In this episode, Emily interviews Dr. Haley Sanderson, a postdoc at the University of Saskatchewan. Haley was dramatically underpaid during graduate school and discouraged from working on the side. While many of her peers lived hand to mouth, Haley’s situation was made more dire by her at-the-time undiagnosed and untreated mental health disorder. Haley entered a negative feedback loop in which her finances, mental health, and physical health deteriorated together. Emily and Haley discuss what her program could have done to ameliorate this negative spiral and why it’s vital to sufficiently financially support PhD trainees. Haley concludes with her very practical financial advice for anyone at a career transition point.
Links Mentioned in this Episode
- PF for PhDs Sponsor QE Tax
- Emily’s E-mail
- PF for PhDs S12E4 (Show Notes)
- Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada
- PhD Stipends
- PF for PhDs Register for Mailing List (Advice Document)
- PF for PhDs Podcast Hub (Show Notes/Transcripts)
00:00 Haley: My suggestion would be, if somebody’s in my situation, to go get the help you need and get the financial help that you need, even if it means taking out loans. Because it’s much better to have the financial debt than the mental health debt.
00:22 Emily: Welcome to the Personal Finance for PhDs Podcast: A Higher Education in Personal Finance. I’m your host, Dr. Emily Roberts, a financial educator specializing in early-career PhDs and founder of Personal Finance for PhDs. This podcast is for PhDs and PhDs-to-be who want to explore the hidden curriculum of finances to learn the best practices for money management, career advancement, and advocacy for yourself and others. This is Season 12, Episode 4, and today my guest is Dr. Haley Sanderson, a postdoc at the University of Saskatchewan. Haley was dramatically underpaid during graduate school and discouraged from working on the side. While many of her peers lived hand to mouth, Haley’s situation was made more dire by her at-the-time undiagnosed and untreated mental health disorder. Haley entered a negative feedback loop in which her finances, mental health, and physical health deteriorated together. We discuss what Haley’s program could have done to ameliorate this negative spiral and why it’s vital to sufficiently financially support PhD trainees. Haley concludes with her very practical financial advice for anyone at a career transition point.
01:44 Emily: I have set a super audacious goal for my business and our U.S. PhD community broadly. It’s actually a bit difficult for me to even speak it out loud! My goal is for every graduate student, postdoc, or postbac in the U.S. who is not having income tax withheld from their stipend or salary to be offered training on how to 1) estimate their future income tax liability, 2) determine if they are required to pay quarterly estimated tax, and 3) prepare to pay their tax bill or bills through setting up a system of self-withholding. I am passionate about this topic because surprise tax bills, high tax bills, and fines are an almost completely preventable source of financial strife for my community, and all that’s needed is a bit of education delivered at the right time. I provide just such a training, which is my asynchronous workshop titled Quarterly Estimated Tax for Fellowship Recipients. Most of you have heard me talk about it before, and some of you have taken it. The perfect time to give PhD trainees access to this workshop is when they start or switch onto non-W-2 income, which often happens near the start of the academic year, i.e., the near future.
03:08 Emily: If you share my passion—or maybe it’s more of a frustration for you—and know that your university is not already providing sufficient training in this area, would you please recommend that your graduate school, postdoc office, graduate student association, or department sponsor my workshop for those interested in taking it? You might want to take it yourself, or perhaps you just want to save the entering cohort the time and energy it took you to figure this all out on your own. To make this recommendation, simply email the potential sponsor with the reason you are recommending the workshop and this link: PFforPhDs.com/sponsorqetax/. If you’re comfortable with it, you can Cc me emily@PFforPhDs.com, and I can pick up the conversation. Thanks for participating with me in trying to reach this goal! I know it will prevent a lot of people in our community from experiencing tax-related financial emergencies next spring.
You can find the show notes for this episode at PFforPhDs.com/s12e4/.
Without further ado, here’s my interview with Dr. Haley Sanderson.
