In this episode, Emily interviews Dr. Alana Rister, a PhD in chemistry and the founder of the Science Grad School Coach. Alana and Emily discuss two major aspects of Alana’s finances from grad school and her postdoc: student loans and a condo purchase. Alana’s main financial goal during grad school was paying down her variable interest rate private student loans, and the strategies she used will be very accessible to grad students who, like her, don’t budget. Alana and her partner took a gamble in purchasing a condo when they moved for her postdoc, and then sold it less than a year later when she left that position. Listen through to the end of the interview to learn the connection between that condo purchase and the Science Grad School Coach!
Links Mentioned in this Episode
- PF for PhDs: Speaking
- Emily’s E-mail for Speaking Engagements
- PF for PhDs: Quarterly Estimated Tax for Fellowship Recipients Workshop
- BiggerPockets (Real Estate Investing Website)
- BiggerPockets Podcast
- PF for PhDs, S1E1: Our $100,000+ Net Worth Increase During Graduate School
- Science Grad School Coach (YouTube Channel)
- Science Grad School Coach (Twitter, @scigradcoach)
- Science Grad School Coach Resources
- Science Grad School Coach Podcast
- PF for PhDs: Podcast Hub
- PF for PhDs: Subscribe to Mailing List
00:00 Alana: Let’s preface this with I am not a budgeter. I’m really, it very much stresses me out because I’ve never been at a point where I’m really financially secure. So I’ve never been at a point where I’ve made a reasonable budget and there’s been a positive at the end.
00:24 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 four, and today my guest is Dr. Alana Rister, a PhD in chemistry and the founder of the Science Grad School Coach. We discuss two major aspects of Elena’s finances from grad school and her postdoc: student loans and a condo purchase. Alana’s main financial goal during grad school was paying down her variable interest rate private student loans, and the strategies she used will be very accessible to grad students who, like her, don’t budget. Alana and her partner took a gamble in purchasing a condo when they moved for her postdoc, and then sold it less than a year later when she left that position. Listen through to the end of the interview to learn the connection between that condo purchase and the Science Grad School Coach.
01:19 Emily: I have my first two speaking engagements of the 2021-2022 academic year coming up this week. Speaking live to and with graduate students and PhDs is my absolute favorite activity within my business, even in a remote format. I’ve built out a slate of offerings this year that I’m incredibly proud of. My flagship seminar is the graduate student and postdoc’s guide to personal finance. And it’s typically what I recommend to first-time hosts, as it covers a broad array of personal finance topics, which of course I discuss through the lens of the PhD experience. I also have four deep-dive seminars on financial goals, investing, debt repayment, and cashflow. I offer these in three formats, which is new for me this year. I can deliver this material as a one-hour live lecture and Q&A, a two-hour live workshop, or a flipped classroom model in which I give access to the workshop videos and individual exercises in advance, and then hold a live call exclusively for discussion and Q&A. I’m really pleased to be able to work with grad students and PhD is to create actionable steps to improve their finances in each of these areas.
02:31 Emily: These four deep-dive seminars work very well as a series, but can also be booked individually. If any of those seminars sound interesting to you, please recommend me as a speaker to your university, graduate school, graduate student association, postdoc office, or department. It’s super easy and relatively inexpensive to arrange a remote event with me. Ask the potential host to go to PFforPhds.com/speaking, or simply email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to start the process. I really, really appreciate these recommendations. They go very far to support Personal Finance for PhDs so I can continue to provide great content, like this podcast, for free. Without further ado, here’s my interview with Dr. Alana Rister.
Will You Please Introduce Yourself Further?
03:23 Emily: I am delighted to have joining me on the podcast today, Dr. Alana Rister of Science Grad School Coach. And it’s really exciting that she volunteered to be on the podcast. We are going to talk about some of her financial decisions from the past, a decision from grad school, a decision up from her postdoc, and I hope we are all going to learn a lot from her stories. So Alana, thank you so much for joining me. And will you introduce yourself a little bit further to the audience?
03:45 Alana: Yeah. So thank you so much for having me. I’m so excited to be here. As you said, I’m Dr. Alana Rister. I am the founder of the Science Grad School Coach. And I got my PhD in chemistry in 2019 from the University of Nebraska. And since then, went on to a postdoc at East Carolina University, and have since taken a few months off to you found the Science Grad School Coach. And that’s kind of where I am today.
