While graduate school can increase earning potential long-term (opens in new tab), graduate students themselves tend to make very low wages while enrolled in their educational programs (if they are paid at all). As a result, grad students often experience massive financial stress (opens in new tab) and, consequently, worse mental health (opens in new tab) than the average American.
While these problems are systemic, there are steps grad students can take to try to lighten the financial burden. The options available to make money can vary widely between degrees and programs, but exploring these paths with your professors and administration can be a good start to reducing the financial strain.
Teaching assistantships are a basic part of most grad students’ workloads. For students who enjoy teaching or see it as an ultimate career path, instructing can be a reliable way to increase pay. Most departments have summer teaching options, and you can also look to other departments around campus outside of your own that need help. Those with many undergrads but few grad students may be especially in need as well. What’s more, these opportunities are not limited to just Ph.D. students – master’s degree students can also serve as teaching assistants (TAs).
The ability to teach a diverse range of content, especially on complicated subjects, will increase your chances of getting extra teaching gigs that can provide even more income. Even one extra TA appointment can increase your annual compensation by about 25%. Experienced grad students who serve as primary instructors can net as much as a 50% pay increase with just one course per year.
Research is another core part of most grad students’ workloads. That said, there is considerable variability in compensation for research. The specific opportunities depend on your field of study, program and support from your faculty. Within those limits, aggressively pursue research funding. Winning a research fellowship or major grant can make your early career, and in addition to the extra money, the prestige can eventually lift you into a strong post-doctorate or junior faculty position.
Generally speaking, the best funding tends to come from nationally competitive sources, such as the National Science Foundation (opens in new tab) and the Ford Foundation (opens in new tab). Even more localized fellowships, such as those with availability limited to people in your program, can still offer thousands of dollars.
Importantly, if you get a fellowship, be mindful of taxes. You may read that fellowships are tax-free, but that’s only true if the money goes toward qualified education expenses, such as tuition; if you pocket those funds like you would with a regular salary, they are taxable. Additionally, while most forms of compensation withhold taxes from each paycheck, fellowships typically do not. That means you’ll owe a lump sum of taxes the following April — an unwelcome surprise.
Consulting and Internships
Depending on your career path and field, consulting or internships may be encouraged and common. There is a lot of variability in how much income to expect here. Some grad students earn just a few hundred dollars a year, while others can make tens of thousands of dollars a year.
The most common gateway into consulting is through your professors, who often have an existing project and may need extra help. While the professor may be paid as much as $500 an hour, a grad student might expect to make more like $25 to $50 an hour for their first consulting gig. Over time, more experienced students may be able to get their own consulting gigs and charge over $100 an hour. On the other hand, consultants often don’t have much time for research or teaching — so choose wisely if your career is in traditional academia.
Many grad students also find paid internships, often during the summer. Again, the most straightforward path is through professors. Some programs offer regular internships through partnerships with particular companies, while in other cases, the student applies on their own. If that’s your situation, take time to run your plans by your professors and consult your school’s career development advisers on how to best navigate this process. Take advantage of all the resources available to you!
Focus on the Future
When seeking ways to raise your income, don’t lose focus on the bigger picture: graduation. Each year you stay in grad school can cost you over $50,000 in lost wages, so the best option is the one that also boosts your résumé toward the career you want. If you want to be a researcher, focus on fellowships and grants. If you want to be a consultant, start building up your client base and brand now. If you’re going into the private sector, establish those relationships early and seek as many internships and part-time opportunities as possible.
Or, if you’re like I was — with no clue about what you want — you may consider testing the waters and exploring a range of options. Sure, your résumé may look like something Dr. Frankenstein cooked up, but you’ll build some solid connections and have a much more interesting experience along the way. Just do yourself a favor and graduate a little faster than my 7½ years!
Matt J. Goren is an Assistant Professor of Financial Planning at The American College of Financial Services (opens in new tab)who focuses on the interplay of personal finance and psychology. In addition to teaching and developing content, he provides strategic consulting on financial literacy initiatives and hosts a personal finance radio show, Nothing Funny About Money, which was named 2018’s most outstanding consumer financial information resource by the AFCPE.
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