In this episode, Emily interviews Dr. Fushcia Hoover, a postdoc at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center. Fushcia grew up in a low-income family and graduated from college in 2009. Unable to find full-time work, she accelerated her plans to pursue graduate school, ultimately earning a PhD from Purdue University and winning an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship. Fuschia’s background imparted her with certain financial attitudes and skills that influenced her financial journey through her PhD and postdocs. On the positive side, she already knew how to keep her expenses low and she had enough discretionary income from her stipend to pay off her undergrad student loans, even while sending money home to her mother. On the negative side, she was unfamiliar with investing and understandably gun-shy after witnessing the stock market crash. Fushcia and Emily discuss how her financial attitudes and practices evolved during her PhD and first postdoc and why and how she negotiated her salary for her second postdoc position.
Links Mentioned in the Episode
- Find Dr. Fushcia Hoover on Twitter, Instagram, and her personal website
- Resource: PostDocSalaries.com
- Resouce: PhDStipends.com
- Personal Finance for PhDs: Financial Coaching
- Personal Finance for PhDs: Podcast Hub
- Personal Finance for PhDs: Subscribe to the mailing list
00:00 Fushcia: As a graduate student, postdoc, there’s this expectation that we just kind of have to accept things as they are. And, certainly in some cases, yes, that’s true. But I think in a lot of cases, there are always things that are negotiable and that are malleable. And I think a lot of that comes down to recognizing how valuable you are, not just as a person, but also as the work and your contribution.
00:35 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 seven, episode two, and today my guest is Dr. Fushcia Hoover, a postdoc at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center. Fuschia grew up in a low income family and graduated from college into the depths of the great recession. Those experiences, and parted her with certain financial attitudes and skills that influenced her financial journey through her PhD and postdocs. On the positive side, she already knew how to keep her expenses low, and she had enough discretionary income from her stipend to pay off her undergrad student loans. On the negative side, she was unfamiliar with investing and understandably gun shy after witnessing the stock market crash. Fushcia and I discuss how her financial attitudes and practices evolved during her PhD and first postdoc, and why and how she negotiated her salary for her second postdoc position. You absolutely do not want to miss her concluding words of encouragement for all PhDs, but especially those in marginalized groups. By the way we recorded this interview in October, 2019. Without further ado. Here’s my interview with Dr. Fushcia Hoover.
Will You Please Introduce Yourself Further?
01:54 Emily: I have joining me on the podcast today, Dr. Fushcia Hoover, tnd she’s going to be Talking to us about her background, coming from a low income family and ultimately entering graduate school and a couple of different postdocs. And what she has picked up and learned about finances along the way and the work she’s done on her own mindset. I’m really excited about this episode. Fushcia, thank you so much for joining me, and will you tell the audience a little bit more about yourself please?
02:17 Fushcia: Thank you so much for having me I’m happy to be here. I am a engineer by training. My graduate degrees are all from Purdue University, Ag and Bioengineering, but I actually got my degrees from an interdisciplinary program, the ecological sciences and engineering program at Purdue. And so a lot of my research that I do now, as well as my dissertation work, looks at both social and ecological aspects of storm water management and the way green spaces and green infrastructure can be used to reduce runoff during rainfall events, but then what are the different environmental justice potential impacts. Then recently I have also started incorporating black geography theory, which looks a bit more at the way that people and places are connected and the historical and cultural connections between those two, and what that means in terms of storm water management planning and where we place green spaces and green infrastructure. That’s kind of where I’m at now, so I like to call myself, well, it always changes, but currently I call myself a socio-ecological systems hydrologist.
03:45 Emily: That is so fascinating, that the arc of your work has gone in that direction, from the technological to the more sociological. Okay, great. And so you said you have your all degrees from Purdue, bachelors through PhD, is that right?
04:00 Fushcia: No. My bachelor’s is actually from the University of St. Thomas, which is based in Saint Paul, Minnesota, where I originally am from and grew up. That degree was mechanical engineering, as my bachelor’s. And then I also had a minor in Middle Eastern studies. I’ve always been interested in balancing my science and the technical work that I do with more social and cultural components. That’s where I started and I’ve just been traveling the Midwest sense, but now I’m on the East coast.
