In this episode, Emily interviews Alyssa Hayes, a rising 4th-year graduate student in nuclear engineering at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. Alyssa is a first-generation college student who experienced food insecurity and other forms of financial precarity as an undergraduate. Now that she earns a stipend of approximately $45,000 per year and lives in a low cost of living city, she feels financially secure—and wants the same for all graduate students. To that end, Alyssa shares two advocacy approaches: 1) Ask for what you need. As a prospective graduate student, she negotiated for a top-up fellowship to be added to her assistantship stipend. 2) Share pay information with your peers across universities and use that data to collectively bargain for higher stipends in individual programs. Alyssa and her peers in nuclear engineering are currently gathering this data, including stipends, benefits, cost of living, and university and departmental ranking.
Links Mentioned in this Episode
- UNLP Funding for Nuclear Engineering Graduate and Undergraduate Students
- Overview of University of Tennessee Graduate Fellowships
- Alyssa’s Twitter (@NuclearQuaffle)
- Generation Atomic
- PF for PhDs Expert Interviews with Sam Hogan
- PF for PhDs S12E5 Show Notes
- PF for PhDs Quarterly Estimated Tax for Fellowship Recipients (Workshop)
- Emily’s E-mail
- Nuclear Innovation Bootcamp
- PhD Stipends
- PF for PhDs Register for Mailing List (Advice Document)
- PF for PhDs Podcast Hub (Show Notes/Transcripts)
00:00 Alyssa: I think that like all grad students should feel as comfortable as I feel in terms of my financial situation. I think that I make a fair wage, and maybe I’m biased because of my previous financial situation, but I personally have no complaints about the amount of money that I’m making right now. I feel supported by my advisor and by my department. I feel that I am valued for my labor. And I think that shows through how much they pay me. And I think that everybody should be able to feel that way about their department and about their advisor.
00:44 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 5, and today my guest is Alyssa Hayes, a rising 4th-year graduate student in nuclear engineering at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. Alyssa is a first-generation college student who experienced food insecurity and other forms of financial precarity as an undergraduate. Now that she earns a stipend of approximately $45,000 per year and lives in a low-cost-of-living city, she feels financially secure—and wants the same for all graduate students. To that end, Alyssa shares two advocacy approaches: 1) Ask for what you need. As a prospective graduate student, she negotiated for a top-up fellowship to be added to her assistantship stipend. 2) Share pay information with your peers across universities and use that data to collectively bargain for higher stipends in individual programs. Alyssa and her peers in nuclear engineering are currently gathering this data, including stipends, benefits, cost-of-living, and university and departmental ranking. You won’t want to miss Alyssa’s powerful messages peppered throughout the episode!
02:30 Emily: Longtime listeners of the podcast will remember the interviews I’ve published with Sam Hogan, a mortgage originator specializing in graduate students and PhDs, an advertiser with Personal Finance for PhDs, and my brother. Several years ago, I told Sam how I’d heard over and over again about graduate students and PhDs being denied mortgage loans because of their unusual income sources and income history and asked him to look into the issue. Following that request, Sam actually developed quite an expertise in this area and is now the go-to mortgage originator for people with non-employee fellowship income. He even found a way around what we thought was an insurmountable barrier in the 3-year continuance requirement. If you’re considering buying a home, especially if you have non-W-2 income, I encourage you to reach out to Sam for a quote. He has a new website, which you can visit at PhDHomeLoans.com, or you can reach him on his cell phone, 540-478-5803. You can find the show notes for this episode at PFforPhDs.com/s12e5/. Without further ado, here’s my interview with Alyssa Hayes.
Will You Please Introduce Yourself Further?
03:56 Emily: I am delighted to have joining me on the podcast today Alyssa Hayes. She is a rising fourth-year graduate student in nuclear engineering at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. And we have a lot to talk about in terms of like her pay and her money mindset. And I’m really excited for this conversation. So Alyssa, thank you so much for volunteering. And would you please introduce yourself a little bit further for the audience?
