This episode is a podcast swap! Emily’s guest is Dr. Stephanie Schuttler of Fancy Scientist. Emily and Stephanie interview one another on the financial challenges of a career in wildlife biology and how to pursue your passion while preserving financial balance and health. They discuss the necessity and prevalence of volunteer and pay-to-play experiences in wildlife biology and how to have realistic expectations about the job availability and compensation at various levels of education. Stephanie is an expert in careers in wildlife biology, but this conversation is applicable to PhDs who are following their passions into many other competitive fields.
Links Mentioned in This Episode
- PF for PhDs: Speaking Engagements
- Emily’s E-mail (for Book Giveaway)
- PF for PhDs: Podcast Hub
- The Automatic Millionaire: A Powerful One-Step Plan to Live and Finish Rich (Book by David Bach)
- Getting a Job in Wildlife Biology: What It’s Like and What You Need to Know (Book by Dr. Stephanie Schuttler)
- PF for PhDs: Quarterly Estimated Tax
- Citizen Science
- The Job Tracker
- PF for PhDs: Subscribe to Mailing List
- Fancy Scientist Website
- Fancy Scientist Twitter
- Fancy Scientist Instagram
- Fancy Scientist YouTube
00:00 Stephanie: In this field, so much is about those experiences. So if you really want those pay-to-play experiences, because, I mean, some of them are super cool, you could focus more on getting into a school that’s more affordable and do some of those things rather than go to a really expensive school.
00:21 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 9, Episode 3, and today Dr. Stephanie Schuttler of Fancy Scientist and I are publishing a dual interview! Stephanie is a wildlife biologist-turned-science communicator and expert in careers in wildlife biology. We have a great topic: How to pursue your passion in a financially healthy manner. Stephanie gives the financial and career lay of the land for wildlife biology, a popular and competitive field that requires volunteer and pay-to-play experiences prior to being admitted to graduate school. Even completing a graduate degree in wildlife biology doesn’t necessarily lead to the type of job young people dream about when they enter the field. Sound familiar? Stephanie and I discuss how to limit the financial risk of pursuing a career in a field that you are passionate about.
I have some exciting personal news, which is that I finally received my full vaccination course against COVID-19! I have to say, it was tough to watch my friends and acquaintances who have university and hospital affiliations receive their vaccinations over the last several months while I was waiting for them to become available to my age bracket in California. But my turn finally came. I am ecstatic that my parents are visiting us this week, whom we have not seen in person since November 2019.
01:51 Emily: Prior to COVID, as you likely know, I gave in-person seminars and workshops at universities. I honestly wasn’t sure how my business would fare without being able to travel and with universities facing the uncertainty that they did early on. As it turned out, in the 2020-2021 academic year, my speaking services in the virtual format were more in demand than ever, particularly this last spring. I feel really, really fortunate about that! My calendar is now open for engagements in the 2021-2022 academic year. I am of course offering virtual events, which I assume will continue to be popular. I’m not sure if professional development events and conferences are switching back to being in person this year to any degree, but if they are and I am asked to present, I will certainly consider it. I am over the moon about how I have adjusted my offerings for early-career PhDs this year, which you can check out at PFforPhDs.com/speaking/.
02:53 Emily: First, I got honest with myself about my most popular seminar, The Graduate Student and Postdoc’s Guide to Personal Finance. The Guide is my comprehensive overview of multiple personal finance topics. I was trying to cram it into 90 minutes, but it really is a two-hour seminar with Q&A. It’s great for the end of a workday, not so much for a lunch hour.
03:15 Emily: Second, I clarified the topics for my in-depth seminars, which are financial goals, investing, debt repayment, saving, and cash flow management. Each of these seminars comes in a one-hour lecture and Q&A version or a two-hour workshop version. The workshop version includes the teaching from the lecture version plus spreadsheet templates, worksheets, and/or small group discussion prompts. These seminars work well as stand-alone events or part of a series.
03:45 Emily: Third, I took my tax seminars off my slate of offerings. This is honestly a big risk for my business because my annual tax return seminar was second to The Guide in popularity and always drew my biggest audiences. The preparation of an annual tax return and calculating estimated tax on fellowships are my audience’s most universal financial pain points.
04:10 Emily: However, I am not leaving you in the lurch with respect to tax education and assistance. Stepping back from giving live seminars on this topic actually enables me to scale the delivery of the help. In place of these live seminars, I am licensing access to my pre-recorded workshops on the same topics. I have been offering these workshops for the past several years, and I know that they are even more effective than live events in guiding graduate students and postdocs to their goal of an accurate tax return and up-to-date income tax payments on their fellowships. Please keep these workshops in mind as we draw closer to tax season for 2021. If you would like to book a virtual or in-person event with me or recommend me to your graduate school, postdoc office, or graduate student association, the best place to go is PFforPhDs.com/speaking/. From there you can learn about all my seminar offerings, read reviews from previous event hosts and attendees, view my speaking fees, and schedule a call with me to discuss your event. I look forward to partnering with you this year to deliver high-quality, high-impact financial education to the early-career PhDs at your university, in your association, or at your conference.
