27 and a PhD

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Search topics – a semi organized Q and A

I’ve been “collecting” some of the topics or search terms that people use to get to this blog. I’ve compiled a list of the ones I think are a) the more interesting, b) the more common or c) both. Read on! If you have questions, feel free to comment and leave your take on things:

  1. Things to consider in a grad school– you can check my take on this here
  2. Tax on postdoc salary in the US – it depends, but usually little to no taxes are taken out of you paycheck .. which sucks! So plan accordingly, you can check the IRS’s site and the 1040 tables of salaries to get an idea of how much money you should be saving out for tax season. I really never got why a) stipends are taxable (stupid Reagan) or b) why taxes are not taken out. Yes, I get it, you are not technically an employee, but you still need to fill out a W2 form, etc, so why no designate a category for grad students and postdocs and take out the appropriate amounts to you plan accordingly with what should really be left off from your paycheck (after taxes). Or not take taxes from us at all .. after all, it’s not like we can qualify for food stamps (though we should!).
  3. How you feel after finishing a PhD ? – exhausted … At least that’s how I felt. I dunno about others, but I as so eager for the defense to be over, and for questions, and corrections and all things PhD-related to be over so I could finally breathe normally and not worry about having an unfinished thesis, or the wait, which truly was what was killing me. I desperately wanted to sleep until mid-day, ha! You also feel a bit emotional. I didn’t cry. I was too tired, or just ready to move on. But had I had the strength I would have done it. Finally, you feel like partying, celebrating, telling the whole world to suck it because you are a newly minted PhD.
  4. How hard is doing your PhD – It’s a long process, for some it is like a┬ácontinuation of your master’s. It’s difficult because you spend so much time in what I can only describe as a hole, where the end does not seem near (or at least near enough), where you feel isolated (and sometimes you are because your family and closest friends can be MILES apart), from the personal point of view, yes, it’s hard. It may be hard from the professional point of view if you don’t get along with your lab members, or your PI, or if your thesis committee is not good or appears to be unsupportive. It depends, but besides the debt (if you are not funded, or partially funded), other aspects that can make doing a PhD harder than usual are related to relationships with coworkers, or family, or significant other … or that your program, department, or school suck and it’s hard to wake up every morning and face these people or situations. The topic you choose can make things difficult, say, if you have WAY too many competitors, or if your PI dies (which has happened, I saw it at least twice in my old school), or if you envision getting out in a certain amount of years and those years pass and the prospect of finishing does not seem to get close. I think each of us face a different array of situations that make doing a PhD hard.
  5. What things do i need for an interview – I’m guessing this is referring to the PhD interview … my take can be found here.
  6. Getting out of debt while in grad school -this may partially relate to question #2, but it also depends on whether you incurred in debt previous to enrolling in grad school. I was lucky (or blessed enough) not to incur in debt while doing my B.S. (bachelor’s degree in science) due to external funding and good grades. If you carry 100K in debt and enroll in grad school, you may want to start funneling some money to cover those costs. I don’t know how US federal loans for undergrads work, but sometimes costs are (or can be) deferred until you have finished school altogether. Thus, you may feel like some of the pressure is off. The getting out of debt part is important because it depends on how the debt came to be. If you’re a girl and dream of getting a Cinderella wedding (with horses and a carriage, 2k people in attendance, etc and you get a loan to pay for that dream wedding, then you really have to analyze things with a cold head, and see if what you want is a pompous ceremony, or you want an actual marriage, or if you don’t mind adding more money to the pile that’s already there). If what you want is an actual marriage, and you are also carrying 100k in debt from undergrad, I’d say, postpone the ceremony, wait and save, and try to pay for the dream day out of pocket (possibly with adjustments to the dream). If you’re a guy and HAVE to have all those cool gadgets for your Wii, or you change flat TV’s more often than you change the oil on your car … then you might be going in a downward spiral too. I’ve seen so many people avoid debt and have a lovely marriage, or a kick ass TV that they got the old way, by saving and maybe getting a new one but not THE latest one (after all, who has THAT much time to be in front of th TV for long periods of time when tons of data are waiting to be collected and analyzed), while