In this episode, Emily interviews Dr. Sharena Rice, who recently completed her PhD in neuroscience at the University of Michigan. At the start of grad school, Sharena defined what she considers “the good life” and made sure that she lived according to her values. She committed herself to simple living so that she could invest over half of her stipend and pursue adventures. One element of Sharena’s good life is fulfilling work, so she became involved with five start-ups during grad school to gain experience with entrepreneurship. Don’t miss this unique and insightful interview!
Links Mentioned in the Episode
- Millenial Revolution
- PF for PhDs: Community
- Clubhouse App
- Barbell Strategy (coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb)
- Sharena Rice, PhD (LinkedIn)
- Sharena Rice, PhD (Twitter)
- PF for PhDs: Podcast Hub
- PF for PhDs: Subscribe to Mailing List
00:00 Sharena: If compound interest works in this way, and I can reasonably expect this amount if things perform averagely, then this is how my future will turn out if I save an extra $5 a day, for instance. And seeing how little tweaks could make a big difference.
00:23 Emily: Welcome to the Personal Finance for PhDs Podcast: A Higher Education in Personal Finance. I’m your host, Dr. Emily Roberts. This is Season 10, Episode 12, and today my guest is Dr. Sharena Rice, who recently completed her PhD in neuroscience at the University of Michigan. At the start of grad school, Sharena defined what she considers “the good life” and made sure that she lived according to her values. She committed herself to simple living so that she could invest over half of her stipend and pursue adventures. One element of Sharena’s good life is fulfilling work, so she became involved with five start-ups during grad school to gain experience with entrepreneurship. Don’t miss this unique and insightful interview! Without further ado, here’s my interview with Dr. Sharena Rice.
Will You Please Introduce Yourself Further?
01:19 Emily: I am delighted to have joining me on the podcast today, Dr. Sharena Rice. She recently defended her PhD in neuroscience at the University of Michigan. And she’s going to tell us a really exciting, big financial story about what she’s done with her finances during graduate school, and also what’s coming up next. She’s been involved with entrepreneurship, which is super exciting. So Sharena, thank you so much for volunteering to be on the podcast. And will you please tell the audience a little bit more about yourself?
01:43 Sharena: Thank you so much, Emily. I have recently defended my PhD in neuroscience from the University of Michigan. I like to refer to myself as a tech entrepreneuroscientist because I’m both a technology entrepreneur and a neuroscientist. I have roles in five different startups ranging from co-founder and a C-suite executive to advisor. And it’s been a rewarding journey.
02:10 Emily: Yeah. I’m excited to hear more about that a little bit later on. So give us an idea, like briefly, like where did you go to undergrad? Of course I mentioned University of Michigan for grad school. Like, what’s been your educational background?
02:23 Sharena: For undergrad, I studied biochemistry and molecular biology and minored in philosophy and psychology, and felt myself being pulled in these three seemingly completely different directions. But I realized that I could combine them all by being a neuroscientist. So I did a Post-baccalaureate Research Education Program, the PREP program at the University of Michigan and decided to stay for graduate school.
Money Mindset at the Start of Post-Bacc
02:51 Emily: That’s perfect. I did a post-bacc as well at the NIH before starting at Duke. And it was really, you know, during that post-bacc, I had just graduated from college, like you did, that I started learning about personal finance. Because it was for me the first time I’d had like a semi full-time income to deal with. Tell me a little bit about your money mindset, where you stood with respect to your finances, at the start of that post-bacc.
03:17 Sharena: Before my post-bacc, when I was an undergraduate, I was doing various tutoring gigs because I realized that I could make a lot more money by tutoring on my own, rather than through some kind of agency. So I started budgeting things and analyzing things and thinking through hours and how things would work out. I was wondering, okay, how do I want to make things of my life? How can I create more options for the future? Even as a person who is thinking of going into graduate school. So I read a bunch about personal finance. I got to learn about how wealth is created. Went to a lot of entrepreneurship events, went to many things about community leaders and engagement. So, one thing that I’ve realized there is that a lot of times, the smartest people, they’re not making the most money. And yet at the same time, some people who have been making a lot of money, they’re not the smartest people.
04:26 Sharena: So then, it seems like this different dimension to a lifestyle, and to the way that a person operates and carries themselves. So I had this experience as an undergrad, making these financial models in Excel spreadsheets, just for fun at first. I wanted to be able to predict the future by mathing stuff up. So I got to do that some more as a post-bacc, seeing, okay, if compound interest works in this way, and I can reasonably expect this amount, if things perform averagely, then this is how my future will turn out if I save an extra $5 a day, for instance. And seeing how little tweaks could make a big difference.
