In this episode, Emily interviews Brenda Olmos, a nurse practitioner and rising third-year PhD student in nursing. A first-generation college student who grew up without financial stability, Brenda was debt-averse throughout college and her master’s degree and started building wealth in her 20s through investing and real estate, eventually aligning with the FIRE movement. When she decided to pursue a PhD in her late 20s, she held out for an online program with an excellent culture and funding package. Thanks to her lucrative outside work, Brenda has continued to invest consistently during her PhD, although more slowly than she did pre-PhD. Brenda’s strong financial position and career optionality have set her up well for a fulfilling post-PhD career.
Links Mentioned in this Episode
- PF for PhDs Podcast Volunteer Form
- PF for PhDs S13E2 Show Notes
- Bigger Pockets Podcast
- Stacking Benjamins Podcast
- Affording Anything Podcast
- Earn & Invest Podcast
- Minority Millennial Money Podcast
- Estimated Tax Form 1040-ES
- PF for PhDs Quarterly Estimated Tax Workshop (Individual link)
- Brenda Olmos Twitter (@almostbrenda)
- Brenda Olmos Instagram (@almostbrenda)
- Brenda’s G-mail Address
- Brenda’s LinkedIn
- PF for PhDs: Subscribe to Mailing List
- PF for PhDs Podcast Show Notes
00:00 Brenda: It’s so cool to like see yourself grow in ways that you never thought you could. And financially like, okay, maybe I’m taking like a 50 or $60,000 per year cut. But in the course of my life, like is three years really going to matter that much, you know? And how much more will my life be enriched by having this degree? Like what doors will it open for me? Whether they’re monetary or not is not really the point for me anymore. And that’s something that I was able to achieve in my twenties.
00:37 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 13, Episode 2, and today my guest is Brenda Olmos, a nurse practitioner and rising third-year PhD student in nursing. A first-generation college student who grew up without financial stability, Brenda was debt-averse throughout college and her master’s degree and started building wealth in her 20s through investing and real estate, eventually aligning with the FIRE movement. When she decided to pursue a PhD in her late 20s, she held out for an online program with an excellent culture and funding package. Thanks to her lucrative outside work, Brenda has continued to invest consistently during her PhD, although more slowly than she did pre-PhD. Brenda’s strong financial position and career optionality have set her up well for a fulfilling post-PhD career.
01:56 Emily: Would you please help me out with something? I want to record six podcast interviews this fall to be published over approximately the next six months. Will you consider being a guest? As a listener, I’m sure you have something to say about money as a PhD or PhD-to-be! Simply fill out the Google Form at PFforPhDs.com/podcastvolunteer/ to get the ball rolling. Alternatively, if you have someone in mind who you’d like to hear me interview, please connect me with that person over email or Twitter! I really appreciate it! Let’s keep the podcast going strong! You can find the show notes for this episode at PFforPhDs.com/s13e2/. Without further ado, here’s my interview with Brenda Olmos.
Will You Please Introduce Yourself Further?
02:52 Emily: I am delighted to have joining me on the podcast today someone I know from Fintwit, Brenda Olmos. She is a rising third-year PhD student at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. She’s actually doing a PhD in nursing, so a very different kind of PhD student than we’ve had on here before. Not only that, her program is online, so she lives in Austin, Texas. So, Brenda, I’m so happy to have you on the podcast and get to have a deep-dive conversation with you. Will you please tell the listeners a little bit more about yourself?
03:20 Brenda: Sure! Hello everyone. My name’s Brenda Olmos. And, like Emily said, I live in Austin, Texas, and I’ve grown up in this area of central Texas and really enjoy living here. So, when I was searching for PhD programs, I was definitely searching for distance programs. And that’s the case about me being in an online PhD program. I grew up, like I said, here in central Texas, and I went to UT Austin for my undergraduate in nursing degree. Six years later, I graduated with my Master’s in Nursing as a family nurse practitioner. So, I had about six years of experience as a registered nurse at the bedside, which means I basically worked in inpatient hospital settings, taking care of people who were acutely ill. And then I chose to leave that setting when I became a nurse practitioner and I worked in an outpatient primary care setting for older people.
04:11 Brenda: So, I’m a geriatric nurse. And I found a scholarship in 2019 for geriatric nursing research. And I was kind of at a point in my life where I was satisfied with my career, and I found it rewarding. I found my work very gratifying, but I felt that my potential wasn’t really maximized in that role, that I made a difference one-on-one with patients, but that I wanted to make a difference at a larger scale. And in nursing, there are two paths for a doctorate degree. There’s a Doctorate in Nursing Practice, which is a DNP, and a lot of nurses do that because they want to make immediate change, like in administration or policy. And then there’s the PhD, which is the Doctor of Philosophy. And that’s more of a research-based doctorate, like most other PhDs in which you focus on generating new knowledge and you learn the research process.
