Grad School, Personal Finance, Self-Care

Achieving PhD Happiness: Put Your Finances First

As many of you know, one of my claims to fame is transforming myself from a broke PhD drop-out into a clinical research professional with a penchant for budgeting and personal finance. However, I didn’t leave that life completely behind, some of my closest friends are students who are approaching the light at the end of the PhD tunnel!

A major problem with the current state of academia is the atrocious pay and even worse job prospects after graduation. Not to mention the crushing student debt that will come to collect after that 6 month grace period flies by… So what’s a doctoral student to do? How does one stay sane (and financially above water)??

I’ve invited my dear friend, Sarah–fellow bone woman and partner in academic crime–to share her story of how she broke the mold and turned the all-too-familiar trials and tribulations of grad school into a lifestyle that works for her. She’s a pretty resourceful lady and smart as hell, so I’ve no doubt she’ll be making another appearance on BB soon…


Sarah in her natural habitat  

I am a Ph.D. candidate with a full time job.

I did not make the choice to work and finish my dissertation easily. I must have weighed the pros and cons with friends hundreds of times, but there is one reason we never discussed at length…


I took a full-time job to be happy.

My path to happiness is not for everyone, and it is a long path I am still trying to navigate. I hope by sharing my story I can inspire you to have the confidence to find happiness in all aspects of your life, even when the social constructs of your work environment dictate that you shouldn’t, because that’s how it’s always been done.

Let’s just dive right in…

I always had two jobs at a time throughout my undergraduate education. I was a babysitter, part-time nanny, preschool assistant, teaching assistant at my university, camp counselor, camp program specialist, and camp program director. And when I wasn’t working I was at school, with my friends, or giving back to my community. I wore many hats during my four years in college, and I loved it. In fact, I thrived on being busy with school, working with children, and using my time and resources to help others. This all stopped when I went to graduate school.

I moved to Atlanta, GA to pursue a Master’s degree in Anthropology and, in that first year, I also got married. It’s something of a faux pas to work and pursue an academic career at a graduate level, but I worked a few babysitting jobs here and there, but mostly lived on student loans. My first semester, I went into a depression and took my first ever incomplete in two classes. I was busy with school, of course, but I struggled to fill my time, and there were many, many lonely hours.

Long story short–I adopted a dog, and I am pretty sure she is the only way I stayed sane enough to finish my degree.

Despite the emotional struggles of my Masters, I moved to Arkansas to pursue my PhD. I knew–this time–things needed to be different. I had my pup, but I also volunteered at the public library, I tried adult ballet, and I even started a graduate student club in my department. I was busy with school and attempted to once again fill my personal life.

However, the more I tried to find fulfillment, the more negativity I received. My spouse either complained that I didn’t spend enough time with him or that our immaculate house was dirty (SPOILER ALERT: we divorced). If I mentioned any extra-curricular activities in person or on social media, I received comments laced with disapproval from various academics in my department.

I was miserable.

I knew I needed to make changes in my life. My 30s are looming and I should be much happier! So…

I left my husband and left the country (I had to to collect my dissertation research, but regardless, it came at a great time). I spent three months in Tanzania and almost didn’t come back. No one bothered me or judged me while I was there. But come back I did, to debts my ex wasn’t paying, no spousal support, the stress of school, the stress of applying for jobs that are virtually non-existent while writing my dissertation, and all while making no more than $12,000 a year.

For the first time in SIX years I got a summer job. But then my summer job became a full-time job, and now I am a PhD candidate with a full-time job.

I did not apply for the full-time job without a lot of thought. If volunteering and having hobbies were met with disapproval by academics, you better believe they would hate me having a full-time job. But I was tired of letting this antiquated attitude about graduate education influence my life choices, and my education. I had bills to pay, and making double my current salary plus benefits was tempting me every day the job stayed posted.

I needed to lift the financial weight off my shoulders.

When I graduate, I want an academic or non-profit job with a respectable income and benefits (benefits are a big deal if you haven’t figured that out already). Achieving this goal before graduating lifted a major source of stress off my shoulders–financial security.

But I’ll level with you–I would do this job for the same pay and benefits I was receiving at the university (I can say that now because they are already paying me more) because I LOVE what I do. Yes, I needed a job to feel more financially secure, but I also wanted THIS job because it filled a place in my heart that had been broken and empty for too many years.

I don’t see me taking a full time job as hindering my academic career. I am making the career I want for myself. I am gaining on-the-job experience developing curriculum, applying for grants, soliciting donations, working within the confines of a budget, and every day I get to teach and spend time with some pretty amazing kids (see how that came full circle).

I have no idea what my future will bring and what trajectory my career will take, but I do know I have less stress about my career and education than ever before. I took back my education and my life, and am making the most out of every chance I have to learn on and off campus.

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