In this episode, Emily interviews Dr. Tyler Hallmark, a recent PhD in Higher Education and Student Affairs and a low-income, first-generation college student. Emily and Tyler and discuss the why, what, and how of advocating for improving university policies that relate to finances and benefits. They cover the timing of fellowship disbursements and assistantship paychecks vs. fee due dates, emergency aid funds, reimbursements, prohibitions on outside work, and more. If you want to raise an issue that they skipped, please leave a comment in the show notes, email them, or start a conversation on social media.
Links Mentioned in this Episode
- Tyler’s Twitter (@Hallmark2032)
- Tyler’s Website
- Tax Cheat Sheet
- Dear Grad Student (Podcast) Episode 27
- Tyler’s article in Diverse: Issues in Higher Education
- PF for PhDs S6E15: How This Entering PhD Student Has Set Himself Up for Financial Success in Graduate School (Money Story with George Walters-Marrah)
- PF for PhDs S7E4: This PhD’s Message for University Housing Is “Work with Us, Not Against Us” (Money Story with Dr. Travis Seifman)
- PF for PhDs S2E1: As a Single Parent, This Graduate Student Utilizes Every Possible Resource (Money Story with Lauri Lutes)
- PF for PhDs S8E11: University Policies to Better Support Grad Student Parents (Money Story with Dr. Alaina Talboy)
- PF for PhDs S1E3: Serving as a Resident Advisor Freed this Graduate Student from Financial Stress (Money Story by Adrian Gallo)
- PF for PhDs S10E8: This Grad Student Eliminated Her Housing Expense to Pay Off Her Student Loans (Money Story with Dr. Erika Moore Taylor)
- PF for PhDs S11E1: This Grad Student’s Defensive Financial Planning Paid Off During the Pandemic (Money Story with Maya Gosztyla)
- PF for PhDs Tax Resources
- PF for PhDs Subscribe to Mailing List
- PF for PhDs Podcast Hub
00:00 Tyler: You don’t have to wait for a union to form. You could be the one that is forming it. I did this often informally, you know, I never thought to call us a union, but I would just share my experiences vulnerably with my peers. And they would share theirs with me. And we would come together and we would go approach the chair of our department or, you know, someone that does have power in our school and say, Hey, we’re having this issue. There are multiple of us. Is there anything we could do?
00:32 Emily: Welcome to the Personal Finance for PhDs Podcast: A Higher Education in Personal Finance. I’m your host, Dr. Emily Roberts. This is Season 11, Episode 7, and today my guest is Dr. Tyler Hallmark, a recent PhD in Higher Education and Student Affairs and a low-income, first-generation college student. Tyler and I discuss the why, what, and how of advocating for improving university policies that relate to finances and benefits. We cover the timing of fellowship disbursements and assistantship paychecks vs. fee due dates, emergency aid funds, reimbursements, prohibitions on outside work, and more. Tyler is quite knowledgeable and experienced in advocacy and shares his story with us vulnerably. I’m confident that our discussion of policies and hearing about Tyler’s approach to advocacy at the end will help enhance your own advocacy efforts on your campus. If you want to raise an issue that we skipped, please leave a comment in the show notes, email us, or start a conversation on social media.
01:42 Emily: April 18th is fast approaching, so in case you haven’t started working on your tax return yet, I wanted to point you to my #1 most popular free downloadable. It’s my tax cheat sheet for graduate students who are U.S. citizens, permanent residents, and residents for tax purposes. You can find it at PFforPhDs.com/student-tax-sheet/. The cheat sheet briefly explains my framework for the categories of higher education income, the three higher education tax benefits that might be available to you, and why students who were age 23 or younger at the end of 2021 need to be extra cautious. Better yet, once you sign up for my mailing list to download the cheat sheet, you’ll receive a free email course explaining in-depth all these concepts and more. Again, you can download the cheat sheet from PFforPhDs.com/student-tax-sheet/. Please share that link with your peers as well! Without further ado, here’s my interview with Dr. Tyler Hallmark.
Will You Please Introduce Yourself Further?
02:59 Emily: I am delighted to have joining me on the podcast today, Dr. Tyler Hallmark. I first met Tyler actually on an episode of Dear Grad Student. We were both featured by Alana on episode 27. And we talked about kind of, you know, high-level issues related to being a graduate student, advocacy topics. And I just really enjoyed that conversation so much, I wanted to invite Tyler on this podcast to dive even more deeply into that topic. So, Tyler, it’s absolutely a delight to speak with you again. And would you please introduce yourself to the audience?