04:16 Emily: Yeah. And, by the time this airs, you will be in a new position. Do you want to tell us more about that?
04:21 Alana: I will. So I’m actually going back to where I got my PhD from, and I’m going to be a metabolomics and proteomics research specialist. So I’m getting to go back into research. I’m basically doing a lot of working on doing metabolomics and proteomics for other professors. So I’m going to be a predominantly lab position getting to do fun research.
04:45 Emily: That sounds awesome. I always thought when I was going through my PhD process that I would love to be, I would call it a staff scientist. Is that a fair term? Yeah, I would like to be a staff scientist somewhere. Of course my career went in a different direction, but I find that kind of position to be really attractive. So congratulations!
05:02 Alana: Thank you!
Student Loan Situation at the Start of Grad School
05:03 Emily: Alright. So the first subject we’re talking about today is student loans. Everyone’s favorite. We’re actually going to focus on your private student loans, and we’ll get into why in a moment, but give us the full kind of picture of what your student loan situation was coming into grad school.
05:20 Alana: Yeah, so I actually went to a private undergraduate university. And I did that because it was actually the same for me to go there as my in-state public university, because I got a bunch of scholarships to the private and no scholarships to the public. So I went there, but I still had to rack up a lot in student loans, unfortunately. So when I entered graduate school, I have the numbers here. So I had $15,539 in subsidized loans, $35,418 in unsubsidized loans, and then a $13,000 private loan. So my freshman year was the only year I took out private loans in undergrad. And that was that $13,000 private loan. So altogether, if I did my math right, it comes out to $63,957 that I had in student loans going into graduate school.
06:22 Emily: Yeah. And how did you feel about that at the time?
06:27 Alana: So I was not great. I was really worried because I knew that I had all this kind of loan built up. And when you get to graduate school, you might not be thinking about your loans because they’re generally deferred. And so it’s something, oh, I don’t need to make this payment. I don’t need to worry about it, but I knew that that bill was going to come due and I knew when it was going to come due, I wasn’t going to really have the financial security to pay it off. So I was constantly looking for ways to figure out, you know, how can I pay these things off quicker? One, just because of trying to not pay as much interest, but then two, so that when I did get out of graduate school, I didn’t have, because I think if I would’ve left graduate school with all of that money, it would have been almost $800 a month that I would have had to pay back using like the government’s extended repayment. It would have been over a thousand if I like tried to pay it all back in 10 years. And I was like, looking at what postdocs got paid and what other things got paid. I was like, there’s no way I’m going to be able to afford this. So I was really worried in graduate school about how I was going to navigate after graduate school, even though it wasn’t a payment I needed to make at that time.
Which Loan Did You Target First?
07:48 Emily: That is so interesting that you were more concerned about your future self when the deferment was over, than you were about maybe how were you going to do it in the meantime, right? I mean, I think it’s really forward thinking, but I think it’s unusual, right? Because many of us, I think within our finances have a very like optimistic view. Like, my income is going to be so much higher later, and that we hope of course that’s true. But also don’t necessarily, when we’re younger, think about, well, yeah, my income might be higher, but also I might have some expenses that are higher when I’m older also. So, so interesting, but you, you noted, there were three different buckets of student loans for you, federal subsidized, federal unsubsidized, and private. And so was there like one of those that you were going to target first or that bothered you the most?
08:39 Alana: Yes. So my private loan definitely bothered me the most. And that is because it had the highest interest rate, is the first reason it bothered me. The second reason is, so COVID-19 has apparently happened. And through that time we’ve had a forbearance on student loans. That doesn’t apply to private student loans. And so I knew that private student loans generally aren’t as nice as well when it comes to, you know, forbearances or deferments for your situation. And so when I got my student loan, my interest rate was at 7%. And by the time I paid off that student loan, because I had a variable interest rate, because someone told me that was smart to do back then. It was at 11% interest rate. Yeah. It was literally going up every month in the interest that I was paying.