Will You Please Introduce Yourself Further?
04:33 Emily: I am delighted to have joining me on the podcast today, Dr. Haley Sanderson, who is a postdoc at the University of Saskatchewan, and she is coming on the podcast to talk about a really sensitive topic, which is living on a very low graduate student stipend while dealing with mental illness. So, Haley, I’m really pleased that you volunteered to be on the podcast to talk about this important topic. So, would you please introduce yourself a little bit further for the listeners?
04:58 Haley: Hi, I’m Haley. I have a PhD in environmental studies where I specialize in environmental microbiology and biotechnology. I finished my PhD in five years defending and graduating in fall 2018, since then I’ve completed postdocs with the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Dalhousie University, and I’m now a postdoc in the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization at the University of Saskatchewan. And I’m currently applying for more full-time permanent gigs <laugh>.
05:37 Emily: Well, best of luck with that. Okay. So we’re going to go back to your grad school years, and most of my listeners are going to be in the U.S. So, could you please explain, give some context for how you are funded during your PhD?
Funding During the PhD
05:53 Haley: So, during my PhD, I started as a master’s student, so I actually started on a much lower stipend of about $14K Canadian. So, to get that money, I had to TA for about two semesters every year and then do a research assistantship in the summer. I was a master’s student for a year, and then I bumped up to be a PhD. I ended up getting three provincial scholarships in Ontario that bumped my stipend up to $25K, which is only a little bit higher than the base stipend for a PhD student. So, with that stipend, we actually have to pay tuition out of it. So, not all of it gets to go to living. You also have to pay your tuition out of the money that they give you. So, the actual amount that I lived off of was much smaller than the stipend that I got <laugh>.
07:14 Emily: Yeah. Well, let us know, do you remember the numbers on that? Like after paying the tuition, what amount were you living off of? And then give us some context for, like, how does that compare to the local cost of living?
07:26 Haley: I don’t know the exact numbers, but tuition was about $2,000 a semester, I would say, for about $6,000 a year. So, when I was on my original master’s stipend, I only had maybe $8K <laugh>, which is a little <laugh> insane. I had a lot more to live off of once I was in the PhD program. So, when I was a master’s student, I actually had to work, but there were some problems with the department not wanting me to work and kind of threatening to take away the stipend that was paying like my tuition and my rent.
Challenges to Supplementing the Stipend
08:09 Emily: Yeah. I mean, the numbers that you’re throwing out there sound incredibly low. It’s not surprising at all to me that you would, you know, seek other sources of income. Was that something that your peers were doing as well? Was the department also like threatening other peers who were working, or how were they making ends meet?
08:27 Haley: A lot of the other people in my department had like side gigs that they’d only do every once in a while. A lot of people hid if they had part-time jobs. Unfortunately, I worked close to the university and some of them saw me working, so that didn’t work out too well <laugh>.
08:48 Emily: How was that resolved? Did you have to give up the side job?
08:53 Haley: Some of the admins helped me apply to the provincial scholarships. And once I got the provincial scholarships, I was kind of told to get rid of the part-time job.
09:03 Emily: And would you say that when you had that higher $25K minus, okay, let’s say $19K per year stipend during the latter part of your PhD, was that enough to survive, or did you feel like you would’ve worked more if you were allowed to?
09:18 Haley: I probably would’ve worked more, but I think I would’ve had trouble doing that with the mental illness, because there were a lot of things that that impacted. Like my eating, my sleeping, my social life were also impacted by finances, and moreso by the mental health problems.
Mental Health Impact on Money Mindset
09:41 Emily: Yeah. Let’s talk about that more now. So, you had an undiagnosed slash untreated mental health condition at that time. So, how was that affecting how you handled your finances?
