vnatch

Is the stipend enough?

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Since hearing back about interviews, I've started researching the practical and financial reasons why I should choose one school over another, and I came across a really basic question. Is the stipend awarded by my program meant to be enough to completely live off of? I have been under the assumption that it is, and I've been avoiding worrying about living costs by reminding myself that the amount of money I'm granted is supposed to be enough to live independently. However, is this true? I know I won't have anything close to a lavish lifestyle as a grad student, but is it possible that I'll need to take on even more debt to make it? I'm especially worried about living in San Fransisco, since a friend of mine told me it's so expensive that the UCSF or Stanford stipend would not be enough. 

Similarly, do many grad students also hold part time jobs? The grad students in my undergraduate lab all seem way too busy to work outside of their research, so I'm not sure if this is common or not. 

 

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Wherever you live your biggest expense will probably be housing, so you might want to make that the first consideration. If you are looking at cities with especially high rents, the first thing I would do is check into graduate housing--which is often subsidized.

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2 hours ago, vnatch said:

Since hearing back about interviews, I've started researching the practical and financial reasons why I should choose one school over another, and I came across a really basic question. Is the stipend awarded by my program meant to be enough to completely live off of? I have been under the assumption that it is, and I've been avoiding worrying about living costs by reminding myself that the amount of money I'm granted is supposed to be enough to live independently. However, is this true? I know I won't have anything close to a lavish lifestyle as a grad student, but is it possible that I'll need to take on even more debt to make it? I'm especially worried about living in San Fransisco, since a friend of mine told me it's so expensive that the UCSF or Stanford stipend would not be enough. 

Similarly, do many grad students also hold part time jobs? The grad students in my undergraduate lab all seem way too busy to work outside of their research, so I'm not sure if this is common or not. 

 

It's pretty uncommon to work part time while in graduate school, and I'm guessing that most graduate advisors wouldn't approve. I'd recommend talking to the current students during interviews to see where they're currently living. You could also (subtly) ask if they feel like the stipend is enough to get by comfortably.

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For CS and comp bio phd students it is very common to get internships during the summers that are fairly lucrative. It might be harder for pure bio. It is possible to find a job or consulting gig in which you further your research as well as get things done for them. But most grad schools don't let you "double dip" in terms of have a full time job and get paid by the stipend. Most schools have some clause in their official offer or grad student handbook which states that you cannot work more than x hours per week at another job. I don't know the spread on this, but I've seen x=10.

I do know that stanford subsidizes housing and I assume ucsf does as well. Plenty of people make it work. I would just ask (after interviews, not at interviews) the grad students there if it is a big problem.

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8 minutes ago, AGradStudentHasNoName said:

For CS and comp bio phd students it is very common to get internships during the summers that are fairly lucrative.

Palantir and VMWare pay 7k-7.5k a month for their SE interns, pretty good way to deal with low pay the rest of the year when you just have a stipend/RA

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If you don't have any school debt, I know people who have taken some loans out using FAFSA.  They took out about ~20,000 total for 5.5 years.  Although it sucks having loans, federal loans allow you to be on a plan where you only pay amounts proportional to your future wages.  Both of them have assistant professor status now and have paid off a good amount of their loans. 

I would strongly recommend against any private loans.  Those can really add up and put you in a bind.  Likewise, if you already have undergraduate debt, then adding on 20,000 or 10,000 or whichever isn't the smartest idea.

Edited by BigThomason51

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For most STEM PhD programs, the stipend is intended for you to live off completely. As others mentioned, you are often not allowed to have additional work on the side as part of the "contract" associated with your stipend. For programs that admit international students, they usually try to ensure the stipend is livable because international students must show that they have enough money (either in savings or from the stipend) to survive. And if the school doesn't ensure the stipend is enough, then they are going to lose good international students that don't happen to have a large amount of savings.