Book Giveaway Contest
05:29 Emily: Now onto the book giveaway contest! In June 2021 I’m giving away one copy of The Automatic Millionaire: A Powerful One-Step Plan to Live and Finish Rich by David Bach, which is the Personal Finance for PhDs Community Book Club selection for August 2021. Everyone who enters the contest during June will have a chance to win a copy of this book. The Automatic Millionaire was one of the first personal finance books I ever read, and it had an enormous impact on my financial mindset and behavior. The path to becoming a millionaire is not necessarily quick or easy, but it can be simple and automatic. I can absolutely credit the key strategy that this book teaches as the reason my net worth is as high as it is today. I hope this book effects a similar result for you. If you would like to enter the giveaway contest, please rate and review this podcast on Apple Podcasts, take a screenshot of your review, and email it to me at emily at PFforPhDs dot com. I’ll choose a winner at the end of June from all the entries. You can find full instructions at PFforPhDs.com/podcast. Without further ado, here’s my interview with Dr. Stephanie Schuttler.
Will You Please Introduce Yourself Further?
06:49 Stephanie: Hi, I am Dr. Stephanie Schuttler, and I am a wildlife biologist, and now I’ve turned a science communication entrepreneur. A brief background of myself is that I kind of stumbled into this career. I didn’t know I wanted to be a wildlife biologist until my last year in college when I decided to study abroad and I randomly chose a wildlife management program in Kenya. So that changed my life. And I knew from there that I had to go to graduate school. So I got some experience doing three different types of internships over the course of three years. And then I went to graduate school to get my PhD at the University of Missouri, where I spent close to seven years there, followed by one short postdoc and one long postdoc, lasting, probably about, honestly, seven years. Yeah, so my short postdoc was at Missouri and my long postdoc was at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences where I got to work on a lot of camera trap stuff that I talk about today. Yeah, and now the last part is I started my own business last year. I’ve been blogging for the past few years and I officially made it a business last year where I spread knowledge about science communication, I educate people, I started kids’ programs, and then of course I help people in their wildlife biology careers.
08:20 Emily: Fantastic. What is the name of your business?
08:23 Stephanie: A Fancy Scientist.
08:25 Emily: Great. I’m really excited to speak with you, Stephanie, today because are subject is kind of, you know, the finances of pursuing a career in wildlife biology, but it’s a little bit more general than that really, because we’re really talking about how to stay sort of financially balanced and healthy while you’re pursuing a passion that is not necessarily, or immediately, lucrative. And in fact might, you know, you might be paying for, in the form of your education, you might be paying for career experiences. So that’s kind of our general topic. So even if those of you who are coming to the podcast are not in wildlife biology, like still stick around because this is going to be generalizable information.
09:03 Stephanie: Yeah, absolutely. I would even add that our field can be more lucrative in terms of going to graduate school than other fields. Like I’ve heard about people who are getting their PhDs in English and their TAships get paid just so poorly. So a lot of the experience and advice here will definitely transfer over.
How People Develop a Passion for Wildlife Biology
09:25 Emily: Yeah. Let’s talk more about specifically how wildlife biology is positioned because it’s a science field, of course, which you might immediately think, oh, like you make money in science, of course. But on the other side of it, it’s a very competitive field and people follow it because of long-held passions. So let’s talk more about that. Like how do people develop their passion for wildlife biology and pursue that?
09:47 Stephanie: I think people develop it usually from a young age. That’s what happened for me. I always loved animals and I love nature. And like I said, I didn’t discover it until a career as later on. Like when you’re young, people always say, like, why don’t you become a vet if you really like animals? So I didn’t know it was a career option. Some people do, but when you track back to like, why people want to do it, it usually has to do with those experiences of being outside in nature when you’re young. And actually a lot of wildlife biologists, a lot of them start off like hunting and they just spend a lot of time outdoors. So I think that a big reason why people are so attracted to the field is that they think they will be spending a lot of time outside.
10:35 Stephanie: And this is definitely true for some careers. It depends on what level of education you have, and of course, what job you have. But in general, the more education you have, the less time you spend outside. It’s like an inverse relationship. And you know, we get really cool experiences. A lot of us get to travel. Of course, some of us get these really close interactions with animals that regular people can’t have, or even just accessing different types of places. Like some of the field sites I’ve been to would have been difficult to visit as a tourist and some of the experiences you have. So yeah, I think that’s what’s really attractive about it. And you’re right. It’s really interesting because there’s so much push for STEM education and especially getting People of Color and girls interested in STEM because our field is not very diversified.