05:07 Brenda: And I actually had really great mentors, which caused me to lean towards the PhD. And I chose the PhD in nursing because I felt that I wanted to have the doctorate that was universally recognized as a terminal degree and as a doctorate, whereas a DNP is very specific to nursing. I wanted to have something that, you know, the three letters that mean something to everybody <laugh> in the world, right? So, that’s kind of been my trajectory. I worked as a nurse practitioner for three years, full-time from 2017 to 2020. And then in 2020, I had been accepted to the PhD program. I was still kind of on the fence about it because I was making six figures as a nurse practitioner. And even though I didn’t know at the time that I had won this scholarship, I was like, I don’t know, this is a big leap to take. And then the pandemic hit and that took away so much of the joy of my work. And so much of the compensation that I realized I’m ready to go do something different. So, I’ve been in my PhD program since August of 2020. And like you said, I’m going into my third year now.
06:13 Emily: Wow. I love when I get someone on the podcast who has really, really thought deeply about their career and the trajectory of it and chosen, after all of that, to go into a PhD program. I don’t want be, you know, too critical of people who went like directly from undergrad down that path. I went almost directly from undergrad, but I just think it takes on a different tone. You have more focus in your research usually with all that like background work experience, and especially for you having a very, you know, very solid, super lucrative like career leading into that and you just really thought about, well, what do I want in my life? How do I want to be spending my time? That’s actually a lot of what we’ll be talking about today.
06:51 Emily: And I just want to kind of frame this for the listener a little bit that you know, Brenda’s had, as we just said of really different career trajectory than probably most people who are listening, probably the vast majority of people who are listening. And so once we get to start, you know, talking about Brenda’s finances, you’re going to see a pretty rosy picture. And it is of course, largely due to having that career in her twenties. But I don’t want you to like dismiss this episode as like, you’re never going to learn anything from it because you’re not in the same kind of position that Brenda was, because I still think there’s going to be something here, some strategy, some mindset, especially, that you can learn from. So, keep with us even though it may be a little bit of a different kind of story.
07:29 Brenda: And I do want to add to that that not every nurse is in my position, right? Like I had a really great scholarship for undergrad. Probably about 75% of my undergrad degree was paid for through scholarships and grants. I paid for my master’s degree, partially through hospital tuition reimbursement, and partially by working full-time. But I had classmates who took out a hundred thousand dollars for two years of their master’s program, and they’re paying that off now, right? So, I just want to be transparent about the fact that like, don’t go up to every nurse and be like, oh my God, you have no debt and you make a ton of money. Like, no, I was very strategic about the way that I got my education and I was always debt-averse. And so, I think that’s also important to point out.
Financial Independence, Retire Early (FIRE)
08:14 Emily: Yeah. Because I next want to kind of talk about you discovering the FIRE movement, which you did prior to starting the PhD program, but you had already, as you just said, taken some, you know, FIRE-like steps leading up to that, by being debt-averse, by working a lot while you’re in school, by choosing an employer who’s going to give you tuition reimbursement and so forth. So like, you were already setting yourself up well financially, even if you hadn’t, you know, discovered that particular movement. But let’s go to that like moment when you discovered the FIRE movement and what appealed to you about it? Like, why did you decide to start going that route?
08:45 Brenda: Yeah, I think a lot of it was rooted in, like for many of us, the way that we grew up around money, right? Like the beliefs that were planted in our minds as young kids. And for me, and I’ve talked about this in BiggerPockets and in some other podcasts, is that I had so much financial instability growing up and I knew so much about my parents’ finances and I knew the lows and I knew the highs. And I had kind of, maybe not consciously, but unconsciously decided that I was going to be stable, that my adult life was not going to be a roller coaster of emotions, secondary to my financial situation. And so, I think that’s why FIRE appealed to me because it was like, oh, I don’t just have to be stable. Like, I can be free. <Laugh>, you know, it’s like, there’s one extreme where you’re tied to the ball and chain, there’s the middle ground where you’re stable and you’re working, you’re saving, maybe you’re investing. And then there’s financially independent where no matter what you do, whether you work or you don’t work, you’re okay, right? So, I found out about it through some podcasts, StackingBenjamins, Afford Anything, Earn and Invest. And I just started listening and I was like, wow, there’s a lot I can do with some money I have saved up. Or like, maybe I should buy a property, you know? And that’s kind of how it all took off.
10:13 Emily: I think we’re going to get here, like later in the interview, but this like really interesting overlap in your story between pursuing FIRE and pursuing the PhD, and like the time freedom that FIRE can give you to then apply it to your academic interest. Even if those interests don’t pay as well as other career paths, perhaps, that were available to you. So, I really hope, yeah, we pull that out later in the interview. So, give me a couple, like, you know, mechanical things that you did in those early years of FIRE. You mentioned, oh, maybe I should consider buying a property. Like, what were some things that you did that were deviations from the path that you were on before, once you learned about FIRE?
10:49 Brenda: Right. So, I started investing in a brokerage account, which I had never done before. Like the thought of investing in the stock market was really foreign to me. I knew that my parents had 401(k)s, but I didn’t know that that was investing in the stock market. And so, I started doing research on that. And I talk about this on the podcast I have with my friend, Minority Millennial Money, about how my first experience into investing was like going to Wells Fargo and having an advisor there telling me that I needed at least $25,000 to like open a portfolio <laugh> and, you know, I look back on that and I did it. But I look back on that and I’m like, oh, I was so naive, you know? And now I know so much more and eventually, I transferred it out of Wells Fargo, but so the first thing was investing, and the second thing was buying a home.