04:16 Alyssa: Thank you for having me! Yeah. So, I’m currently at the University of Tennessee. I did my bachelor’s degree in the same field at the University of Illinois. My current work involves like, you know, fusion engineering, specifically. I do a lot of computational plasma boundary stuff. But yeah, I guess we’re not really talking about any of my technical work today. <Laugh>
Money Mindset Up Until Starting Grad School
04:38 Emily: No, but very related to your experience as a graduate student. So, let’s take it back a little bit and tell me about sort of what your childhood’s like, and specifically how it relates to money and how that sort of developed your money mindset through your childhood and through undergrad, up until you started graduate school.
04:58 Alyssa: Yeah. So, I come from a biracial family, and my father comes from a long line of Americans in the military where, you know, his family was very like blue-collar labor. Like there wasn’t as big of a push to go to college, especially during the time when my dad was growing up in the seventies. And my mom is an immigrant from the Philippines. And her family was not extremely wealthy in the Philippines. And they came here when she was younger to pursue a better life. And she currently works at Walmart and has been for like almost 20 years and has supported my three siblings and me through retail and fast food. So, I was the first person in my family to pursue college. And we lived in an area where we had a lot of, like, there was a lot of really good funding for the school system, even though we weren’t in the nicest part of town. There were other folks who were pretty well-to-do, so I took advantage of everything that I could at that high school. And I got a full ride at the University of Illinois to pursue nuclear engineering. I didn’t have a lot of financial security while I was there, but I didn’t have to worry too much about student debt or tuition or paying fees or anything like that.
Food Insecurity in Undergrad
06:18 Emily: That’s amazing. The full ride to college, and obviously you went after it, <laugh> starting in your earlier years. But tell me a little bit about like the discretion that you had over money. Like, were you budgeting or like, how did you manage it? How did you manage what money you had above that, you know, what’s paying for tuition and room and board and so forth?
06:39 Alyssa: Yeah. So, I was first of all, extremely food insecure and didn’t realize it until I entered grad school. Once a month, I went out to lunch with like a professor who like, he knew I was food insecure, even if I didn’t know I was food insecure, and he would like pay for my food and we would like go somewhere nice that I couldn’t afford to eat at. For the most part, like there were times when like either because I, you know, couldn’t afford to go out to eat as often, but didn’t have the time because I was so stressed out to like make food from home. I like skipped meals often when I was in undergrad. I was very cheap and frugal all the time. I was constantly like thinking about like, I am hungry all the time and like bringing, like, trying to bring snacks with me. Apples were my thing.
07:22 Alyssa: I brought apples everywhere because they were so easy to just grab and then eat on the go. And then it was mostly about trying to make money to pay the bills and to pay rent. My rent, like in undergrad was only like $450 a month. But I worked a minimum wage job in the like plasma lab on campus. And then I worked as a TA as well. So that added stress onto my undergrad. I wish that I didn’t have to have worked so hard in order to like pay to live while trying to be a student. But that’s what it was like. Luckily, I don’t have any student debt now, but I couldn’t really you know, spend the money that was granted for my tuition on, you know, myself or the ability to make ends meet.
08:14 Emily: Yeah. So, I sort of misspoke or misunderstood earlier. You had a full ride in terms of the education cost, but not your living expenses. So, you were working to pay all of your living expenses.
08:25 Alyssa: Yes.
08:25 Emily: Yes. Okay. So that is a little bit like graduate school in a sense, except you didn’t have like a job that you were given. You had to cobble together like multiple sources of income, it sounds like. And there’s more management. You were probably paid, you know, less than maybe the average graduate student is. So, that sounds really stressful.
08:43 Alyssa: I had a little bit of spillover for my scholarships that I had received. So like it paid for like tuition and fees plus a little bit of extra and then like that would go towards rent, but it wasn’t like enough.