There are at least two places you should go to get information about the stipend. First, find your graduate school's financial page where they break down the cost of rent, books, transportation etc. All schools tend to have this breakdown for FASFA and immigration reasons. Here are a couple of examples of various schools. I found these by googling "School name graduate student budget" (sometimes "cost" instead of "budget").
UCLA: http://www.financialaid.ucla.edu/Graduate/Cost-of-Attendance#495241508-2016-2017-graduate-budget
Michigan: https://finaid.umich.edu/cost-of-attendance/
Princeton: https://gradschool.princeton.edu/costs-funding/tuition-and-costs

**Note, if you have a tuition waiver, be sure to subtract that out of these budgets!!

These budgets are "minimum to survive" and it's not the same as "stipend needed to live at the comfort level you want". However, they are a good start because it answers your main question here: Are the stipends offered with the intention of surviving in mind? I would be very hesitant to accept a stipend offer that is below the "best case" numbers provided by the school in order to survive. But it will at least tell you whether the department even thinks about grad students when setting these numbers, or if it's just that they have no money so they offer as much as they can.

The second source of information is to talk to current students about their finances. No need to ask for details (I've had some prospectives ask questions that were way too personal, like literal line item numbers in my household budget....not cool). Instead, ask them if they feel the stipend is enough to live on. Ask them about their current living conditions and whether or not they are in debt. Ask if they are saving money per year and whether they can do fun things like vacations. Also ask how often the stipend is adjusted for cost of living increases. My grad student government just convinced our school to raise the minimum stipend on our campus by $2,000/year to a value of $33,000 per year due to recent increases in rent. We did months of research to make this case. This is the first raise we've had in 2 years and typically the increase is $1,000 every 2 years, so it's double the amount we normally get. When people ask me about the stipend in my area, my answer is something like:

For a single person, the stipend is enough to live comfortably if you share a 2 bedroom place with another student and you live some distance from the school. You'll likely be able to eat out several times a week, but probably better to pack your own lunches. Most students can afford one or two trips home per year to visit family, assuming their family is in the USA, otherwise, they go home once per year or much less, if they're international. Typically, you might save a little bit of money each year, and most students can afford to buy a used car after 2 or 3 years of saving in this way (sooner if they save even more). Students who want to live closer to campus typically find a house that they share with 4 or 5 people total, or live on campus housing, which are either 2-bedroom or 4-bedroom shared units. The only students who can afford a 1-bedroom apartment typically are students who are couples and both couples have some income source (i.e. both students or the partner has a "real" job). 

So, getting that level of information is what you want to learn from students when you visit or Skype or email them! 

Finally, all of the above methods are ways of getting information on how others use the stipend. Every person's situation is unique. I also recommend actually looking up some apartments in each city as well and getting a sense of what you can afford on your stipend and whether you would be happy with that. Do exactly the same work as you would if you had already accepted the offer and were moving. So, look up ads on craigslist and whatever else you use, call up people who are renting out their apartments, etc. 

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Not trying to hijack the thread but I have a related question so thought would post it here. Does guaranteed support mean different things in different places? In my previous university students were supported by a combination of RA and TA jobs but getting a TA job was neither guaranteed nor easy. Similarly, some students ended up not getting any support in summers/holidays if there lab didn't support them through RAs. Now I have seen on some of the websites of universities I have applied to that teaching assistantships seem to be optional. NYU for example mentions that all students will be supported through fellowships and RAs and if they get a TA job the earning from that will be in addition to the stipend. So how exactly does the stipend work in larger/higher ranked universities? Is it guaranteed for the whole year including summers/holidays and is teaching a requirement or something you do for extra money? Also how much does tax usually reduce your stipend (just a rough idea)?