11:40 Brenda: First, it was a small condo in 2017. Prior to that, I had kept my living expenses low because I just lived with a friend who owned a home and I rented a room from her for $600 a month, right? So, for Austin, even seven years ago, that was really cheap. So, and I didn’t, I don’t mind living with people, but it was nice to have my own place when I bought a condo in 2017. And then in 2019, I bought a single-family home and I rented out the condo. And so, now I have both.
12:11 Emily: So, let’s see, in 2019 you bought the single-family home, in 2020, you started the PhD program. So, are you still living in that single-family home? Or did you move again?
12:19 Brenda: Yeah, and I house hack it. So, I mean, house hacking is really just having roommates, right? So, basically, I started having travel nurses stay with me so that I didn’t have a permanent person. I just kind of had a nurse house. And so, I really enjoyed that. And there was a little bit of a lull there when COVID hit because many of their contracts got canceled. And so, I was at a critical point where I was like, I’m quitting my job. I have this house to take care of and the income may not be there, but it ended up working out. And hosting travel nurses is really awesome.
12:59 Emily: Yeah. This strategy of house hacking is one that I have given some air time to in the past and I’m really excited about for PhD students, because for that stage of life, it’s already really normalized to live with roommates. And so, if you have the financial wherewithal to be able to purchase, be the owner and be the landlord, it can like really radically transform your finances. So, so glad to hear that you were taking advantage of that strategy even before starting the PhD.
Choosing a Supportive PhD Program
13:22 Emily: So, we kind of already talked about like, why you wanted to start the PhD, you know, why you thought it was the best move for your career. Did you want to add any more details about, I don’t know, that particular program or anything else about your, you know, deciding to go down that career?
13:35 Brenda: Yeah. And, you know, we have met over Financial Twitter and there’s also Academic Twitter. And on Academic Twitter, I see so many horror stories of like really difficult programs, really toxic environments. And I was like, A) I don’t have to do this. So, I am not going to go to a program like that. And B) What if I found a really great program, you know? And so, I just created a spreadsheet with all the schools I was looking at. And this particular program, the director called me, she wanted to talk, she was warm, she was encouraging. And she was genuinely interested in me, you know? And I was like, wow, that’s really special. Whereas other schools like just sent me computer-generated emails, you know? And I was like, okay. So, like my email just went into like a black hole. So, that was important to me, especially because I know that people don’t know this, you know, people outside of nursing don’t know this, but nursing academia has a really negative reputation for being very toxic, very discouraging, not supportive, hazing, in a sense.
14:44 Brenda: And it’s especially prominent at the graduate, you know, and doctoral level. So, I was like, I don’t need that in my life. So, I’m going to look for a program where I feel like it would be a good experience. And I found that, and I was like, okay, I could do this here. So, that was important to me. And also, it was important to me that, if I was going to take this big financial hit, that it was going to be for something worth it. And like you said, for me, the PhD is really something I’m doing for personal enrichment, right? There’s no guarantee that I’m going to make more money when I’m done. You know, I made almost $200,000 in 2019 just working a little bit extra. If I get a job that makes me that much post-PhD, I’ll be really excited. But for me, it was also really important to see people that look like me because I’m a Latina nurse practitioner. And I just could count on one hand how many people who were nurses who had PhDs, who were Hispanic, that I knew, you know? And so, in a field that’s predominantly or 95% white women, I thought it was important to increase the representation.
16:00 Emily: Yeah. I love all those overlapping motivations. And I love, it sounds like you were patient, right? Like you were willing to be really selective about the program that you went to. And I love that little note about like, oh, this person actually called me, like, I talked to this person over the phone instead of just email correspondence and just form letter stuff. And I love that like, you looked at this field, like you said, it has this bad reputation, and you said to yourself, I don’t need to do this. And I’m only going to do it if I can find the program that is going to be really supportive of me. It’s the right fit for me. And even if you know, Academic Twitter and everything else is telling you, no, no, everything’s terrible. It never, it doesn’t exist anywhere. You were like, no, I’m going to hold out and find that perfect program for me. And you did. So like, I just say that to point out that, like, that’s a limiting belief that you could have had. Like, you could have told yourself, oh, I’m never going to find a home. It doesn’t matter. People like me never, you know, get into this level of nursing or succeed or whatever, whatever. And you chose to not have that limiting belief, right? So, I want other people to hear that message as well.
17:02 Brenda: Yeah. And I’ve spoken with my classmates about this, and I think I’m just fortunate in the sense that I have a very positive disposition <laugh> and so I didn’t, it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t find one. I just thought, I just need to find one <laugh>.
Net Worth in Grad School
17:17 Emily: Okay. So, let’s hear more details about your life, like coming into the program. We’ve heard a couple of things. You already owned two properties. You had been making like over six figures. In fact, your income was nearly $200K in that year immediately prior to starting graduate school. Would you like to share anything about like your net worth or just any other aspects of your financial picture at the time that you started graduate school?
