Embrace Your Money-Making Options in Graduate School


This is the first post in a series titled Make Money in Graduate School, where I explain the importance of realizing you have options for how to sustain yourself—financially and emotionally—in graduate school. This post introduces three pathways graduate students can take to making money by doing personally rewarding and meaningful work. In the following posts in the series I outline each of these in more detail.

The years you spend in graduate school can be among the most incredible and rewarding in your life. Being able to engage in a sustained period of intense learning and rapid growth is an incredible luxury that many people will never experience. Additionally, I made lifelong friends in graduate school who will forever enrich my life no matter where life takes me. I feel an incredible sense of gratitude for having had the privilege and opportunity to get a PhD.

The reality is that graduate school can also be brutally hard. The journey to a PhD offers up many rewards, but also innumerable challenges. For many, that journey brings about occasional feelings of helplessness and self-doubt. At any given time you might feel stuck in a cycle of being perpetually broke. Or feel trapped by your department or advisor’s expectations. On that long road, some people feel like they’ve lost track of themselves, that they have lost sight of their initial purpose for being there, or become unable to see the finish line. And that’s okay. There are twists and turns in every great journey. Stories without conflict are boring.

For those experiencing graduate school’s twists and turns, there’s good news. First off, you are not alone. Many—even most—people end up experiencing these things somewhere along the way. Secondly, there are things you can do to help yourself grapple with these feelings, and you might be able to make some money in the process. In this post, I outline some of the ways you can make money in graduate school and describe how some of these money-making ventures can help your professional and emotional life as much as your flailing financial accounts. The key is in understanding that you have options about how you use your time.

You are not financially helpless in graduate school.

Let’s repeat that. Say it out loud if you need to.

You are not financially helpless in graduate school.

Does saying it help? I find that sometimes it does. And sometimes it doesn’t.

Let’s discuss some alternative, more actionable steps if the mantra method doesn’t really do it for you. Despite the fact that it sometimes feels like you’re broke and always going to be broke, there are actually many different ways to earn money in graduate school. You are not financially helpless. You have options. Lots of them. Let’s explore.

Pathway 1: Traditional Graduate Student Funding

As you likely know if you are already enrolled in a graduate program, one way to keep yourself afloat in graduate school is through the traditional pathway of seeking funding directly from within your department or university. This includes applying for grants and scholarships, as well as working as a research assistant on research projects, teaching undergraduates as a teaching assistant, or working in your university’s writing center. For many, traditional funding is a fantastic choice, financially and professionally, and it might get you merrily all the way through your graduate studies.

Pathway 2: Use Your Academic Skills in a New Context

For others, traditional university funding is either not an option, not sufficient on its own, or not the right fit. There are many ways to earn money in graduate school beyond being a research or teaching assistant. Some options are similar to official graduate funding positions, but might not be directly affiliated with your university. These include teaching at a local community college, or working as a grant writer or consultant. Others tutor at local centers, for families in their communities, or online. These can be a great way to build your professional network, develop your skills, and to make some extra cash on the side.

Pathway 3: Do Something Totally Different

Finally, some financial options are further afield, such as working as a barista in a local coffee shop, ghost writing novels, or giving guitar lessons and playing bar gigs with your band. Doing something completely unaffiliated with the academic world can be a great way to help you maintain your identity, meet new (non-academic) people, and break free of the day-to-day stresses of the university for at least a few hours a week. Some people find that maintaining an identity totally separate from the academy is completely necessary to stay balanced and happy. Many of these people are incredibly creative about finding uniquely fulfilling—and financially beneficial—ways to feed their bodies and souls at the same time.

The reality is, people do graduate school in a lot of different ways, and there’s no single right way for everyone. You do not need to be an indentured servant to your university, your advisor’s research, or your department’s never-ending stream of undergraduate students if that’s not the path you want to take. As a graduate student, you are learning to be a professional in your field. And as a professional, you have to make decisions about your own priorities, values, and goals. Others will always be there to tell you what you should—or even need—to do. That’s both a great thing, and not such a great thing. Sometimes nothing is more valuable than advice from someone who cares about you and who truly, genuinely wants to help you succeed. But sometimes we get advice from people who are unable to see that the path they took is not the only way. You choose your path. Of course you should weigh advice carefully. But ultimately your life is yours.

In the next few posts, I’ll go into more detail about the three pathways outlined above. For each, I’ll outline potential benefits and drawbacks, and will share ideas about how to look for money-making opportunities.