One of the most frustrating aspects of graduate school is that your income may fluctuate with each term. In some fields and at some universities, you might change roles not just each academic year but perhaps as frequently as each semester or trimester. When each role (fellow, teaching assistant, research assistant, graduate assistant) comes with a different pay rate, the result is a variable or irregular income. It’s even common to go without an income for a term, most typically the summer. This does not mean that you are at loose ends over the summer or free to work any type of other job. Research must go on in order for you to graduate in a timely manner!
An unfunded summer – or even just an income decrease – is not at all financially trivial for a grad student, and the solutions to an irregular income that other people use are not necessarily available or optimal for a grad student because of his low overall income. Of course, the ideal situation is to secure funding over the summer from an RA position or outside grant. If that option is not available, you must consider other avenues. If you see the funding lapse coming or it occurs regularly, you can prepare for it throughout the entire year.
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1) Get Another Job
You can take a job to replace the income you received during the academic year.
It may not be possible (or ethical) to find a regular full-time job since you plan to return to your fellowship or assistantship in the fall. A temporary or seasonable job is a good alternative, whether full-time or part-time.
First, look for a job that would advance your career in some way; it might help you demonstrate an existing skill, learn a new skill, expand your network, or simply look good on a CV. A paid internship is an example of a temporary job that is likely to advance your career.
Second, look for a job that you would enjoy doing, even if it’s not career-advancing. Your university is a great place to start when searching out opportunities, such as a work-study position. Inside or outside your university, there may be opportunities to work with younger students who are also on summer break, such as through camps or tutoring services.
Third, look for a job that pays you the highest available rate while still allowing you some time for your research and/or professional development on the side. If it isn’t advancing your career and you don’t enjoy it, just earn as much as you can per hour so you can minimize your work time.
2) Become Self-Employed
A way to earn an income that is an alternative to a temporary job is to work for yourself. It takes a certain personality and a lot of work to be successfully self-employed, but the advantages are:
- You choose the type of work and clients,
- It has the potential to pay a better hourly rate than a job, and
- Your schedule and workload are under your control.
Try to think of a unique or marketable skill that you have and how you can leverage it to serve clients.
A few generic avenues for self-employment available to many grad students are:
- Consulting (in your field),
- Freelance research, writing, and/or editing, and
If self-employment appeals to you, you should start pursuing it ASAP, because it often takes time to start generating an income/get paid. You might have to sustain your business year-round, though you could ramp it up or down depending on your academic workload.
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3) Save in Advance
The typical financial advice for dealing with an irregular income or lapse in income is to save up in advance so that you can cover your expenses from your savings instead of your income. This is good advice for someone with an income that far exceeds her expenses. For example, if you will go three months without an income, you should save approximately one-quarter of your income from each month that you are paid to sustain yourself during your unfunded summer. Setting this savings goal ensures that you keep your expenses in check year-round while building up the account you plan to draw from.
But how many graduate students are able to save one-quarter of their net income? And more so, how many of those well-paid graduate students might actually face an unfunded summer?
To the degree possible, you should save from your academic year income (your grad student income as well as side hustle if you have one) to pay expenses during your unfunded period if you don’t know you will earn as much from a different job/side hustle. In the face of short-term uncertainty, especially with respect to income, cash is king. But be honest with yourself from the first regular paycheck you receive about whether this plan is feasible.
4) Reduce/Shift Expenses
In the spirit of living within your means, if you are going to earn less or live off savings during your unfunded summer, you should try to reduce your expenses as well.
As your largest expense is likely housing, that’s where you should look first. If there is nothing physically keeping you at your university over the summer, you can move for the term. Sub-let your academic-year home and rent a less expensive place somewhere else, move in with your parents/relatives, or house-sit.
If any other of your typical expenses become unnecessary over the summer, try to jettison those as well. For example, many cities offer a slate of free activities over the summer, so you may be able to dramatically reduce the amount of money you typically spend on entertainment, eating/drinking out, etc.
Another possibility for making ends meet on a temporarily lower income is to shift any expenses possible to when you have a higher income. This doesn’t necessarily reduce the amount you would spend, but rather makes budgeting easier. Expenses that might be shifted include:
- Shopping, i.e., for clothes, electronics, household furnishings,
- Routine medical/dental/vision care,
- Non-monthly insurance premiums or subscriptions, and
5) Take Out Student Loans
Finally, if you are enrolled as a student and taking a sufficient number of credits over the summer, you may be eligible to take out a student loan. (Credits don’t necessarily equal classes, depending on how your university registers graduate students.)
This is in my opinion a method of last resort and should only be used to speed progress toward graduation if a large salary bump is expected. A summer free from teaching or other service obligations can be an incredibly fruitful time for research progress – for some projects, it might be the only time when meaningful work is accomplished – so student debt can be reasonably justified for that purpose.
Do some math on the ROI of taking on the debt (principal and interest) vs. your other income options for an unfunded summer to make sure it’s worth it. You don’t want to end graduate school with an amount of debt that will be onerous to pay back with your post-PhD salary, but you also don’t want to tread water in graduate school and put off earning that post-PhD salary for too long.
Using student loans over the summer isn’t incompatible with any of the other options; use the other approaches to minimize the amount of student loans you need to take out/repay them immediately to the degree that they do not interfere with your research progress. Also, it is preferable to take out student loans than to accrue higher-interest rate debt (e.g., credit card debt) due to poor planning.
If you know your upcoming summer will be un/under-funded or you aren’t sure whether you’ll be able to secure an academic position or grant, start preparing now by:
- Reducing your expenses and saving as much as you can.
- Searching for temporary/part-time jobs.
- Pursuing a self-employment side hustle that ideally both pays well and complements your graduate work.
Even if you find funding for your summer and don’t need the side hustle or saved money, you will have put yourself in a better financial position and set your mind more at ease about the potential for subsequent unfunded summers.