04:34 Emily: Yeah. So tell us about your positions that you’ve had since you’ve finished.
04:39 Fushcia: Yeah, so I finished in 2017. My first postdoc was through the National Academy of Sciences. And that’s called National Research Council graduate fellowship, or post graduate fellowship, I believe. That was based at the Environmental Protection Agency in Cincinnati, Ohio. I was there for a year and eight months, so almost two years. Then, my contract for that ended, and my boss and I weren’t sure if there was going to be additional funding, so I had been applying to other postdocs, one of which is the one I’m currently in, which is with the, this is very long, so bear with me, the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, um, or SESYNC for short, and that’s in Annapolis, Maryland. So both very research focused. All I do is research. At the time I wasn’t interested in going into academia. Things have changed since. Then I worked in this position with Sarah Moreau, who is a faculty at Arizona State University.
05:52 Emily: Gotcha. So interesting that you just dropped in there that you’re now more interested in academia than you were before. People don’t usually go in that direction, but not the subject of our interview today. I’ll have to follow-up about that another time.
Growing up in a Low-Income Family
06:05 Emily: Let’s take a step back even further to your childhood and then basically your time going through college and up until you entered graduate school. Just really briefly, what was your financial experience during that time?
06:18 Fushcia: My mom is a single parent and I have a twin sister as well, so it was the two of us and our mom. We grew up in a single parent households and we had been low income for the duration of my childhood into early adulthood. Certainly for anyone that is from, I think either one of those demographics, there was a lot of like coupons and buying things either on sale or clearance or discount. On and off throughout growing up, we would have access to food stamps, depending on what my mom’s specific financial situation was at the time. The great thing about growing up in Minnesota was that there were and are amazing social services. In terms of basic needs like healthcare, we were on the free and reduced lunch program, we always had all those things. So it actually took me a very long time to realize that we were low income because of that. It was, I think until seventh grade, when I realized that lunch wasn’t free. I just thought that was a service everybody got and people who brought their lunch, that was just a preference. I really grew up in that environment of saving and being very conscious about spending.
07:53 Fushcia: My mom was also very open with us in terms of explaining why we could only get things on sale, but I think the child, part of me was still like, well, if she wanted to, we could get this, but she’s just being a mom. You know, “parents are mean” type of childhood mentality. It wasn’t until I got older, I was like, “Oh yeah, that makes sense.”
Loans and Scholarships During Undergrad
08:21 Emily: Yeah. Thanks for telling us about that. Then, when you got to college, what was the situation then? You mentioned the school that you went to, but was it private or public, and how did you fund it?
08:34 Fushcia: It’s the largest private university in the state of Minnesota, and I was fortunate there was a college access program and I was part of in high school called College Possible. I made my sister join as well, so we were both part of the program and it helped teach us about scholarships, applying for college, doing college visits, as well as like practicing the ACT, which is what most of the Midwest takes as the college entrance exam. I think I had applied to between 20 and 30 scholarships as a senior, and then the ones that I was awarded, combined with, I received a full tuition scholarship from the University of St. Thomas based on my academic record and I’d done a lot of community service as a high school student as well. So through that, I was actually receiving refund checks, which is pretty rare.
09:45 Fushcia: A big part of the conversation my mom had with us in terms of college was that she could not afford to send us to college and she could not afford to co-sign on a loan. So my sister and I were very diligent about then seeking out money and applying for scholarships and finding resources that could help us pay our way, or in my case get paid, through college. I took out two loans, one for my last semester of college, and then for a January term study abroad. When I finished, I had about $7,000 in debt and that was all within Sallie Mae at the time, so one was subsidized and one was un-subsidized.
10:40 Emily: That is really good. I mean, to have access to that program, first of all, maybe that was part and parcel with the general great services you had access to in Minnesota, but yeah, that set you up amazingly and to of course then put in the work and get the scores and do the scholarships and everything that, I mean, it’s clear why that happened and why you ended up in that position. So your tuition, you had a scholarship. You had enough scholarships coming in to cover the room and board and so forth, so that you’re actually receiving at sometimes a little bit of money back. Then you took out some small student loans for part of that experience. So coming out of college, about $7,000 worth of student loans and you didn’t go immediately to graduate school, is that right?