17:38 Brenda: Yeah. So, at the time I started graduate school, that was 2020. So, my net worth now is about $550,000. And at that time it was probably, I think I remember tweeting about it and I think it was like $330K at that time. And that big leap has really just been real estate prices just skyrocketing. And so, I do count like potential, you know, appreciation in my net worth. And then I probably have, right now, I have about $160K or $170K invested. And at that time I probably had like $120K. And so, I’ve been contributing, let’s see, with Roth contribution maximum, which is 6,000, plus about a thousand dollars a month. So, that’s like $18,000 a year in the last two years. So yeah, that makes sense. $120K plus another $35K to $40K. So, I’m at $160K. And I anticipate, you know, this is just kind of a lull in my investing trajectory. And once I go back to full-time work and I’m earning a full-time income again of hopefully at least a hundred thousand, if not more, because I’ll be able to add my clinical practice contract work to it, then I’ll be able to go back to investing closer to $25,000 a year.
19:00 Emily: I mean, investing $18,000 a year while you’re in a PhD program is well, definitely the highest number that I’ve heard <laugh> of anybody on the podcast. So, you’re not exactly a slouch in this area. But so, prior to the PhD, though, it sounds like you were using a taxable brokerage account and maybe some employer-provided stuff 401(k) or 403(b).
19:18 Brenda: Yes, a 401(k).
19:18 Emily: Yeah. Okay. And so, that benefit went away, I assume. Like at the moment you’re only doing your Roth IRA and then the taxable brokerage account.
19:27 Brenda: Yeah. And actually, so before the episode, we talked about my stipend. So, my stipend is, just to protect my time, I don’t owe any kind of labor for that stipend, but I am limited to working 20 hours per week. The great thing about that stipulation is that I’m not limited to how much money I can make. I’m just limited to hours I can work. So, I have been a graduate research assistant at the university since spring of 2021 with one of my professors. And we’ve actually published two papers together, which is awesome. But one of the benefits of that is that as a GRA, you become staff of the university and you get access to their 403(b) and 457. So, I have been contributing at least half of my GRA income, which pays $25 an hour. And what’s funny about this is that the original pay for that position was $15 an hour at the university.
GRA Salary Negotiation
20:27 Brenda: And I told my professor, I was like, I’m sorry, like, I am passionate about your work, but like, I just cannot do it for $15 an hour. Like I have too many things going on and I have too many other much more lucrative offers. And so she went to financial, I don’t know, the financial services building and they agreed to bump it up to $25 for everyone in the nursing program, because we’re all registered nurses, at least, you know, some of us are nurse practitioners. So, it was like almost insulting <laugh>, you know? I mean, I don’t want to be a snob about it, but it’s like, who would take $15 when I can go work the same hour for $65 or $75? So anyway, so yeah, I’ve been doing the Roth, the taxable brokerage, which really comes third on my list. Like if I’m short on money one month, that’s the last one I fund. And then I contribute 50% of that $25 per hour income, which is 10 hours a week, a thousand dollars a month. So, half of that goes to the 457. And I chose the 457 on purpose because you can access it anytime without penalty.
21:38 Emily: Love all those details. Actually, it’s interesting because most people who I speak with who are like on the level of 10-hour per week employees are not offered those benefits. So like, I would say that’s a great, like, exception that your university or health sciences center offers that. So, that’s awesome that you’re doing that. And I love that you, you know, shared that negotiation story and that it not only benefited you, but benefited everybody. Like this is a message I’m trying to get across with like, you can negotiate for yourself as an individual. Yes. But it can also help other people when you do that, because it sends a message.
22:12 Brenda: I wouldn’t have expected them to just give it to me. I mean, it would’ve been fine, but then it’s like, I think it was a fairness issue, right? Because they were like, oh, well, all these other students are also doing it. No, it was great. And I think it was definitely something that the graduate college had to take into consideration because you’re looking at, you know, graduate students, but we’re also working professionals, right? So, that is kind of a unique situation that nurses in graduate school are in.
22:43 Emily: Absolutely.
22:47 Emily: Emily here for a brief interlude! These action items are for you if you recently switched or will soon switch onto non-W-2 fellowship income as a grad student, postdoc, or postbac and are not having income tax withheld from your stipend or salary. Action item #1: Fill out the Estimated Tax Worksheet on page 8 of IRS Form 1040-ES. This worksheet will estimate how much income tax you will owe in 2022 and tell you whether you are required to make manual tax payments on a quarterly basis. The next quarterly estimated tax due date is September 15, 2022. Action item #2: Whether you are required to make estimated tax payments or pay a lump sum at tax time, open a separate, named savings account for your future tax payments. Calculate the fraction of each paycheck that will ultimately go toward tax, and set up an automated recurring transfer from your checking account to your tax savings account to prepare for that bill. This is what I call a system of self-withholding, and I suggest putting it in place starting with your very first fellowship paycheck so that you don’t get into a financial bind when the payment deadline arrives.