05:12 Emily: So, I love that you, you know, frame this around, like you wanting to understand how wealth was created, and I totally understand why you went down this entrepreneurial route after investigating that question. So I really want to hear how these journeys of like the PhD and entrepreneurship come together later on. I also noticed in your phrasing just there, are you a Millennial Revolution fan?
05:33 Sharena: Yes.
05:34 Emily: Okay. Yes. So for those not familiar, they have this catch phrase that’s like math stuff, I’m substituting a word, math stuff up. So, they have a very sort of unconventional approach, right? They don’t accept conventional wisdom. They reanalyze everything. Have you adopted that as well?
05:53 Sharena: Yeah. There are many things in the financial independence retire early community that I think of not as a person who necessarily wants to retire early, because if I did retire, then I would just be making more technology anyway, because this is fun for me. But as a person who wants to be doing what I’m doing because I want to do it. So that, okay, whatever job I’m in, I will be bringing my all to it because it is my choice. And wouldn’t it be great if everyone just kind of lived that way, where they’re going to work because they want to be there and they could be doing a zillion other things at that time, but it’s their choice to be working with these particular people in this particular company?
Money Mindset Growth in Grad School
06:45 Emily: I love how you phrase that. And that is such an ideal to be working toward, and certainly one that’s espoused by the financial independence community. So tell me, also, you know, we talked about your financial mindset at the start of your post-bacc. So how did that change over the course of graduate school, or hasn’t?
07:03 Sharena: It has sort of changed, to some extent. Alright. As a graduate student, I have lived in a Buddhist temple for 22 months. And during that time, I got the sense of alright, what does it really take to be happy? Because a lot of times people, they think, “Oh, if I have X amount of money up to a certain point, then I will be happier.” But if you think about it, some monastics are the happiest people in the world, despite having taken a vow of poverty. Alright. If that’s the case, then what if I just leveraged that idea where I could find joys in all kinds of things that don’t actually take money and then save a lot and it compounds over time, so that I’m just doing exactly what I want to do?
08:00 Emily: Yes. Amazing, amazing insight to receive, especially I would say, you know, early on in life to have that, because that’s something that a lot of people never come to, or it takes decades and decades of chasing after the wrong stuff to find happiness before they finally get around to the insight that you have. So that’s incredible. So you told me, when you volunteered for this interview that you saved at least 50% of your grad student stipend, on average. What? How?
Saving ~50% of Student Stipend
08:32 Sharena: I think it’s 53% at this point, and the way that I did that was, alright at the beginning, I was reading these personal finance books and doing these financial model things and thinking, okay, there are very small things that make a very large difference. So for example, I could have lived closer to my laboratory then I actually lived, and it would have cost more, but I could live slightly further. Let’s say that I need to walk an extra three minutes a day or something like that. Well, in that case, I could get a little bit of extra exercise just built into my lifestyle, but also I’m saving money by living a little bit further away. So things like that. Well, there’s the question of what do you value, and is the way that you’re spending your money reflecting those values? I have chosen to invest quite a bit in the future because that’s what I wanted to do.
09:40 Emily: I totally concur with what you’re saying. And I think that once you identify what you value, in your case, investing for the future, it makes you excited to be able to put money towards that. And it doesn’t seem like such a big sacrifice to be cutting back on your spending or choosing not to spend in some other areas of a budget. But I love the philosophical point of view, but I want to get like a little bit more practical. So for example, can we start with, do you mind sharing what your stipend was throughout graduate school?
10:08 Sharena: In my first year, the stipend was $29.6K and that eventually rose to $33K at the end.
10:19 Emily: So I think of that as like a very decent stipend. Nothing out of this world, but certainly in Ann Arbor, sort of a moderate cost of living city. It’s a decent amount of money to make, but still being able to invest and save half of that is kind of a big accomplishment. So you mentioned, you know, you were paying for housing, right, but you just chose strategically. So you were paying a little bit less for housing maybe than some of your other options. Let’s go through just like the big expenses for average Americans. So we touched on housing. What about transportation?
Biking and Cutting Food Costs
10:51 Sharena: I decided that when I was moving out to Michigan, that I wanted to have a simple life or at least simple in terms of material possessions. So my first year when I was here, as a post-bacc, I didn’t have a bed frame, for instance. I just had a mattress on the floor because I didn’t know exactly where I would be for grad school. And when it came to transportation, I just rode a bicycle around. I’ve lost a lot of weight as a grad student and also was able to get from place to place. People ask, “Oh, Michigan has snow. How do you deal with that?” The answer is, “I bike anyway, the roads are cleared. Salt happens. I just bike.”
