aid officer (FAO) until an expected check fails to arrive. When that happens, the inevitable heated exchanges leave many graduate students feeling like their FAO is a sworn enemy, hell-bent on impoverishing them. But in reality, FAOs can be powerful allies in your quest for funding. After all, it is their job to stay abreast of all the potential sources of money and to help you get every penny you are eligible to receive.

Open the lines of communication as soon as you have been accepted to graduate school. All it takes is a polite phone call or e-mail to introduce yourself, followed up by a personal visit when you arrive on campus. Are you interested in a summer intern position? Want to apply for a fellowship next year? It is never too soon to tell your FAO. Try not to be a pest--FAOs are busy people--but do make it a point to stay in touch. You never know when they might stumble across something interesting. Or lucrative.

That said, it is possible to pad your income and advance your career at the same time. One summer during grad school, for example, I took a job pitching newspapers out of the back of my pickup truck. For the trifling investment of 2 hours a day, I doubled my summer income (that is no exaggeration, unfortunately) and gained invaluable experience that I can now use in my current job as a science journalist. Other possibilities include summer internships in industry, teaching at the local community college, or waiting tables. I even know a budding career counselor who worked her way through school driving a cab.

You might also consider applying for a grant. Graduate students aren't usually eligible for the big money needed to finance all of their research, but they are eligible for oodles of smaller grants. Your department or university almost certainly has travel money available to send you to a conference or go on an extended visit to a friendly lab. Apply for it. And don't forget about the "time" grants. In astronomy, telescope time is more precious than gold.

Winning a couple of these little grants is valuable in another way, too. The hardest thing about doing research is finding the money to pay for it. If you can demonstrate the ability to pull down grants, even small ones, you will have a leg up on your competition when the time comes to apply for jobs.

Finally, did you ever think about working out a personal budget? Next Wave's own Charles Boulakia is currently writing an excellent series on personal finance, and your local library is probably stuffed with books about budgeting. Most of these are geared to people who want to save and invest, but that might be overly ambitious for a grad student living on $15,000 a year and delivering newspapers to make ends meet. A more appropriate goal might be to leave grad school with no debt. If you reach that goal, you will have developed basic money management skills that will serve you well for the rest of your life.

So now you are in school and you have the money to pay for it. What's next? Now it is time to make the single biggest decision of your graduate career. Next month you choose your advisor!

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