09:54 Haley: So, I have a psychotic disorder that causes me to have delusions and hallucinations that are usually really disparaging and kind of controlling. So, let’s say, for instance, when I got accepted into the master’s program, my mom made a comment that my brothers paid for their second degrees. And that kind of morphed in my mind to my parents won’t help me at all, so don’t ask them. Even when I tried to apply for like student loans, I kind of got it in my head that I would never be able to pay them back. So, it was kind of like a brick wall to actually apply for that. There were other things in my life, like I couldn’t eat certain foods because I thought I’d get really sick and stuff like that. So, it was essentially that I couldn’t really do anything to help my situation because my brain would tell me, like, you can’t actually do this.
10:58 Emily: Wow. Yeah. I had not like, thought about that or realized that was a potential, you know, symptom that some people could be experiencing. So, thank you for sharing that. I do a lot of like, how do we find workarounds on this podcast? Or like breaking through like your money mindset stuff. But like when you’re dealing with a serious mental health condition, that’s simply not an option without higher-level treatment, right? Which you eventually got, and we’ll get to that. And so, how then also did having such a low income during graduate school affect your ability to get diagnosed or treated?
11:33 Haley: I started to have psychotic episodes during my third year of my undergrad. And at that time, I went to go see a doctor and that doctor gave me antidepressants, which there was a co-pay for. And he wrongly sent me home without doing any more assessment and essentially told me, you might be developing schizophrenia, we’ll see <laugh>, which is not the best thing <laugh>. So, I was already on a very small budget when I was in undergrad. My parents paid for like my tuition and my rent. So, I was never in a situation where I would be homeless, but I was still in a situation where I didn’t have that much money. If I were in that situation now where I’m on my antipsychotic and my antidepressant, the antidepressant is maybe a couple dollars a month, but if I didn’t have benefits my antipsychotic would be over $200 a month.
12:43 Haley: So, part of the reasons why I stopped taking the medication at that point was, one, that it caused pretty severe hallucinations, more than I had before I got on the medication, because it was the wrong one. And the other thing was that I didn’t necessarily want to pay for it <laugh> because it was making me feel worse. So, I was kind of in denial that I needed them when I was in grad school, because I could no longer tell if I was feeling well, or if I was sick. Everything just kind of melded together. So, in terms of the impact of having a really low budget in grad school, I couldn’t eat properly. I maybe spent $30 a week on food, and I pretty much ate the same things all the time. Like rice, lentils, beans, and apples.
13:48 Haley: I was so worried about things that I also didn’t sleep. And by that I would mean I would be in the lab for maybe 16 hours a day and I’d go home and sleep for four to six hours. And one of the big things about controlling psychosis is that you need to get enough sleep. So now, I actually need close to eight to 10 hours on average. So, that was a pretty big impact. And it certainly didn’t help the delusions that I couldn’t get financial help <laugh>. It was kind of like a feedback loop.
14:27 Emily: I was just going to say that sounds exactly like a negative spiral, right? Like you are having tight money issues, so you forgo the medicinal and also other forms of self-care that maybe were somewhat available to you. And then your mind is also telling you that you can’t access or don’t deserve those things. And then it loops around again. So yeah, that sounds horrible.
Financial Stress and Sacrifices on a Low Stipend
14:56 Emily: You just mentioned living off of a really small, like food budget, for example. So, were there other things that you didn’t spend on that you forwent spending on to make that really low stipend work?
15:10 Haley: I didn’t go out very often and kind of avoided any social situation where I might have to pay for stuff. Particularly in my first two years. After my first two years, I moved somewhere with a better cost of living. I kind of filled my time only with work because I couldn’t really afford to have hobbies <laugh>. At one point when I decided to move in my second, third year, I had to give up a cat that was kind of my emotional <laugh> animal at that time, because I couldn’t move them across the country to where I was working. I didn’t go home for Christmas, and I barely saw my family because I really couldn’t afford to go on a bus or go on a plane. I didn’t take a vacation throughout my entire PhD. I didn’t date anyone during my entire PhD. And I avoided buying anything other than food. So, I would wear clothes until they like physically fell apart. Same with shoes. I’d wait until I really, really had to. So, I essentially forgo like anything that would be making me kind of happier <laugh>. So, it really wasn’t ideal.