Student Loans for Dorm Payment
08:55 Emily: Why didn’t you take out student loans during that time?
08:59 Alyssa: So, I did have to take out student loans during my freshman year to pay for the dorms. Because dorms are a scam. If anyone who’s like not currently in grad school is listening to this, dorms are a scam. Do not live in them longer than you have to. The university says it’s so that way you can you know, help get acclimated to the college experience, but that’s a lie. They’re trying to take your money. I had to take out student loans to pay for those. Other than that, I didn’t take out any other student loans because I was afraid of the debt like piling up. I knew that like one of the types of loans didn’t charge interest until you were done, but the other type of loan did. And I, you know, didn’t want that to accrue while I was in college.
09:38 Alyssa: And I knew that I like had done all my budgeting and I knew that I was able to work to pay for all my stuff. So, I just kind of like, you know, I didn’t think anything was like wrong with the way that I was living. I didn’t see any like problems with like being so frugal or so cheap or skipping meals or missing sleep and stuff. But like, I guess grateful now to past me that I didn’t do that because now I don’t have any student debt. I paid off what little loans I had in like six months. But I did have to like work a lot to get there. But I was also happy doing the work that I did. I enjoyed being a TA and I enjoyed working in a research lab. And honestly, I’m glad that I didn’t end up like working somewhere that didn’t have anything to do with nuclear engineering. So that way I was able to apply all of that to my career trajectory later on in grad school, by having that research experience.
Funding and Finances in Grad School
10:36 Emily: Yeah. This kind of goes to show you like how we aren’t even aware of our own beliefs around money and our own mindsets around money until we sort of consciously try to take a step outside and examine them. And I understand that you can say now, “Oh, past me, I didn’t even know at the time.” You can say things like that because you’ve now reached a new phase in your financial life, which is the graduate student phase. So, tell us about how you’re funded now and how your finances are going.
11:00 Alyssa: Yeah. So, when I was applying to grad schools, I applied to the University of Illinois where I originally wanted to stay because I really loved working for my advisor there. And I also applied to the University of Tennessee because I had, through conferences and networking, I met my current advisor here. And I told both schools that I would stay at Illinois for less. And Illinois didn’t have the power to offer, or like the nuclear engineering program at the University of Illinois, didn’t have the power to offer me more than like the base research assistantship that they offer to like all of the graduate students there. But the University of Tennessee has these like top-off fellowships that they will add to a base stipend in order to get a student to commit to the university who’s maybe deciding between two programs.
12:01 Alyssa: And with just the base stipend, Illinois, I think pays, I might be mistaken on the exact number, but I think they were offering like $26,000 a year. And the University of Tennessee’s base pay at the time was $30,000 per year. We’ve since gotten a raise and now it’s $33K. But the top-off fellowship that was offered to me was $10,000 a year. So then it became a no-brainer. And I was like, I would stay at Illinois for less, but not this much less. And so, now I am making about $45K with bonuses and like a couple of like, you know, service-based scholarships that I get on a somewhat regular basis. So, it kind of evens out to about $45,000 a year with the raise and the top-off fellowship. And so now, I feel like more of a regular adult that has a livable amount of money and I’m not as worried anymore about like, “Oh God, I saw a movie this weekend and now I can’t do anything else fun for the rest of the week.” And so like, I don’t have any of those like worries anymore, but I do still think about them. Like that mindset is always in the back of my mind of like, “Oh, like, is this like a waste of money? I don’t need to be doing this,” or, “This is so expensive,” you know?
$45K Stipend in Knoxville
13:24 Emily: Okay. There was so much in there. So much good stuff that I want to follow-up on. Let’s take it kind of in turns. I want to put a pin in the negotiation part of it. We’ll come back to that in a moment. But let’s focus now on like again, still your money mindset. You just mentioned some of it. You don’t have to be as worried about small joys and extravagances that you allow yourself. So, you’re making about $45,000 a year. Very good stipend for a graduate student, especially in a, you know, lower cost of living area. How, like give us some context about how much that pays for. Because obviously in other areas of the country, $45K is like, “Oh, I’m barely scraping by.”