09:35 Emily: Wow. What a great note of warning for the listener regarding variable student loans. First of all, to have it at 7%, 7%, it’s like, okay. Yeah, it’s kind of a going rate, like, but to get up to 11? Wow. In an overall low interest rate environment. I actually also had a variable interest rate student loan, a federal one, actually. It might’ve even, yeah, it was subsidized, and then became this variable rate student loan once I came out of deferment. But because of the time period, and I think because it was federal and not private like yours, the interest rate, I think it was like at two-something percent, three-something percent. When it got up to four, I was like, you got to go, and we just paid it off. So I’m just like really balking at 11. So it was really, really good foresight again for you to say, to target that as like, oh, wow, this is variable. I don’t know which direction this is going. Like let’s work on this first. So was that like your main financial goal during graduate school is working on paying down that private student loan?
10:35 Alana: Yeah, so that was definitely the main thing I wanted to do was pay that off and then have that off my chest. Because I mean, I still had, you know, several tens of thousands more student loans that I needed to work on. So that became kind of my main goal and what I was putting money towards. I still did like other things as well. I planned for trips and stuff like that that I could go do. But that was definitely, my goal was I wanted to pay off all $13,000 by the end of my PhD. I didn’t get to that. I did $10,000, mainly because I graduated a year and a half early in my PhD, so I graduated in three and a half years. So I ended up paying it off by what would have been the end of my fourth year.
Strategies to Pay Off the Private Loan
11:23 Emily: Oh, wow. Well, that’s a great financial decision all on its own. Just get out of grad school faster. That’s awesome. I love that you identified paying off the loan in its entirety as like an ambitious goal. It’s the kind of thing that like, you know that phrase like, shoot for the moon, and even if you miss you’ll end up among the stars? Like paying off $10K, like you’re among the stars, like that’s amazing in three and a half years. That’s amazing. So let’s hear more about how you mechanically did that. Like what strategies were you using?
11:50 Alana: So I think there were probably like three, okay, let’s preface this with I am not a budgeter. I’m really, it very much stresses me out because I’ve never been at a point where I’m really financially secure. So I’ve never been at a point where I’ve made a reasonable budget and there’s been a positive at the end. So it like always stresses me out to just make a budget. So I’m just like in general, very conscious of spending money, and every time I’m spending money, I’m kind of like, is this really worth spending or not? So that’s kind of, I don’t know if that’s really a strategy, but that’s just kind of how I am.
12:27 Emily: Yeah. It’s like a predisposition, kind of.
12:30 Alana: Yeah. So probably the biggest thing that helped me to be able to do it was that I went to a graduate program in Lincoln, Nebraska. So location is a big thing when you’re choosing a graduate school, and I really wanted to go to a big city. Fortunately, I think, I didn’t get into programs in big cities. And so I came here and you can get, so my first apartment, I shared it with two other people. It was, you know, fairly new apartments, very modern. It was a $400 rent. So it’s just so much cheaper to live in a place like Lincoln. So I think my monthly stipend was $1,700 after taxes. And so that goes a lot further when your rent is only $400 of that 1700. So I think that’s a major factor is the fact that I was living in a much lower cost-of-living area.
13:29 Alana: And then what I would do is, so whenever my like bank account gets below $1,500, I like start freaking out. So I plan to every month to try and put $500 towards my student loan. So we get paid once a month at the end of the month. So right before my paycheck would hit, I would look at my bank account and I would say, okay, there’s this much. And if, you know, I had $2,000 left, I would pay $500 if I had below that I would pay until I hit that $1,500 mark. And so that was kind of my strategy in paying that loan off.
14:09 Emily: Yeah. I really like the way you articulated that and think it is probably really relatable for people who, as you said, are not budgeters or are not into that, but like you are kind of have a predisposition of, okay, I’m really going to kind of carefully weigh my spending and you have this target of $500 per month in mind. Yeah. Maybe you don’t hit that every month, but you’re going to be, when you’re drawing close to that and you’re starting to eat into that balance, you’re aware of it. So yeah, I think that strategy can be really relatable.
Take Advantage of Research Award Opportunities
14:36 Alana: The third one I did is I actually worked on getting a bunch of research awards. So I got a research fellowship that I think was right around $3,000 that was paid out over two years. And I put all of that money towards that private loan. I got multiple research poster awards. There was actually one poster session that was done every year that I literally just went to it to try and get the award so that I could put it towards my student loans. And I think I won like first or second place every year, which was like a 200 to 250 or $300 award. So it’s a nice, you know, amount of cash coming in. So I would do things like that, looking for fellowships, research awards, poster sessions, talk sessions and trying to do things like that, to be able to get some extra income and probably about $3,000 to $5,000 of what I paid towards my student loans probably came from the research awards and fellowships that I got.