managing to survive in grad school with a small stipend. It all comes down to priorities. I’d say try to find a debt counselor (if you’re not sure on how to attack that stubborn debt), and start paying it off ASAP. If you can put off the paying the debt for a few more years, try then to get a high-yield savings account and start funneling money towards that account, so when you get out and bills start piling up you can buffer out the situation .. especially when we are coming out of a recession so s-l-o-w-l-y. In my case I got in debt because I wanted to live the high life while spending more than I was earning while in grad school with the “aid” of credit cards …. I’ve learned my lesson. I’m prioritizing and trying to pay off that debt …., but it’s REALLY hard … temptation to spend is always there, so it all depends on you. It depends on what your long term goals and what it’s available to you and how soon you want to live debt free and enjoy the fruits of your labour.
  7. Does having a long PhD examination end up in failure? I don’t know about this. I had a LONG qualifying examination period, but my thesis defense and the true defense (behind closed doors) flew by. I guess it all depends on the examination committee, and/or how things usually flow in the department. I’d say that you can get an idea from upper level grad students (either in your group or in your department) about what to expect, or better yet, ask your PI (boss or mentor)) if he/she is serving in examination committees what is usual and what to expect. My PhD boss was always there for me to ask questions (no matter how silly they were) and she told me what transpired at the meeting. She also related how previous students’ examinations had been so I was clued in as to what to expect during any meetings I had with my thesis committee. I’m inclined to favour the notion that the length of time is not necessarily a bad thing, and that they may just be curious. But it all boils down to how each committee is and what is usual for them.
  8. Starting a family during your PhD – This is a great query term. Personally, I’m against starting a family in the middle of the PhD … my answer is along the line of what I stated on search term #4. I was in a relationship at the beginning of my grad school career. I swore that I’d be married and life would be good (and maybe I’d leave grad school if I became preggo just because I wanted to be a good mother, and a good wife). Things changed along the way, we broke up and ex BF started his own family later on. I realized that part of the reason he did this (and he even admitted this to his mom) was that he did not want to be alone. I get it, grad school is a long and arduous time … but you shouldn’t seek refuge in a starting family (in my opinion) to “avoid” dealing with grad school. I’m also against starting a family while in grad school because I know I cannot handle a gazillion things at one time. I had a hard enough time managing a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship as it was and planning a wedding or planning a pregnancy (yup, if you know you want to get pregnant and your quals or defense are coming up you’d better time things so that all the dates won’t conflict) were not things I wanted to add to the already HUGE pile of worries I carried with me everyday to my lab. I say this too because one of my labmates got pregnant the year before she defended. My former boss, in a very condescending tone asked, her is she and her hubby had planned the baby. She got a lot of heat from her family for not staying at home and enjoying her pregnancy, and once her baby was born she faced some heat once again because she was “neglecting” her kid while finishing her degree. I’m a liberal, that’s no secret, so to me, leaving the baby at home with a nanny or sitter was no biggie, a necessary “perk” of capitalism. She had to do what any working woman has to do if her “job” does not provide for on-site baby care. I thought that the criticisms were crap and that she was being unjustly and unfairly targeted for being a woman and for wanting to have a career AND daring to finish what she had started. For those reasons I avoided getting married and pregnant, because as we all know the moment you get married both family and “friends” start minding your business asking you when will the babies come (so stupid!). On the flip side, my friend who I mentioned a few lines ago manages to have a lovely family and though she’s left science since, she cherishes the time she spent and her education. I’ve met tons of couples who make it work, who made it work while I was in grad school. I’d say that if you have your priorities straight and you know what you can handle, go for it. On the other hand, if you get too stressed about EVERYTHING, and/or have a hard time juggling various responsibilities that can ultimately affect your performance at school, the you may want to postpone starting a family until things are more settled and a secure financial future is within reach. Whatever you decide, remember it’s your life and ultimately you should make the decisions, not based on what I or your parents or boss says .. but on what feels right for you.