11:33 Stephanie: And a reason to advocate for STEM careers is often actually like finances, that it’s a really financially beneficial career. But again, it totally depends on what you do, and wildlife biology is not very lucrative. And it’s just simply because there’s not a lot of money in wildlife and conservation work. A lot of our employment is nonprofits. The universities and, I mean, universities, you can definitely get paid well. And any of these jobs you can get paid well. But in general, if you think of like disease research, there’s going to be so much more money from the U.S. government and other sources to invest in like medical research than there is in saving wildlife. So, that’s really the big difference. But I think most people go into it because they love it so much. And that’s what I always said. I knew I wasn’t going to make a lot of money, but I loved it so much. So that’s why I went into it.
12:38 Emily: It’s so important to go into these kinds of career choices with your eyes wide open as to what the possibilities are, including the financial possibilities. So it sounds like people, maybe from the time they’re children, have a very like romantic idea of what this career is going to be, but the reality does not necessarily line up with that, especially as you advance further and further.
12:57 Stephanie: It’s interesting though, that you said that about like the romantic version, because I have a book, Getting a Job in Wildlife Biology: What It’s Like and What You Need to Know. And I had a review on there recently, it wasn’t a bad review, it was a four-star review, so it was good, but it was a parent that bought it for her daughter and she read it first, and with the intention of getting it to her daughter. And after she read it, she was kind of like, I’ll leave it up to my daughter to read. And her review was all about how realistic I was. And, and that’s exactly why I wrote it because people have this really romantic view of what wildlife biology is, like myself growing up, I saw Jane Goodall. And I mean, Jane Goodall, isn’t really considered a wildlife biologist. She’s more of a primatologist, but still that’s what you imagine it to look like, or Steve Irwin. And the reality is you’re not doing those types of things. So I pride myself on telling the truth, and I don’t want to dissuade anyone from entering this field. I just want them to know like what it’s like going into it.
Volunteer and Pay-to-Play: Are They Really Required?
14:01 Emily: So, one thing that I learned from our prior conversations is that in your field, it’s very common for people to have to do volunteer experiences or even pay-to-play experiences, to get into graduate school, to get a job, to advance. And this is not necessarily as common in other areas. So could you please tell us more about what, you know, what does pay-to-play mean? What are the kinds of volunteer experiences that people may be required to have? And are they really required?
14:30 Stephanie: Yeah, absolutely. This is a really hot topic right now. I personally think that you cannot get into graduate school without having some sort of experience. And in order to get that first paid experience, honestly, you really need experience for that. And you can, I would say you can get it in college if you volunteer with a lab and you get college credit for it. So that’s essentially not totally volunteering. And there are some work-study programs in colleges as well, but really to get your first experience, you need to volunteer. And that’s just the unfortunate reality of it. And this is a big problem because it discourages diversity from our field. So, I’m in no way, like advocating for these experiences. I just feel like that’s the reality of the situation. So there’s lots of experiences. And even our museum, when we had interns in our lab, we did have money for some of them.
15:27 Stephanie: And I constantly applied for grants to get money to pay interns, but they don’t come through. So either like I would have people email me and be like, I’m so interested in your research. Can I help you out? Or I would have a lot of research to do, and I would come across people and offer them experiences to help me with this. And there are exchanges in other ways. Like I write them letters of recommendations and I invite them to be on journal publications and stuff like that. But yeah, we can’t afford to pay for everyone. So it’s hard to deny people experiences who want them. But also, the pay-to-play thing is that some experiences are so desirable that they can afford to charge for them. And I do think there are some sort of scammy experiences out there where they profit off of it, but there are also legit scientists who are working in another country and they have to pay for the field site and the food costs and things like that.
16:35 Stephanie: So I’ve seen job advertisements where you get to maybe go to like South Africa for a summer and you have to pay to stay there. And they mention that it just covers the field costs and they’re not making money off of it, but still, I know a big reason why I got certain opportunities was because of my experience in Kenya. I had a study abroad program and an internship in Kenya. And Kenya was, it really was volunteering because I did get paid, but I got paid a Kenyan salary. And then I did have to pay for half of my airfare. So it ended up being a year where I didn’t make anything. And yeah, if I didn’t have those experiences, then I would have not had like my graduate school experience of studying forest elephants. So if somebody who comes from a financially disadvantaged background really wants to do something like work internationally, honestly, it’s really tough because those experiences are more desirable and people are willing to pay for them.
17:42 Emily: Yeah. You outlined a couple of reasons why these experiences exist. It really sounds like the field is in a bind. There’s not enough funding coming in for all the work that needs to be done, sort of from above, but from below, from the people coming up the ranks, there is an eagerness for people to do the work, even if it’s on a volunteer basis, even if they have to pay out of pocket for it. But it sounds like this just comes back to a funding squeeze, right? And the field being so popular and competitive. Those things combined have set up the conditions for this system to develop. And I agree with you. It sounds nightmarish, actually, for someone who doesn’t come from a financially advantaged background. And it’s a little bit like, you know, in the recent, I don’t know, last decade or two, there’s been so many more conversations about unpaid internships and the elimination of unpaid internships in most fields because they’re not great for anybody. Especially people who, you know, can’t afford to do them. But it sounds like that hasn’t quite touched the field of wildlife biology yet. Because these are essentially unpaid internships like on steroids, because you actually have to, in some cases, pay to access the site or what have you.