15:42 Emily: That’s incredible. And what a boost for your CV, too, like so nice to have that double benefit if, you know, whatever your motivation is for going, you know, going after these things, going after awards, the outcome is great if you actually get it. And even if you don’t, it’s still worthwhile. So yeah, that’s great to hear. And so those awards, when you mentioned your stipend earlier, that’s all on top of that stipend. So you just kind of had a plan of like any windfall money, like that would go straight towards the student loans.
16:09 Alana: Yep.
16:10 Emily: Alright. Yeah. Anything else you want to share with us about how you made that work?
16:15 Alana: I don’t think so. I mean, those were kind of my biggest things. It wasn’t a very planned thing, but it was a thing that was like always on the front of my mind. Anytime I would look at my finances, I kept thinking, is there a way I can put more money to get this, you know, student loan paid down?
Current Status of Loans
16:31 Emily: Yeah. Well, let’s hear current updates. So you said you finished in 2019, we’re now in 2021. We’re recording this in April, 2021. So yeah. Where are your private student loans now? Where do they stand?
16:45 Alana: Yeah, so I paid off, so it was just one private student loan. I paid off all $13,000 March of last year. So three months after I graduated, I had the last $3,000 paid off on that one.
17:01 Emily: Incredible, congratulations!
17:04 Alana: Thank you!
17:05 Emily: Then, regarding the federal loans, we know what happened, just starting in March, 2020, administrative forbearance. What are your kind of plans around your payoff for that? Like, are you going to stick with an income-driven payment plan? Are you going to do it more aggressively?
17:19 Alana: So right now I’m on the standard, but the extended standard. So, because I had, I think it’s $25,000. Because I had over the 25,000, there’s an extended where they give you 25 years to pay it off instead of 10 years. So I’m on that right now. And my plan is that, once I start my new job and I have, you know, a little bit more money coming in, I paid some off as I’ve had, you know, extra cash in, but as I start this one, I’m going to start more heavily putting it on to those student loans. So I’m not going to change the actual plan I’m on because there’s no penalty for paying things off early. I’m just going to, you know, put extra income that I get towards my student loans to be able to pay those off more quickly, if that makes sense.
18:11 Emily: Yeah, it totally does. So you’re keeping that minimum payment low just for flexibility, but you still have that as kind of a primary goal. And you’ll still be doing aggressively and just because we are in April, 2021, what do you think about the possibility of student loan cancellation to any degree? Are you factoring that into your plan?
18:32 Alana: So I am not, I am a plan for the worst, hope for the best kind of person. So I’m not, I would be very thankful and appreciative if there was any form of cancellation because, you know, I have a partner who also comes with their student loans, but I’m not banking on it. I think that’s been in talks for a very long time with not really much coming of it. So the forbearance that happened in 2020 was actually a huge benefit to me and has allowed me to make a lot of decisions that I wouldn’t have been able to make had I not had the COVID forbearance. So I’m thankful for that, but I’m not going to, you know, make a plan that, you know, student loans will get canceled or partially forgiven.
19:23 Emily: Yeah. Well, this is a really exciting time. I’m so glad that we caught you right here at the cusp of your new job in that new phase. But again, congratulations on killing the private student loans, having them be completely gone.
19:34 Alana: Thank you.
19:36 Emily: Emily here for a brief interlude. These action items are for you if you recently switched or will soon switch on to non-W2 fellowship income as a grad student, postdoc, or postbac and are not having income tax withheld from your stipend or salary. Action item number one: fill out the estimated tax worksheet in form 1040ES. This worksheet will estimate how much income tax you will owe in 2021 and tell you whether you’re required to make manual tax payments on a quarterly basis. The next quarterly estimated tax due date is September 15th, 2021. Action item number two: whether you are required to make estimated tax payments or pay a lump sum at tax time, open a separate named savings count 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 into 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. If you need some help with the estimated tax worksheet, or want to ask me a question, please join my workshop, Quarterly Estimated Tax for Fellowship Recipients. It explains every line of the worksheet and answers common questions that PhD trainees have about estimated tax. Go to PFforPhds.com/QETax to learn more about and join the workshop. Now, back to our interview.