11:19 Fushcia: Yeah, that’s correct. And I actually forgot, I did have, I think it was maybe like a $3,000 loan from Wells Fargo, which, well, maybe I can save this for the end as one of my pieces of advice, but at the time I didn’t know about kind of self-loans or just the loan system. My checking and savings were through Wells Fargo, and I was like, “okay”, not knowing that that doesn’t allow you to defer your loan and that the rates are higher.
11:52 Fushcia: When I graduated, in 2009, which if you remember, was kind of the peak of the financial crisis.
12:03 Emily: Yeah, the worst year to be graduating.
12:05 Fushcia: Yes, it was a horrible year to graduate. I didn’t have a job. I had started working part time for a program that I was a part of while at St. Thomas. And then I had transitioned into working for a program called AVID or the Advancement Via Individual Determination, which was located in the public — well, it’s a national program, but I specifically worked within the Saint Paul public school system. Tthat was part time as well. So I was doing that, I had moved back home, I was living with my mom and barely able to pay my $50 a month minimum for my Wells Fargo loan. I had been able to put it into forbearance for six months. That was the only thing that they would allow me to do. It was actually a very…I was very stressed. Thankfully, living with my mom helped cut down on a lot of expenses, but it was a lot of penny pinching. I think my income was maybe $500 a month, before taxes. So, trying to give my mom something and then basically pay for my cell phone and basic expenses and then this loan. That was my financial situation upon graduating.
Starting Graduate School in the Midst of the Great Recession
13:39 Emily: And did the difficulty in finding work of that year, the peak year, did that play in your decision to go to graduate school or had that always been the plan?
13:48 Fushcia: I’d always wanted to go to graduate school. I did not want to go right away. I was really mentally and emotionally exhausted after undergrad.
13:59 Emily: I know that feeling.
14:01 Fushcia: Yes, and I think a lot of us have those feelings even after grad school as well. I think the only difference was that I went to grad school sooner than if I would have had a full time job. I worked part time for almost two years before going back to grad school, because I also wanted to make sure that I wanted to go back and I didn’t know what I wanted to go back for quite yet. I knew I wanted to stay within engineering, but I didn’t know…I knew a lot of what I didn’t want to do. I took that time to figure out the programs and the schools of interest and what my potential research interests could be.
14:49 Emily: Gotcha. So when you entered graduate school, was that actually an increase in your income from working, I guess it’s still part time technically in graduate school, but was your income higher than at that point?
15:02 Fushcia: It was. It’s funny, a lot of people talk about how poor graduate students are and how we’re going to pay, and we are. I certainly agree that for the work that we’re doing, all graduate students should be paid more. But it was such a jump in income for me. I think especially going into an engineering program at Purdue, I think my monthly income was about $2,500 per month. All of a sudden, not only did I have a higher income, but I also had a dependable income. And it was an income that I was going to be getting, regardless of my hours that I put it in. That was the first time being on a salary, and having something that I was like, “okay, wow, I can pay my bills, I can pay my loans, and that’s not something that I’m going to have to worry about. Where’s this money going to come from? Am I going to make my minimum payment this month?” It was a big relief for me in a lot of ways.
16:13 Emily: Yeah. And I would imagine that stipend goes pretty far in Lafayette, Indiana, does it not?
Employing Frugal Strategies in Grad School
16:19 Fushcia: Oh yes, it does. And I very much…I had two roommates, I didn’t have a car either. I had a bicycle, so I was pretty much biking or Lafayette, if you’re a student, or basically if you are affiliated with Purdue and you have a Purdue ID, then you get to take the public transportation system for free, so I wasn’t having to spend money there. It was really just groceries and utilities and rent split between three people. I found a lot of ways to reduce the amount of expenses that I had because then I had also then started sending money back to my mom. I was sending her about $300 every month. Definitely trying to funnel resources and reduce costs.
17:09 Emily: Yeah. It sounds like you took a lot of the the strategies that you’d been using prior to that point, and also some of the mindsets you’d had to that point. That was what you applied right then. You found the low cost living situation, you used the public transit instead of owning a car, so you really reduce your expenses right off. But it sounds like still, even with sending your mom money, you probably had a good bit of discretionary money to be working with, above the bills that needed to be paid. What did you start doing in your personal finances at that point? What did you have to learn about since you now finally have this discretionary money to do what you want with? What did you learn about what did you apply in your life?