18:53 Stephanie: Yeah, absolutely. And that’s, like I said, that’s a huge conversation right now. And I think it’s especially difficult for nonprofit organizations because, you know, they obviously always need more funding. And they have been under attack, like posting unpaid internships. And I understand both sides. Like I understand that people need to get paid for their time, but I also don’t think it solves the diversity problem because if you’re just taking experiences away in general, then anything that is available is going to be so, so, so competitive. So it’s like a lose-lose situation.
Financial Risks in Pursuing a Wildlife Biology Career
19:32 Emily: Yeah. It definitely sounds like that. Okay. So we’ve kind of talked about the downsides to the field of kind of relying on these volunteer and pay-to-play experiences in the pipeline, at the beginning of the pipeline. To get into graduate school, you need to have some kind of experience. To get that first experience that maybe you get paid, well, you have to have an unpaid experience before that point. There are downsides to the field of like losing out on having great scientists, budding scientists who could be part of the field, maybe being turned away for financial reasons. What are the financial risks that are posed to an individual who tries to pursue a career in wildlife biology?
20:06 Stephanie: I think, I mean, just going into debt or living paycheck to paycheck constantly, that’s like super common in our field, but I know many people who have gone into debt for these like pay-to-play experiences or to do a volunteer experience, but they don’t have the means to cover themselves financially while they’re doing that experience. And it affects your entire life. The opportunities, I guess, like they kind of go away, but they manifest in different ways. So like once you get your PhD, well actually after your master’s too, like I talked about my friend, Rebecca, a lot of times you have these temporary opportunities, and it’s really difficult to get things lined up financially. And it’s a very demanding career. There are always things that you could be doing for your career, especially once you get to like the science route of doing more research-based things, then you are going to want to be working on your publications and things like that to get you that next job. So you don’t necessarily have the time to be able to like take on another job. So I mean, it’s really just that you have the potential to go into debt. People do go into debt, and then they don’t have the finances saved to be able to keep going, in the future, if opportunities don’t line up.
21:40 Emily: Yeah. This does remind me of the general like pursuit of the tenure-track in some fields where you need a PhD to get, and your goal is to get, a faculty position, but the employment opportunities, if you don’t end up, you know, landing that faculty position, are non-existent, very rare, not very lucrative. And so it’s like, yeah, if the stars completely align and you get that job that you’re going for, it all works out. But for most people who pursue that, it’s not going to work out. And so you have to realize that going in, it doesn’t mean you can’t like, you know, shoot for the stars and everything, but you need to have some kind of nets and backup plans and safety. Because the stats are that a tenure-track position is not going to work out for the vast majority of people who pursue one. And so it seems like there’s, you know, an analogy here with the field, the career in wildlife biology,
22:33 Stephanie: Do you see any additional downsides or risks?
Debt and Opportunity Cost: Loss of Compound Interest
22:38 Emily: I mean, mentioning, going into debt like you did is absolutely perfect. But to me there’s another layer on top of that, which is the loss of opportunity to get compound interest working for you. So if you go for many years in your twenties and into your thirties, maybe doing temporary work and underpaid work, and maybe you’re accumulating some debt, or even if you’re not, but you’re not doing anything like on the saving, investing front to get ahead with your finances, then that’s lost time. That decade or so is lost time. And it’s possible to make up for lost time, but you just have to save so much more later. But what if you end up, maybe in your thirties, in a job that pays, as you mentioned before, $50,000 a year, when you were hoping for something that paid more or was more stable or something like that? Like that’s where you are, and that’s what you have to live off of and save off of after that point and still try to make up for that lost time. So I think that people can be financially successful at all different kinds of salary levels, but like we were talking about earlier, you just have to be realistic about what the opportunities are, the salary opportunities are in the field that you’re pursuing, and also in your backup plans, if that primary plan doesn’t work out that well. So yeah, the loss of time to get compound interest working for you is the main one that I see there.
23:48 Stephanie: And I think that people in our field don’t think about that stuff at all and even, or I know they don’t think about that stuff at all. And even like talking about the loss of time with your first starting salary. You really don’t have at least a good first starting salary. I had a starting salary in graduate school, but like how most jobs work is you get your first job, and that’s your starting salary. And then that’s like the bar for you to negotiate a higher salary every job that you get. So for myself, when I graduated from my PhD, I was, what, thirties, close to 30. And you know, my husband who is an electrical engineer, he had been in his career for, for several years already. So not only are we getting paid little when we’re starting out, but we’re starting out later in age.
