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How To Avoid Graduate Student Debt

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Forge Your Wealth is meant for education and entertainment and should not be used for financial advice.

If you think the average $30,000+ in student loans is bad, consider graduate school loans. The average graduate student loan is $82,800 including law and medical degrees. You could buy a modest house with this amount of money. Almost 50% of research PhDs graduate with debt, and those percentages increase with almost every other type of graduate student.

I recently graduated with $0 in student debt. Not only that, but I paid for a wedding and helped pay off my wife’s student loans at the same time so there was money to spare. In this post I will write how to avoid graduate student debt using my advice and the advice from others. For my advice I will explain it in four different categories. The advice I followed and recommend, advice others followed that I recommend, the advice I followed and do not recommend, and the advice I did not follow nor recommend.

Many of the things I did to achieve a PhD with no debt is not for everyone. Some of the things I have done could be compared to things people have done during the Great Depression or extreme scenarios just for survival. Some of the sacrifices I have endured I would not want my worst enemies to go through much less you.

What I Recommend

Negotiate With Schools You Apply To

When I applied to graduate school years ago I made it perfectly clear that if they could not offer me aid such as graduate student assistantships, contacting me would be a waste of my and their time. Many believe that graduate student assistantships are common, but most students never see these. That number will likely decrease. I brought up applying to graduate schools with some who told me that making the assistantship a requirement likely cut me off from some prestigious schools I have applied to. I did not care.

Prestige always appeared overrated to me. I never brought up which school I went to, but spoiler alert it was not the University of Pennsylvania. Despite the lack of prestige I had I was hired by a world renowned biopharma firm literally the weekend after my graduation earlier this year. I did not need the prestige. If you do not want to take it from me, consider Business Insider’s list of schools with the highest return of investments. Most of these schools are not the famous prestigious schools, but some specialty schools. There are two main factors to success after school, your specific field, and how you apply it to yourself. Prestige is low on the factors for success.

It is far better to aim for schools which are willing to invest in your future. These are hands down the best ways to avoid graduate student debt. However, it is worth mentioning if your receive these assistantships there may be restrictions. For instance, at my old school if you receive an assistantship, you cannot seek outside full-time employment. That is fair, they are investing in you so you should focus more on work at the school.

Seek Out Grants And Other Scholarships

My graduate student assistantship was generous, but it did not give me much take home pay. Keep in mind, the assistantship is supposed to pay for tuition and your stipend/salary. Even the most generous assistantships pay a stipend in the lower 5 figures. Still better than most minimum wage jobs.

There are more grants and scholarships you can apply for. Many of these can be provided internally and sometimes only in later years. I have received two years of my school’s highest scholarship. However, the restrictions for these scholarships are even stricter than assistantships. My school’s scholarship does not even allow part-time employment.

One of my colleagues received quite a generous scholarship that provided cost of housing, tuition, and even food. The price is a ten year commitment to work at a particular school back at her home country. Suffice to say, there are far more restrictive scholarships.

Furthermore, there are some other issues. One of my colleagues could not go for these scholarships because by receiving one, they technically would not be considered a student anymore. That meant they would have to pay back their student loans. If you are not technically a student and you have student loans you will have to start paying back your student loans. This may even restrict other resources exclusive to students. Make sure to check with your administrator and your school’s financial advisor to balance the costs versus benefits if you have student loans.

Get A Car You KNOW Will Work For Years

Usually these cars are family or friend owned. These vehicles can be vehicles to lower your cost of living as these cars do not require monthly payments and you can trust the car maintenance wise. This is almost hands down the number one thing I attribute to graduating with not only no student debt, but making sure my wife also has no student debt to worry about.

Sure many people trust newer cars, but if well maintained a car over ten years older requires the same repairs as a car that is maintained by the average person. My parents did not think they maintained the 2004 Pontiac Grand Am well. They changed the oil, the tires, and aligned the car frequently. These actions alone put them in the above average group. They even replaced the engine at one point. When I bought the Grand Am from them I knew the vehicle longer than most of my friends and I trust it. Even after graduation its engine still purs like a cat. I will actually be sad when I have to retire my Grand Am.

There is no one my age I know that currently drives a car that old. However, one of my college friends drove a car where only the driver’s door could open.

Saving Time

When it comes to graduate school and college time is money. Every year you spend at school is not only one less year you could work a job, but potentially a year of tuition you have to pay. Assistantships and scholarships are not bottomless. Providers usually have limits for the number of years you can receive the assistantship, usually 5 years and grants/scholarships either provide a fixed amount, or need to be renewed every year. Some have a limit to the number of times you can win said scholarship.

I know some people who have earned assistantships and scholarships stay at school a year longer than expected and then need to go for a student loan. As strange as it sounds if you want to avoid graduate student debt you do not need to cut expenses as much as you need to cut the time needed to earn your degree.

Tutor

Even under the strict restrictions of my scholarship, I was still able to do one form of additional work. Tutoring at my school. This did not pay much, but even Bill Gates would be happy receiving an extra hundred each month.