11:36 Emily: I’m glad you headed off that question. Okay. So no car, cycling lifestyle. What about food? Do you have any particular kind of diet that you follow that happens to be low cost? Or what are your strategies around there?
11:49 Sharena: If you think about it, a lot of places in world where there aren’t that many health issues like cancer and diabetes, they have this really simple diet of, they just pretty much eat rice and vegetables and they don’t have that much meat to them or anything like that because that’s what is available to them. So then I’ve pretty much been eating like a peasant and being just happy with that. Learned to make a really good stir fry, learned to make really good lemon garlic pasta.
12:25 Emily: Yeah. So I think we can clearly see from those three big categories that you just sort of slotted yourself on the low-cost end of the spectrum that you could spend in each of those areas. So you mentioned this 50% savings rate, investing rate. What were you investing in? Was it like the stuff I talk about all the time, like index funds and Roth IRAs, or are you doing that plus other stuff? Let us know what your investment strategy is.
12:48 Sharena: At first, I just invested in some stocks from companies that I liked and thought had good leadership to them. So for example, Costco notoriously treats their employees well, and I liked that. So I invested in them. And the Home Depot, well, it seems to be quite a good company, too. So I invested in some individual stocks at first, and then learned that there was this thing called index investing and then switched mostly to that. I also own some real estate investment trusts and some worthy bonds and a tiniest amount of crypto. I just bought $20 worth of Bitcoin for fun, and then laughed as it went up and down and up and down.
13:38 Emily: Yeah. So I like that. So like bulk of your investments are tried and true index funds, hands-off approach, but you have these few other holdings that you’ve, you know, intentionally selected that are sometimes interesting to track. Okay, well, that’s awesome for your investment strategy.
13:57 Emily: Emily here for a brief interlude. If you are a fan of this podcast, I invite you to check out the Personal Finance for PhDs Community at PFforPhDs.community. The Community is for PhDs and people pursuing PhDs who want to take charge of their personal finances by opening and funding an IRA, starting to budget, aggressively paying off debt, financially navigating a life or career transition, maximizing the income from a side hustle, preparing an accurate tax return, and much more. Inside the Community, you’ll have access to a library of financial education products, including my recent set of Wealthy PhD workshops. There is also a discussion forum, monthly live calls with me, and progress journaling for financial goals. Our next live discussion and Q&A call is on Wednesday, November 17th, 2021. Basically, the community exists to help you reach your financial goals, whatever they are. Go to PFforPhDs.community to find out more. I can’t wait to help propel you to financial success. Now, back to the interview.
Living the “Good Life”
15:09 Emily: You also told me when you volunteered that you have been focused on living the good life on, as we were just saying, less than 50% of your stipend. What does it mean to you to live the good life and how have you been doing that during grad school?
15:24 Sharena: I think that the good life, it is a life that I am doing fulfilling things in that I’m growing in and that I feel connected with other people in. So part of this is, alright. What does it mean to live life to the fullest? I think that it’s investments, not only in terms of money, but also investments in other things that compound interest such as health, and friends and family, and making connections. But also there’s the shenanigans. And that’s a lot of fun, too. I went to Puerto Rico with nothing but a backpack this one time, because people were telling me you need a vacation. I was working in lab on Thanksgiving this one time and thought, well, I have to see the world. I’ve never been out of the country before. So I’m going to book a trip to Rome. So that’s exactly what I did. And then eventually I went to Rome.
16:29 Sharena: But also, when it comes to the good life, there is work as a big part of it. I think a lot of us, a lot of our identity is in what we do for work. I was very lucky to be in a laboratory that was just starting up. So I could be at the forefront of bringing new processes to life. And I just loved that, even though it may have been frustrating to some people who just want to move on with their lives. And they want to get into a place where everything is already set up for them. But working with machines, that was a big part of it, too. I just love machines and the ways that they work and how animals and machines could create systems.
17:22 Emily: I think that those elements that you identified of a good life are ones that are probably to some degree shared by just about everybody. But I definitely encourage the listener, and I need to do this as well, just to periodically, like, think about what brings you joy, what brings you satisfaction, and then do that next step of connecting, “Well, how do these things that I want to pursue in my life, that I want to have in my life, how does having money or spending money help me fulfill those? Or are there ways to fulfill these without spending a lot of money?” Some of the things you mentioned are, you know, such intangibles like connections with friends and family, like sometimes money can help that, but it definitely isn’t required to do so. So I think all of these things are, you know, achievable at whatever level of income that you’re at. You just have to find a way to fit it in with your lifestyle at that time, which you clearly have done.