16:39 Emily: Yeah. I realized that I kind of phrased that question as like, “Oh, what are the great strategies you used?” Not that I meant it that way, but this is not at all a laudable list, right? This is all a list of things that caused you to become even more unhealthy. And again, in that spiral that we were just talking about, and to not be able to break out of it. Like having an injection of some extra money, I mean, it would also help if your mind were, you know, allowing you to spend on these things, but having some extra money would’ve helped your general mental health, but also specifically your condition so much. It’s so obvious that that would be the case. I’m just like hearing a picture of you like drowning during graduate school. Financially, mentally. And I’m wondering about the people around you, like your advisor or other people in your department. Like, was there anything that they could have done? I’m asking this in a way of like, what can other people listening to this, take away if they see a peer or someone in their program that is to say, maybe they’re a faculty member or someone else who has a bit of power in the situation too. Like what, what should they have been doing or what could they have done to help you out of this spiral?
What Could Have Helped?
17:59 Haley: In some ways, there wasn’t really much people could do. In terms of what the department did, they tried to help me get scholarships, which did make the situation a lot better. There is an opportunity to do like graduate assistant work that I did for two summers. That was really helpful. Maybe having like emergency funds that are easy to apply to would be very useful too. But a lot of the time, I didn’t think that my, I couldn’t tell that my situation wasn’t normal <laugh> because a lot of my peers had similar problems. Probably not to the same mental extent, but in terms of money, it was pretty common. And maybe just increasing the stipend would make a big difference. I checked the department’s website and it looks like the PhD stipend has increased, but the master’s stipend is still quite low. But that would be what I would think of when I think of what the department could do to help people.
19:09 Emily: Absolutely. I think pay graduate students more. Pay graduate students enough that they don’t experience the things that you mentioned, like not being able to go home and visit your family members, never going out socially if there was, you know, a possibility you might spend money. In addition to just being like the compassionate thing to do for students who are under your charge, as well as, especially if you’re not going to allow them to work or whatever, they’re not developing. You were not developing as a scholar in the way you could have. You could have blossomed even more, had you been sufficiently financially supported. Same goes for your peers too. So, it’s just really, it’s very hard for me <Laugh>, I’m sure for the listeners as well, to hear how much you were struggling and how big of a difference, you know, a few more thousand dollars a year from your department would’ve made, and what exactly is tying their hands to make that not happen? If their goal is to develop scholars and PhDs, they could do that even better by financially supporting them better. That’s how I view it.
20:12 Haley: Yeah.
20:15 Emily: Emily here for a brief interlude. I have set a big goal for my business and our U.S. PhD community broadly. My goal is for every graduate student, postdoc, or postbac in the US who is not having income tax withheld from their stipend or salary to be offered training on how to 1) estimate their future income tax liability, 2) determine if they are required to pay quarterly estimated tax, and 3) prepare to pay their tax bill or bills through setting up a system of self-withholding. I provide just such a training, which is my asynchronous workshop titled Quarterly Estimated Tax for Fellowship Recipients. Now, some universities, institutes, or funding agencies already offer such a training, and they have no need to work with me. But others won’t allow their employees to touch the topic of taxes with a 10-foot pole, and that’s where working with me can really benefit everyone. Would you please send me an email and tell me which camp your university falls into—or if it’s somewhere in between? You can reach me at emily@PFforPhDs.com. Furthermore, let me know if you want to take Quarterly Estimated Tax for Fellowship Recipients for free or think that the cohort coming in this fall should, and I’ll reply with how you can help make that happen. I look forward to hearing from you! Now back to our interview.
Ending the Negative Spiral
21:56 Emily: So, how did you ultimately end this spiral that you were in? Did you get on medication? Did you see different doctors? Was it a matter of graduating? Like what happened?
