The Real Cost of Grad School in the US
Graduate school has a reputation of being difficult, but when Nyesa Enakaya moved to Washington, DC, to start her PhD in chemistry at Howard University, she found the pressures were more than academic. Nearly all chemistry PhD programs come with a guaranteed income, but for some students, the money goes only so far
Enakaya started in a stronger position than many. Not only was she debt-free, but she had savings, and with her parents’ help she made a down payment on a condo near her new institution. Together, her monthly mortgage and homeowners’ association (HOA) fees cost less than renting in the area. This arrangement will also make it possible for her to sell when she graduates.
Her 9-month teaching assistant’s salary of $20,000 sounded like a lot at first, even though it’s less than the average chemistry stipend of $26,000. But as her first school year began, it became clear that her monthly paychecks amounted to roughly the same amount as her mortgage, HOA fees, and utility costs. She had little to nothing left over for all the expenses that typically accompany graduate school, such as health insurance, fees charged by the school, and, of course, food, let alone anything unexpected.
“I just saw my bank account draining,” says Enakaya, now in her fifth year at Howard. “I wasn’t making enough money to support myself, and I was losing all of my savings.”
In chemistry and closely related fields, PhD students almost always receive financial support to cover the cost of their tuition and their living expenses. That’s not true of those in chemistry master’s programs or many who pursue degrees in other areas, such as the humanities and medicine, for which funding is much less consistent. Even so, PhD student stipends in chemistry are never lavish.
While many manage just fine, others quickly learn that their stipends cover much less than they expect or need. Routine costs, including taxes and health insurance, add up quickly. A high cost of living, as in a place like the District of Columbia, undergraduate debt, and unforeseen expenses can all contribute to a financial shortfall and the stress and frustration that accompany it.
However, not everyone struggles. Overall, funding appears to meet students’ needs more often than not. In an American Chemical Society survey conducted in 2019, 62% of US graduate students in the chemical sciences said their financial support was adequate, a decrease of roughly 7 percentage points from 2013.
Amrit Venkatesh says the financial package for his chemistry PhD at Iowa State University, which included a stipend that reached $26,600, seemed reasonably well matched to the cost of living in Ames, Iowa. “I would definitely not call it underpaid,” he says.
After he finished his master’s degree in his native India, Venkatesh at first didn’t seriously consider going to the US for a PhD. He wanted to take time to consider his options, and he assumed that programs in the US would be too expensive for him to afford. After deciding to pursue a PhD in nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, he began looking for a strong program. In the process, he learned that the school that would become his top pick, Iowa State, offered a stipend that he believed he could live on. “I only applied after I was convinced I could make it work,” he says.
While US chemistry graduate students can receive funding from a number of sources, for most students, the institution where they study provides a stipend as compensation for teaching or research. To keep students focused, some institutions discourage or even forbid them from taking on outside jobs.
On average, US schools pay $26,814 for doctoral students working as research assistants and $26,082 for their counterparts working as teaching assistants, according to another ACS survey in 2019, this one of chemistry programs. These numbers, however, obscure enormous variation between both programs and students, who sometimes receive funding from additional sources, such as certain fellowships.
In spring 2014, after struggling to find accurate and up-to-date stipend information online, Emily Roberts launched the PhD Stipend Survey, which now has almost 11,000 entries. The results aren’t perfect—a few entries list unbelievably high amounts—but the survey is the closest thing to a clearinghouse for PhD stipends.
Roberts, who holds a PhD in biomedical engineering, cautions that a dollar amount on its own is meaningless. “Without putting that stipend in the context of the local cost of living, you really don’t yet have any idea of whether that stipend can pay even for basic living expenses,” says Roberts, now the owner of Personal Finance for PhDs.
To account for the cost of living, her survey uses data from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Living Wage Calculator for a single person with no dependents to calculate a living-wage ratio. A ratio less than 1 raises “a red flag,” Roberts says.