24:06 Emily: If you need some help with the Estimated Tax Worksheet or want to ask me a question, please consider joining my workshop, Quarterly Estimated Tax for Fellowship Recipients. It explains every line of the worksheet and answers the common questions that PhD trainees have about estimated tax. The workshop includes 1.75 hours of video content, a spreadsheet, and invitations to at least one live Q&A call each quarter this tax year. If you want to purchase this workshop as an individual, go to PF for PhDs dot com slash Q E tax. Now back to our interview.
Sources of Income in Grad School
24:50 Emily: So, let’s like back up a tiny bit and talk about sort of all of your income sources during graduate school. Because you know, you’ve mentioned a couple times you have this really fantastic scholarship, so let’s start there. Like, what does the scholarship give you?
25:02 Brenda: Right. So, the scholarship is specific to my university, and it’s a special foundation that was money given through a philanthropic organization. And they basically allotted $150,000 scholarships separated into three years, $50,000 per year. That comes out to $30,000 per year or $2,500 per month as a stipend, and $3,000 for summer tuition, $6,000 for spring and fall tuition, and $4,000 leftover are for travel to conferences and that kind of thing. And I will say that I have used some of your courses and the taxes because that $2,500 counts as 1099 income for me. So, I do have to pay taxes on that. And most of my contract work is not on a W-2. So, I do have to pay taxes on that as well.
26:01 Emily: Okay. So, it sounds like the scholarship is fully paying your tuition and fees, giving you a stipend of $2,500 a month, and you have this additional professional development fund per year. Wow. Okay. That sounds great, but we’re not done yet. The way that we talked about this earlier, and I think the best way to phrase it for the listener is that that stipend of $2,500 per month essentially protects 20 hours per week of your time for you to devote to your dissertation research, or your classes, whatever it is you have to be doing for your PhD. And so, with the next 20 hours of your work week, you can be doing other paid work in that time. So, you can earn above your stipend. It’s just, you’re limited in the number of hours you can spend working. And so for you, you’ve already mentioned like the assistantship that you have at 10 hours per week. Do you have any other work that you do in the other remaining 10 hours per week?
Clinic Contract Work
26:52 Brenda: Yeah, so my former employer kept me on as a contractor. So now, I technically work for the agency that staffs their clinics, but they have urgent care clinics every weekend from nine to four. So, I’ll pick up weekend shifts. And occasionally, because my former boss knows me and knows that I know like the day-to-day clinic work, then he’ll ask me if I can work some days during the week. And so, I’ll do that. And that’s at $75 an hour. And then I have a couple of other jobs where I fill in for other nurse practitioners, like when they’re on vacation or they’re out sick or something. And the great thing about some of those is that they’re kind of slow clinics. And so, I can just take my schoolwork and do it there <laugh>.
27:43 Emily: Yeah. Sounds like a sweet deal. So, with all these active income sources together, the stipend plus the other work that you’re permitted to do, what does that add up to in terms of like your yearly income on average?
27:56 Brenda: So, last year my taxes were a little bit complicated, so I have the 1099 income, and then I have the real estate income. And I don’t take any of that as income from the real estate. So, the condo has its own account, and it has a little emergency fund for itself. And anything that it makes, it stays in there for emergencies, and same with the house. It has its own account. I pay rent into the homes account for myself, and then my tenants pay for pay into that account as well. But I rarely take any money from those accounts. So, I don’t count that. So, out of $112,000 last year, about $30K of that was from the rentals. And so, I really made about $70K, probably. So, $30K of that was from the stipend and then I made another $40K in part-time work.
28:53 Emily: Okay. So interesting. So, you have income sort of on your tax return, you have income that you don’t actually consider, like you’re not actually taking it into your personal accounts. You’re just leaving that as emergency funds and so forth for the real estate stuff. Yeah, that makes sense. Well, earning $40K on top of the $30K, again, really great for a PhD student. So good for you. The message that I want the listener to be hearing from this part of the interview is Brenda’s time is valued in a certain way because of her existing credentials and work experience and so forth. But earning something like $75 an hour is not out of the question for a PhD student in other disciplines. Depending, of course, on your work experience and what your field is and how, you know, in-demand it is, et cetera.
Valuing and Monetizing Your Skills
29:38 Emily: So, like you made the comment earlier. It’s a good thing they’re only limiting me on time and not the amount of money that I can make, because, you know, in some of your income sources, you can command quite a high hourly rate. I would love for other graduate students and postdocs to hear that message and think about, wow, if I’m making $75 an hour, a hundred dollars an hour, I only need to work two hours a week to make a really huge difference in my budget. You know, like when you can get to those high hourly rates, you don’t have to spend a ton of your time, you know, to get your finances in the shape that you want them to be in.
30:10 Brenda: For sure. And I think that, you know, like you said, I have a very particular skill, but there are skills that I don’t have that I would gladly pay someone $65 an hour to do. Like currently I’m dealing with some big data and I’m like, oh my gosh, I’m like going on websites of like, you know, people you can pay on an hourly basis to like walk you through something. And I’m sure that there are people in PhD programs who know this like the back of their hand, and they’re just not making themselves available for someone like me. Because I can earn that money, you know, relatively easily, and I’m happy to pay someone for their expertise as well. So, that’s very true. And I think that maybe sometimes, you know, I am very aware of my skill because I have a license and a certification for it, but you may have skills that other people need that don’t necessarily have, you know, very formal credentials, but that people would be happy to pay for.