22:06) Haley: Graduating was actually the worst thing that happened <laugh>. So, I had to pay for my ticket to do my defense because I was living in Alberta at the time and I had to come back to Ontario, and that actually completely depleted my bank account. If I hadn’t gotten a job pretty much right away, I would not have had a place to stay and I wouldn’t have been able to go home at all. I ended up going through an even bigger spiral where I entered like acute psychosis. Like the CRA is after me <laugh> kind of psychosis or people are actively following you and you’re hearing complete conversations and more disparaging comments and so on. I essentially kept working for almost six months with acute psychosis. And then I finally hit a point where I couldn’t do it anymore and I realized that there was something incredibly wrong.
23:21 Haley: So, I ended up going to the doctor who tried to put me on an antipsychotic, but I essentially spiraled further when I got onto the antipsychotic because it was essentially too late to be putting me on it in an outpatient location. So, I ended up having to go to the ER twice. The first time there wasn’t a psychiatrist. So, they sent me home. The second time, I was essentially really dehydrated, only weighing 80 pounds and completely out of reality <laugh> essentially. So, the psychiatrist put me into inpatient care and I stayed there for a month where they put me on medication and I essentially slept because I was burnt out from work and the PhD. So, it’s taken probably two and a half years to get on the right medication and recover fully from that.
24:23 Haley: Starting a postdoc that actually pays me enough to live has been pretty helpful <laugh> in that because I’ve been able to start eating more healthy. I’m not as worried. And I have the psychosis under control between medication and therapy. So, I’m sleeping a normal amount. I’m eating a normal amount. I’m exercising because I can afford to go to the gym and like go to spin class and stuff like that. One of the weird things is I actually got out of the grad school with absolutely no debt because I couldn’t actually apply for the loans. Like my head would not let me apply for them. So, I ended up getting out with absolutely no debt, but also absolutely no money <laugh>. So, I was really lucky that I was offered a job right away. After I was hospitalized, I had to take three months off. So, I actually lost the job that I had gotten and I had to find another job, which I had to move across the country for. And then after that job, I had to move across the country again, which has always been kind of a financial burden, but that’s just kind of how my job goes <laugh>. But I’m doing much, much better than I was doing in grad school and have a lot of things more under control.
Paying Off the Mental Health Debt
25:57 Emily: I am so glad to hear that you’re in a much better place right now. Although it does seem to me that it’s taken a long, long time to get there. I mean, you mentioned that you came out of graduate school with no financial debt, but you had a debt to yourself of another kind, right? Of having not taken care of yourself and had been on the medication and doing the sleeping and the eating and all that stuff. So like, you still had to come out of that depth of the, you know, of care that you needed to get back up to the point you’re at now, the stable and healthy point.
26:32 Haley: I would say that I would’ve rathered have the financial debt than the mental debt. So like, my suggestion would be if somebody’s in my situation to go get the help you need and get the financial help that you need, even if it means taking out loans. Because it’s much better to have the financial debt than the mental health debt.
26:57 Emily: I totally agree. And I’m really glad to hear you say that. I don’t want to criticize other people either in their financial situations, but when you’re in a unique time of life, like being a graduate student and it is ideally time-limited and you’ll move on to having a better-paying job later on, it can, in some situations make sense to take out debt and some people feel so debt-averse that they, and I’m not saying you did this because you had this mental health condition, but they put themselves into debts of these other kinds. They’re not eating properly. Maybe they are not living in a safe situation. Again, I don’t want to sound like I’m criticizing them, but they do as a graduate student, at least in the U.S., have the option of taking out debt and alleviating some of that.
27:43 Emily: And so, I just want them to think about that as a legitimate option and not something that’s completely off-limits to them to help this short-term cash crisis that they’re in during graduate school. Again, the responsibility for that as we were talking about earlier falls much more on the programs underpaying people. That’s on them, rather than the people who are being underpaid. But that is a way out of a very difficult short-term situation. And like you said, you would’ve rather had a bit of money to pay off than having these years and years that it’s taken you to recover from the state that you were in by the end of graduate school.