14:00 Alyssa: Yeah.
14:00 Emily: How does that feel for you right now?
14:03 Alyssa: Knoxville is very affordable to live in. When you’re going to school, like in not really a big city, but more of like a rural part of the country, that definitely helps. Although there’s definitely, you have to balance that with being a person of color, too. So there aren’t other Filipinos, like in this whole city, it seems. I haven’t met any of them or seen anybody else like that’s the same race as me. There’s also a lot of segregation here. And so like, there are parts of town that you can’t go to. So you kind of have to balance that when you’re like, “Oh, if I live somewhere rural, then that’s more affordable to live in,” but there are parts of those areas that also may not be safe for you if you’re in a similar situation.
14:48 Emily: Yeah. I’m glad that you pointed that out because it’s something that I often don’t acknowledge or that can go unacknowledged that people of color in some cases do not have all of the options available to them that White people do, or, you know, other like races. Because as you just said, there are some areas where you can’t live, you have to pay the premium to live in a different area because it’s simply not an option to feel safe, you know, paying the least amount of rent that you could or whatever. So, a very important consideration when people are choosing graduate schools to kind of, to feel out if you are going to feel safe there, and what is the university going to do to support you?
15:21 Alyssa: And while we’re kind of on this, it might also be worth mentioning the current abortion scenario in the United States. If that’s something that matters to you and you have the ability to become pregnant, like a lot of the 26 states that are passing laws that restrict your access to it may also be something to consider because a lot of those contain the rural areas where it is more affordable to attend a university there.
15:46 Emily: Another wrinkle. Yeah. We’re recording this in May, 2022. I don’t know exactly when we’re going to release this. There may be more developments between now and then. But yes, an issue that I think many of us were not expecting to have to consider when we’re choosing graduate school. So, another good point.
16:04 Emily: Let’s talk more about the money though. So like, you’re able to pay, you’re able to live a more comfortable lifestyle. Your mindset is still, how is your mindset doing? Like, are you able to splurge on yourself a little bit, or do you still have some of the mindset lingering from when you grew up or your undergraduate experience?
16:22 Alyssa: A lot of it is more, I guess, in the back of my mind, but I have put like a conscious effort into prioritizing my own happiness. Not just in the way of like work-life balance, but financially to ensure that like, you know, spending money on things that make you happy is not wasted money in the same way that spending time on things that make you happy is not wasted time. And so, like I saw two movies this weekend <laugh> instead of one with my partner, because I wanted to and that helped distract me from some heavy things that were going on in my life. And that was money well-spent. Yeah, it wasn’t on a bill, but it’s something that I like, you know, put effort into not feeling bad about that. So, I’ve been dealing with grief this weekend, and I’ve been spending a lot of money, like additional money than I would in any other week on eating out a lot. Just so that way I wouldn’t have to like do household chores, like dishes or worry about cooking while I’m dealing with grief.
17:29 Alyssa: And so like, those are like, you know, that was part of like, I guess, a change in mindset that I noticed where it was easier for me to do that in my current financial scenario, like situation versus when I was in undergrad. Like I had those thoughts in the back my mind of like, “Wow, I’m spending a lot of money. <Laugh> this week alone between, you know, funeral costs and like the additional money I was spending on food.” I’ve easily spent like a thousand dollars in the last four days on not bills, but that was easier for me to accept now and probably even easier now versus like my first year in grad school, when that would’ve been a harder, like mental hurdle to get over.
18:16 Emily: Yeah. And I’m assuming that this simply would not have been an option for you in undergrad to spend in this way. It is not an option for many graduate students, either, who are being paid less. And in our prep for this conversation, you said to me something along the lines of, you know, you’re living well right now given what you’re paid and given the low cost-of-living, and you think that all graduate students should feel this way. Can you elaborate on that a bit?