Paying off Student Loans During Graduate School
17:49 Fushcia: It’s funny, I had taken a financial literacy workshop before I started graduate school, and that was more focused on like budgeting and saving and negotiating whether you pay off credit card debt first, or if you have student loans and how you prioritize your debts. The biggest thing, aside from sending money home to my mom was that I started making monthly payments on the undergraduate loans that I had. I targeted the Wells Fargo private loan first, and then —
18:28 Emily: I just have a follow up about that. Were those loans, at least maybe the federal ones, in deferment at that point?
18:34 Fushcia: They were, yes.
18:36 Emily: And what about the Wells Fargo one? Was that in deferment?
18:38 Fushcia: No, the Wells Fargo, my forbearance had ended after the first six months, from me finishing my undergrad degree. I had only been making $50 a month payments, so you can imagine on a $3,000 loan, that’s not very much. So I kicked that up and I think I started making either between $150 and $200 loan payments every month. So about $500 every month was going to this one particular loan and then my mom. Then the rest that was remaining after bills and rent, I was just putting into savings or using for other expenses like going out to eat or going home for the holidays, things like that.
19:34 Emily: What I like to call irregular expenses.
19:37 Fushcia: Yes, irregular expenses.
19:38 Emily: The ones that can really mess up your cashflow if you try to pay for them in just one month. How long did it take you then? Did you just keep working in paying down those loans straight before adding any other goals to the picture and how long did it take you to pay them off?
19:50 Fushcia: I did. I had paid off my Wells Fargo loan by the end of my masters, so just under two years, and then my government loans, it took about two and a half. I don’t remember if it was two and a half or three years. I think part of the decision why, even though those loans were in deferment, one of them was unsubsidized, so it was gaining interest. And I think because of coming from low income background, and even though I was in this position where I had a steady paycheck, I was still really worried that it would end. Certainly, I knew the degree would end and I wasn’t sure what my income would look like after that, and I didn’t want to have that stress. I think I might’ve been the only one I knew of my friends with loans from undergrad who was actively paying it down.
20:54 Fushcia: That was my goal, was to have zero debt by the time I graduated from Purdue. Pretty much all of the focus was on paying off those loans. Then I would typically have anywhere from like $200 to $400 that I would just put into savings every month.
21:17 Emily: I will say, in my contact with graduate students, some people do, but it’s on the rare side to be working on paying down student loans while in graduate school. I think yours because they’re relatively small, might…I think some people get really defeatist about student loans. Especially if you have more than a hundred thousand dollars or multiple tens of thousands of dollars of student loans, it can feel really, really daunting, and why even bother like getting started on your low salary during graduate school. But I think yours, they were a fraction of what you made in a given year, and so it felt like something that you could tackle, probably. And like you were saying, you had that fear of, well, what if your program ends for whatever reason? Well, then the loans are coming out of deferment, you have to make at least minimum payments, and then what’s your income going to be? You don’t know. That decision definitely makes sense to me.
22:12 Emily: Hey, social distancers, Emily here. I hope you’re doing okay. It took a few weeks, but I think I have my bearings about me in my new normal. There is a lot of uncertainty and fear right now about our public and personal health and our economy. I would like to help you feel more secure in your personal finances and plan and prepare for whatever financial future may come. You can schedule a free 15 minute call with me at PFforPhDs.com/coaching to determine if financial coaching with me is right for you at this time, I hope you will reach out, if only to speak with someone new for a few minutes. Take care. Now back to our interview.
Personal Finance Mindset Shift During and Post-PhD
22:58 Emily: Did you do anything else within your personal finances during graduate school, aside from paying off those loans and then also building up savings?