But it is crucial to make sure you maximize your efficiency while working towards your graduate degree and additional work may keep you away from that. So if you are pressured with work do not try this.

Tutoring helped my avoid graduate student debt in a different way though that was worth far more than a thousand a year. I found tutoring helpful in teaching myself for my classes. I learned far more from classes by reviewing other knowledge and helping students understand that knowledge. Tutoring helped to raise my grades in graduate school. By not needing to take remedial classes and obtaining great grades I had to spend less time in school therefore I did not have to deal with the costs of spending more years in school.

Work Smarter And Possibly Harder

Graduate degrees are almost always a large investment of time. For example a PhD typically takes more than 5 years. It is not the longest though. A medical surgeon usually requires 10 or more years to graduate.

I have completed my PhD in 4 years. This is quite an achievement. Trust me people are more impressed by the fact I have obtained my PhD in 4 years than they are that I have a PhD.

I will tell you what our department head told us. “You cannot expect a PhD in 5 years putting in only 40 hour work weeks.” I have worked on weekends, and some minor holidays. Furthermore, more often than not I have worked more than 8 hour days. However, that was not the main thing I used to save time. I tried to maximize my efficiency.

How To Be More Efficient

In biochemistry there are many experiments needed to be done. Next to none of them required 100% attention. Many of them require an hour or more to complete certain steps. Standing around while these steps complete is like watching paint dry. Sitting in the office doing nothing is no better. I planned certain experimental steps to overlap with others so I could complete as many experiments as possible in a day.

I have no idea how other graduate degrees work, but you should let some work that is automated run without your supervision. You can put your effort somewhere else.

Sleep Cycle Training

You will have to put in immense effort to obtain your degree. I set up sleep cycles so I could sleep as well as possible with the few hours I got to sleep. I could sleep for around 5 hours and be as well rested as the average person who rested 8 hours. To set up a good sleep cycle you should have a set bed time and more importantly wake up time and to stick with it as closely as possible. The differences in times to fall asleep and wake up should not vary much, maybe not even by an hour.

Advice Others Recommend

Be Creative With Housing

Are you thinking of getting a roommate? You and most people in their 20s. This is not a very creative way to cut housing costs. Granted, my most frequent “roommate” is my wife so I should not criticize this idea too much.

If you listen to others, you are sure to hear of creative ideas to save on housing. Just listening to people’s stories at college and graduate school help give you a better idea for how to save on housing. One of my college acquaintances and one of my graduate school colleagues had interesting ideas on how to obtain cheap housing. Let’s just say even during the Coronavirus crisis, if these two maintained their creativity, I know they will be fine through this crisis and well after it.

Do note, a creative action can frequently overlap with an illegal action. Before you try anything creative make sure to at least check local and state laws to be sure you are not doing anything illegal.

Bike To Work

Granted, I lived close enough to school to walk I still needed the Grand Am for my wife to work across the city of Philadelphia. However, one of my colleagues commuted almost as far using her bicycle. This is something I have to admit is a gray area. Philadelphia may be a city praised for being bicycle friendly. However, I bicycled a few times through the city when I did not have the car but left it for my future wife. Apparently bicycle friendly and safe do not mean the same thing.

The times I have ridden I might as well have been invisible to motorists. And I have seen many posters around the city in which tell you to call a number to report a hit and run done on a cyclist. This made me feel like the city saw bicycle friendly as more of an advertisement than a fact.

Then I drove around the city more when my wife brought the car and I realized that bicyclists should not take the lack of road safety personally, motorists in Philadelphia treat other motorists the same as bicyclists. Unfortunately, every time you hit the streets in Philadelphia you are bound to come across a motorist who would rather kill you than slow down or even wait a few seconds. Trust me bicycling is just as safe as driving. If you do not have the money or want to save money on gas and insurance you might as well use a bicycle.

Provide Food

Many of my colleagues had noodle bowels each night and some other people did too. What they did was they arranged for at least one person to buy some food. They combined food and had a small noodle pot in the common area at school. They could make these delicious meals to share. Anyone who did not provide food could still make noodles, if they donated for the next food run. In those situations the donors donated a little more than the food was worth. They justified these generous donations because the people drove for the food and cooked them. Two services most people pay decent money for. This at least covered for gas expenses for the people who set up those meals based off what I have heard. Not much else though.

This was not a business, but only because there was no paper work nor money exchanged that was pre-tax. If you set up something like this, maybe you could lower the cost of your expenses. Do be careful though. Some government officials may consider those donations as transactions and declare such arrangements as an illegal business. Regardless, it is a way to save money on expenses so you can avoid graduate student debt.

Advice I Followed But Do Not Recommend

Going Cheap On The Residence

My first apartment cost $450/month, heat and internet was free. You cannot find deals this affordable in the least expensive cities, much less New York adjacent. There was good reason it was that cheap. The apartment was a broom closest with, a shared bathroom, a shared kitchen, an alcoholic roommate always late on rent who almost caught the apartment on fire, and a mouse nest in the walls. Oh, and it is worth mentioning that now there is a legal notice posted outside the door of the building about how the building cannot be used for residence anymore. Hopefully, you never have to deal with the last three.