18:42 Alyssa: Yes. So, currently, like I said, I make $45,000 about per year. And whenever I tell other graduate students that like, sometimes, like I try not to let it like come off as like a brag because of the low cost-of-living in Knoxville, too. But it’s more of that I obviously agree that like everybody should, you know, talk about their wages, especially to your coworkers. Because I think that like all grad students should feel as comfortable as I feel in terms of my financial situation. I think that I make a fair wage, and maybe I’m biased because of my previous financial situation, but I personally have no complaints about the amount of money that I’m making right now. I feel supported by my advisor and by my department. I feel that I am valued for my labor. And I think that shows through how much they pay me. And I think that everybody should be able to feel that way about their department and about their advisor.
19:52 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 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 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.
Learning to Negotiate
21:33 Emily: I wanted to come back now to the negotiation piece. So, I think you mentioned something like, you know, you told both universities that you would accept a slightly lower stipend from University of Illinois. Tell me like, you even brought up money in these conversations. Like why were you even having conversations with the programs? What gave you the idea that you could talk about this and that maybe there would be more for you there?
21:56 Alyssa: So, part of it was because while I was at the University of Illinois, I got comfortable asking for money. One by being a leader in a lot of the different like student programs and then having to correspond regularly with the staff and the department head there. So, I knew a lot of those people well, and at one point I wanted to go to the Nuclear Innovation Bootcamp in the year 2017. And there was like obviously paying for travel flight costs. I didn’t have to pay for lodging as part of that Bootcamp, but there was also a hefty registration fee and I couldn’t afford any of that. And so, like there was no route to like ask for it to be paid for. There was no like standardized path or form that you could fill out for things to be waived.
22:46 Alyssa: So, I wrote like a little one-page request to my department saying like, this is this program. I really want to go. This is what I’m going to get out of it. Will you pay for it? And then at the very bottom, it said more information about why I may qualify for financial need available upon request. But I didn’t really like talk about my financial situation. I just explained what the program was, and why I wanted to go. And I gave that to them, and with no further questions they paid for everything. I think they even, I want to say they reimbursed my flights, but if I hadn’t bought them, they may have paid for them in advance. I don’t quite remember. But I had realized that like they wanted to support me, and that they were okay with students kind of going the outside-of-the-box route in terms of asking for money.
23:38 Alyssa: And that was when I was a sophomore in college. So, that gave me the confidence, then, when I was in grad school to ask for a higher rate or wage when I was applying to grad school. And they, unfortunately, weren’t able to do it or I don’t, you know, necessarily know all the behind-the-scenes that went on there. And sure, they said no, but I wasn’t at all reprimanded for asking in the first place. Like nothing, you know, bad happened to me. The best that I could have done was ask, even if they said no. So, I’m glad that I did. And it turned out well for me because at the University of Tennessee, I didn’t even know that there were top-off fellowships. But I got one because I was upfront with the University of Tennessee about how I would have, you know, taken the lower offer elsewhere and about how I was considering other schools and kind of in the same way that you’re like, I learned how to like negotiate a car price down from my dad.
24:36 Alyssa: So that was, I guess, a little bit of a privilege that I had because I had to buy a car to like move to Tennessee, because they have terrible public transit here. It’s kind of the whole tell the other you know, person that you’re negotiating with about this other thing that you’re also considering. Make that look nice and shiny. So that way they’ll try to give you a little bit of a better offer. I ended up also getting this laptop and all of the accessories that go with it out of the same deal with my current advisor. Like I asked them to buy me, you know, personal equipment that I could use to like, you know, be a person outside of grad school, too. Like I didn’t have a functioning laptop at the time. And so all of that got thrown in as well.