As other topics make their appearance I’ll add them and add my POV or take on things. Good luck and happy research!

Some things to do PRIOR to your start in grad school – Part 1

Continuing with series of entries inspired by the search themes that lead people to this blog, this entry deals with a couple of things you would probably like to consider prior to the start of you PhD (may possibly apply to doing any kind of degree after your university degree/diploma). My previous entry dealt with “crazy thing to do AFTER completing your PhD“.

This discussion is not meant to be super extensive. I, by no means, am an autority on relocation issues or super extensive to-do lists, but having moved from a decent-sized city in the South of the US to Canada gives me some insight into the whole application, relocation, etc processes.

Before I started in grad school these were some of the aspects I considered:

  1. Created a list of possible places you’d like to apply for grad school. Do not look at ranks only… check blogs, email people, visit sites and if possible drive up to the place(s) and check out your surroundings. The school I did my PhD at does a fall undergrad open house for any student within 50-100 miles away from school that might be interested in pursuing a degree at that institution (they pay or reimburse students for the expense, so if your unsure of how the process of applying to grad school is, or what topics are the “hottest” at a particular institution, look for open houses). I mentioned the not to pay attention just to the rankings because a school might be #1 in a certain program that you like and may end up not having the specific project (s) or emphasis of that attract you (no, a degree from an Ivy League school in a topic or department you hate is NOT the best thing to do), or may be a hell-hole or any other number of things. I’m not advising that you should completely ignore those rankings, they are there for a reason, but you should also pay attention to quality of life, outdoor activities, proximity to places/cities/etc of interest. Pay attention to what you do or would like to do in your free time, and then look to see if the university or city offer it. I have several friends who ended up quitting their programs at SUPER well known schools because they hated the location. If you like museums, or photography a place like Chicago or NY might be more appealing than a tiny school in the deep south … just sayin’.
  2. I knew I would not like to spend thousands of dollars applying to schools. Some schools waive the costs of applications if done online. The school I ended up going has been waiving application fees since probably around 2002 … while schools like Yale or Harvard used to ask (I currently don’t know if they waive app fees) upwards of 70$. Therefore, in the middle of the recession, it might be better to first consider schoold that waive costs of applications, etc. Now, you might still need to express mail some other documents, but if you are budget conscious, free app places are a first place to look. This info is listed on the sites. Alternatively, if you are like a guy I used to date, he went to the grad school office he was doing a summer internship and asked for a waiver. Schools do have waivers, all you need to do is ask, so if you have this advantage, use it.
  3. You will need to set up things like a bank account (if you currently have one with a bank that’s totally unknown at the place where you’ll be going), cable, internet, electricity, and other services. Add all those costs and see how much money you would usually spend in a month. Candid blogs like mine have mentioned the cost of living as a grad student and now as a postdoc, so that’s another avenue for finding out such info. Ask students or visit sites to get informed about costs of living and plan, plan and plan how to properly budget your money (if you don’t have a clue Dave Ramsey’s site is a good starting place). My advice is always to try and plan and find out as much info as you can, that way you might end up having less pleasant cost “surprises” that if you just went uninformed.
  4. Check out transportation options. I bought my car on the 3rd month of being in the new place since moving about the city I lived in for 6 years was especially difficult for walkers. Check out public transport sites, costs, etc. Some schools might have passes for grad students. Check distances to places like grocery stores, pharmacies, etc and estimate if public transport is an option. Otherwise you might need to consider carpooling, or buying a car .. if you don’t have one already.
  5. If possible … avoid at ALL costs getting into debt. It sucks to be a 1st year grad student, I know. Money is often tight, you might be in a completely different city from the one you did your undergrad, you might feel all alone and it’s tempting to try and get a place of furnished and pretty FAST. But trust me, if you are debt free by the time you’re out of college, try to stay on that track. That way more more can be spent eating a nicer places and avoiding the 33 cent Ramen noodle diet. Used furniture is a smart option to try and start furnishing your place. Warehouses and factory stores for furnishings are another option.
  6. Because of # 5, I’d say try to put as many pennies into a savings account, or an envelope PRIOR to starting grad school. By the end of my senior year in college I had saved ~3000 USDs, which were quickly drained by books, rent, deposits here and there and getting some furniture (bed, mattress, table and a TV). All those things and more add up in the end, causing a major dent to your pocket.
  7. Take the appropriate exams, like the GRE … and if you are not a native speaker, you might need to provide the school with a TOEFL, or similar language proficiency test/proof.