Real Estate Purchase During Postdoc
21:15 Emily: Okay, let’s talk about the next topic you wanted to bring up, which is about your real estate purchase during your postdoc. So let’s hear the whole story around that.
21:23 Alana: So I met my partner in graduate school, actually, the day before I started graduate school, I met my partner. And so he had a house. He had bought a house years before we met, and when we moved, he sold the house. So we had some money come in from that. And when I took a postdoc, I took a postdoc in Greenville, North Carolina. And it is kind of interesting because when I was looking for housing options, I had the option of paying around a thousand dollars a month for a one-bedroom, one-bath apartment, or I could buy a condo that I could pay $650 a month for a two-bed, two-bath condo.
22:12 Emily: Those numbers are very surprising.
22:14 Alana: Yeah. So real estate was really, really cheap there. And to get into a decent apartment that, you know, wasn’t bug-infested and had other problems, it was very expensive to do there. So we decided to invest and we bought a $85,000 condo, two-bed, two-bath condo. And you know, my partner comes from a family that has constantly flipped homes. So this condo looked very bad. It kind of looked like it had been run down from the seventies, but was built in the nineties. So it was kind of interesting, it had been a rental for years and we kind of transformed it. I think one of my friends said it looked like a modern New York City apartment by the time we were done with it. So it was kind of interesting because we worked a lot on the condo and made it look a lot nicer, but our main driving factor for buying it was primarily because it was so much cheaper. And it was going save us so much money in the long-run. Both because we were investing in something, and then also just because the monthly payment was so much lower when we bought something versus renting a place.
23:36 Emily: How did you fit such major renovation projects around your research schedule?
Renovations and Research
23:44 Alana: I think there’s like a couple things. So one, I didn’t do most of the work. I’m going to be honest. So my partner, Greenville’s a really small town, so my partner actually had difficulty finding jobs there. So he was unemployed for about half the time we were in Greenville, and he spent a lot of his time working on it. I was more the design person. So I was like, this is what we’re going to do. And then I did some of the renovations and it kind of became like our hobby. So I took a week off at the end of my PhD, went down to Greenville, and we did the initial renovation. So we redid the floors, painted the walls, made it at least livable. And that was kind of the bulk. And then we did one more bulk right before we sold the place.
24:30 Alana: That kind of put us over the edge on getting a higher price back. But I think kind of knowing what you’re doing helped because like some things we really didn’t know what we were doing and Googling a lot of things. But I think having someone that, you know, my partner knew a lot more what they were doing when coming to a construction project and then, you know, it kind of ends up being fun after a while. And so that kind of became where we put our free time when we worked on it together around my research schedule.
25:05 Emily: Yeah. That’s really good to hear. I always kind of wonder about how like sort of logistically that works. Anyway, so my husband and I just closed on our first house. It’s very turnkey, but there are like a few things we wanted to change. So we’re kind of in the midst of like this, how much do we outsource? How much do we DIY? What kind of capacity do we have to actually work on this house? Or, you know, those kinds of questions are kind of circling in my mind right now. So I’m just really glad to hear how you did it. So I have been consuming more real estate investing content recently, a little bit from BiggerPockets, and I know Mindy Jensen, who’s the co-host of the BiggerPockets money podcast calls, what you described, a live-in flip. So that’s what she does, like serially, she does live-in flips, one after the other. But that’s great. So you had that initial experience. Now, I think you said that your postdoc was pretty short term, is that right?
25:58 Alana: Yeah, so it wasn’t supposed to be. So I started January 3rd, I think 2020, and I ended it October 31st, 2020. So it was about a 10-month long postdoc. The initial contract was until March of 2021, and then I was supposed to extend it for like another year, but I ended up kind of cutting it short and actually moving back to Lincoln, Nebraska.
Is a Real Estate Purchase Worthwhile?
26:28 Emily: Yeah. And so I think this is something that’s really on the minds of people when they move for grad school, move for a postdoc, move for a first job is, how long am I actually going to be here, and is a real estate purchase worthwhile? So can you tell us your thoughts on that? Like, did you have that thought you first moved there? I mean, obviously the numbers made a lot of sense, but over what time period did the numbers make sense?
