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3 tips for making the most of your grad student stipend

Learning to manage your finances isn’t so different from managing a research project

by Jen Heemstra and Aimee Sanford
March 7, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 8


An ilustration of a woman in a yoga position.
Credit: C&EN/Shutterstock

“So, what are you planning to do with all your time off over spring break?” If you’re a graduate student, this type of question may be common, especially from friends and family who are not familiar with how science, technology, engineering, and math graduate programs work. These questions can make for funny memes on social media, but the humor also underscores the reality that while grad school is called school, in many ways it’s a full-time job.

There are some clear differences between graduate school and other full-time work, as being a graduate student is intended to be a short-term experience to prepare you for a future career. However, there are also similarities, as graduate school may be the first time that you are responsible for paying rent, managing utility bills, and procuring your own meals. A key component of successfully navigating these responsibilities is learning how to manage your finances.

I managed my finances during grad school and continue to do so now in a full-time job as a college professor. At the same time, much has changed in the 20 years since I started my PhD. So, to offer a more complete perspective, I’m joined by Aimee Sanford, a fourth-year graduate researcher in my lab—take it away, Aimee!

Thanks, Jen! I started using a spreadsheet to track my finances when I was in high school, but I didn’t start enjoying this responsibility until graduate school. The catalyst for this change was realizing how much I love diving deep into complex data analysis. Instead of approaching finance management like a chore, I began to approach it in a similar fashion to my research experiments.

Consider all costs. As with any job, one of the first financial decisions you make is where to work. Calibrate for the cost of living, as the prices of rent, utilities, and food vary widely in different locations. Consider the stipend that is offered as well as factors that can impact your net income. For example, some schools may charge tuition or fees, but they may also provide benefits such as free access to an exercise facility or public transportation. Also factor in the cost of health insurance and how much you will pay out of pocket if you do have a health issue. You may have financial responsibilities beyond taking care of yourself, especially if you are supporting children or other family members, and these may dramatically impact your options and choices in managing your finances.

Set a budget. Graduate stipends are typically paid monthly, so make sure you frequently monitor your spending to ensure that you can cover all your expenses until the next paycheck arrives. You’ll also want to prioritize your spending within your budget, which is especially important when the unexpected occurs, such as an emergency car repair. You can use budgeting apps such as Mint or You Need a Budget to track and analyze your spending.

Save for the future. Retirement might seem far away, but saving early and building your credit will pay off in the future. Retirement-saving options vary depending on whether you are considered an employee of your university, but even if you do not have access to employee benefits, there are still ways to invest in retirement. You may think that you don’t have much margin to make contributions, but a very small, routine contribution to a Roth IRA, for example, can add up over time and help you build a habit of long-term saving.

Learning to manage your finances is similar to learning how to manage a research project, and the same skills can be developed and applied in both contexts. Setting and managing a monthly or daily budget is like planning and executing experiments and analyzing data. Projecting long-term financial goals is analogous to envisioning future research plans. Most important, in both research and financial management, the skills and habits you develop now will serve you throughout your career and lifetime.

Jen Heemstra is a professor of chemistry at Emory University who shares advice on Twitter at @jenheemstra. Find all her columns for C&EN and ask her questions at

Aimee Sanford is a fourth-year PhD candidate at Emory University who can be found on Twitter at @aimeesanford19.

Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.



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