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12 hours ago, abcd1 said:

Not trying to hijack the thread but I have a related question so thought would post it here. Does guaranteed support mean different things in different places? In my previous university students were supported by a combination of RA and TA jobs but getting a TA job was neither guaranteed nor easy. Similarly, some students ended up not getting any support in summers/holidays if there lab didn't support them through RAs. Now I have seen on some of the websites of universities I have applied to that teaching assistantships seem to be optional. NYU for example mentions that all students will be supported through fellowships and RAs and if they get a TA job the earning from that will be in addition to the stipend. So how exactly does the stipend work in larger/higher ranked universities? Is it guaranteed for the whole year including summers/holidays and is teaching a requirement or something you do for extra money? Also how much does tax usually reduce your stipend (just a rough idea)?

I'll try to answer one question at a time:

Does guaranteed support mean different things in different places? Yes, you should read your offer letter carefully to see exactly what they mean. Some schools will guarantee X dollars per year for Y years, while others might only guarantee TA and RAships depending on availability. When considering an offer for a school, definitely clarify any unclear points before accepting an offer. One very good question to ask is what you allude to---ask whether or not everyone who wants a TA or RA ship will get one. 

How does TA stipend work if you have a fellowship? This depends on the school. As you said, some places will pay you X dollars for a fellowship and then give you the option to TA for additional Y dollars. Other places will require you to TA in order to get X dollars. Yet other places will promise you X dollars total without making the offer contingent on working as a TA. However, if you do end up being asked to TA, you don't get paid more money (in reality, your fellowship gets reduced by Y dollars and you earn Y dollars as a TA, but your total stipend is still X).

Is your stipend guaranteed for the whole year? This also depends on the specific offer. I have seen offers that say you get X for 12 months. Other offers say you are funded by X dollars for 9 months as a TA and you have the opportunity to get Y more dollars for the summer months if you can get an RA position. In these cases, see the response to question 1 above---ask for clarification and find out how likely you are to be able to get work that summer.

How much tax? For most stipends in the US, you should expect to pay between 10% and 15% in taxes. If you are an international student, you will pay more tax because as non-resident aliens**, we are ineligible for a lot of the tax deductions. Also, as non-resident aliens, the school is likely to withhold 15% or as much as 30% of the income in taxes, and you'll only get this back when you file your tax return. So even if your tax rate is only 10%, the school might withhold 15% and you will have to budget accordingly. Note that these numbers can be very different based on your personal situation (family size, etc.) as well as whether or not your home country (if you are international) has a tax treaty with the USA.

(**Note: If you have been in the US for more than 5 years plus a bit (e.g. perhaps you did undergrad in the US), then you may be a resident-alien and your taxes will be different. It will be lower and more similar to Americans).

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1 hour ago, TakeruK said:

I'll try to answer one question at a time:

Does guaranteed support mean different things in different places? Yes, you should read your offer letter carefully to see exactly what they mean. Some schools will guarantee X dollars per year for Y years, while others might only guarantee TA and RAships depending on availability. When considering an offer for a school, definitely clarify any unclear points before accepting an offer. One very good question to ask is what you allude to---ask whether or not everyone who wants a TA or RA ship will get one. 

How does TA stipend work if you have a fellowship? This depends on the school. As you said, some places will pay you X dollars for a fellowship and then give you the option to TA for additional Y dollars. Other places will require you to TA in order to get X dollars. Yet other places will promise you X dollars total without making the offer contingent on working as a TA. However, if you do end up being asked to TA, you don't get paid more money (in reality, your fellowship gets reduced by Y dollars and you earn Y dollars as a TA, but your total stipend is still X).

Is your stipend guaranteed for the whole year? This also depends on the specific offer. I have seen offers that say you get X for 12 months. Other offers say you are funded by X dollars for 9 months as a TA and you have the opportunity to get Y more dollars for the summer months if you can get an RA position. In these cases, see the response to question 1 above---ask for clarification and find out how likely you are to be able to get work that summer.