Housing, in particular, can strangle students’ finances. The high cost of living near the University of California, Santa Cruz, drove graduate students at this institution to strike in December 2019. They demanded a $1,412 per month raise, an increase they calculated would allow students to spend less than 30% of their pretax income on rent, the proportion recommended by financial experts.
On July 1 of this year, Connor Brandenburg, an organic chemistry student at UC San Diego, got a raise that brought his finances nearly in line with this rule. After his department increased students’ stipends from $31,000 to $34,000 per year, his rent—$897 a month for a studio in university-run housing—accounted for about 32% of his pretax income.
But, within a year and a half, this share may grow substantially. In April 2023, he will have exhausted the 2 years of on-campus housing the university allotted him as a graduate student. Off-campus rents for a comparable studio can run up to $1,700, Brandenburg says, so he’s planning to downgrade.
“I’m 24. I don’t necessarily want to share a room with someone anymore, [but] financially, that may be my only option,” he says.
In addition to rent, graduate students face an expense familiar to undergraduates: fees, which some institutions levy separately from tuition. Like so much else, fees can vary considerably between schools.
This fall, the bill for graduate students at the Georgia Institute of Technology amounted to as much as $1,097 for 10 fees, which include money to fund student organizations, transportation services on campus, and a general-purpose “special institutional” fee.
Most of these charges are recommended by the school’s president and set by the Board of Regents for the University System of Georgia, which includes Georgia Tech. The largest of these fees, the special institutional fee, is an exception. The board instituted it in 2009, at first temporarily, to compensate for state budget cuts. But funding reductions remained in place and so did the fee, growing from $100 to $344 for graduate students.
While Georgia taxpayers may benefit from this shift, the accumulating fees make a difficult situation worse for Krista Bullard, a fifth-year PhD student in chemistry and biochemistry at Georgia Tech. Through a fellowship at the school’s Renewable Bioproducts Institute, Bullard earns $29,000 a year, an amount that she has found doesn’t match the cost of living in Atlanta.
“I have my parents’ car. They pay my car insurance; they pay for my phone,” she says. “I don’t think I could do it on my own.”
Like many other students, she has loans from her undergraduate degree, which add to the financial pressure. The end may be in sight, however, because she plans to graduate in May.
“I’m really pushing for that, mostly because I really can’t afford to stay any longer,” she says.
Fees typically don’t include another common cost: health insurance. Some institutions, including Georgia Tech, require students to purchase plans offered through the school or prove they have comparable coverage. But some programs provide free coverage.
Roughly a year after finishing his PhD, Venkatesh says his financial experience turned out “about the same as what I expected.” That doesn’t mean it was easy. Like many other students, he made the money work through a combination of hard work, self-discipline, and, on occasion, painful trade-offs.
After moving from India, Venkatesh faced a distinct set of financial challenges: he needed to send money back home to his family and, after he got married at the end of his first year, to support his wife, whose visa restrictions severely limited her options for earning income in the US. Tight finances, as well as the demanding work culture of American academia, contributed to the most difficult part of his entire PhD experience: traveling home only twice.
Together, he and his wife carefully managed their money, and Venkatesh figured out a way to supplement his stipend. While at Iowa State, he earned a series of academic honors—fellowships, scholarships, and a prize for research publications—that brought in between $1,000 and $10,000 after each year of his program.
“I have seen graduate students who manage the stipend significantly better than even I did,” he says. “But there were also students who might say the exact opposite, who were really struggling from month to month.”
In contrast, Enakaya’s expectations of living on her stipend evaporated after she started her program at Howard. At first she made do by using her savings and credit cards. She also found work tutoring and teaching, as well as paid summer internships, and her adviser provides her with some additional funding for her research. Her success lining up outside income, however, has come at a cost.
Over the most recent summer, for example, she interned at Brookhaven National Laboratory while teaching biochemistry and a Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) prep course virtually. For 12 weeks, this arrangement kept her away from her research lab at Howard, where she had originally intended to focus her time and energy.