26:49 Alana: Yeah, so I definitely had that thought, especially because when you’re looking at buying or selling, there are a couple of things you have to, so I said, you know, it was $650 per month, you know, versus a thousand. So that’s like what, a $350 difference that I probably would have been paying. But then you look at your down payment. So my down payment on the condo was just under $5,000, which was a lot cheaper than a lot of real estate down payments. But if you spread that out through time, you would realize that that’s a lot more than the thousand dollars a month. And so there were a lot of questions that we had on whether this was going to be a smart purchase or not. We were expecting me to stay for about two years. And generally you want, you know, for, I think the advice usually given is five years to make a real estate purchase. You want to be there for about five years. But I think the biggest thing was just our comfort level. And especially with the lack of really good landlords in Greenville, we felt like we were more suited, we knew the real estate market. We knew how to sell houses. We knew how to do that stuff. So we kind of took a gamble. And we went that direction instead. And we were like, we might come out at a loss in the end, but we think our experience there is going be a lot better. And so it might be worth that loss in the end.
28:21 Emily: Yeah. I was going to ask how did it end up turning out?
28:25 Alana: Yes. So actually it was really good. One, we did flip it, so we bought it for $85,000. We sold it for $99,500. So a pretty nice, we actually got an offer for like $104K, but it didn’t appraise for that. So it was a pretty big, you know, good chunk of change, I think after all the sales commissions and everything, we came out, because we also sold all the furniture with the house. So we came out with about $15,000 in the end. But the biggest thing was, that we didn’t think about, is because we had bought real estate, we weren’t hooked into a lease. So we sold our place, we went under contract in September, which means we could leave, where if we had started a lease in January, by the time, you know, October came around, which is when we left, we left October 1st. So by the time that came around, we would have had three months left on our lease. So we have had to end up paying a lot more to get nothing just to break our lease. So ultimately it was kind of a good decision in that we were able to, you know, leave without having to worry about paying, you know, penalty fees.
29:36 Emily: Yeah. I’m really glad that, you know, you’re here to tell this story because I think, for me anyway, my mind more naturally goes to like the downsides of taking, you know, risky decisions. And I think everyone should of course be aware of the potential downsides, but just know that there are upsides also that you might experience that are just as, or maybe even more likely, than the downside. So like, yeah, clearly it was a risk, it was a risk at two years, it was more of a risk at 10 months or nine months or whatever. But it did work out, and the thing is, you didn’t have to sell. If that was not going to work out financially for you, you were not required to sell, you could have moved and rented it out. You had other options. Right. It’s just that, oh, selling did make sense. And so you went through with it.
30:21 Alana: Yeah. So we actually considered that. We were looking at actually either doing Airbnbs for it or doing a long-term rental. And we actually looked into it, and like right as that was happening, there was kind of a real estate bubble. Because of COVID, nobody was selling real estate. So there was a scarcity on the market, and suddenly condos that were usually priced at the 60 to 80,000 range were starting to go near a hundred thousand. And like, so we were like, okay, this seems like it’s a good decision. And we could have always denied a contract if we were like, okay, we’re not going to get enough out of it. And we kind of just wanted the peace of mind. We didn’t really ever want to go back to Greenville. So we didn’t want to have a place that we knew we would have to take care of, but it was definitely something we looked into. And if we stayed closer to the area, we probably would have done it for short-term rental or something.
Real Estate Flip Funded Science Grad School Coach
31:16 Emily: Yeah. Well this is so interesting. I’m really glad to like kind of learn that it did work out positively in your case. And so when you volunteered for this, you said you wanted to tell how that real estate flip funded your Science Grad School Coach endeavor. So tell us about that.
31:34 Alana: So that $15,000 that we got from the sale of the condo, which knowing for like me and my partner, if it hadn’t been in the condo, because we, you know, put $5,000 down, it probably wouldn’t have been around by the time we got, because again, we’re not budgeters. So the fact that it was there and we had that money, it allowed me to kind of make the decision. My partner finally got like his dream job back in Lincoln. So we made the decision for me to go unemployed and work on building this business and for him to come here, and his job was not fully going to support us here. So the money that we got from the sale of our house actually made up for at least a year. We would have been fine for at least a year between the savings and then also, you know, his income.