24:45 Stephanie: And another thing is people don’t do retirement investments either. So my dad grew up poor. His dad died when he was younger, and he had his brothers to take care of. So he was always like financially worried, and he always had us read financial books and stuff like that. So I’ve had a retirement account since legally you can have one, I think maybe 16 or 18. But yeah, like we’re not taught that. Like, you’re right. Like nobody’s talking about this stuff. And they, like, my friends would be like, well, I’ll get it through my job, when I get my first job, but some of my friends didn’t get their first jobs until they were close to their forties, and your retirement compounds. And that’s really where the money comes from. So if you are waiting a while to start that, then you’re missing out on a lot of that income compounding.
25:42 Emily: Yeah. And I think, again, to generalize, like this is something that I see with graduate students all the time, postdocs all the time is that there’s an optimism about what the future salaries are going to be post-PhD, post postdoc. And I certainly have the same optimism for them. But the other thing that happens as you age, generally speaking, is that your life gets more expensive in a variety of ways. You know, maybe you buy a house, maybe you have a child, maybe you have to take care of aging parents or other family members, like, so even if you do see a post-PhD, jump in salary in whatever field that you’re in, it might not go as far as you were hoping that it would. And so to me, my attitude is more like, you know, work with what you have now, that is, try as best you can to live a sort of financially balanced lifestyle and do some of that retirement investing or paying off debt or whatever it is that your goal is while you still have a lower salary, while you’re still in graduate school. And yes, like I do hope that that higher salary comes, the permanent job comes and it will all be much easier later, but just in case it’s not, let’s get started now so that you have that time, as we were talking about for, you know, your money to compound, or at least your debt to not compound as much.
26:54 Stephanie: Absolutely.
26:57 Emily: Emily here for a brief interlude! Heads up, fellows: The next quarterly estimated tax payment deadline is Tuesday, June 15, 2021! This one always catches me by surprise because quarter two, strangely, is only two months long, while quarter four is four months long. Yet, a full quarter’s payment is due on June 15th. If you aren’t having income tax withheld from your stipend or salary and haven’t yet filled out the Estimated Tax Worksheet in Form 1040-ES, now is the time to do so. The worksheet will tell you how much you can expect your tax liability to be this year and whether you are required to pay estimated tax. If you need some help with the Estimated Tax Worksheet or want to ask me a question, please join my workshop, Quarterly Estimated Tax for Fellowship Recipients. It explains every line of the worksheet and answers the common questions that postbacs, grad students, and postdocs have about estimated tax, such as what to do when you switch on or off of fellowship in the middle of a calendar year. Go to PF for PhDs dot com slash Q E tax to learn more about and join the workshop. Now back to our interview.
Advice for Pursuing a Financially Risky Career
28:13 Stephanie: Okay. So knowing that this is a financially risky career, what do you think, like, what’s your advice to people who want to pursue it in like, they’re absolutely sure they want to do this and maybe they don’t have a financial safety net or they don’t come from a really, really wealthy background? What can they do?
28:33 Emily: I think the first thing to acknowledge is that you, as an individual, are a whole person and that you have needs and desires that are perhaps independent of this career in wildlife biology that you want to pursue, or any kind of competitive and perhaps not lucrative kind of career. And what I mean by that is that I would love for you to pursue like your career kind of passion, but just as you’re doing that, keep in mind that you still have needs as a person. You have financial needs, you have relational needs, you have spiritual needs, health needs, all these things matter as well. And I think there’s a tendency for people, especially when they’re younger and in their twenties and so forth, to drive hard at their career goals at the expense of some of these other areas of life. And it will catch up to you, eventually. You will reach age 30 or age 40 and realize that you have some deficits or dearths in these other areas, because you were trying to sort of suppress your needs and desires in those areas for so long to pursue this career.
29:35 Emily: So I don’t think that’s healthy and don’t do it. So try your best. Right? And so we’re going to talk about the finances, but there’s all these other areas of life as well. So don’t forget that you’re a whole human and you’re more than just your future career or job in wildlife biology. So that’s kind of the first thing to keep in mind. So, as we’re talking about sort of financial health and financial wholeness, as you pursue these careers, I do think you need to create your own safety net and your own financial security and backup plans as you go. And so that may mean that it will take you a little bit longer to get to graduate schoo, for example, if that’s like your next goal. Maybe you might take an extra year instead of, you know, taking a one or two year gap, take a three or four year gap between finishing undergrad and that graduate degree, for example. And that’s to build up more of your own financial security in the meantime.
30:25 Emily: And so one of the things we talked about earlier, these pay-to-play or volunteer experiences, is it possible for example, for you to plan around that and say, I’m going to have a summer job? Maybe it’s not even a job, I’m going to have a summer experience, and it’s going to cost this much money, or I’m going to be paid this much, but my lifestyle needs are this much. And how can you save in advance for that? And what kind of job can you have when you’re not actively engaged with these experiences? How can you pursue a job and a career that will allow you to have the experiences, but still give you some financial stability in the meantime? And one of the things I end up talking a lot about, and that I’ve learned a lot about from people I’ve interviewed on my podcast is regarding money mindset and limiting beliefs.