Like I said, those are some of the things to take into account. In the next installment, I’ll discuss some things to take into account during and after the application and interview process. Part 3 will be dedicated to discussing some of the things you may need to take into account after accepting an offer and moving to the place where you’ll end up getting your degree.

******** I claim no financial gain or authorship of the images included in this post. I used them to help illustrate some of the points I mention in this entry. But, if you like them, please visit PhDcomics.com … the site is AWESOME!

I got my paycheck …. spending money Part II

On my previous entry I went on and on about getting paid, and how my postdoctoral stipend would be split between debts and must-pays now that I’ve moved.

I think I mentioned that I finally opened a bank account in Canada. It ONLY took me like 3-4 weeks. It’s the very first thing it says you should do in the new postdoc arrival manual/document you get but I kept postponing it, always saying I had no time. Anyways, so that was done, and like I said before, I would need to split the money into 3 big areas 1) old debts I dragged on while in grad school (an unnecesary thing, since I was being paid relatively well, but I went over some of the isues that helped my overspending), 2) new debts and responsibilities (like rent and car insurance, to mention just a few), and 3) save some of the stipend to cover next years’ tax filing season, since a good portion is NOT taken out of my monthly stipend, I *must* try and save some money so I won’t be caught by surprise by the thousands of $ I need to pay Canada Revenue (I know this because a) my BF has to go through this and he’s been here for a while, and b) another postdoc in my lab asks me questions about how/if I’ve set things up .. I kind of think of him as a big brother).

I decided that since I have to figure a way to pay my debts and get used to the system up here in Canada, I would only take a small portion of August’s pay and move it to savings, while leaving a good portion to cover the remaining debts and unfinished business after the move. Next month I should start adding the ~25% of my paycheck that will more than likely go into the taxes for next year. I have some experience on this, since when I was in the States I was funded by a training grant and nothing was taken out of my paycheck. After learning how to file the 1040, I estimated that ~1800 bucks should have been taken out through the whole period I was covered. Since I though I was super rich (due to a small settlement) and I was invincible (due to my own stupidity) I had to dip into my settlement money to cover those ~2K during tax season. IT HURT PEOPLE.

I have a super dutiful and responsible BF (at least with money … hell, with pretty much everything), I’m going to let him check out my chequing and savings accounts to monitor the progress while saving money for next year’s tax season. I won’t grant him direct access (by means of username and password) to my account, but I will ask him to ask me to show him my account every week so he can keep an eye on how’s my spending and saving going. I hope that next year, in April I’ll be pleasantly surprised when I don’t have to use a credit card to cover my tax payment. And from what I’ve heard, I may even see some of it back!! But I’d rather be conservative on this issue and just not expect anything from the government.

I got my paycheck yesterday, and in just a few hours, 1000$ …. yes people, one thousand dollars, had disappeared. You might ask how. Well, I asked to money orders to cover the minimum payment of 2 CC’s. I’ll cover the other one by using the little money that’s left on my US bank account. The money orders were ~7$ each … a bit on the expensive side (but then again, Canada seems super expensive to a newly minted PhD who used to shop at Walmart for groceries and just about everything). The exchange rate was a bit brutal (not too bad), but for a money order in USD of ~150$, I ended up paying ~180 CADs … yes people, that is 30 extra bucks for being irresponsible while using credit cards. I tell you, when I get out of these debts, I will have a plastectomy and for sure that will be the very best day of my life (a decent close enough time is my thesis defense). The rest of the money went to savings, paying the BF for covering the remainder of the rent at the new place (~200$).