23:06 Fushcia: No. I had conversations, I talked with a couple of friends who were working about IRAs and investments, but it was all very intimidating. I think for me, at the time, it was easier to just put my money in savings and then I could also see it, and there wasn’t like a fear of losing it. With investments, I think particularly because of being an adult through the stock market crash, and also remembering when Enron went under and people’s entire pensions were lost. I have a, I wouldn’t say a strong distrust, but I would say I’m very kind of apathetic and very wary of different financial institutions. Even Sallie Mae and Freddie Mac and all of those. For me, I was like, “nope, I want to have my money with me, so I’m putting it in my savings account.” By then I had also transferred to a credit union, so I felt a lot more secure about credit unions as financial institutions, int that I’m an owner in this. And I have amplified checking, so then I was getting, I don’t remember what the return is, but it’s a couple percent return. I was like, “okay, I like this. I can make money from my own money.” Even though I had those conversations with a lot of friends who had higher income backgrounds or whose families did, and so these were conversations that they had. It still wasn’t something I felt comfortable really digging into because I think part of me still felt like I didn’t have the financial security yet to start investing.
25:05 Emily: Yeah. It’s interesting. I graduated from college in 2007, so two years before you did, so before the crisis hit and I was safely in graduate school, by the time everything went down. But I took away like a different kind of financial trauma from that whole period, which is that I’m very gun shy about the housing market. I’ve still always been a renter. I have yet to buy my first home. And that’s partially because, while I didn’t personally experience, all the media coverage is about people losing their homes and foreclosures. So while I was very gung ho about getting into the stock market and I was able to experience the rise right after the crash, it’s still is something that lingers with me regarding the housing. It’s just interesting to talk to someone near a similar age who had some witnessing and some stake in everything that happened and what’s lingering.
25:58 Emily: Actually, maybe you’ve turned this around since then. You were talking about during graduate school, you were nervous to start investing. And I think it actually is really smart to build up the cash savings to get the debt paid off before embarking on that. At what point did you, or have you started to invest?
26:14 Fushcia: I started a few months, maybe six months into my first postdoc. By the time I finished at Purdue, I had about a four month break where I was job searching and then preparing for a move, and I had saved up about maybe $5,000 to $6,000 in savings. One of things that I did start doing was also using credit cards as a way to prepare for high cost expenses. I had opened a card, um, just before I graduated so that it allowed me to have 18 months of 0% APR because I knew I’m not going to have a job. I was at a part time job that I got to cover basic things, but in terms of, I have to move, that card held all of those expenses. Then once I started my postdoc and getting paid, I worked on paying that down, and since I had 18 months, there was no rush. But then, because I was like, “Okay, I have a job.” As an engineer coming in for an NRC, my stipend was $69,000 for the year, which certainly is very high compared to a lot of postdocs, but I think most of the federal agencies, you’re going to see a higher salary, that’s closer to what a full time federal employee would be making
27:55 Emily: And for you in particular that’s over double what you had been making her in graduate school.
27:59 Fushcia: Yes. Well, and I should say that my first year of my master’s I applied for and was awarded a National Science Foundation GRFP, so I think that also really allowed me to focus on my debt because then I was making $30K. I still had to account for the taxes, which was not fun, but compared to my friends in college of liberal arts, who were in English or social science making $13K, that’s a big difference. One of the things that I actually learned from you was while I was in my first postdoc, I joined the National Postdoc Association, and you were a guest. This would have been a couple of years now. I watched your webinar, when you gave a presentation. From that point, I looked more into kind of the difference between an IRA and a independent tax account and figuring out, okay, with NRC, it’s the same thing. They don’t take out taxes. And so then —
29:19 Emily: I’ll jump in there and say, because you were on fellowship, because you were not technically an employee, I’m just explaining for the listener, you wouldn’t have had access to the workplace based retirement account, whatever that would be, that they would offer to their full time employees. So you’re still dealing with a stipend, you still have to handle the taxes manually, and you’re really only tax advantaged retirement option would be an IRA. Nothing was being offered through your employer, because you didn’t have an employer.
29:47 Fushcia: Yes. I was a contractor. I did a little bit of…well, I should say I did a lot of research trying to figure out then where I wanted to open an account. I actually ended up going with an online system called Betterment because I did not have the time to actually look into managing my own investments. I think because so much stuff is online, it also made it easy for me, so then I didn’t have to find an office location to go into. In my postdoc now we are considered faculty of the University of Maryland and the University of Maryland is a state run system, so we actually have mandatory investment portfolios and the portfolio that I chose is through the I don’t remember the, the full meaning, but it’s TIAA.