Navigate Limiting Beliefs
31:06 Emily: And so a limiting belief that someone in the field of wildlife biology might hear, and they might even get this from your work, again, the realism, is I can only ever have a temporary job and I can’t have a job the other seven or eight months of the year, because that’s not in my field, whatever. But maybe there is a way for you to build a job or an income or a career in that part of the year and still have that balance where you want to do, you know, these special experiences in the summer or the spring, or what have you, but still be making money in the other part of the year. And honestly, I think one of the most accessible ways is what you and I are now pursuing, which is entrepreneurship. So maybe there’s a way to have, you know, set up your own stream of income.
31:45 Emily: Maybe you work on it more intensely in one part of the year and less intensely in the other part of the year. And you can create that balance for yourself to still allow you to pursue the experiences in the career that you want to have, but still be making money in the other part of a year or a little bit, you know, while you’re having those experiences still. So that’s one idea. The other one is about this debt, you know, either going to have experiences or on the flip side, maybe not paying down student loan debt that you’ve accumulated in the past. I mean, we’ve had a student loan debt crisis that’s been building and building ahead of steam for a long time, but especially in the last decade. And, you know, in the last decade, I think many people have come to realize, you know, your student loans, your education, especially at the bachelor’s level is not necessarily an investment.
32:30 Emily: It’s not automatically an investment. You can’t pursue any bachelor’s at any price and, you know, be sure that that’s going to pay off. Same thing for graduate degrees. You know, your home is not always an investment. There are things that used to feel safe that used to give you a path to the middle class that are not there, they’re not guaranteed any longer. And so I think you have to be really, like, in thinking about pay-to-play experiences as an extension of student loan debt. So like I’m taking out student loan debt to pursue my education. I’m taking out some kind of personal loan or consumer debt to pursue this experience that I want to have to get into graduate school. You can think about them sort of analogously. And so one rule of thumb that works for student loan debt that maybe you could extend to, if you’re going into debt for these experiences in wildlife biology, is don’t take out more debt than one year, your first-year starting salary.
33:20 Emily: That’s like the rule of thumb for an undergraduate degree. And so if you’re, you know, going into a little bit better or forgoing salary to pursue these volunteer pay-to-play experiences, can you keep the debt level down to one year of your current salary or lower? Is that possible? So like, so yes, pursue these experiences, but make sure you’re not giving yourself carte blanche, right? To spend and go into as much debt as you might want to. You’re sort of putting some checks and balances on yourself along the way to make sure that you’re not getting in too far over your head.
Consider the Cost of Your Education
33:56 Stephanie: Yeah, absolutely. And actually one of my big, I have a lot of advice for people, something I think that people should do is not worry about the school so much. Like a lot of students are super obsessed with like, what’s the best graduate program or what’s the best college to go to. And I honestly think that students should really, especially at the college level, focus on getting in the school that’s going to cost them the least, because like you mentioned your degree doesn’t necessarily pay off. If you’re going to invest, you know, $120,000 for a college degree and you can get the same result with one that’s going to cost you $10,000. I mean, I actually regretted for a long time, my experience because I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know what I wanted to be.
34:49 Stephanie: An, I even applied poorly to schools. I applied to like only Ivy league schools because that’s what I knew. And the only schools I got into were my local state school and other schools that cost like $30,000 a year or a semester. And I was like, okay, I’m just going to start from my state school because I don’t know what I’m doing. And then it also felt weird to dorm at my state school, which is like 20 minutes down the road from me. So I stayed with my parents and I regret not having the college experience, but I also love that I don’t have debt and that it was, I mean, I paid, I think a thousand dollars a semester for school. So in the long run it definitely was worth it.
35:34 Stephanie: And in this field so much is about those experiences. So if you really want those pay-to-play experiences, because I mean, some of them are super cool. You could focus more on getting into a school that’s more affordable and do some of those things rather than go to a really expensive school. And this is true for graduate school, too. And graduate school in science, you do get paid, you get a stipend, but you get paid different amounts according to the different schools and even according to the different programs. So I was actually not in the wildlife biology program for my PhD, or in the department. I was in the biological sciences department, and they had a fellowship. So I was paid a lot more and I didn’t have to TA. And that played a huge role in me deciding to do that as opposed to another program where I would have to TA and get paid less.
36:31 Emily: I think that’s a great point. Both at the graduate and the undergraduate level. It’s more about what is the actual work that you could be doing? Who can you be working with? Rather than maybe the name of the school. And of course the finances come into play as well. Because again, I think my basic point here is like shore up security for yourself as you go as best you can to keep you on this route, as long as you want to be on it in pursuit of a career in wildlife biology. So that if you get to the end, let’s say of your PhD and you realize, okay, I can get the permanent job. I’ve achieved all my goals. Everything is wonderful. Well, you have some good, you know, financial, a nest egg behind you perhaps, or at least not as much debt as you could have been in.