03:27 Tyler: Yeah, thanks for having me. My name is Tyler Hallmark and my pronouns are he/him. I am presently working as a program associate in the higher education program at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation here in New York City. Before I came here, I was actually finishing my PhD at the Ohio State University in higher education and student affairs. And so, a lot of my background while I was there was focusing on low-income students, first-generation students, students of color, and their journey through higher education and how we can really make the systems more equitable and more supportive for students like myself that has gone through this as someone who is from a low-income household, who was the first in their family to go to college and who is also Cherokee. And so, you know, I’ve written a lot about my experiences. I’ve written for Diverse, I’ve written for the Chronicle of Higher Education, these different outlets, really, sharing some of the backgrounds, some the challenges I faced, and trying to really shift policy, shift practices, on our college campuses for students like myself.
The Importance of Advocacy in Higher Ed
04:36 Emily: Yeah. And we’re partially basing this interview off an article that Tyler sent me in advance, so we’ll link that from the show notes if you want to get even more of his perspective on these issues. So, you know, beyond just what you explained about your own background and about your work with first-gen and low-income students, students of color, and so forth. Are there any other reasons why you think it’s important to advocate for yourself or other graduate students in higher ed?
05:00 Tyler: Well, yeah, absolutely. I think it’s always important as I was going through, I think, you know, students from backgrounds like myself already have so many barriers to face going to college, having to, you know, learn the whole admissions process, having to learn how to, you know, really make it, how to learn study habits. I didn’t really know have good study habits until I just kind of, you know, picked them up as I was going through college. And so, you know, with all those barriers already in mind, there are so many barriers that are just unnecessary that we’re facing as we’re going through college and, you know, it’s really making a big impact on whether we even complete the degrees we set out to and reach the goals we have for ourselves. So, I always try to share my own experiences and be vulnerable with people, not only just to hopefully shift the policy or practice to make it easier on my college journey, but because I know there are so many students coming after me, and I know if I don’t speak up now, then no one’s going to speak up for me. So, that’s what ultimately got me into doing this kind of work.
06:00 Emily: And I think I’ll add to that as well, like of course it’s a necessary and beautiful goal to make higher education more accessible to more people. Everyone benefits from that. But I was also thinking about this idea of like, we do it this way because this is the way it’s always been done. Or like, I had this experience in my PhD program, so that means that you’re going to have to put up with this too, and how like damaging that is and how unnecessary it is. And so, you know, as we have gone through the, you know, decades of graduate students, like we’ve learned some things that maybe don’t need to be the way they are. And I think part of the purpose of me doing this episode is to try to, you know, with your perspective as well, share what policies maybe are being tried out at some places that could be tried at other places.
Earlier Distribution of Financial Aid
06:43 Emily: Like maybe there aren’t as many barriers to changing these policies, as you know, you might assume. So that’s kind of the impetus behind the conversation. So, let’s talk specifically about what are some of these policies that you think, that I think could be changed, should be changed, that we see kind of in many places across higher education. So, I have a list in front of me and we’re just going to bang, bang, bang, go through this list. Again, partially based on this article that you wrote. So, first of all, one of the things we talked about on the Dear Grad Student podcast was earlier distribution of financial aid. Can you tell me more about that issue and how it can change?
07:17 Tyler: Yeah, absolutely. So, as you’ll see in the article that you mentioned, I talk about my experience. As a grad student, I would go into the financial aid office, and one semester, I was going to miss my rent. I didn’t have any money, and they were not going to release the funds until two weeks after classes had started, well after my rent was due. And I went into a financial aid counselor and I was like, Hey, is there any way I can get my financial aid easier? My scholarship had already sent the money to my institution, but my institution just wasn’t releasing it to my bank account until after classes started. And the financial aid advisor basically just said, well, I don’t know why you don’t have money saved up. I don’t know why you are in this predicament. You should just learn to manage your money better.
08:03 Tyler: And I was really taken aback because I didn’t have any money to manage. So you’re just really expecting me to already have the savings account and all this kind of stuff. And I didn’t have any of that. And so, what I’ve been pushing for is for institutions to really release the financial aid before the semester starts. You know, I can’t afford to wait to move until, you know, after classes start. So, you know, federal guidelines say you can release it 10 to 14 days before classes start, even loans, federal loans and that kind of stuff. And so, I’m really pushing for an earlier financial aid distribution on that regard, or in the cases that institutions can’t move the whole distribution up, at least allowing students to take an advance on financial aid. And some institutions, like my first institution I attended, actually let me take out up to $1,500, which was enough to cover me for one month of rent. However, a later institution I attended would only let me have like a $400 advance, which wasn’t nearly enough to make my rent.
09:06 Emily: It’s a little bit rich, right? Coming from this financial aid officer, whoever you’re talking to to be like, “Um, yeah, we’re going to hold your money hostage for like an extra month here. But like it’s really on you. This is your problem.” As you said, the federal guidelines allow that earlier distribution. So like why wouldn’t the universities, as you said, at least release part of it? And specifically maybe for your situation or how this works in general, when you’re talking about financial aid, I think you’re speaking about a scholarship, right? So like awarded income that, you know, had been sent to the university for you, and it was just basically giving you access to that money earlier.