How much tax? For most stipends in the US, you should expect to pay between 10% and 15% in taxes. If you are an international student, you will pay more tax because as non-resident aliens**, we are ineligible for a lot of the tax deductions. Also, as non-resident aliens, the school is likely to withhold 15% or as much as 30% of the income in taxes, and you'll only get this back when you file your tax return. So even if your tax rate is only 10%, the school might withhold 15% and you will have to budget accordingly. Note that these numbers can be very different based on your personal situation (family size, etc.) as well as whether or not your home country (if you are international) has a tax treaty with the USA.

(**Note: If you have been in the US for more than 5 years plus a bit (e.g. perhaps you did undergrad in the US), then you may be a resident-alien and your taxes will be different. It will be lower and more similar to Americans).

That was very helpful. Will certainly do my research before accepting an offer now. Thanks

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On 1/21/2017 at 5:18 AM, vnatch said:

I'm especially worried about living in San Fransisco, since a friend of mine told me it's so expensive that the UCSF or Stanford stipend would not be enough. 

I actually attend UCSF, and live only on my 36k stipend. (AKA, no moonlighting another job). It's totally doable with roommates. I max out a Roth IRA every year, so it's not like I'm scraping by not planning for the future.

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20 minutes ago, babybird said:

I actually attend UCSF, and live only on my 36k stipend. (AKA, no moonlighting another job). It's totally doable with roommates. I max out a Roth IRA every year, so it's not like I'm scraping by not planning for the future.

A note about this: be careful about IRAs. I was told by a financial advisor that grad students aren't actually allowed to contribute to Roth IRAs (or any IRA) unless you get W2s. I've looked it up as well and it seems true in the tax code. It's weird and dumb, but at my school we don't get any forms about taxes whatsoever (and no withholding) and thus our stipend isn't considered "earned compensation." So we have to pay estimated taxes AND we can't contribute to IRAs. Super annoying

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The Professor Is In writes about this issue a lot. I can say for sciences, you usually get a tutition waiver and and stipend that you're supposed to live off of. That stipend can be an RA, TA, or Fellowship. But the dirty secret is A LOT of people can't live on those stipends.

I second what everyone else said about asking your program and the students in it directly. Many people end up taking out loans in grad school because that $15,000-$20,000 stipend isn't so easy to live off when you factor in University fees (even aside from the tuition waiver, sometimes there are additional fees that go to the Department or college itself), the fact that sometimes you are only paid for the 9 month academic year instead of the 12 month actual year, research costs, travel costs, conference fees, health insurance premiums, cost of living in an expensive city, kids and family obligations, and heaven forbid any medical problems. Sometimes you're only guaranteed funding for a limited time. Sometimes your PI's grant dries up. I've heard horror stories where grad students have gotten external grants, but when those grants are spent the Department tells the student there isn't any funding for them because they gave it to someone else once they got the external money.

So yeah. Really double check how much money you're getting, and under what conditions that money is allotted. Then ask other students to see how they're living.

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On 1/31/2017 at 1:56 PM, Lycaon pictus said:

The Professor Is In writes about this issue a lot. I can say for sciences, you usually get a tutition waiver and and stipend that you're supposed to live off of. That stipend can be an RA, TA, or Fellowship. But the dirty secret is A LOT of people can't live on those stipends.

Wow, this article and the raw data behind it is scary. As an international applicant in my early 30s, this is making me seriously worried, especially given the opportunity cost. Not knowing how many things in the US work and what to watch out for is also pretty scary (for example, medical insurance in my country is VERY affordable and has almost no co-pay) :blink:

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On 1/31/2017 at 3:26 AM, Lycaon pictus said:

The Professor Is In writes about this issue a lot. I can say for sciences, you usually get a tutition waiver and and stipend that you're supposed to live off of. That stipend can be an RA, TA, or Fellowship. But the dirty secret is A LOT of people can't live on those stipends.