30:53 Emily: Yeah. I don’t know what it stands for either, but TIAA or TIAA CREF.
30:57 Fushcia: I still have my betterment accounts and I haven’t decided how much I’ll be putting into it. They take out just over 7% from my salary for the TIAA account, so I need to figure out what that balance is going to look like. Now I was like, okay, it’s probably about time. I was a little bit nervous about being older, like 31, and just starting to invest. But I think because I don’t have any debts and because, well I have a little bit of credit card debt, but I also just moved for this postdoc. I think that’s why I was finally at a point where I feel confident that I will have a job and I will continue to have income and that’s not going to be something I’ll be lacking anymore. And so now I can fully invest having confidence in, well the system is still problematic, but I at least have confidence that I’m not going to wake up and be without a job.
Learning Debt Management Strategies
32:12 Emily: You said earlier there were maybe some things that you brought out of your childhood that you had an aversion towards debt. A smart one. But you also maybe weren’t exposed to conversations around investing and IRAs, maybe like some of your peers were. Was there anything else that you kind of felt maybe you were a little bit out of step with other people during graduate school, or during your postdocs regarding personal finance. And anything you had to learn or mindsets to change or overcome?
32:44 Fushcia: I think I definitely learned about the healthy ways that you can use credit cards to manage certain debts. I think that that came from conversations with a close friend when I moved for my postdoc. I opened a card to buffer that, and a lot of that helped and realizing that all debt doesn’t have to be bad. That it can help you create a credit score and debt management techniques and strategies, and build out this financial portfolio that can actually then make you have a higher score and more competitive for other loans and things like that. A lot of that came from conversations with friends who had either taught themselves that, or they learned it by proxy from their parents. Just asking about their debt and how they managed it, and then also asking, are you afraid that you won’t pay it off or are you afraid that it’s going to be there forever? Certainly, I remember an ex of mine, she was like, “Yeah, it’s just going be there, and it’s just this thing that I have, and I’ll make payments, and it sucks, but also I have the education that I wanted to get and I’m in the job that I I think through those conversations, it definitely helps release some of the anxiety and like intense fear around debt.
34:48 Fushcia: Listening to webinars or reading your blog, for example, and just trying to educate myself more, so that I’m more informed and that’s definitely alleviated a lot of the fear and anxiety, but I think I still like coupons, I still like things on sale. It’s still really hard for me to pay full price for clothing or a pair of shoes that’s a hundred dollars. I’m like, no, can’t do that. Like you, I’ve been a renter this whole time and I don’t know if I want to buy property or a home. I did buy a car when I moved to Cincinnati, and so I’m making those monthly payments now. Part of it is also okay, well, I’m going to make these payments and pay off my car and then maybe see where I’m at in terms of, if I’m in a permanent position that then I feel more comfortable buying a home. I think some of the approaches I still have to managing that is to have one type of debt at a time. Take on debt, pay it off and take on a new debt, pay it off.
36:10 Emily: Yeah, it sounds like you really have learned much more about, as you were saying earlier, debt management or how you can use debt as a tool, especially to avoid large expenditures of cash. Because it sounds like you still have cash savings to a degree, but it’s more about not wanting to let go of that and using debt to help you basically just hold both to have the cash and to have the debt, so that you can feel, feel more secure around it. Is that right?
36:39 Fushcia: Yeah. I think that’s a really good way of kind of summing that up.
Negotiating a Post-Doc Salary
36:44 Emily: Yeah. And then the other thing that you mentioned that you wanted to talk about in this interview was negotiating your salary, which is also kind of another mindset leap, right? Like not only, maybe from someone coming from the kind of background that you have, but also just being in academia where like with your first postdoc, negotiation is not really an option, but it sounds like you did at your first opportunity, negotiate. Can you tell us how that worked?
37:09 Fushcia: Yeah. To be honest, a lot of it was just like, I know I need to practice this because I know I’ll have to do it at some point, so let me just practice it now because it’s lower stakes.
37:21 Emily: Yeah. Good point.