31:12 Emily: And I think it’s so easy to get caught in this trap of undervaluing yourself inside academia. Like what you were talking about earlier with like the $15 versus $25 per hour negotiation that you did. It’s so common inside academia to undervalue ourselves. We see everybody else doing it, then we do it as well. But if you can take a little bit of a pivot and maybe, you know, market your skills to somebody outside of academia where these are not, you know, a dime a dozen kind of skills that everybody has, then you can, you know, potentially get those higher hourly rates. So, definitely food for thought, I hope, for some people.
Negotiating In-State Tuition
31:42 Emily: So, I think that you are probably the first interview we’ve had on the podcast who is doing like a hundred percent remote program. Not just like remote for COVID or whatever has been going on temporarily. So, you live not in the same state as where your university is. So, how does that work out with your scholarship and with the tuition and everything?
32:02 Brenda: Yeah, so that’s true. I specifically was looking for long-distance programs because I like where I live. I live close to my family, and I knew that a PhD was an experience that I would need support for <laugh>. And so, I didn’t want to leave my support system behind to do that. And so, whenever I got accepted to the University of Oklahoma and I was still living in Texas, and I had no plan to leave Texas, there was the issue of out-of-state tuition costs. And so, I got accepted in about March 2020. I found out I got the scholarship in April of 2020, and I had kind of set that as the bar, like if I get accepted and I get the scholarship, I’ll go, right? But then I thought, well, out-of-state tuition is almost double, right? It’s the difference between $10,000 and $6,000 a semester.
32:58 Brenda: And I just told the director, like I really want to go to this program, and I’m really grateful for the scholarship, but I realized financially that the out-of-state tuition is going to eat up about 50% of my stipend per semester. So, is there any way I could get in-state tuition? And she actually took it up to the graduate college and they agreed to give me a waiver for three years. So, I pay in-state tuition, and actually the great part about being a graduate research assistant is that, when you take on that position, it’s actually the grant that is funding you, that pays the waiver. And so, the waiver that I had originally been promised can be given to someone else while I’m a GRA.
33:44 Emily: Wow. Okay. Another great example of negotiation, and also another kind of general negotiation point that I like to make to prospective graduate students is like, you don’t necessarily know all the different levers that these people behind the scenes can pull to like enhance your package. So, you made the suggestion, maybe I could pay the in-state tuition rate instead of the higher rate, and they made that happen. And if that hadn’t exactly been possible, maybe they could have found a different way to augment your package to make up that, you know, $4,000 per year difference. So, yeah, so encouraging for prospective graduate students.
34:15 Brenda: I do want to mention that one of the points I brought up was that, and maybe this is just using a rivalry to my advantage, but you know, UT Austin and the University of Oklahoma are rivals in football. And UT Austin has a policy that, if you’re an out-of-state student and you come in to Texas with a scholarship from Texas, like if you won a scholarship in Texas, then the University waives your out-of-state tuition. And so, I presented that to the director and I said, you know, UT Austin does this, do you guys do anything like this? And I think that was what helped, you know, is that I had kind of done my research and I was like, you know, this is something another university is doing. Can you guys do it? And they said yes.
34:58 Emily: That’s a great example as well of like sharing of best practices. Hey, these other people have found this solution over here. Sometimes it helps to open their mind. Oh, well, maybe we could find this similar solution. Absolutely.
35:09 Emily: So, you mentioned, you know, you’ve taken a pretty substantial income cut to pursue the PhD. Are there any other ways that taking this step in your career has impacted your path towards financial independence?
35:23 Brenda: Yeah, like I said, it’s probably a little bit of a setback numbers-wise and on the spreadsheet, but I feel that it’s so valuable to me personally and professionally and in my development as a person, as a researcher, as a scientist, as a nurse. You know, I’m just being challenged to think in ways that I never did before. And my practice in primary care became kind of monotonous and, you know, unfortunately, there wasn’t very much motivating me forward. And I feel totally different now. You know, even though sometimes I’m overwhelmed to learn new things, it’s so cool to like see yourself grow in ways that you never thought you could. And financially like, okay, maybe I’m taking like a $50 or $60,000 per year cut. But in the course of my life, like is three years really going to <laugh> matter that much, you know? And how much more will my life be enriched by having this degree? Like what doors will it open for me, whether they’re monetary or not is not really the point for me anymore. And that’s something that I was able to achieve in my twenties, right? Like that I set myself up to where, whether I make $50,000 or $150,000, what matters most to me now is that I’m happy, that I’m fulfilled, that I’m challenged, that I enjoy the people I work with, that I genuinely feel that I’m making a difference.
36:54 Emily: And it’s just so like gratifying to hear that, you know, the work you did on your finances in your twenties, both before and after discovering the FIRE movement, set you up to have this excellent financial experience during the PhD. Now, part of that is your field, and this is normal and so forth, this fantastic scholarship, you got all of that. But part of that is just, you know, when I was listening to some of your other podcast interviews, I was thinking that you just sound so like, calm about your finances. Like you just sound so like relaxed about them, which is a very different energy than what I give off sometimes, and like other people who I listen to, or interview on the podcast. But that is on the back of all the work that you did in your twenties to lead up to this point.