Detrimental Effects of Lack of Early Access to Your Own Funding
09:40 Tyler: And a lot of this falls back to also institutions doing enrollment checks. So, you know, it’s mandated that professors and faculty report attendance to their classes. And so the financial aid office will often wait until they get those attendance records before they let students have any money to make sure they’re showing up. But I think that’s a detriment because especially, I’m in grad school. I know I often showed up to class and I didn’t have my books on the first day of class. And I had a professor saying, you’re a PhD student. How do you not have your books already? You should have learned this, you know, years ago. And I’d say, well, I’m a PhD student, but I’m still poor. I still can’t afford, you know, to get my books before classes start, unless they give me my financial aid.
10:26 Emily: Yeah. I think this is so relatable to anybody who’s been through that transition to graduate school. I mean, at least they can imagine like the difficulties in that. Like, I think back to my own move to graduate school, and like, oh wow. Now I realize how fortunate that was. Because for example, I didn’t have to move very far. Like I didn’t have to buy a plane ticket. I already had a car. So like, it was just like, okay, I’m going to pack up my possessions and go. And actually the apartment that I got into did like a student, like thing where you didn’t have to put down a deposit. So it was like all kind of set up to be like, okay. And I did have little bit of savings from the previous job that I had. So it was like, looking back on that it’s like, it went okay for me, but I can so easily see how it could be really, really difficult if you don’t have some of the things that I just mentioned already in place or like more challenges there.
11:10 Emily: Another sort of way to get at this problem is for PhD programs, in particular, to provide something like an extra bit of money, a moving bonus, a top-up fellowship, something that is specifically sort of earmarked to help students move to that institution. Because as we know, probably most great majority of PhD students are moving some distance to get to their new programs. Now, I’ve seen, like I’ve had heard reports of people telling me that their offers included this kind of thing, $500, a thousand dollars. We talked about this, for example, in the episode with George Walters-Marrah, which I’ll link to in the show notes. It was a $500 moving bonus that helped him decide between his number one and number two choice of PhD programs. Like that was kind of the final clincher was getting that offer. But I understand that you have talked about this with many people before as well, and you’ve been hearing some different things.
12:02 Tyler: Yeah. So first off, I will say I’m a big advocate for applying moving bonuses for students, especially those grad students trying to move to college that often have to go across state lines to find a graduate program that matches their needs. They have to leave home. So, a big advocate for that. And I’ve been talking about that a lot, you know, you’ll see me post about it on Twitter and those kinds of things and my own experiences showing up to college and going $5,000 in debt because I had to move across the country. But then I also had a lot of responses from, you know, deans and administration that read my work and they’ll say, Hey, we looked into doing this moving bonus thing, but it’s just not feasible. Like it’s not possible for us, we’re facing different, you know, barriers to policy that just won’t let us distribute those kinds of bonuses to students. And so I’m not, you know, super familiar with what policies are in place and if those are federal or state or how that’s working there. But I do know some institutions run into trouble when they do try to look into that.
13:02 Emily: Yeah. So this is a little bit of an open question. And maybe it does vary by state. Maybe it varies, you know, public versus private institutions. But I am glad that people, at least administrators, are at least looking into it, at least making the effort. But in places where it is possible, it is a great, great, great, incentive to help with that, as we were just talking about, that early financial crunch that everyone’s going through just to get to school. So thanks for sharing that. I hope that they keep kind of chipping away at whatever these barriers are that they’re seeing.
Benefits of Pro-Rating
13:31 Emily: Okay, another issue that I’ve had people actually on the podcast mention to me before is about the student fees that often have to be paid like really soon before the start of the semester, that can happen, or very soon into the semester. And I know for me, for example, one of the fees that I paid, it wasn’t even necessarily a required one, but I mentioned I have a car, so I paid like a parking permit fee once per year. So I paid that, you know, in one lump sum, it actually changed like how I even budget to like, be able to handle that kind of once per year expense. But I heard from some other people at other institutions that their fees and things like parking permits were prorated like per paycheck. And I thought that was such a smart idea to like spread out that payment throughout the year. Is this an issue you’ve thought about all?
14:16 Tyler: You know, I really like the idea of pro-rating. I think you run into trouble with that when you look at scholarships because you have to pay in a lump sum then. You know, when I was on my PhD, I relied on scholarships and fellowships less so than an actual job and paycheck. So I didn’t face that directly. I will say some of the things I faced, and I would often ask for, and a lot of students don’t know to even go ask for this, was these places that often require fees upfront, you can often ask for them to push that fee back. So for instance, when I would enroll for my fall courses, they would say, well, a certain amount of fees are due in May before, you know, three months away. And I was able to always petition for that and they would say, okay, we can wait until your scholarship comes in in August or September and pay it then. And so just institutions could make that more clear that students can actually ask for that. And on the student side, you should just know that that’s often an option. I’ve done that at multiple institutions so far in that regard.