“Going into Howard, I truly didn’t believe that I would have to be taking internships, that I would have to be getting extra jobs,” she says.
The financial prospects for future Howard students may improve, at least to a degree. By 2023, the university plans to increase the 9-month teaching assistant stipend in chemistry and other departments by 20%, to $24,000, according to Dana Williams, dean of Howard’s Graduate School. This decision was based on the cost of living in the DC area, she says in an email.
Others besides teaching assistants may benefit too. Although funded by faculty members’ grants, research assistant stipends match those of teaching assistants and will likely increase too, according to Hua Zhao, the chair of Howard’s Chemistry Department.
The raise would bring Howard’s stipend more in line, although not quite on par, with funding offered to PhD students in chemistry at other DC institutions. Georgetown University and George Washington University both offer full-year support, versus Howard’s 9 months, of more than $35,000.
Looking back, Enakaya says that even if she had fully understood the financial picture, and the prospect of a larger stipend elsewhere, she would not have reconsidered her decision to go to Howard.
“I wanted to go to an HBCU [historically Black college or university]. I want to be surrounded by people that I know support and love me and really want to help me grow not just as a chemist, but as a Black chemist,” she says. “I want to learn from the faculty here, because they’ve had similar stories and similar experiences as me.”
When told her scramble to make the money work sounded stressful, Enakaya says: “Graduate school is stressful. We make it work. We definitely make it work.”
TIPS FROM EXPERTS AND GRAD STUDENTS
Before starting a PhD program
Talk to current or recent grad students
When undergraduates give Sarah Goh, a professor of chemistry at Williams College, lists of programs that interest them, she connects them with Williams alums. “I will say, OK, so email these six people and ask them what the program is like and what their life is like.”
Learn about loans
Payments on many, but not all, student loans can be deferred while you’re in graduate school. Federally subsidized loans are the only ones that won’t accrue interest while you are in a grad program, says Ryan Stuart, a family life and finance educator at Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. Compared with undergrads, grad students pay higher interest rates and are more likely to encounter lifetime borrowing limits.
Ask yourself whether you can afford to live there
When you are close to selecting a program, draft a detailed budget tailored to your individual needs and the local cost of living, says Emily Roberts, owner of Personal Finance for PhDs. As part of your research, ask current students if the stipend is livable, she says.
Before you start your program, Roberts recommends paying down any credit card or other debt and establishing a cash reserve to keep you afloat, in case it takes some time to get your first paycheck. If you anticipate needing additional income and think you’ll have the time, energy, and freedom, she recommends establishing a side job before you start your program.
Talk to fellow grad students
Your colleagues are the “biggest encyclopedia for budgeting finances,” says Katie Johnson, a recent PhD graduate from the University of Nevada, Reno. “The graduate students that have been there for 2, 3, 4 years, they already know how to do it,” she says. Not only do other students know where to find the cheapest rent and phone bill, but they also may become your roommates.
Make a spending plan (aka budget)
“There is literally no way to figure out if you can survive on any amount of income if you don’t have a plan in place,” says Stuart, who finds that people are generally more receptive to the prospect of making a “plan” versus a “budget.” He recommends using PowerPay’s free online planning tools.
Rightsize your housing
Financial experts typically recommend spending no more than 30% of your monthly income on housing. If that share creeps up much higher, “that is a big red warning flag that you need to do the best you absolutely can to downgrade your housing costs,” Roberts says. That can mean getting a roommate or moving, if feasible.
Establish an emergency fund
Whether it’s a car accident or a last-minute trip home, unexpected expenses come up. Stuart recommends that students put aside at least $400 just in case. If you can manage $1,000, all the better; if not, aim to build up to that amount. Once you have a more regular, stable income, try to set aside 3 to 6 months’ worth of expenses, he says.
Start saving now
You may have a hard time imagining retirement right now, but Stuart and others recommend that you start putting something aside for it. Thanks to compounding interest, “even little amounts over longer periods of time are going to be much higher in the long run,” he says.