All this brings me to a buzz article I just read on Yahoo! http://buzz.yahoo.com/buzzlog/92967?fp=1. It’s about this British young woman who squandered the money coming from winning the lottery. She says she now has only 32K out of more than 1 million dollars. She spent the money on frivolous things like a boob-job and drugs, parties and designer clothes. It all brings back some really painful memories of the times I spent at the mall, avoiding getting ready for the qualifying exam while getting new (and rather uncomfortable) Nine West boots. I think back of the great chance I had of getting rid of debt and I didn’t do it. I should be left with >1500$ a month after taxes and rent and the usual spending, I should be saving to have the wedding of my dreams (if that ever happens), but more importantly, I should be saving to enjoy the fruits of my labour, to save for retirement now that I’m still young, to make sure than 30-40 years for now I have access to a decent quality of life, and I don’t end up like some of the old people who used to greet me at my local Walmart while in the States … they had to work to basically eat and get some sort of health coverage. I should also be able to buy what I want, cash, without incurring in debt. I should be able to plan for a good vacay that lets me focus on relaxing and learning, and taking pics, not worrying about what happens if I don’t get a good review next year and my contract is not renewed.

Please people, learn and apply that knowledge while you’re still young. I just turned 28 two months ago, yet I feel like I’m drowning in debt … all because of my irresponsibility.

On a final note, I’ve started doing experiments. I work in a lab that does research associated with a very serious neurological disorder (a topic I avoided like a plague while in grad school) …. thankfully I don’t need to work directly with neurons or rats, mice or anything that nasty, and I’ll be doing a lot of biochemistry (the main reason I took the job) and a different kind of structural biology (the second reason I chose the lab/job). I’ll update later on how my biochemical and microbiological skills are coming along, but for now, I’m pretty happy and satisfied with what I’m doing.

I must go now to get some shut eye for tomorrow’s experiments. I’ll update more later this month on how the spending is going and whether all my money orders made it safely and timely to the other side of the border.


Postdoc salary and how to live on/with it – Part 1

So, this Friday I get my first official postdoc check …. YES!!! Well, I shouldn’t celebrate, being that I will need to spend most of it to a) buy health coverage, b) get furniture to replace the pieces I left/sold prior to relocating, and c) pay some of the more than 20k I ran in debt while being in grad school.

I also need to take into account that out of my >3000 CADs stipend (Canadian dollars), I must save ~25% for when tax season comes. I’d love to pay my 23,793$ in debt in no time, but for the first few months I’m here I’d also like to save some money for (hopefully) next year’s vacay with the boyfriend and his parents. I also need a computer, possibly a laptop since my 2004 Dell is in good condition, but has no monitor and runs a bit slow (plus I don’t have a personal computer at work, I used to have one when I was in grad school).

Let’s break down the monthly costs of living as a postdoc and sharing an apartment with the BF:

  1. Rent is 985$, which we break in half.
  2. Cell phone – ~50$
  3. Car insurance – for 2 people 230$ (I know it’s a lot, I didn’t shop around).
  4. Card payments: Card 1- owe 14100, with a minimum payment of 350/mo. Card 2- owe 4600, with a min. payment of 130$. Card 3-owe 4090, with a min. payment of 95$ and a 4th account, for which I owe 930$.

This does not take into account gas expenses for the car, and any maintanance fees/charges associated with keeping your car running and functioning well. It also does not take into account that I rarely cook, since I’m either too tired, or lazy, or just plain too stressed.

I’d love to knock out 2 of those debts by the end of this year. It’s a promise I made to myself prior to starting in my new lab. I hate living in debt, especially because I had no real reason to get in debt, other than wanting to live the american dream and trying to fill in gaps and things in my life with nothing other than stuff.