I second what everyone else said about asking your program and the students in it directly. Many people end up taking out loans in grad school because that $15,000-$20,000 stipend isn't so easy to live off when you factor in University fees (even aside from the tuition waiver, sometimes there are additional fees that go to the Department or college itself), the fact that sometimes you are only paid for the 9 month academic year instead of the 12 month actual year, research costs, travel costs, conference fees, health insurance premiums, cost of living in an expensive city, kids and family obligations, and heaven forbid any medical problems. Sometimes you're only guaranteed funding for a limited time. Sometimes your PI's grant dries up. I've heard horror stories where grad students have gotten external grants, but when those grants are spent the Department tells the student there isn't any funding for them because they gave it to someone else once they got the external money.

So yeah. Really double check how much money you're getting, and under what conditions that money is allotted. Then ask other students to see how they're living.

 

On 2/1/2017 at 8:05 AM, Forest Owlet said:

Wow, this article and the raw data behind it is scary. As an international applicant in my early 30s, this is making me seriously worried, especially given the opportunity cost. Not knowing how many things in the US work and what to watch out for is also pretty scary (for example, medical insurance in my country is VERY affordable and has almost no co-pay) :blink:

Now i am worried.  Don't most programs offer medical insurance?  

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12 minutes ago, cuteDr22 said:

 

Now i am worried.  Don't most programs offer medical insurance?  

Typically yes, but it may vary from 9 month to 12 months depending on the program. I would recommend looking at the graduate program handbook (they are usually on the specific department website) or contacting the graduate coordinator at these programs. If you cannot get insurance you may qualify for medicaid or low-cost insurance. 

Edited by BSB825

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On 1/25/2017 at 8:00 PM, Butterfly_effect said:

A note about this: be careful about IRAs. I was told by a financial advisor that grad students aren't actually allowed to contribute to Roth IRAs (or any IRA) unless you get W2s. I've looked it up as well and it seems true in the tax code. It's weird and dumb, but at my school we don't get any forms about taxes whatsoever (and no withholding) and thus our stipend isn't considered "earned compensation." So we have to pay estimated taxes AND we can't contribute to IRAs. Super annoying

How does one get a stipend by no W-2? And it sounds like no withholding either. Something sounds off. Don't doubt this is true for you, but your arrangement is likely more the exception than the rule. 

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1 hour ago, cuteDr22 said:

Now i am worried.  Don't most programs offer medical insurance?  

Most programs offer medical insurance. However, the amount of coverage and the cost of coverage varies a lot from school to school. There are some programs, for example, that do not have any prescription coverage in their school-offered program. Other schools will only pay for your insurance premiums in the semesters you work as a TA. And when schools pay for your insurance premiums, the amount of benefits ranges a lot (some only pay 50%, some pay the whole thing, others pay like 80%). Finally, even with coverage, there are still lots of out of pocket expenses for serious conditions. I know several people that need to pay several thousand dollars per year to manage their health, even with insurance. The stories in the linked website highlight the fact that many PhD stipends barely cover basic expenses so many students who have additional costs might go into debt.

1 hour ago, DiscoTech said:

How does one get a stipend by no W-2? And it sounds like no withholding either. Something sounds off. Don't doubt this is true for you, but your arrangement is likely more the exception than the rule. 

If you are on a fellowship, you don't get a W-2 for that income. You get a letter every year from HR saying that this isn't earned compensation, ie. it says "you are awarded this money but you provided no services" or something like that. 

For Americans at my school, they get a 1099-MISC instead and there is no withholding.  But this doesn't mean that they don't pay taxes. Instead, now they must file quarterly taxes or potentially pay the penalty at the end of the year.

For international students, we get a 1042-S instead of a W-2 if we are paid on fellowship funds. There is withholding though. Mine is withheld at 14%. 

Finally, to clarify, sometimes you are told that your money is coming from a "fellowship" even though behind the scenes it is not. This might be true for internal fellowships. So in those cases you still get a W-2. So while most things called fellowships are considered fellowships for tax purposes, note that sometimes there is a difference in how things are treated in the tax code and the name of the money source.