37:37 Emily: And so, you get to be relaxed because you have this net worth, you have your properties, you have your house hack, and you have this fantastic income. And this is just something that I so wish that more PhD students could experience. Even a fraction of the experience that you’re having, right? Like maybe it’s having the reasonable income for a person in their twenties or thirties. Or maybe it’s, you know, having worked for a few years, building up a bit of a nest egg before taking that income cut the way you have. I just, I love hearing just your whole like, sort of disposition towards this.
38:09 Brenda: Yeah. And I think a lot of it is reorienting your mind to not have a scarcity mindset, right? To kind of have an abundance mindset, like I’m going to thrive and I’m going to find a great job after this. And like I said, I’m just gifted with a naturally positive disposition, but like, I don’t have any worries about what will happen after, because everything’s worked out so far. <Laugh> maybe that’s just because I’ve been so strategic, right? Maybe in some ways I could have relaxed a little bit, but I am very forward-looking, right? I’m always kind of thinking about the next thing. And I have to remind myself to live in the moment, too, but yeah. I think that most PhD students, like you said, undervalue themselves. And I think about my classmates alone. You know, I’m like, they’re so talented, they’re so smart. Some of them are doing this with kids, with a family, taking care of their parents, with a job. And I’m just like, those are skills, right? Like those are highly marketable skills. Like just getting through the program with life the way it is is a crazy good skill. So, I really appreciate that you encourage people to, you know, maybe do some inward thinking about how can I monetize these things that just come naturally to me now in this stage of my life?
What is Coast FI?
39:40 Emily: You said a couple of minutes ago that, well, it doesn’t really matter if I make $50,000 or $150,000 a year. It’s going to be okay. It’s going to work out. That reminded me of the term Coast FI, a particular version of FIRE. Do you think about Coast FI? Would you describe yourself as Coast FI? Let’s define that for the listener.
39:59 Brenda: Yeah. I think traditionally, Coast FI means that your retirement is set, even if you don’t invest another dollar. I wouldn’t say that I don’t need to keep investing. I think I do. But I don’t really see myself retiring early in the traditional like FIRE sense because I have, A) A very useful skill that’s highly needed in this country. B) I speak Spanish, which is really useful in my part of the country. C) I’m just such a busybody. Like I could never stop working, you know, <laugh> like, I just, when people talk about staying home, like with children, I’m like, I could never do that. I could have children, but I’m not staying home with them 100% of the time. So, yeah, Coast FI for me just means that I have the financial flexibility to choose something that means something to me, as opposed to just a means to an end, to like pay my bills. And a part of that has also been keeping my expenses low. But the other part is, like you said, everything I did to set myself up in my twenties. And, you know, a few years ago, I probably would’ve told you that I would quit working at 45. And now that I’ve been in the PhD program, I’m like, no, there’s so much to do. There’s no way I could cut off 15 or 20 years off my career, you know?
41:26 Emily: That’s so interesting that you described earlier kind of finding, getting into like a lull in your career. Like you weren’t so stimulated. And I think that some people, like you did, would see FIRE, the potential to retire early, as the solution to that. And you did, but you also found another solution, which is, you know, taking your career in a slightly different direction, going down the academic path. And you found that reinvigoration there. And now you have kind of choices on both fronts. You have many career options, you have many financial options, to work, to not work, to work in a capacity that other people would not be able to, perhaps, because they hadn’t maybe had all these, you know, made all these decisions in their twenties and so forth. So, kind of the world is your oyster really <laugh> once you finish this program.
42:09 Brenda: Yeah. And things have come up during the PhD program. I don’t know if it’s because of the PhD program, but for example, I was a volunteer vaccinator for a local community center that was giving out COVID-19 vaccines every three weeks. And I was just consistently going, because I just wanted to help my community. And then they reached out to me about being the clinical consultant for their community center, because it was part of their grant. It would help their grant application if they had someone, you know, whose name they could put down, and they offered to pay me for that as well. That was an income source I forgot to tell you about. So, they pay me $500 a month, and I basically like attend some meetings and answer questions about COVID, about the vaccine, about what to do if this or that. And that was something I never would’ve thought I would do. You know? And it’s just like kind of a result of just saying yes, like I was like, well, I don’t see clinical consultant on my resume yet. <Laugh> but I guess I’ll do it. You just tell me what to do and I’ll show up, you know?
43:17 Emily: That comes from having that financial margin in your life and the time margin, right? To be able to say yes to, at first unpaid, but then later look what it turned into, you know, opportunities, which is something I could certainly <laugh> learn from.
43:29 Emily: Okay. So let’s talk a slight bit more about post-PhD plans. You mentioned earlier, you know, you have a few different career paths that you might choose among. What are you thinking?