18:13 Emily: So let’s talk next about your entrepreneurship experience. You know, there’s been a theme of that already through this interview of finding fulfilling work and, “Hey, even if you had infinite choices because of your finances, you know, because you’re financially independent, you would still choose to work in some capacity.” Tell us, you know, how you got involved with these like five companies that you mentioned earlier and just what’s your entrepreneurship journey been during grad school?
18:35 Sharena: I received a message out of the blue on LinkedIn this one time from the founder of a computer vision company for pedestrian behavior prediction. He wanted to meet up with me. He was in Ann Arbor. I was in an Ann Arbor. So we met up and we talked. And he showed me what he currently had in terms of the pedestrian behavior software. On the spot, I came up with several ways that it could be improved. And to me it just made a lot of sense. So then he offered me the opportunity to be his co-founder. And from then on, we continued co-founding this company and building it up more and more and more. We have been a fantastic team, where he goes out and he gives a lot of pitches and manages a lot of the day-to-day stuff while I have been a grad student who has had to mostly work on lab things. But this worked out because a lot of the things that I did were about ideation and about intellectual property and things that were not bound to a certain time of the day.
20:00 Emily: So that’s one of the companies that you co-founded, then. Can you just tell us briefly, maybe a couple other examples of how you got involved with some of these other companies, especially for someone who’s thinking, wow, I’d love to get involved with entrepreneurship as a grad student, how that happened?
20:14 Sharena: The second company that I co-founded, that was a vertical spinoff for devops and for freelancers. So, the second company came out of the first company. As for the rest of them, the first company that I started advising, that actually came about because I saw that they had a product, I signed up to be a tester for it, and I wrote in the comments box, “Would be interested in helping the founders.” We had a wonderful conversation, and I became their advisor. Then, I started talking with people on the Clubhouse App, eventually, about technology. Got into lots and lots of conversations, which eventually evolved into Zoom conversations, which eventually, at the end of those conversations, often led to offers of, “Wait, I’m starting a company soon. Would you be interested in working with us on some sort of development.” Usually a development, of something between a machine and a human in the loop, which is exactly what I love. So then I said yes to them.
Funding Structure in Grad School
21:28 Emily: So I would just very broadly sum that up as like networking, and just like being open to conversations, offering help. I mean, it sounds like you offered help initially in at least two of these scenarios without yet any expectation of a return, but just putting value out there and some good things came back from it. So I understand that you were not able to be paid by any of these companies because of something about your funding structure. Would you tell us a little bit more about that?
21:59 Sharena: Yeah. My graduate program does not allow anyone to receive money or equity in exchange for work for a company outside of the university while they’re still a student. So there’s the question of, okay, given that this is the case, then how do I set things up so that things will work out. And the answer is, work with legal documentation, and just create a vesting structure so that right after you graduate, then that’s when a cliff happens and then you will receive your funding, your equity, your compensation, at that point.
22:40 Emily: I mean this as a complete compliment, but that seems like such a loophole, right? Because like you’re clearly putting in the time, the work, adding your expertise during the time of your graduate program. In your case, you still finished, it’s all good, right? Like it didn’t detract from that PhD journey. But you just arranged for the payment to happen later. And I give this to you as a compliment because I think it’s a great creative solution to this problem in case anybody else is running into it, but also want to voice that I completely disagree with your program. My basic philosophy around this is like, if you’re doing well in your program and you’re advancing and you’re doing the work that needs to be done, and your advisor’s happy with you, the university should keep its nose out of the rest of your business. In terms of whether you’re earning money or not, or equity or not, or whatever you want to do with the rest of your time should be yours. That’s my position. Do you know if this has any motivation in terms of like the university can then claim ownership over like the company? Is that the reason why they have that kind of verbiage?
Consider Grad Programs that Encourage Direct Experiences
23:39 Sharena: I think that they have it because of the way that academia used to work and how academics or people who are in PhD programs used to be thought of. It used to be thought of that a person has to just work, work, work on their thesis, and that that is enough. But if you actually want to make it as an entrepreneur, how do you do that without having actual experience? My experience makes me very rare. There aren’t very many PhDs who are just graduating from their program with this much experience, as an entrepreneur. A person can take classes. I was encouraged to take classes when I said that I wanted to be an entrepreneur. But no, they didn’t want me to actually do anything in a company. But I wanted to be an entrepreneur, partly because I wanted to do change the world in a positive way to promote road safety, for instance, with my pedestrian behavior prediction company.