37:15 Emily: That would be great. But if you get to that point and you say, Nope, I’m going to exit this career now. I’m not going to have the type of job that I thought I would have. I’m going to have some other type of job. At least you won’t have the financial regret behind you of, oh my gosh, I pursued this school, that school, they didn’t pay me well enough. I spent too much on this experience. Yeah. I think what you said is perfect is like focus more on the experiences. If you want to go for, you know, a less expensive college education, but save your dollars for some pay-to-play experiences that are really high impact, then that makes a lot of strategic sense to me.
FIRE: Financial Independence, Retire Early
37:45 Stephanie: Yeah. And another route, I think we talked about this in our chat, you talked about an acronym FIRE.
37:51 Emily: Yeah. So FIRE stands for Financial Independence Retire Early, or Early Retirement.
37:57 Stephanie: Yeah. So you could either do that or do a sort of hybrid model. And I interviewed somebody who did something kind of similar to that, inadvertently. He didn’t, I mean, he didn’t retire early, but he had 20 years in a corporation that was a really good job. And he participated, he volunteered in the Citizen Science programs on the weekends and in his spare time. And his corporation actually paid for him to go back to school. So he did get a degree in environmental sciences. But when he was finished and on the job market, he got the second job he applied for. And I could not believe that I was like, oh my gosh. Wow. And it was because of those volunteer experiences, he had so much experience that he was like leading groups and organizing events and stuff like that. So that all translated really well.
38:48 Stephanie: So you could start off in a more lucrative career and volunteer with conservation organizations, with Citizen Science, and make enough money then where you can take a less lucrative career. Or if you’re a real go-getter in today’s world, like, I mean, there’s really not a financial limit to like what you can do online and with entrepreneurship and stuff like that. Like, it is tough to do, but it’s, I mean, there’s so many like millionaires who are six-figure earners from selling courses online, and in practical stuff, too. Like I remember I was listening to this one podcast, this woman, she had a podcast all about goats and she made six figures just from selling a course on how to raise backyard goats. And she had like, she had like different courses, too. So it’s like, you know, you just don’t think like, oh wow, like you can make a lot of money off of information and goats, but you can. So there’s a lot of opportunities out there.
Combining FIRE with Passion Careers
39:52 Emily: Yeah. What I think is really interesting about the FIRE movement and combined with like these sort of passion careers, whether it’s wildlife biology or whether it’s maybe some other things you want to get a PhD in. So if, you know, the most intense people in the FIRE movement, the goal is to retire in about 10 years, not retire necessarily, but become financially independent in about 10 years. That would be like a fast goal. So you get out of college when you’re 22, you know, by 32, if you’re really intense about it and chose the right career, maybe you were an engineer or something like that. You could be retired by that point or, you know, financially independent, optional to retire at that point. Now that is a route to free up the entire rest of your life from age 32, to whatever, to do anything that you want.
40:37 Emily: As long as your lifestyle expenses don’t creep up to the point they exceed your investments’ ability to support you. And so that is where you could spend the next 50, 70, a hundred years of your career working in wildlife biology in any kind of capacity that you can achieve knowing that your finances are already taken care of. And that’s a very unconventional route, right? But I think it’s something that maybe more people should consider if their passion is in a field where it’s so difficult and so competitive to get a full-time position. And, you know, I think it also goes back to the realism discussion we’re having earlier. You know, maybe there’s something about wildlife biology or whatever field that you’re in that you would like that romantic version, but you are not so enamored with the reality of having a career in that field version, and maybe becoming financially independent allows you to experience the romantic versions of the career, you know, of rather the field to a great extent without having to commit to having to earn in the career and doing maybe the work that’s not quite as exciting to you.
41:43 Emily: And so that’s, I don’t know, it’s a very like interesting idea. I actually did meet someone one time at a financial bloggers’ conference who had reached financial independence in his early thirties through, whatever, he’s like a finance guy or something. And he was telling me, oh yeah, I’m considering going back and getting my PhD in some completely unrelated area because I can do whatever I want now, essentially. It doesn’t matter if I get a stipend or not. I can support myself. He can pursue anything he likes. And so I’ve never really like discussed this idea with anyone in terms of PhDs before, but I think it’s, I don’t know. It’s not the most outlandish thing.
Wildlife Bio: Career or Lifestyle?
42:19 Stephanie: Yeah, absolutely. And I actually, I mention this in the last chapter of my book is, like you said, maybe you don’t want it as a career, too. And maybe that’ll actually be more satisfying to you. So I had this talk with this very prominent biologist and he was talking about his friends, how like they’re traveling all over the world and showing him all these cool pictures and all these cool places that they’ve been to. And one of the countries that he said was a country that he does a lot of work in. And I was like, you work there, you’re like always traveling there. And he’s like, yeah, but I am in like conference rooms, I’m in meetings. I’m not going to see like this beautiful waterfall or go to the beaches. So again, it might be that romantic version of like, once you get higher up with your education, you’re going to be doing like more administrative work.