15:20 Emily: Yeah. I think the basic point here is just like, let’s time the payment of fees along with when the student actually has money to pay. So if it is a monthly or whatever, kind of paycheck, let’s pay the fees with every paycheck instead of, you know, upfront all at once. Or if you’re receiving these like larger scholarship or fellowship distributions, yeah, as you just said, like let’s coincide the date of the fee needing to be paid with that disbursement because that’s when the money is available. So logical. Love it. Thank you so much for, you know, pointing out that you’ve been successful in having that exception made for you.
Emergency Aid Funds
15:52 Emily: Let’s talk about emergency aid funds now, and I’ve actually heard this in two forms, both grants and loans. I don’t know which one you have been talking about the most. But there are sometimes emergency funds available to graduate students. So, can you tell me a little bit more about this issue?
16:08 Tyler: Yeah. So, we see a lot of this coming up, especially over the pandemic. I see a lot of federal funding that is going to institutions during this time. Institutions are then turning that into an emergency aid fund. Of course, I’ve seen a wide variety of funds. Like you mentioned, there’s a loan and the actual grant money that you can just keep and not have to pay back. But also there are some that require different amounts of paperwork in different red tape to even receive. So, you know, some will actually require, and they won’t process it for a week, whereas some will process it within two days in a senior student account and those kinds of things. So, the thing I mainly advocate for is to even have these funds set up, but also have them as easy as possible for students to access.
16:55 Tyler: And the final note I will say is that too often institutions gear these towards undergraduates only. And they don’t even write that. I had one institution where I was struggling and I was going to apply for this emergency grant funding. I actually had a financial aid counselor tell me to apply for it. And after I applied, they emailed me back and said, well, you’re a graduate student. This is for undergraduates only. And even the financial aid counselor wasn’t aware that it was for graduate students only. So, making that clear around those and really targeting it towards all students on your campus and not only certain populations.
17:28 Emily: Definitely. I attended a conference in 2019, the Higher Education Financial Wellness Association’s annual conference. And I remember these like emergency aid, you know, grant and loans programs being a big topic of conversation at that time. More and more universities were implementing them. And so I think, you know, the suggestion here is just yes, more please, and also to more populations of students, please. And Hey, also postdocs. Don’t want to leave out the postdocs here. They have financial stress as well.
17:54 Tyler: Totally. Especially when you think about that it’s often these graduate students and postdocs that are more likely to have families. So they’re more likely to run into these kinds of emergency situations in different regards.
Food Pantries and Subsidized Housing
18:06 Emily: Similarly, another topic of conversation that I heard at that conference was about food pantries and food banks being set up at universities and how they were implementing those programs. Can you tell me about your experience and advocacy around these?
18:19 Tyler: Yeah, certainly. Again, this goes back to having a wide variety of what these food banks look like. The one thing I really advocate for these is really having them in a place where students hang out. You know, when I was at the University of Pennsylvania, we actually had this great intercultural center where students would just come and study, hang out with their friends, have movie nights. And there was a food pantry that was just open. There wasn’t anyone that you had to sign in and get the food. You could just walk in and take the food as you needed it. And you know, a lot of students that are often facing this food insecurity, um, are often, you know, afraid of the shame that comes with it. Afraid of someone seeing that they need help. And so having these, just being open and easy to access for students, I think that’s the best way to really go about setting up a food pantry instead of hiding it, you know, in a basement on campus or somewhere that students don’t even know where to look.
19:09 Emily: Yeah. Or putting up any like red tape or anything like that. I mean, of course they want to know how much it’s being used. But you could just do an inventory to figure that out. Great, great. Another issue that I wanted to raise is something that I’ve talked about in many of my other podcast episodes, which is offering subsidized housing in high cost-of-living areas. This happens sometimes, although we’ve had sort of questions about it on the podcast, whether it’s all it’s cracked up to be. And I’ll link to some of those previous episodes in the show notes, but then also subsidized childcare. And this is something that’s come up in two of my episodes, specifically with grad student parents. Are there any comments that you’d like to make around these issues of being able to subsidize, you know, these big, big expenses for students who need it the most?
19:56 Tyler: Yeah. The one thing I’ll add here is just when we’re thinking about housing on campuses, I know one of my grad schools, the reason I even chose it was because they actually offered a form of graduate student living that was free. I mean, I had to work for the university in their housing department, but they offered me housing. And that just made it all the more possible for me to live it in an expensive city. And so, I think even thinking about jobs and where we could provide, you know, if students do want to take on that extra job, mine was like a 15 to 20-hour job a week and I was able to get free housing for it. So it paid off for me. And that really helped me afford my master’s degree.
