Make Federal Work-Study Grants Work For Your Education

I’ve been fortunate enough to have consistent funding in graduate school, but this last year I learned that I would need another year on my dissertation before confirming a defense date.  Nothing bad happened, I just focused too much time on other research and not enough on my own.  (this reminds me of the financial saying comes into play here… pay yourself first.).

So as the school year ended I found myself in a tough spot – zero finding for the fall.  Fortunately, I submitted my FAFSA, as I always do even when I have funding confirmed for the following couple of years, and requested work-study.  Fortunately, the Financial Aid office approved my work-study and all I had to do was find a job.

Finding a work-study job that is useful for a graduate student is essential.  I was searching for a job that aligns with both short-term goals (paying the rent) and long term goals (publishing something useful and getting a job) is a difficult task for any graduate student.  I applied for a few jobs that were only “ok” and held (aka. networked my ass off) out until something else came up… which it did.

Next year I will be leading an institutional research project that will be looking at student education (I’m keeping the topic purposefully vague).  The project looks great because I will complete it at my own (furious) pace, though cautiously using inly 10 hours of my time per week.  The other 40 hours I’ll be able to devote to my dissertation and keeping healthy.

With this work study job I should be able to live humbly and compete my dissertation by May.  Cheers to that!

My Lesson Learned: Get Speaker Consulting Details (and fee) In Writing

I was rather happy when a non-for profit that I have been working with regularly asked me to give three talks over the summer.  The past several years the firm paid me $500 each time I gave a 1-hour talk.  This was not a huge sum when you consider what speakers make, but from the perspective of a graduate student it is a serious chunk of money.

When considering that it takes about three or four hours to prepare for a one hour talk and even more time to prepare the slides, the hourly rate came out to about $20 an hour. Not great, but not bad, but at least  was working and had some summer income.

Three talks in three months came out to $1500, a nice sum considering the talks were already drafted and only required modification.  But I made a huge mistake; I did not sign the details in writing.

So far I gave given two of three talks.  The first was a webinar style talk where I get to give the talk from the comfort of my own home.  After the first talk I was told “a little something is in the mail”, the phrase I heard in the past that means “your $500 check is in the mail”.  Two weeks later I flew to give my second talk on location (expenses paid) and  after the talk was given a check odor $500.  Excellent! I had $500 and hopefully upon returning home I would have a check waiting for me…. but it never came.

Once the two week period hit I write the organizer and told her that I did not get my first check.  Her response was “we were only able to pay you $500, but you are first on my list of we have honorarium funds.”  WTF.

Rather than get mad I realized that I totally screwed up by not signing a contract.  Shame on me. Next time I’ll be sure to request a contract with the following:

  • What is the topic of the talk?
  • What is the speaker fee and how/when will I be paid?
    • If the talk is cancelled after signing the contract will I still be paid in full or partial? (I would make this a requirement).
  • Is the talk a lecture or workshop?
  • Who is the audience for the talk? Public, academic, private, age, etc.
  • What is the purpose of the talk?
  • What is the length of the talk?
  • Where will the talk be given?
    • If online what software is used?
    • If face to face are all travel expenses paid?
    • What is the room like?
    • Is there a projector?
    • Do I need my own computer and adaptors?
    • Are there dual monitors?
    • Is there audio?
  • Is the talk recorded (and if so my rate goes up)?
  • What is the dress code for the talk?
  • If the talk is off site do I need to arrange my transportation?  If not, can you send me a schedule?  If I make my own travel plans will I be reimbursed?

Perhaps with these questions in mind, and IN WRITING, I won’t get screwed in the future.

As I become more processional I may also consider a speaker contact such as these offered by the National Speakers Association:

Since, once I give the third talk I will have provided $1000 in “service and training” for a non-for profit.  What do you think, will I be able to recoup the costs as a deductible?

The last day to save .25% on your Student Loans by consolidating them with the US Consolidation Program

Today is the last day to save 0.25% on your student loans by consolidating them under the Special Direct Consolidation Loan program by the U.S. Federal Government. This means if you have about $30,000 in student loans you may save at least $8,000 (and likely more).  It is important that you apply today because interest on student loans is likely to go up next week (the reason is because congress could not get its act together to lower interest on student loans).  The details for this program are explained on the website as follows:

The U.S. Department of Education (the Department) began offering Special Direct Consolidation Loans to eligible borrowers in January 2012. This is a short-term consolidation opportunity, ending June 30, 2012, for borrowers with

  • at least one student loan held by the Department (a Direct Loan or a Federal Family Education Loan [FFEL] owned by the Department and serviced by one of the Department’s servicers); and
  • at least one commercially-held FFEL loan (a FFEL loan that is owned by a FFEL lender and serviced either by that lender or by a servicer contracted by that lender).

Special Direct Consolidation Loans are intended to help borrowers manage their debt by ensuring all of their federal loans are serviced by the same entity, resulting in one bill and one payment (borrowers repay loans to a loan servicer). Borrowers will also receive an interest rate reduction on Special Direct Consolidation Loans as a repayment incentive.

Apply for the Special Direct Consolidation Loan program here

I know I am applying today!  Go Federal Government!

The 9-Week Summer Productivity Challenge

I recently suggested that students make the most out of their summer and realized that I too needed to get off of my butt.  I remembered the Beginner Blogger Challenge so many of us participated in and thought I too could harness the support of the readership and bloggers.  And then it hit me…  lets have a summer productivity challenge!