43:40 Brenda: So, the idea of working in industry, or like the pharmaceutical area appeals to me because every pharmaceutical company has a medical affairs division in which they have doctoral-level prepared clinicians or pharmacists, which kind of serve as the bridge between the scientists creating the drug or the device and the prescribers out in the world. And so, that’s actually a really lucrative option. Like I know a couple people who do it and they make about $170,000 plus bonuses. So, they’re making like $200,000 a year. So, if I wanted money, that’s what I would do. <Laugh> which I’m not above saying that I want money. Okay. <laugh> so if that job came up, I would definitely consider it. Then there’s obviously the traditional route of pursuing some kind of tenure-track research career in academia. I’m kind of iffy on that. I don’t know that it’s the best use of my strengths. I’m definitely a people person. I’m an extrovert. I can do writing and I can write grants, and I could potentially, you know, try to prove myself to the NIH for the rest of my life <Laugh> to try to get research money, but I’m not sure that I want that.
45:03 Brenda: And then, I could do a blend of clinical practice and teaching where I just teach as an adjunct and I maintain my clinical practice. That’s kind of what I was doing before the PhD. So, I’m not sure that I would really be maximizing what I learned in the PhD if I went back to that. And then there’s a postdoc if I do want pursue research and I just want to get into someone else’s work and see what they’re doing, and maybe that’ll make me more excited about a tenure-track career. And then I was also looking at the National Clinician Scholars Program, which is kind of like a subset of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. And that’s a program at six campuses all over the country in which you basically get more education on health policy and organizational change. And most of the graduates go on to work at like the Department of Health or Health and Human Services or the CDC or some kind of federal agency where policy is happening. So, that’s probably one of my top ones. Pharma’s one of my top ones, and teaching in a, non-research, like very little research, that’s probably my third one.
46:11 Emily: Yeah. Well, hopefully, you have all of those things on the table once you get towards your graduation. And like you said, money could play a role in your decision, or maybe you’ll be following, you know, what seems most interesting to you. And again, the position that you’re in affords you those options. So, it’s wonderful to hear. And I think you said earlier, you know, you’re probably not going to be idle, right? Even once you achieve financial independence, however you want to define that. It sounds like you expect to have a long career, which is, once you’ve invested in something like a PhD program, it’s very, I think, worthwhile to keep your skills out there and keep, you know, working for your communities you’ve said so far. Yeah. Anything else you want to add about what you envision your life to change or not change? Like after you achieve financial independence?
46:57 Brenda: I think as a woman and as someone in their early thirties, you know, one of the big factors in deciding what I do is like, if I want to start a family, and what career option would be most conducive to that. And like you said, I have options, but like women have to think about that more. And especially in academia or in science, like you don’t want to be put on the mommy track, right? So, that’s also something I consider like if I were to have children, would it be right away after the PhD? Would I settle into another job? Like give it a year or two? I’m going to be 33 in September. Like what about my, you know, what about my fertility? Like, there are so many things to think about. And I think that’s very real for a lot of women in academia, right? It’s like juggling your human babies and the baby of your career, which is your research or whatever you’re working on post-PhD.
48:00 Emily: Absolutely. And another thing that having a strong financial position just puts you in a strong position to decide about. If you want to take an extra long maternity leave that’s unpaid, but you have a job to go back to, well, maybe that’s going to be, you know, the best situation for you, or maybe not. Maybe it’ll be a different decision, but whatever you do, I mean, having money gives you options. I say that over and over again, it just gives you options. And that’s really what you have now, which is so delightful to hear.
Where Can People Find You?
48:24 Emily: So, if people want to hear more from you, where can they find you?
48:29 Brenda: I’m on Twitter @almostbrenda, like the word almost, and then my name, almost Brenda. And that’s also my Instagram handle and my email address at Gmail, email@example.com. I’m on LinkedIn. That’s linkedin.com/in/bolmosfnp for family nurse practitioner. And I’d love to connect with people. Even if, you know, even if you just want to talk about how to improve your finances, I know Emily, you’re a great resource for that. And I’ve been in the Community forums there too. But if you’re interested in coming on our podcast, I cohost Minority Millennial Money which is on Apple and Spotify and all of the platforms. We love to have people come on and we talk through their finances with them and see what they could do better. So yeah, I’m easily reachable. I’m all over the internet. <Laugh>
Best Financial Advice for Another Early-Career PhD
49:26 Emily: Wonderful. I hope you’ll have a few people follow up with you from this. Okay. I’m going to conclude with the question that I always ask my guests at the end of interviews, which is what is your best financial advice for another early-career PhD? And it could be something that we touched on in the interview, or it could be something completely new.
49:44 Brenda: I would say it would be to disassociate your self-worth from your net worth, right? Because although I’m in a particularly advantageous position, I know how difficult it must be for people who are not in this position and are looking forward to those days when they get to earn a higher living. And you know, you’re already undervaluing your skills. You’re already in places that may be toxic and not supportive. Like, the very least you could do is like not value yourself based on what’s in your bank account. <Laugh>. And also, if you have the ability to keep investing, like to not lose time, because time is money in the market, right? So, anything you can throw at it is super helpful.
50:32 Emily: Great messages to end on. Brenda, thank you so much for this delightful interview!
50:36 Brenda: Yeah. Thank you!
50:42 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? My team has 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.
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