20:36 Emily: Absolutely. That’s something that we’ve talked about, really featured, that kind of strategy of serving as a resident advisor in two previous episodes, one with Adrian Gallo and one with Dr. Erika Moore Taylor. So check out those episodes in the show notes if you want to learn more about that. And it is a job, I know, you know because you did it, but it’s absolutely a job. It’s absolutely a part-time job. So we can’t trivialize that, but it can be very, very valuable, you know, to your bottom line, as a graduate student. I guess the other point that I want to make about these, you know, subsidized, um, resources is that they’re always too scarce. And so I think when you’re making a decision about where to attend graduate school and having, you know, the possibility of being in subsidized housing or the possibility of obtaining subsidized childcare is something that you need to have to make the finances work in that particular place.
21:21 Emily: You, you have to be so in-depth about what is the process of getting into this? How long can I have access to it for? So, for example, just recently, it was season 11 episode one, published an interview with Maya Gosztyla who was living in subsidized graduate housing at UCSD. And because she had started it, I think a couple of years ago, she had this like locked-in rent, but rent was being increased for like new people coming onto leases massively. It was like a, I don’t know, a 60% increase or something huge like that. And so, you know, these things can happen. So like you just have to really kind of understand the way the winds are blowing on campuses in terms of how much is being put behind these resources. And if you need it, you need to make sure you’re going to have access to it.
22:07 Emily: I know that childcare is always, always too scarce. I do recommend the episode I did with Lauri Lutes, if you already have a child or are planning on having a child going into graduate school. She was very intentional about choosing which graduate program would be the most supportive to her in her childcare needs and ended up at Oregon State University in terms of what she had to choose among. And they did things like for example, have free childcare, like sort of like afterschool care on campus, up to like four hours a day, completely free for students. So having it on campus and having it as like that part-time flexible option in addition to full-time, you know, daycare or something, that was vital for her, like making her finances in graduate school work.
22:53 Emily: Emily here for a brief interlude! Taxes are weirdly, unexpectedly difficult for funded grad students and fellowship recipients at any level of PhD training. Your university might send you strange tax forms or no tax forms at all. They might not withhold income tax from your paychecks, even though you owe it. It’s a mess. I’ve created a ton of free resources to assist you with understanding and preparing your 2021 tax return, which are available at PFforPhDs.com/tax/. I hope you will check them out to ease much of the stress of tax season. If you want to go deeper with the material or have a question for me, please join one of my tax workshops, which are linked from PFforPhDs.com/tax/. I offer one workshop on preparing your annual tax return for graduate students and one workshop on calculating your quarterly estimated tax for fellowship and training grant recipients.
23:57 Emily: There are two remaining live Q&A calls for the annual tax return workshop, How to Complete Your Grad Student Tax Return (and Understand It, Too!), which are scheduled for Monday, April 4th and Sunday, April 10th. For fellowship and training grant recipients, please be aware that the deadline to make your quarter 1 2022 payment, if applicable, is April 18th, the same day as your 2021 tax return is due. The 2022 quarter one live Q&A call for my estimated tax workshop, Quarterly Estimated Tax for Fellowship Recipients, is scheduled for Thursday, April 14th. It would be my pleasure to help you save time and potentially money this tax season. So don’t hesitate to reach out. Now back to our interview.
24:47 Emily: Another issue you brought up in your article was something that every grad student complains about, which is reimbursements after you, you know, outlay funds for conferences or for equipment or travel or other things. Talk to me about that reimbursement timeline issue.
25:02 Tyler: Yeah, definitely. So I think, you know, there’s this dangerous assumption we have probably in society broadly, but especially I’ve seen it in higher education is that students have the money to pay for things up front and rely on a reimbursement that can come sometimes months later, months down the line. And I think that’s really particularly concerning when we think about this professional development and how important professional development is. And even though we’re setting aside funds for students, we often expect them to pay for the conference, the hotel, the travel, everything up front, and then rely on this reimbursement that can often have a lot of red tape that, you know, students can often not be sure if they’re even going to get it back. Or even when they apply for reimbursement funds, they might not hear back until a week before the conference when flights and hotels are already super expensive. So having reimbursement not only, perhaps think about giving that money upfront, having to pay an advanced setup, but also thinking about when we approve students for it and how fast we can approve for that, that they’re going to certainly get these kinds of funds going forward. I think those are some things to really think about here.
26:14 Emily: Yeah. Pay in advance would be ideal. And if not, get that reimbursement back to them as quickly as possible. Even before the event occurs, like you said, the timing of buying flights and so forth, like you can buy these things months in advance. The conference registration fees also can be really high paid months in advance. So like, can we just reimburse them right when they have the expense, you know, one, two weeks later or do we actually really have to wait until after the event occurs? Hopefully not. And like you said, you know, there is the assumption in these systems that students have access to cash, which as we know is usually not the case. And most graduate students, I would say, put these kinds of expenses on credit cards. And then even if the reimbursement does come through, we all hope it does, then they have those months of interest that they’ve paid on, you know, hundreds over a thousand dollars worth of these kinds of expenses. And so that’s like a lot of financial damage that happens in response to this, you know, kind of system. So totally agree with you. I know everyone’s on board with that topic, right? How do we improve this reimbursement system or eliminate it?