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7 hours ago, TakeruK said:

 Finally, even with coverage, there are still lots of out of pocket expenses for serious conditions. I know several people that need to pay several thousand dollars per year to manage their health, even with insurance. The stories in the linked website highlight the fact that many PhD stipends barely cover basic expenses so many students who have additional costs might go into debt.

The American health insurance system is truly bewildering :blink: If that ever happens to me, I might just pack up and go home :mellow:

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2 hours ago, Forest Owlet said:

The American health insurance system is truly bewildering :blink: If that ever happens to me, I might just pack up and go home :mellow:

Yes, I know some people joke about that (especially since Canada is home and it's relatively close!), but this was really my backup plan. I never had to do it, but there was a short period of time where I thought I would have to choose between continuing my degree or $10,000 in debt for medical expenses. In the end things worked out though, luckily. 

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17 hours ago, DiscoTech said:

How does one get a stipend by no W-2? And it sounds like no withholding either. Something sounds off. Don't doubt this is true for you, but your arrangement is likely more the exception than the rule. 

I'm on an external fellowship (not on my PI's grant money) and just get at 1098T and get paid by a "refund receipt" at my school, as if I overpaid on a bill or something its weird. It is a very sneaky way to do a direct deposit to my bank. No withholding at all, no W-2 and no contributing to Roth IRA and I need to file estimated taxes quarterly. Before I got award I used to be on my Pi's grant and did get a W-2. Grad students not on fellowships (RA/TA) get normal W-2s and withholding, which is probably >90% of my program.

Edited by mop

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On 2/3/2017 at 3:05 PM, DiscoTech said:

How does one get a stipend by no W-2? And it sounds like no withholding either. Something sounds off. Don't doubt this is true for you, but your arrangement is likely more the exception than the rule. 

It's actually not that uncommon based on asking when I interviewed at other neuro programs. I think it really depends how you're funded though. If you TA, you get a W2 for that work, but students who just research get no forms whatsoever. Since my program doesn't have a teaching requirement, we are never given W2s. It kind of sucks; I'd much rather get paid normally and be able to have an IRA. 

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1 hour ago, Butterfly_effect said:

It's actually not that uncommon based on asking when I interviewed at other neuro programs. I think it really depends how you're funded though. If you TA, you get a W2 for that work, but students who just research get no forms whatsoever. Since my program doesn't have a teaching requirement, we are never given W2s. It kind of sucks; I'd much rather get paid normally and be able to have an IRA. 

I find that me and most of my colleagues are not really in a situation where contributing to an IRA is very practical. The main reasons are that 1) we don't really make that much money that we can save and 2) with the small amount of excess money, there are more immediate needs than IRAs (e.g. buying a car, saving for a home, paying off student loans).

For me, I'm Canadian and have no plans to retire in the US. We have a IRA-like program too in Canada ("RRSP") and my plan is to contribute to this plan later on. Like some IRAs, money contributed to a RRSP is tax-free. With RRSPs, there is an annual limit on how much you can contribute to, however, that money does not have to come from income earned that year (no idea if this is the case for IRAs). The limit is some percentage of your taxable income and whatever you contribute in a tax year reduces your taxable income for that year by the same amount. I've had some RRSP contribution room for some years now, before I started grad school, so my plan is to hoard the few thousands I've saved during grad school and dump whatever I can afford into a RRSP when I return to Canada with a full time job. This will reduce my tax owing in the year I return and save myself a nice bundle of money! I think that even if I was in Canada right now for grad school (where we do get the equivalent of a W-2 for our stipends), I would still wait until I earned more money before contributing to a RRSP since you get a much bigger tax break when you are in a higher tax bracket than as a grad student (especially since for most people in my field, your post-PhD income will at least double). And with the low interest rates, I think you still "win" by waiting just a few years compared to contributing while in school.

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