32:30 Alana: And so that kind of started me having the freedom to really pursue starting the Science Grad School Coach and work on it. And then on the side, I kind of looked at applying to jobs and things like that. Because I was kind of sad to leave research. I still wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do. And now kind of right as things are starting to come into play with the Science Grad School Coach, I’m also starting a new job. So like in the end, it was a risky decision. And the only reason we could have taken that decision was because we bought a house and sold it and had that extra money leftover to then come here and have that time. And now I am employed, starting Monday, I will be employed. And so that’s going to give me the opportunity to kind of do both. Both the Science Grad School Coach, and then also go back into research.
33:24 Emily: Yeah, this just, you know, is another example of what I like to say is money gives you options, right? The option to pursue fun employment. The option to wait for a great job opportunity to come and not try to force yourself into one that’s not a great fit, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And I also had, I guess, somewhat of a similar story when I started Personal Finance for PhDs, which just in the sense that my husband and I focused a lot of our energy and our finances on retirement investing when we were in graduate school. And so by the time we finished, and I talk about this in season one episode one, by the time we finished, we had quite a good nest egg, and that made us feel comfortable to take risks with our careers. So he took a job at a startup, which we were very concerned about.
Where to Learn More About Science Grad School Coach
34:09 Emily: It happens to be that he’s still at that same position six years later, but we did not know at the time that it would be around for six years. So he took a job at a startup and I started my business, which, you know, low revenue, you know, initially. So yeah, it was risky, but we felt confident, not because we had a bolus of cash savings as you did, but just because generally we were doing pretty well on the retirement front and we, you know, felt like it was okay to take a risk. So just so interesting, like I’d just love to hear another example of how your finances, like, we all know that our careers can affect our finances, right? By what job we choose and so forth, but how your finances affect your career as well. And for you, your ability to start your side business. So yeah, I’m just, I’m really glad to hear that. If people are intrigued by Science Grad School Coach, where can they find you and you know, what are you doing there?
34:59 Alana: Yeah. So the Science Grad School Coach is kind of the business I developed to help people with pursuing research. So like I said, one of the ways I was able to pay off, you know, a lot of my student loans was because of getting research awards and research posters. And something I realized is I’m actually good at doing research. But I didn’t start out that way. When I started in graduate school, I was really frustrated because I felt like everyone expected me to know things, but nobody ever taught me those things. So I had to kind of, over time figure all these different things out from how do I create a research idea, to how do I write a paper, to how do I put a poster together? And so what I’ve done is basically I want to share that knowledge with other people.
35:50 Alana: And that’s what the Science Grad School Coach is. So if you’re interested, I do have a YouTube channel which is the Science Grad School Coach. And there’s where I share a lot of, kind of shorter videos on different topics around research and how to get better at research and do things like that. You can also find me on Twitter at @scigradcoach. And then I also have a full resource pages if you’re interested that I have several different resources on there from how to create ideas, how to write a paper, how to do your dissertation. And you can find that at sciencegradschoolcoach.com/resources. And so those are kind of three different places where you can connect with me and hopefully get to learn some of the things that I’m trying to share. And hopefully it’s helpful.
36:43 Emily: Yeah. I love that impulse and I wish that I had run across a few of those resources back when I was in graduate school. Maybe the information was there. I don’t know. I didn’t, I was not plugged into it if it was.
36:54 Alana: Yeah, I definitely wasn’t either. And I think people don’t realize that research can be easy, and then it’s just because we’re not taught how to do it and we’re just expected to, and then we have to deal with the frustration of being like, I don’t know what I’m doing, but I feel like I’m supposed to know. So I did something wrong. And it’s not that you ever did anything wrong. It’s just how the system is set up is not set up for researchers to do well, I guess. It’s set up to make you struggle when you don’t need to. Because like I ended up writing or publishing seven papers in my three years as a graduate student, but it didn’t start out that way, right? Because I like really struggled. And then I started learning where I can write a research paper. Once I have the data, I can write it, you know, in a day or two. And that’s just because now I know how to do it. And so that’s what I’m trying to share with other people.
Best Financial Advice for Another Early-Career PhD
37:47 Emily: Yeah. Excellent. Very worthwhile endeavor. Love it. Okay. I’ll ask you the question that I end all my interviews with, which is what is your best financial advice for another early-career PhD?