27:13 Tyler: Absolutely. One thing I’ll also add there is, we’re assuming all students have access to credit, but I’ve actually had many students, you know, going through my career that were perhaps international students that had just gotten over here and they didn’t have an American credit line, you know, and that kind of access. So they didn’t even have a credit card to put this money on. They really had to dig into their bank account if they ever wanted to participate in these kinds of things.
Prohibitions on Outside Work as a Grad Student
27:37 Emily: Such a good point. Also my assumption. Access to cash, also assuming access to credit. Great, great point. Thank you. Another issue that I wanted to throw in here is about prohibitions against outside work as a graduate student. And tell me about your experience. I think you at least went to a couple different institutions for graduate school. Did they have any explicit prohibitions against outside work?
27:58 Tyler: Yeah, absolutely. It was actually my first year in my PhD. I received a fellowship, and in that fellowship contract, they explicitly stated that I couldn’t take any jobs. That the whole purpose of the fellowship was to fund me so that I, you know, could focus on my studies. And while I understood that it was well-intentioned, still, I had a lot of time. First year was actually the least busy year of my PhD. So that was the one year I did want to have an extra job and try to pay off some of the debt I had, pay off those moving expenses that we mentioned, and really set myself up so I could focus more on my studies in my second, third, etc. years down the road. But that first year, because I had a fellowship, they actually made me sign a contract that I wouldn’t take any other job, whether that was with the institution or outside of it.
28:47 Emily: And I totally understand your impetus for like wanting to clear up, you know, past debts. And as you said, set yourself up for having a good, you know, subsequent second, third, and fourth years. Did you feel like that fellowship was sufficient had you not had those goals? Like if it were just paying for living expenses? Or was it like already outrageous that they were thinking that was enough?
29:08 Tyler: Actually, the fellowship is like the, at that institution, is like the one thing that pays well. So, it was actually enough for me to live on. It was fine there. But to set myself up to pay these rents before, you know, the semester begins and set myself up for those kinds of money management they expect from me and the financial aid office, it wasn’t enough for that. It was just enough to cover me on a monthly basis.
29:33 Emily: It is, I think at a minimum, a great idea for a fellowship to sufficiently support a graduate student. But as we were just talking about assumptions, the assumption there is that every graduate student has the same financial needs and the same financial responsibilities. You had a different situation maybe than one of your peers and you wanted to have that outside income. My kind of stance on this is, the university should stay out of your time, the business of your time, aside from, you know, what you are devoting to your studies. So if that’s going to be whatever you decide it is, but as long as the student is making sufficient progress towards the degree, I don’t think that university, whatever, anyone in your department, your advisor should have any restrictions on what you do with the rest of your time. After all, we were just talking about people at different life situations, for example, you know, people can be parents or caregivers for other, you know, people. Maybe you have a really time-consuming hobby that you engage with.
30:27 Emily: All of that is fine. Why would someone else not be able to work during their free time as you were just talking about that wasn’t taken up with progressing towards their degree? Let students manage their own time, and if it includes making money, that’s okay. As long as they’re doing what they need to do, you know, for the PhD, kind of my opinion on that. I’m not a fan of these outside work prohibitions, especially when they’re really, really broad, like saying you can’t have any outside source of work or income versus saying something like you can’t have a job where it interferes with the hours you’re expected to be in lab. That kind of thing makes sense. Like they don’t want you being pulled away from your primary responsibilities to head to your W2 job somewhere else. But to say that you can’t have like a freelance, you know, thing on the side, that’s totally up to your own time and discretion. It just does not make logical sense to me.
31:16 Tyler: Absolutely. One thing I’ll add here also is thinking about that just because you’re telling students they can’t get jobs and be compensated for their time, that often can lead to detrimental effects in the way that a faculty member might say, oh, Hey, you have this fellowship, and it won’t let you have any other jobs. So you can do this research for me on the side, right? And it puts these weird power dynamics in place that faculty can take advantage of you. I never had that, but I will say I have seen peers struggle with that, that they’re on this fellowship year until faculty see them as someone they can add to their research team because they have extra hours now, and now they’re not being compensated for that research, but they’re still being expected to put work in. And so, those are some things we should really think about in these prohibitions.
Time to Pay Higher Stipends?
32:05 Emily: Yeah. The general problem of unpaid labor in academia coming down to a fellowship recipient. Absolutely. And the final kind of point that I wanted to bring up is just the very, very simple financial solution of pay higher stipends pay, bigger fellowships, just pay people more. Would you like to add anything on this issue as a general solution? Just give a higher stipend.
32:32 Tyler: Yeah, no, I completely agree with it. I think it’s wild that we have, you know, careers in the real world that will raise your salary annually, or supposedly, to keep up with living wages, but grad students are still getting the same stipend they did 10 years ago. And so, I absolutely agree with increasing it appropriately and really taking those things into account.