37:25 Fushcia: Part of that came from in your webinar you had been talking about kind of how you plan for transitions. So either going from your degree to a postdoc, postdoc to a full time permanent position, and managing the moving costs and change in expenses. I had sat down and looked at essentially the cost of living for Annapolis and estimating what my costs are now, and what’s expected to grow. The majority of that, it’s about a 300% increase in housing expenses from Cincinnati to Annapolis. I started there and then looked at how much would I want in savings or investments, and then worked with the business office at SESYNC to then figure out is there a parking cost? Learning about the exact percentage rate that they take out for retirement or investments. Trying to find what are all the other hidden costs and expenses that come with this position so that I could factor that into my budget and then know what would my minimum salary need to be, because I know my minimum payments for my car. I know my cell phone payments. Those are things that I know and then wanting to make sure that it had wiggle room.
38:54 Fushcia: Then I think on top of that, I also wanted to try and stay as close as possible to what I was already making. Certainly, it can be challenging to do that with a different type of postdoc, particularly because this one’s affiliated with the University of Maryland, academic post docs are much slower. But I didn’t want to have this $20,000 drop, because the great thing about the NRC was that they gave a $1,500 increase every year. I came in at $69,000, but then the next year I was making $70,500. So it’s like, okay, well, how close can we get to this?
39:38 Fushcia: Again, a lot of it was using my network, and talking to in particular, a good friend who is now at Cornell. She had just finished her PhD, and she had negotiated her position. Asking her for advice and resources and how you frame what you’re negotiating for and the language that you use so that it’s still appropriate and respectful, but that you’re still firm, in terms of, these are my skills, particularly because I was coming out of a postdoc. I already have almost two years of experience post-PhD, and I’ll have all these other publications, and knowing different questions to ask.
40:22 Fushcia: I wrote up this letter, had a few people review it. Ironically, when I asked my former PhD advisor, she was like, “We don’t do that. If someone were to do that, maybe I’d give like a two to 3000 increase.” But when I had looked up other negotiation strategies on Inside Higher Ed, I used a lot of their articles. They mentioned, I think it’s 15% to 22% is typically what you negotiate as your range, particularly if it’s not a lateral position, if you’re moving up. So I was like, “Okay, we’re going to go for 15%.” And they did not give it to me, but they came close. From there I went back and said, “Okay, based on this salary, could I make it work?” And I could. It’s going to be tight, which is a bit frustrating to have a point where you have more flexibility and you have more expendable income and now it feels a little bit more like being a grad student again where it’s a smaller salary. I have to be more conscious of where my money is going and not spending as much as I was, particularly now that I have a car and all the expenses that are associated with that. But I know that I have the skills to make it work. And at this point I’m also looking for a permanent position after this postdoc. I don’t anticipate after this two year position, being in a situation where I have to kind of penny pinch and reduce costs elsewhere.
42:23 Emily: Yeah. It sounds like you approach that — I mean, it’s clear that you did a lot of research and preparation through that process, not only taking what you learned from the webinar that I gave, but also this research you did with the articles in Inside Higher Ed and in speaking with your friend. You really prepared for that and kind of the best way possible, so it’s a great, it’s a great model for the listeners to hear, especially because you knew that you were going into an almost guaranteed income drop and also a cost of living increase. Both of those factors just highlight the need for being really careful around this. And if your academic advisor said, well, this isn’t done, I mean, it is, it is done sometimes, in some places. Maybe no one’s ever attempted it with her.
43:06 Emily: I want to point the listeners to one of my resources, which is postdocsalaries.com. And there’s also another one PhDstipends.com, for those in graduate school. It’s kind of like a Glassdoor, but for those types of positions, for postdocs and for grad student positions. That’s just another resource out there, if people want to get benchmarks on what is reasonable to be paid for different kinds of postdocs in different areas of the country. And I also ask questions about negotiation on that survey. I think the last time I looked in the database, it was around 25% or maybe a third of the people who had answered the questions had said, yes, I at least attempted to negotiate salary or benefits for the postdoc position. I think it’s becoming more and more popular, as people realize that this is a standard thing you do in most jobs, and why don’t we at least try it in these academic or nonacademic postdocs. That was great story.