25:23 Emily: I think that’s such a powerful message, like, and I’m glad that you learned it as a sophomore in college and that you were able to then apply it in your process for applying to graduate school. Like just ask, like, just let people know of your need and let them figure out how they can best, you know, work behind-the-scenes to make that happen for you. So, you got this amazing like top-up fellowship. I mean, $10,000 is a very significant, you know, add-on to an already, you know okay base stipend. So, that sounds amazing. Just, I think this is a wonderful message for any prospective graduate students, or anybody at any stage, really just ask for what you need. Let people know, and especially like you said that you have options and this would help your decision. I think you said earlier, like it was a no-brainer to go with the University of Tennessee once they made that, you know, augmentation to their offer. So, so glad to hear that.
Normalizing Talking About Grad Student Stipends
26:12 Emily: Let’s talk more about stipends for other graduate students as well. So, I understand you’ve recently kind of entered into some conversations with peers about how we can, union is not the right word, but sort of collectively bargain or like share information about stipends. So, tell me more about that endeavor.
26:33 Alyssa: Yeah. So, normalizing talking about our wages is like step one in changing the culture around laborers. So that way we can all benefit collectively. But we kind of wanted to take this a little bit of a step further among nuclear engineering grad students specifically because by going to conferences and networking, not just with employers or other universities, et cetera, but we also spend that time networking with each other. And so, because it’s so common for grad students to kind of see the same people all the time in the nuclear engineering programs, because we’re so small, a lot of us just know each other from like all across the country. And I know that this isn’t something that a lot of other fields have the benefit of because it’s not realistic for like every electrical engineering graduate student to all know each other.
27:31 Alyssa: But at least to know somebody who knows somebody at pretty much any nuclear engineering graduate program is realistic for us. So, we got together at the most recent student conference. And we are currently building a spreadsheet that has everybody’s like gross pay, all of the things that you have to pay for that are related to your health insurance or your academic costs, your fees, and then what your take-home pay is, and then comparing all of that to the cost-of-living based on where your university is, your university’s ranking, and your department’s ranking. So, that way you can kind of compare and contrast. So that way, if there is a department that is ranked highly compared to its university’s ranking, which implies that that department has more power to maybe change the pay that their graduate students are receiving, but those graduate students maybe aren’t being paid well, then they can use the collective sheet to say like, this is where we’re falling right now, compared to how much these other similar programs are paying their graduate students. And we think that you should, you know, value our labor a little bit more and that we deserve to have higher wages. And so, use like that collective information for other institutions to bargain. So that way maybe they can get the same level of financial comfort that I am afforded right now.
29:07 Emily: This is an amazing effort. I totally commend you and your peers for like this idea, and starting work on this. It sounds like you’re in the data collection stage.
29:17 Alyssa: Yes.
29:17 Emily: Is that right? Like you’re building the spreadsheet, putting in all these different factors. I love that you mentioned like ranking of university, because I have some work in this area as well, and I just think about cost-of-living. I don’t think about like how, you know, the university is regarded or their program is regarded. So, I think that’s a really interesting like additional element. I’m not sure when this episode will come out in relation to these other ones, but I have some other podcast episodes slated for 2022 on this same issue of like sort of information-sharing about stipends and bargaining in some manner to increase stipends. So, this is wonderful and it aligns very well with that.
Health Insurance (Non-)Coverage
29:53 Alyssa: The thing that like, the one piece of information that like made it, like click in my brain where I was like, “We need to like, do something more about this and just talk about our pay,” was that one of the grad students that I didn’t even know well, like while I was at U of I, that I was just kind of like chatting with at a social at this conference told me that his health insurance was not covered. And like, mine is, like, I don’t, it’s not taken out of my pay. Like, yes, it’s like technically like, “Oh, like you could have just, you know, they could have just given me the money that they’re using to pay for my health insurance,” but like the University of Illinois’ grad student health insurance is like taken out of their pay. So, that’s like a part of like the gross pay that they advertise. And I was like, that’s not cool. <Laugh> what do you mean your health insurance isn’t covered? So then I asked to have a meeting with the department head there because I like knew him well from when I was a student there. And he actually was the one who gave me the idea. He was like, why don’t you get more of this information from other schools? And then, so we’ll go from there.