Save Money and Study the Financial Side of Grad School
28:20 Emily: Do you have any other advice for prospective graduate students who are walking into programs like you did your master’s, your PhD program, who are potentially being radically underpaid compared to the local cost of living?
28:37 Haley: I would mostly work for a while and save money before you go to grad school. I wasn’t in a situation where I thought I could do that, but if I could do it again, I probably would’ve started working right away and then decided if I wanted to do grad school after I’ve made a little bit of money <laugh>. Make sure that whatever program that you want to go into does have a fair stipend. I didn’t even think of that when I joined grad school, but that should have been a much bigger consideration than what it was for me because I’m first-generation. I didn’t think that they would give me a stipend that I couldn’t live off of <laugh>.
29:17 Emily: Misplaced trust.
29:19 Haley: Yeah <laugh>. I would maybe do a little more digging on the financial side before starting grad school.
29:27 Emily: Yeah. I think those are great suggestions for someone considering graduate school. Definitely look into the stipends versus the local cost of living. I have a website that helps with that. At least if you’re in the U.S., which is called PhDstipends.com. So you can see what other graduate students actually report as being their income, not what the programs tell you they’re paying. Those might be two different things until you get the offer letter, at least. So you can kind of do some pre-research on the programs that you’re planning on applying to, to see if they’re paying a living wage or not. And like you said, I think a lot more people should be considering working for a decently-paying job for a year or two or three before they start graduate school to build up some kind of financial safety net so that they don’t have to do things like you were just mentioning, the cost of moving multiple times across the country.
30:13 Emily: That’s very significant. And if you end up paying for that, let’s say with like credit cards, because you don’t have the savings or cash to do it, then you’re kind of starting graduate school like already knocked back, already knocked onto your back foot, like financially, because you’re now having to pay down credit card debt in addition to living on this very, very small stipend. So instead, if you can have that savings, so, so helpful to just kind of get out ahead of these issues. So, that’s great advice for prospective graduate students. And thank you for giving that.
Best Financial Advice for Another Early-Career PhD
30:43 Emily: I do end my interviews with a standard question that I ask all of my guests, which is what is your best financial advice for another early-career PhD? And it could be something that we’ve talked about in the course of the interview, or it could be something completely new.
30:55 Haley: If you’re a postdoc, I’d start saving and get a retirement fund and maybe a rainy day fund. Because postdocs are fairly short for most people, and you’re probably going to have to move again and things come up. So, it’s good to start saving once you can start saving after grad school. And kind of the same advice for looking at a postdoc. Make sure the salary is enough to live comfortably on before you agree to do it. It’s not a nice thing to accept a salary and then get to the city and realize that you can’t really live there <laugh>. And maybe try to negotiate your salary if you can.
31:45 Emily: All wonderful advice. I’m recalling actually, when my husband got a postdoc offer in Boston, we were living in Durham, North Carolina at the time. So kind of moderate cost of living to high cost of living. And we calculated it after accounting for the cost of living change between those two cities. He was actually being offered effectively less money than he had made as a graduate student with that postdoc position in Boston. And he did try to negotiate and he got them to increase the offer very, very slightly. And ultimately did not take that offer and finances were, you know, a part of that decision. And so, I totally agree with you, especially if you have not yet lived in a city, whether it’s for grad school, for postdoc, anything else. You need to really investigate what the cost of living is because you just don’t know until you actually live there. And by the time you accept an offer and move, it’s too late <laugh>. You need to do as much as you can in advance. So, Haley, thank you so much for being willing to give this interview. I think it was a really important conversation that the listeners are going to benefit so much from. So, so glad to hear you doing well. And thanks again for volunteering!
32:50 Haley: Thanks for having me!
32:58 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/. 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 by Lourdes Bobbio and show notes creation by Meryem Ok.