32:59 Emily: Yeah, I’m especially thinking about this issue right now in a time of, you know, high inflation and wondering, now we’ve experienced rather low inflation for the last, you know, more than 10 years now. And so having no increase in stipend or a small increase in stipend that may have been manageable. But now programs really need to be proactive about responding to these increases in inflation by offering larger annual cost of living adjustments and increases. And I’m just afraid that it’s going to take some of them like three years of studying the issue before they finally like raise the stipend for goodness sakes. And similarly, I’ve seen this issue too with fees increasing. So like sometimes state universities, they can’t increase their tuition. You know, there are certain caps on how fast they can increase it, but there are much fewer restrictions on how fast they can increase fees.
33:47 Emily: And so, fees on graduate students can increase rapidly without there being increases in the stipend to actually pay for those fees. And so that’s something I want, and obviously program administrators to keep that in mind, just like, what are you even charging your students that’s going to come out of their own pocket? And can you then add to what’s going into their pocket to make up for that because if you have this static stipend for five years and the fees increase every single year, you may not know going into graduate school that that could be a possibility, but it has happened.
34:14 Tyler: Absolutely. That’s a great point. One more thing I would like to add is, thinking about how we structure financial aid advisors and having those cater to students. You know, we mentioned the point earlier about really understanding that students have different financial needs and we should be catering these setups towards them. And one of the ways we could do that is really assigning one financial aid advisor to a student. So that one financial aid advisor gets to know you over four years, gets to know your needs. And they’re able to really cater these kinds of policies and adjustments as necessary. I have had that at some institutions. You know, my first institution, I had a really great relationship with my first financial aid advisor. You know, they knew me on a first-name basis. However, later on, I went to an institution that treated me more like a customer. That I would just come in and whoever was at the desk would serve me that day. And they often didn’t have any clue about my needs. They didn’t know how my scholarship worked and how it was, you know, structured, et cetera. And it always led to confusion and made life a lot more difficult for me. And so, that’s one solution I often put out there is for institutions to really think of students as students, as human beings, and not just customers that they can just, you know, serve with a one-stop-shop.
How Do We Advocate?
35:33 Emily: I love that point. Thank you so much for adding that. It makes total sense because once you get to know the students more intimately, and you’re not having those, like I’m meeting you for the first time conversations over and over and over again. As you said, they can better understand your needs, and then they can better advocate for you when they’re talking about policy changes within their own like offices or whatever. And speaking of advocacy, we talked at the beginning of the episode about, you know, why it’s important to advocate on these, you know, financial and benefits-related matters. We talked about what you, you know, the listener could advocate for at their own institutions. By the way, if the listener, if you listeners have other issues you want to raise, please tag us on Twitter or add a comment to the show notes for the episode, anything like that, email us, that would be great. But to conclude this, how do we actually go about advocating? What are the actions that someone could take to, you know, try to enact change on one of these issues?
36:27 Tyler: Yeah, absolutely. So, I think there are a lot of ways to go about this, and you’ve got to really find what fits you. One thing that I often do is I write, I write about my issues. I tell my story, and every story I tell, I try to end it with, you know, asking myself the question, what would make this experience better? You know, you can read the story to the article that we linked earlier. I really just wrote writing to get my frustration out about this financial aid advisor, and then telling me to manage my money better. I started writing about that frustration, and then I turned the question on myself and I said, what would’ve made that situation better so I can really think of recommendations for other people? And publishing them in these kinds of outlets that higher education practitioners read, that’s one way to do it.
37:09 Tyler: Another way would just be going through your own institutional systems, setting up meetings, you know, when you really run into something, meet with your department chair on the reimbursements. Meet with the head of your financial aid department and say, Hey, why is the system set up like this? It’s really causing a barrier for me. Having those kinds of conversations with people on your campus, I think, you know, and maybe it’s a big assumption, but I like to assume that people always have your best intention in mind. And I like to assume that people who are working on these college campuses are trying to help students and trying to listen to you. Just sometimes they might not be aware of that. And so, bringing those issues up to people that are in a position to make change is one way to go about that.
37:52 Emily: And I think, you know, back when we had that conversation on Dear Grad Student, I was listening to you, you know, share this approach of sharing your own story, vulnerably, like opening up to an administrator and saying, okay, this is the policy that’s in place, and this is the effect that it’s having on me personally. And is there something we can do to alleviate this situation? I thought that was a wonderful way to go about it. And it’s actually a theme I’ve heard over and over again as I’ve talked with graduate students about negotiation, for example, there’s, you know, an early point in this, which is like negotiating your offer letter before you even become a student at that institution. That’s a great time for negotiation. But the way that I heard that students were going about this was by sharing vulnerably how they anticipated the stipend and benefits offered by an institution, how they anticipated that would affect their personal finances and their lives and their stress level and their ability to devote, you know, time to their studies and all that kind of thing.