37:59 Alana: So this is probably not the best advice, but I think my best advice is to think a lot about the location you’re going to. That’s one of the reasons why I came to the university I came to was because I started looking up rent prices and saw how cheap it was. But something that you may not know is before, so I came back to Lincoln after my postdoc. But I actually got two different job offers before I came back to Lincoln. I got an industry job that was going to pay me $85,000 that was in a middle, kind of a higher than Lincoln, cost-of-living, but it was just not the right job for me. But then I got my dream job, which was a postdoc. It was doing the dream research I wanted to do in Seattle. And I looked at the living cost, and I said, I’m going to have to take on debt to go work a job.
38:56 Alana: And I refuse to do that. And so I actually went for unemployment because it was cheaper for me to come to Lincoln and be unemployed than it was for me to go to Seattle and work a job. And so that was a really hard decision for me to make, because I really wanted to do that research. But I think it’s important to think about the fact that even as an early PhD, like you are worth something, and if you’re not going to be netting positive while working a job, you really may want to reconsider taking those jobs because that really shouldn’t be a thing, especially after you have a PhD.
39:40 Emily: What an indictment, you know, of the salaries that we pay, both graduate students and postdocs. Absolutely. And it’s so unfortunate. I mean, it’s the academic loss, the research engine’s loss that you did that calculus and came on the side of, I can’t take this job because you simply don’t pay me enough. You made a rational decision in the face of that, you know, situation, but it’s just so unfortunate that things are set up that way. In any case, you have another wonderful job coming up now in Lincoln. And yeah, I totally agree with you. You have to be very careful about examining the cost-of-living versus salaries. You know, the salary numbers, if you’re coming from a lower or a middle, you know, cost-of-living city, moving to a high-cost living city, like maybe that initial postdoc salary looked to you like, Hmm, not bad, but then you had to actually look into it and say, oh no, Seattle, quite expensive. It’s not going to work. So I totally agree with you do that at every single, you know, any job you’re trying to take going forward. Is there anything else you wanted to add on that?
40:40 Alana: I think that’s the main thing. Yeah, and like Seattle, like that was my dream city too. Like that is where like I want to go retire. So it was like so tempting to take it. And then just to realize that you’re literally not paying me enough to even afford rent, really. And so this new job I’m taking is just slightly over that same salary, but it’s so much more livable because Lincoln is literally less than half the cost-of-living of Seattle. So making that kind of decision, I think it’s so tempting to think that if I take this dream job, it’s going to propel me to the next dream thing. And kind of after different situations in my life, I realized that that’s not always true, and it’s not worth either going through a toxic situation or a situation where you’re not making enough money to live for a hope of the next thing, because if you don’t get that next thing, you’ve screwed yourself.
41:41 Emily: Yes. Such an important message. I mean, we all know the abysmal hiring rates for of course faculty positions, but even as I said earlier, like we tend to be really optimistic about the whole salary situation in research. And Hey, we all hope it comes about, but you’ve got to look at the downsides, too. So it’s interesting that you’ve sort of illustrated in your story, a couple different gambles that we’ve been talking about and how you’ve made different decisions, you know, in the face of these. So yeah, I love that, you know, you illustrated those points. Thank you so much for joining me today. It was a pleasure to have you and to get to know you.
42:14 Alana: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me. And I hope that my story can be helpful to other people especially about, you know, thinking about student loans while you’re in grad school. Because the other thing is, unless you have subsidized loans, your interest is still building while you’re doing that. So just, you know, thinking about that and then kind of making smart decisions when it comes to, you know, gambles. So I’m actually, I’m not a risk taker. I realize that this sounds like I’m a risk taker. I’m really not. Like I weigh through the pros and cons of everything I do. And you know, there are some risks you have to take in life, but I try to limit those to those that are just absolutely necessary. So I hope that this can help people that sometimes it works well. And sometimes not taking an opportunity also works well in the end.
43:07 Emily: Yeah. Thank you so much for sharing these stories and for joining me.
43:09 Alana: Yeah. Thank you!
43:11 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 episode show notes, which includes 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 four ways you can help it grow. One, subscribe to the podcast and rate and review it on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or whatever platform you use. Two, share an episode you found particularly valuable on social media, with an email listserv, or as a link from your website. Three, 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 prerecorded workshops on taxes. Four, 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.
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