24:47 Emily: Yeah. I am so glad that you shared this experience with us because I think it’s really instructive. Like if anybody else like you, and I’m not criticizing you by saying this, but if anybody else like you knows that they’re quite interested in pursuing entrepreneurship during the graduate program, once you’re going around and interviewing and talking to various advisors or whatever, like that’s something to bring up. Does your program have a prohibition on me starting a company or me having equity in a company that I advise during the course of this program. And, you know, maybe use that to help you make a decision about where you should end up in terms of a graduate program. I am a little bit surprised to hear about that from Michigan.
What’s Next for You?
25:23 Emily: Let’s talk about what’s next, then. You just said that you’re a unique kind of PhD with this sort of experience. What is the next step in your career, having just defended?
25:33 Sharena: Given that I have positions in five different companies, I think that I need to create a portfolio that I will call Yellow Pill Ventures. There’s this narrative sometimes that you can either make a profit or you can make a positive difference in the world. But I think that the two can really come together, and that can be by premise of my portfolio. Aside from Yellow Pill Ventures, I will also be pursuing a career in big tech. And the reason why big tech is because they already have the infrastructures place to bring ideas to life quickly. It’s not like we have to wait to hire software developers, for instance, but that they are already within the company. They’re ready to receive work. So between the two, I think of it as Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Barbell Strategy of you put 80 to 90% of your time into something that’s completely stable, and you put 10 to 20% of your time into moonshot things, but that there’s not very much in the middle in terms of risk. That way, if the moonshots just do not pan out, then you are perfectly fine. If your perfectly fine thing, well, it’s not enough for you because you still have ideas that just are not relevant to your so-called real job. Then, well, they’re still manifested in the world with this possibility of actually taking off.
27:11 Emily: I love that idea. I love that you shared that analogy, and I think it pairs so well with FIRE, right? You have your job, like you had your stipend, you know, during graduate school. You’re doing all the great things to put yourself on the track for financial independence. And at the same time, you’re taking, well maybe not taking risks, but you have those possibilities of moonshots, like you were just saying. So I love that approach. Where can people find you in case they’re thinking, “Oh gosh, Sharena would be perfect for my company”?
27:56 Emily: Absolutely. Perfect. I will note that we’re recording this in August, 2021. So possibly by the time it’s come out, someone might go to your LinkedIn profile and find that you’re already on to your next big job, your next big position. But in case you are still looking, they should check you out.
Best Financial Advice for Another Early-Career PhD
28:10 Emily: Okay. Well, let’s conclude with the question that I ask of all of my guests. What is your best financial advice for another early-career PhD?
28:19 Sharena: The answer to that is just start. A person does not need to know everything. They don’t really need to know, “Okay. What are absolutely all of the investment options? What is the exact risk of everything.” But rather, “Okay, what is something that’s reasonable, that I feel comfortable with?” That’s a good place to start. There’s a narrative in academia, it seems, that grad students, they shouldn’t care about money. Or that that’s kind of a problem for their future self to think about rather than their current self. But habits, they compound over time. Mindsets, they compound over time and spread. So, it’s good to just start where you are and to just learn where you can. And actually start conversations with the people in your life who may know something or not know anything about finances, just to make it more of a conversation rather than something that people are just hushed about.
29:36 Emily: I love that advice. I love how we saw in this part of your story that you shared today, we saw that advice reflected. And this has been a really thought-provoking interview for me. So thank you so much, Sharena, for joining me.
29:48 Sharena: Thank you so much, Emily!
29:55 Emily: Listeners, thank you for joining me for this episode! pfforphds.com/podcast is the hub for the Personal Finance for PhDs podcast. On that page are links to all the episodes’ show notes, which include full transcripts and videos of the interviews. There is also a form to volunteer to be interviewed on the podcast. I’d love for you to check it out and get more involved! If you’ve been enjoying the podcast, here are 4 ways you can help it grow: 1. Subscribe to the podcast and rate and review it on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or whatever platform you use. 2. Share an episode you found particularly valuable on social media, with a email list-serv, or as a link from your website. 3. Recommend me as a speaker to your university or association. My seminars cover the personal finance topics PhDs are most interested in, like investing, debt repayment, and effective budgeting. I also license pre-recorded workshops on taxes. 4. Subscribe to my mailing list at PFforPhDs.com/subscribe. Through that list, you’ll keep up with all the new content and special opportunities for Personal Finance for PhDs. See you in the next episode, and remember: You don’t have to have a PhD to succeed with personal finance… but it helps! The music is “Stages of Awakening” by Podington Bear from the Free Music Archive and is shared under CC by NC. Podcast editing by Lourdes Bobbio and show notes creation by Meryem Ok.