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Making Ends Meet in Graduate School

Information compiled by the GradSchools.com team - last updated August 2010


The old image of the poor college student is so ingrained into the fabric of American culture that is almost a cliche. We all know the stereotype: No matter how well-off a student's family is, once he gets to college, he becomes just as hard-up for cash as everyone else. This is how it's always been, and this is how it'll always be. In fact, it's such a standard part of the American college experience that it has shaped, in a very real way, the culture of college itself. It's why college kids are notoriously casual, even in the most formal of situations: Who can really afford to buy a nice suit? And it's one of the reasons college parties are so raucous-is there really a critical mass of college students who can afford fine wine and high-end cheese for their little weekend soirees?

But the stereotype of the poor students stops being cute when it is applied to graduate students. After all, they are generally at least in their mid-20's and often much older, not infrequently married, and possessed of enough life experience to know that their current financial situation is just no fun.

So what's a grad student to do? We here at GradSchools.com have come up with a few suggestions for not only making ends meet while you're enrolled in grad school, but also for making it through those times when they don't meet, despite your best efforts.

The big choice

If you haven't yet enrolled in grad school, then chances are you're still sitting on those acceptance letters than came pouring out of your mailbox all winter and early spring. Generally, if you've received the fat envelope from one school then you've also likely gotten it from others. So the question you're now dealing with this: Where should you attend?

There a million different factors that play into this decision, but perhaps none are more important than the quality of the school and the cost of going there. In fact, the weight you place on each of these two factors depends to a significant extent on the subject you plan on studying and your own financial situation.

If you're going to grad school in the hopes of earning at doctorate in a highly specialized field, then you should probably go to the school with the best program. There are some schools whose programs in certain areas are so far superior to the vast majority of other ones out there that you should simply do everything in your power to make it happen, regardless of the expense. It's a classic case of short-term struggling for long-term benefits.

But for the most part, you should weigh the two equally. Unless you're hoping for a degree in one of the areas that fits into the category above, then your decision should be based on a cost-benefit analysis. In other words, you should consider which program will give you the most bang for the buck. Because often, there are schools whose costs run the gamut from downright cheap to breathtakingly expensive all within the same "strata" of academic reputation. So if you have the luxury of choosing between an expensive and well-known program and a cheaper one that is highly respected in your field of eventual study, then there really is no difficult decision you'll have to make.

Just make sure you consider all your options carefully, because your decision will have repercussions for years to come.

How To Make Due

It is, however, somewhat inevitable that you'll be a bit strapped for cash once you start school, unless you either were fortunate enough to have been born into a wealthy family and your last name is Hilton or you're attending, say, an M.B.A. program on some investment firm's buck. But barring those two exceptions, you'll probably find yourself living in somewhat reduced circumstances. This can be frustrating, but it doesn't have to grate at you.

The first thing you should do is remind yourself that the purpose of attending graduate school in the first place is to better your mind and to move yourself forward along the path of professional development. If you're attending Big Brain University in the hopes of earning your doctorate in philosophy, then the writings of Kant, Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer should (and likely do) mean much more to you than the cash (or lack thereof) in your pocket. We all need to eat, of course, and having a spare five or ten once in a while to use to blow off some steam with friends is nice, but the bottom line is that your brain means a heck of a lot more to you at this point than your wallet.

That having been said, you shouldn't have to live in poverty throughout the course of your graduate education. This is especially true if you're married, and even more so if you have children. Remember, at this point in your life, it's not all about you, and many other people may be sacrificing in order for you to pursue your education. If this is the case, then it is your responsibility to find some sort of work that helps take a bit of the financial pressure off you and your loved ones. The stipends schools provide generally won't be enough to completely support you and your family, so if you can, find work tutoring local high-school students, or tending bar, or working in the library. Just do something that will bring in a bit of money yet not take too much time away from your studies.

Find time to treat yourself right 

Graduate school is difficult. There will probably be no other time in your life when you read as much and spend so many solitary hours pounding out your every last thought on the keyboard of some computer. And if you're not working on your dissertation then you may be teaching a freshman class. Or conducting research for a professor. Or angling for an internship. Whatever it is you're doing, you're probably doing a lot of it. In fact, it's so easy to get tunnel-vision in graduate school that you may very well find yourself letting other aspects of your life slip away.

Don't let that happen. For while it's impossible for the pre-graduate-school paradigm to remain unchanged, it is your responsibility to make sure that it doesn't swing so far in the other direction as to render your life unrecognizable. So no matter how much work you have, regardless of how overwhelmed you feel, make time for yourself every day. If that means an hour at the gym, great. Maybe take a coffee break in the late afternoon and read the newspaper. It really doesn't matter what you do; what's important is that you recognize the need for a break once in a while. Because despite what you might think, your productivity will plummet if you start burning yourself out. So spending a dollar on a paper or a cup of coffee is an investment in your future productivity, not a waste of money you don't have.

In the end, then, it's all about balance. If you can achieve that, then you'll be just fine. And eventually, it'll all lead to a wonderful career in the field for which you're training in graduate school. So you're money woes may be a bit grating now, but they won't be forever. To paraphrase the immortal words of Gloria Gaynor: You will survive.

 

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