43:10 Stephanie: And you’re going to be writing scientific papers and writing grants and stuff like that. And, to be honest, that’s sitting behind a desk writing. So I just want people to like really understand what it’s like and what they’re getting into. And, yeah, like, if you’re really driven because you want to travel or have cool experiences with animals, there are Citizen Science vacations, Earth Watch does this, that you can pay for that give you those opportunities. Like you can pay to work with a sea turtle biologist and help him tag turtles or help them tagged hurdles. And so you can still have these experiences. But you’re not the one leading them, which actually might be nice because then you don’t have to worry about like all the logistics of setting everything up, and yeah. And managing people and things like that.
44:03 Emily: Yeah. I love that idea. And it’s just kind of thinking outside the box, right? Like how can I get to have this lifestyle that I want? Does it have to be my career, or can it be something I do on the side as you’re building a career in another area? Or I’ve retired from my career. And so now I can do it afterwards. I think that’s a really exciting idea that you can be in wildlife biology in more ways than just a full-time professional scientist.
44:32 Stephanie: You’re so right, too, about your, your life choices changing when you get older. I talk to a lot of young people who are like, I don’t need to live in a big house. Or maybe not necessarily live in a big house, but you do want more things as you grow up. Like you want more stability and things like that. You don’t want to be moving around all the time. And like, even myself, I didn’t want to have children, but yeah, like I want to be stable and I want to stay put and not going from here to there all the time.
45:02 Emily: Yeah. What I often repeat on my podcast is money gives you options. And so really what you’re doing when you, for instance, take out a bunch of student loan debt and then go into even more debt for these, like, pay-to-play experiences and eventually go into graduate school. And you’re there for a long time. And then, you know, all the things that you might have to do to get this final career that you are going for, if all that while you’re just accumulating debt and you’re not putting money into retirement, you’re basically hamstringing yourself into this career has to work out, or I am sunk, you know? And instead if you try to pursue it, but in a more balanced manner in terms of finances and other areas of life, you can get to that point, maybe when you’re done with your PhD and say, okay, I have options. I can still pursue this career that I’ve been going for. I can get another type of job because you have built up some financial stability along the way. So it gives you options. You don’t feel like you’re stuck in just the one type of job that you’ve been going for that whole time, which might not even be available to you.
46:06 Stephanie: Absolutely.
Best Financial Advice for Another Early-Career PhD
46:08 Emily: Okay. Well, as we’re wrapping up the interview, Stephanie, one thing that I ask all of my guests is what is your best financial advice for another early-career PhD?
46:18 Stephanie: I think probably the best is, and this is where I always tell people to start out in this career, is to look at the jobs out there now that they ultimately want. And I have a tool on my website for this it’s called the Job Tracker. And you basically just like write down, or you copy and paste, like what jobs you like, how much they pay, what your education is. And then, in my course, I actually, I also have a budget planner too. And like, see if you can afford that career and see if it works out to be the type of lifestyle that you want. So really like copy the salary and the location, and look up houses in that area and how much they cost, and see if this fits into your lifestyle. But again, like really get an idea of like, where you want to end up. So there’s no surprises and you can pivot more easily along the way if you decide, okay, I love this, but I really want to make more money. Which is okay, because, like I said, some of these jobs, they pay very little and it can be difficult to live with those jobs. I knew somebody who had what other students thought was like an absolute dream job, but she was just so sick of not making money.
47:38 Emily: Absolutely. I love that advice. It goes along with the general theme of like being realistic. Okay. So where can listeners find you, Stephanie?
47:49 Stephanie: They can go to fancyscientist.com or just Google, fancy scientist I’ll come up and they can contact me any way. I check all my messages. I’m happy to answer their questions. And I love hearing from people.
48:02 Emily: And what is the title of your book?
48:05 Stephanie: Getting a Job in Wildlife Biology: What It’s Like and What You Need to Know.
48:10 Emily: Great.
48:11 Stephanie: Very blunt. Well, thanks so much for doing this. I had a good time talking to you and I learned a lot.
48:17 Emily: Thank you. It’s exciting to me to learn about a new field and kind of wrap my mind around like particular financial challenges within that field.
48:26 Emily: Listeners, thank you for joining me for this episode! pfforphds.com/podcast/ is the hub for the Personal Finance for PhDs podcast. On that page are links to all the episodes’ show notes, which include full transcripts and videos of the interviews. There is also a form to volunteer to be interviewed on the podcast and instructions for entering the book giveaway contest. I’d love for you to check it out and get more involved! If you’ve been enjoying the podcast, here are 4 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. If you leave a review, be sure to send it to me! 2. Share an episode you found particularly valuable on social media, with an email listserv, 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 effective budgeting. I also license pre-recorded workshops on taxes. 4. Subscribe to my mailing list at PFforPhDs.com/subscribe/. Through that list, you’ll keep up with all the new content and special opportunities for Personal Finance for PhDs. 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. Podcast editing and show notes creation by Meryem Ok.
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