43:58 Fushcia: Well, and I think too, salary, while I think it is very important, isn’t the only thing that you can negotiate. You can negotiate moving expenses and you can negotiate time off. I also negotiated my start time because I wanted to finish through my contract at the EPA before coming to SESYNC. That was something that I successfully negotiated. I had picked my top three things of these are the things that I would like, so we’ll see where they can meet me. There’s another postdoc who negotiated because he also was coming out of a previous postdoc and then everyone else who we’ve talked to, we were having a conversation and they were like, I didn’t know that you could do that. And we were like, all they can say is no, especially once they offer you a position, if they want you. If you don’t ask, you’ll never know.
45:02 Fushcia: I would also say for all the listeners that if you are going to any type of public institution, you can look up everyone’s salary, that’s all publicly accessible information. And that was something that I did to give me a sense of what are the ranges for the people that are employed within the center. I had an idea of what their budget is to figure out do I ask for the 15% or I do I ask for the 20% to 25%.
45:29 Emily: Yeah, that’s a great advantage when you’re going to those types of places, that there’s a large degree of transparency around salary there. That’s an amazing thing to look up, if that’s where you’re applying.
Best Financial Advice for an Early Career PhD
45:41 Emily: Last question here, Fushcia, as we wrap up — what is your best financial advice for another early career PhD? And that could be something that we have touched on in this interview, or it could be something completely else.
45:53 Fushcia: I think my first piece of advice would be to do as much research as you can. As grad students, we’re training basically how to do research and conduct research. I think we already have a lot of the skills to be able to access these resources and information and find ways or people to help us get there. I would say that most of the way that I have navigated my finances has been through talking to friends, talking to people who are in positions where I see myself going, and just doing the research and using the academic online journals that are available or financial journals, blogs, anything, and everything that you can capture to try and help inform what the decision that will be best for you, or rather the best decision for you.
47:00 Fushcia: The second thing that I would say is to give yourself more value and credit than what you would default to. I think as a graduate student, postdoc, there’s this expectation that we just kind of have to accept things as they are. And certainly in some cases, yes, that’s true. But I think in a lot of cases, there are always things that are negotiable and that are malleable. I think a lot of that comes down to recognizing how valuable you are, not just as a person, but also as the work and your contributions and that the majority of the people in this country do not have PhDs, so you’re bringing in a very valuable skillset, which, when you’re going into a space where everybody has PhDs, it may not seem like that, but I think it’s important to remind yourself of that.
48:05 Fushcia: I think especially, I say this to women postdocs, women of color, black women postdocs, we are already underestimated in many way. We are already underpaid in many ways, thinking about your initial salary offer or associated benefits. I think because of all the work that’s coming out from the national academies and other research centers about this still huge discrepancy across all fields, I think I use that as a way to empower me to ask for more. Because now it’s not just valuing my work and what I bring, but also recognizing that I’m already going to be undervalued, because of what I look like when I come in the room. I think that would be the last piece of advice that I would say for all the postdocs out there. And this includes folks who are femme or femme-identified. If you’re any type of on the marginalized periphery, ask for more, because again, all they can say is no. And if they take back that offer, then that’s probably not a place you want to go in the first place. Because you want to go where you’re going to be celebrated and valued. Give yourself more value than what you default to.
49:39 Emily: I think you put that so well. That was great. I have nothing to add there. Just everybody go back and listen to that again, listen to it a few more times, especially if you’re in one of these groups that Fuschia just identified. Absolutely.
49:50 Emily: Well, thank you so much for this wonderful interview and it was really a pleasure to speak with you today.
49:54 Fushcia: Yes. Thank you so much. This was really fun. I hope that whoever’s listening has been able to take something away, even if it’s just to know that you’re not the only one that’s in grad school who’s from a low income background or is having anxiety or fear around debt or salary. That’s that’s normal and also you will be okay. Everything will be fine.
50:23 Emily: Love that. Thank you so much.
50:25 Fushcia: Yes. Thank you.
50:27 Emily: Listeners, thank you for joining me for this episode. PFforPhDs.com/podcast is the hub for the personal finance for PhDs podcast. There you can find links to all the episode show notes, and a form to volunteer to be interviewed. I’d love for you to check it out and get more involved. If you’ve been enjoying the podcast, please consider joining my mailing list for my behind the scenes commentary about each episode. Register at PFforPhDs.com/subscribe. 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 Poddington Bear from the Free Music Archive and is shared under CC by NC. Podcast editing and show notes creation by Lourdes Bobbio.
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