I knocked a couple of smaller debts prior to moving, but I’d love to be able to stop feeling guilty everytime I cannot afford something I like, yet put it on the card because I “need it/deserve it). I’d love to stop feeling guilty about not telling the BF I’m in debt, because of my own irresponsibility. I’d love to purchase the things I need right out my pocket, without using a credit card. That’s my true dream. Not to have a fancy lab and tons of expensive equipment. My dream is to live debt free, to enjoy life and to stop worrying about money …. live as I used to back in college.

So you see, because of stupid mistakes I’ve made I cannot truly enjoy the fruits of my labour and sacrifice now that I have my first real job. Instead, because I was too stupid and consumed by capitalism, a weak mentality and laziness, I robbed myself of that chance. And I’ll be dammed if I let this happen again, and if I don’t warn future grad students and postdocs about the importance of planning and staying out of debt.

My dears, save your money. I know it’s hard, especially when you have a truly hellish day/week/month/year in the lab or at school. But like Dave Ramsey says, you need to live below your means, so you can live like no one else because you’ve done things like no one else (referring to saving money and spending it wisely).

My goal for now is to keep paying my debts, use the debt snowball method and in ~ 2 years finally knock this debt off. I don’t know if I’ll have the same job next year (I hope I do a great job in the lab and the reviews go well); but if not, I’d love to reduce my debt significantly, so that I can live like no one else.

I’ll write more about this later. And also, about any and all progress I make towards erasing my debts.

Stress helps me spend the money I don’t have and need to move

So, next week I’ll defend my PhD thesis. I’ve been telling myself, and my friends, family and boyfriend that I’m fine. Sometimes I even believe it myself … but I’m scared shitless and I can’t believe that the defense date is almost here.

Like some others who turn to food for comfort, I turn myself into a buying machine, when stressed. I cannot begin to describe the rush I get. It’s like a drug. And with the excuse of having my 28th b-day this weekend, my thesis coming up, my BF’s b-day coming up too and my thesis, and my thesis again, that I’m shopping like a maniac.

I should get a good hold of myself since I’ll be moving in ~ 2 weeks. Thinking of every single thing I need to pack, sell (not being very successful on that one, ugh!), donate or throw away should move me away from buying. At least I’m not using my credit cards. I got really scared this last cycle because I went over the limit for 3 friggin’ dollars since a monitoring service I had signed up for (and then called to cancel) had not been canceled and I was charged for it. I called them and fixed everything, and tried to move money from my bank to my CC account but that takes at least a day and this was on a weekend. I was also close to the limit on my bank’s overdraft protection thing, so I had to do some scary maneuvers to avoid being hit with double overdraft/overspend charges. This goes to show you how stressed I am. Luckily I’m paying off that CCard and hopefully next year I’ll be able to close it.

I went today to the mall with a friend and almost bought a dress for 99$. Thank GOD we thought it was 56$ (I’d picked another one from the same designer at a nearby rack that was discounted 43$). I checked the price and left it on the rack. But then I went to Target, spent 17$ on a pizza (I don’t have the stamina to cook these days), frozen blueberries and a pack of razor cartridges that was discounted). Then I stopped at a car washed and got my car washed for 9$ (I was planning on doing this one since my mom is coming soon and I wanted to have my car clean and nice looking). Today I received a vintage purse I ordered 2 weeks ago and one of my BF’s b-day gifts.

I’m telling you. At this pace, I won’t have money left to pay for my cat’s vaccines (if she needs to get any before we move), my work visa (~150$), gas for the trip, the u-haul thingie to haul my boxes, etc and all the other expenses. I guess I’m tricking my mind into thinking that since my rent is finished here and I’ll pay for next months rent with my paycheck at the new job everything is fine. I’m supposed to receive my last check from the department at some point … which I’m hoping won’t be at the end of the month, but who knows.

Everything is NOT fine. I’m stresses and scared. I like to plan ahead, but can’t. I feel like crying, but I can’t …. so I turn to spend my hard-earned dollars on cute shit. Ugh!

More to come in the next few days.