Try Affordable, But Not Cheap

Sure the savings may be great, but you know what is not great? An ear infection that swelled up my cheek which required me to go to the ER to treat it. I have gone whitewater rafting, rock climbing, and through wilderness survival courses. Not once did I ever have to go to the ER for those. Literally the one time I needed to go to the ER was because I was living in an unsanitary building. At least according to me, it is riskier to live in a unsanitary building than to try a wilderness survival course. Think about that.

You do not want to know what the medical bill is for treatment of a major ear infection in an ER. Sure maybe I could have gotten the ear infection somewhere else. But be honest, would you be surprised if your friend or family member had a swollen cheek caused by an ear infection after living in a mouse infested apartment? Also note, our PPE policies were strict and no one touches their face much less ears while working with biohazardous materials.

It is ok to find affordable deals. But you should never reside in an unsafe residence. There is a good reason I moved after less than one year to a place $200/month more expensive with no free internet. I hate to say this, but if you are going to graduate school, you can forget about the 30% rule of income for residence if you have too. Just try not to go over 50%. You are not going to avoid graduate student debt if you live in an affordable place that is a health hazard.

Work Incredibly Unrealistic Hours

I have proved many things in graduate school. One of them is that a workday is not limited to 24 hours. There were more than a few occasions I have worked over 24 hours. Granted these hours were not continuous, I ate and napped. However, you do not want to do this no matter how much you want the project done. You will lose track of time and will lose the line between living and working. I still do not think I can separate work from life. Why is my editor/wife giving me a strange look? Oh, she just told me I definitely cannot.

Advice I Did Not Follow Nor Recommend

Skip Meals

There are too many students starving themselves. I have heard of all the reasons including “I do not want to spend money” and “I do not have time.” Surprisingly skipping meals in school has to do more with will than access to food. I do not care if it is a $0.50 cent granola bar, but you never should skip a meal, not to save time nor money.

Many of my students have passed out in class due to a lack of sustenance. You do not want to be among those who pass out randomly. Not only does it disrupt your time, but if you have to go to a hospital this bill could cost more than a swollen cheek.

Work On Major Holidays

You do not want to know how many reagents I have found in lab labelled December 25th, or December 31st. Just to be clear, these labels mean the reagents were accessed during major holidays and that someone was working on those days. I may have worked crazy, even insane hours. But even I have a line, I will not work on major holidays I observe. To be clear, I do not care what your religion is or what holidays you hold sacred YOU SHOULD NEVER DO GRADUATE WORK ON THOSE HOLIDAYS. You should work around them, or just wait. Do not torture your family, friends, and much less yourself by working those days. You do need time off, and even in situations where time off is hard to find, you should stick to traditional times off.

Anything Academically Unethical

I once received a text from a now former colleague. They told me they found a deal to take tests for students to be paid if I was interested. I rarely answer texts immediately, this was a rare moment. I told them if they got caught that was it, no graduate school, all of their work done is worthless, and the school will cancel their assistantship and may even charge them for the semester. And yeah, if you are ever presented with such an opportunity, ditto. They told me it was a joke. I like to believe they were being honest on that part (they may not have been). Whatever money is offered to you in these situations it is not worth it!

Use Illicit Enhancing Drugs

This is advice I have never heard from someone’s mouth in person. However, I have heard of many situations where students have taken illicit enhancing drugs. First, many of these drugs are not really enhancing anything except your confidence according to studies from the University of Pennsylvania. Second, abusing enhancing drugs could have serious side effects. You are putting toxins in your body to just feel good. While your at it why not eat fast food three times a day? (Extreme sarcasm notice).

Final Thoughts

A graduate school degree is a very desirable achievement. Graduate student debt is not. If you want to go to graduate school, you should do (almost) everything you can to avoid graduate student debt. Several people including myself have learned many ways to avoid graduate student debt and many ways not to. Most of what you need to do to avoid graduate student debt you can learn from others, but many things work for some people and not others. If graduate school is on your path to forge your wealth, you need to learn some things yourself about avoiding debt. Before then, you should heed the advice from some who have.

Author: Papa Foxtrot

Most of my life I was careful with money and learned where I should invest it. I was very lucky to have parents who taught me financial literacy when I was young. Unfortunately, I am very lucky because many people lack the financial literacy I know. The purpose of Forge Your Wealth is to teach people who are just starting out in life how to obtain their wealth or anyone who just realized they may need to learn more to handle their finances. I currently have a PhD in biochemistry, just started a job in industry (will not disclose where exactly for personal and professional reasons) and am currently married to the love of my life. I am one of the lucky few people in America who graduated with no student debts, my wife was not. Over the series of a little over 3 years we paid for our wedding with no debt and paid off her federal student loans.

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