30:59 Emily: That’s excellent. And I totally agree, like in PhD Stipends as well, I have a way to enter like what your stipend is, but then like, what are you paying out of that stipend in terms of fees and tuition and whatever. And like for health insurance and other types of fees as well, like that can add up to thousands of dollars a year. So, that’s not some insignificant like, oh, it’s a $20 fee, whatever. This is a really big percentage of like that overall stipend that they’re receiving.
31:23 Alyssa: Yeah.
31:24 Emily: The other thing I’m really excited about for your project too, is like this fellowship that you received is probably one that’s offered sometimes to other students as well. So, it’s good to have both sets of information, right? Like what’s the base stipend and then, “Oh, sometimes this additional funding is available.” Wouldn’t it be great if we could pull everybody up to that level or, you know, that kind of thing? So, I just, if you aren’t already, I would definitely encourage you to include that kind of information as well in the spreadsheet. What different students are being paid, even within the same department.
31:52 Alyssa: Yeah, we did get a raise this year, which took effect about two months ago. So, because of the change in the economy throughout the pandemic, all graduate students in the nuclear engineering department at the University of Tennessee received a 10% stipend raise. So, full research assistants are now making 33 instead of $30,000 per year as the base-level stipend. Additionally, this was through the effort of our nuclear engineering graduate student assembly, which is kind of like also not a union, but a collection of just the nuclear engineering grad students. We managed to through a couple of years actually of pressure convince our department to begin covering our academic fees. So, which also kind of feels like a raise in terms of take-home pay. So, now we no longer have to pay as much and many students don’t have to pay any fees anymore for things like, you know, your basic like academic, you know, transportation fee, student health center fee, recreational fee. So, all of that is pretty much covered now.
33:02 Emily: For sure. And it makes it so much easier to compare apples to apples, right? When those kinds of fees are covered. But I’m sure in your spreadsheet you’ll be accounting for everything. So, I love this idea. I’m so excited for y’all to like move forward with this and hope it comes together in the near future.
Best Financial Advice for Another Early-Career PhD
33:16 Emily: Well, Alyssa, it’s been such a pleasure to talk with you and I’m so glad that you volunteered to be on here, and you’ve had so many really vital messages that have come through in this interview. And I’m really grateful for that. I wrap up all my interviews by asking my guests one final question, which is what is your best financial advice for another early-career PhD? And it could be something that we’ve already touched on in the interview, or it could be something completely new.
33:39 Alyssa: I had a similar question asked of me in my most recent D&D session with my friends. Just like we were talking after. And, specifically, their question was, how much of my success is rooted in like just being confident? And that applies to so much in that, like I had the confidence to ask to go to all these different programs, the Bootcamp, to different conferences. And when I’m at conferences, then while I’m there, I’m networking with all these different potential employers and powerful people, like some of my future reference letter writers are people that I’ve only ever interacted with at conferences and have no other like relationship with them. And so, by networking with those people that, you know, that’s how I met my current advisor, and that’s how he learned about my work.
34:42 Alyssa: And that gave me the confidence to then talk to him about my financial situation. And you know, even asking to go to conferences in the first place built my confidence in asking for funding and asking for a raise. And it really taught me that, I mean, the best thing you can do is to at least ask and see if, you know, people will just give you money. Because sometimes they will. So, I don’t necessarily like the mindset of, you know, just apply to everything because it also can take resources and time. But apply to the things that you can, or that you have the spoons to. And it’s a way to try to tackle imposter syndrome is to know that other people have it too, but you deserve to have the confidence, regardless of any imposter syndrome you might have, to put yourself out there.
35:41 Emily: Thank you so much, Alyssa, for those concluding thoughts. Again, it’s been great to have you. Thank you so much!
35:46 Alyssa: Yeah. Thank you! Thank you for having me!
35:53 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.