38:45 Emily: And it just is like, it’s not like a hard nose like you have to give me more, you have to fix this. It’s like, Hey, I’m having an issue here. Like what can be done? Like what creatives solutions can we come to that are going to help with this? And as you said, you know, that can happen not just at that early point before you become a student, but over time you can develop relationships and go back to these people over and over again. And they can really learn again how these policies are affecting you. So, I love that suggestion and your approach to it.
Unionization Movements and Collective Bargaining
39:11 Emily: One other topic I wanted to bring up was about unions and unionization movements, or not even like, necessarily like official unions, but just I’ll call it collective bargaining. So like getting together with other people, let’s say in your department, even if you’re not represented by a union and saying to the administrators, Hey, 50% of us are having a problem with this policy. Like what can we do about it? Same kind of conversation, but coming from a group rather from an individual. Do you have any thoughts on these, you know, unionization movements or how this can be a part of advocacy?
39:42 Tyler: Yeah, absolutely. I think the big thing to say here is like, you don’t have to wait for a union to form. You could be the one that is forming it. I did this often informally, you know, I never thought to call us the union, but I would just share my experiences vulnerably with my peers and they would share theirs with me. And we’d have these conversations back and forth in private until we finally, you know, just, oh, you know what, I’m having the same issue. And we’d come together and we would go approach the chair of our department or, you know, someone that does have power in our school and say, Hey, we’re having this issue. There’s multiple of us. Is there anything we could do? And that’s how I often would position any kind of argument or, you know, any kind of advocacy that I would take to someone else. I would say other students are having it, too. This is a problem that we should really, that warrants addressing. So, yes.
40:35 Emily: That’s a perfect example. I’m so glad that, I mean, just as you said, like if a union is in place, go through that channel. If a unionization movement is in place, you know, join up with that and make your issues like heard to that larger group as well. Even if not, as you said, you don’t have to wait for it, you can go as a group and express your, you know, desire for something to change. So, love that so much.
Best Financial Advice for Another Early-Career PhD
40:55 Emily: Tyler, it’s been great speaking with you again. Wonderful to have you on the podcast and have all of your insights here. I’m really glad you agreed to do this episode, and I want to ask you the standard question that I ask of all of my guests, which is what is your best financial advice for another early-career PhD? And that could be something that we’ve touched on in the course of this interview, or it could be something completely new.
41:15 Tyler: Yeah. Well, the big advice I’ve been telling people, even people starting at my current position at my, you know, Foundation has been asking for, you know, some moving expenses and a signing bonus. You know, for instance, not all jobs will let you negotiate the salary. You know, my position wouldn’t actually let me negotiate the salary. But my way of negotiating was saying, Hey, I’m a low-income student coming out of a PhD program. I could really use a moving stipend and, you know, it was, again, going back to this whole being vulnerable. I could do that in my career as well. And, you know, they really wanted me, they understood my situation and all these things I’d advocated and wrote on. They knew my experiences. And they were able to provide me a moving expense. So that was one thing. The second thing I will say is, just making sure you really understand and read deeply on your benefits when you do sign, you know, what’s it mean to start a retirement fund? Those are things important to think about when you’re starting a new job and to pay in as much as you can, when you’re still young. As much as you can afford, you know, as someone who might have loans or whatever it might be to pay off.
42:20 Emily: Love that advice. I love being able to speak with people who are already past the grad school experience and can give us a view from the other side in the world of proper full-time employee stuff. So, that’s great.
42:32 Tyler: The grass is greener over here. I promise that.
42:35 Emily: Yeah. Good to hear. Good to hear. Thank you so much for coming on. It’s been great to talk with you again!
42:40 Tyler: Yeah. It’s been great talking with you. Thank you for having me!
42:48 Emily: Listeners, thank you for joining me for this episode! I have a gift for you! You know that final question I ask of all my guests regarding their best financial advice? I have collected short summaries of all the answers ever given on the podcast into a document that is updated with each new episode release. You can gain access to it by registering for my mailing list at PFforPhDs.com/advice/. Would you like to access transcripts or videos of each episode? I link the show notes for each episode from PFforPhDs.com/podcast/. If you’ve been enjoying the podcast, here are 3 ways you can help it grow: 1. Subscribe to the podcast and rate and review it on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or whatever platform you use. 2. Share an episode you found particularly valuable on social media, with an email list-serv, or as a link from your website. 3. Recommend me as a speaker to your university or association. My seminars cover the personal finance topics PhDs are most interested in, like investing, debt repayment, and increasing cash flow. I also license pre-recorded workshops on taxes. See you in the next episode, and remember: You don’t have to have a PhD to succeed with personal finance… but it helps! The music is “Stages of Awakening” by Podington Bear from the Free Music Archive and is shared under CC by NC.
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How to Advocate for Financial Policy Change on Your Campus – Personal Finance for PhDs