Instructions for the 9-Week Summer Productivity Challenge

  1. Decide on 9 items you will complete in the next 9 weeks.  The goals can be big or small, personal or public, tangible or esoteric.  Think of why you want to complete these goals and jot them down.
  2. Provide an introduction of why you want to complete the goals.  This too can be personal or more vague, but it has to connect with your vision for the future.
  3. List your 9 goals in your blog post along with a short description of why you want to complete the item.
  4. Link back to this post so that other bloggers reading your post can find the rules and join in on the fun!
  5. Comment in the discussion below to let others know (including me) where your post is located.
  6. Complete this no later than June 15.
Why participate?
  1. Its fun to do this and to read what everyone else is doing.
  2. I’ll write a summary post around July 5 where I feature posts. This will also give you a chance to write your own post with an update of how you are doing.
  3. This is easy to do and write about.  We all need things to write about and this is a great way for us to share what we are all doing.
  4. We learn from each other and find strength in numbers! Managing a blog is hard, but with the support of others we will continue to post while also completing the list of items we want to do.
9-Week Summer Productivity Challenge (using me as an example)

After a grilling year in graduate school where I worked on my dissertation (some) and major research (a lot) I was feeling drained.  I took some time off to enjoy the outdoors, something I’ll write about later, and decided to make a list of everything I wanted to accomplish by August 1.  The list is demanding and will require some serious discipline but I want to complete this list because I really want to get on with my life; being in graduate school is holding me back.  I want a house.  I want a family. I want to BBQ on the weekends, lol.  With this list I set the stage for my future. My list is longer and more detailed so I have decided to list 9 categories I will work on during this period.

  1. Work daily as if I have a full time job.  I got lazy this year and realize my bad ass-ness was more like … just ok work.  So I’m enhancing my schedule and keeping productive.
  2. Enjoy Nature in the Evenings and Weekends.  Since I will be working hard during the day I am going to make extra effort to go home at 5 and enjoy my wife and pets.  And on weekends we are going to enjoy the outdoors – for free, of course.
  3. Exercise daily.  I too am out of the habit but a new hobby of racket ball I’m ready to work out for an hour each day.  If I don’t want to do racket ball I can swim or do yoga.
  4. Finish the Dissertation.  I have some major re-writing to do.  Major.  But in 9 weeks and 3 hours a day I can get some serious work done. Maybe 3 chapters.  Its a goal and I’m rocking out.
  5. Write Winning Grants.  I also was lazy and stopped writing a few grants, odd since I believe in my 1 in 5 rule.  I have to get back on track by working on several small grants and will also work on a MAJOR grant for my own employment once I’m done.  I’m also going to put my application together early for loan repayment and forgiveness.
  6. Write my Post-Doc & Job Materials. Yeah, graduation is 6 months to ear away.  Time to make my destiny… which means putting a job portfolio together.
  7. Learn New Coding Skills.  I have a bad ass idea for a new application and am learning to code.  Watch out!
  8. Continue to Save Money. Ride my bike. Take my breakfast and lunch.  Make my own coffee.
  9. Learn New Financial Skills for a House.  I;m going to speak to a bank to see where I stand.  I may not be ready for a house yet, but in a few years I’ll need to be ready.  By speaking with a bank now I can set a goal for the future.
  10. Personal Bonus Item:  Blog Regularly. I enjoy doing this even though I don’t make any money.  Lets keep up the conversation.

So what are you going to do for your 9-Week Summer Productivity Challenge?

Tips for Landing a Job in College or Graduate School

A student I mentor asked me if there was anything he should consider regarding finding a job in college or graduate school and I thought I would share a few of the things we discussed.

“Is there anything I should do for my job search before I arrive on campus?”  YES!
  • First and foremost, try to find a job on campus.  When you work on campus your employers know that you are a student and they will provide you with the flexibility you need.
  • Quite often, you will need to be work study eligible, so be sure to fill out your Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA
  • Contact your department secretary and the Dean of Studies to ask them if there are jobs of fellowships available on campus.  This will immediately make you stand out from the rest of the pack.
  • Contact a faculty member that conducts research that interests you.  Let them know you are an entering student and keep your email short and top the point.

“What sort of job should I look for?”  One that helps you complete your education.

  • Find a jobs as a new student were you get paid to advance on your degree, either by completing research or learning skills you need for your degree
  • If that is not available, find a job that can go on your resume
  • Find a job that helps you pay for something you need to buy for school, such as books or computers
  • Find a job that helps you pay the bills, such as at a coffee shop or local coop
  • No matter what, find a job that you like.  If you have an okay job, find a better one.
  • Above all else, make progress on your degree.

“I think I found a possible job, is there anything I should consider before accepting it?”

  • Before I arrived at graduate school I mentioned that I had a job offer where I would get paid $12-15 per hour.  The professor told me to accept the job and keep it on the back burner, as most fellowships paid that amount. The good ones, I learned were in the $20+ range.  is something better came up, I could always decline.
  • Find out if the job offers any other perks such as office space, health insurance, on the job training, or opportunities to publish.  Try to get a concrete answer on what you can gain after working with the faculty member for a semester, year, or decade.  Remember, you are a looking for something that will help you make progress in your degree, not slow you down, and unfortunately, some faculty prefer to use students rather than help develop them into colleagues.
Good luck, and remember, a job in graduate school should above all else help you complete your degree.  Good luck and kick some ass!

Short term consulting could mean long term employment

Three months ago I was contacted by the Program Officer in neighboring units Dean’s Office. The Dean was starting up a new summer program for entering freshman and heard I had experience teaching college students. She asked if I would assist by providing some short term consultation time and perhaps participate in the program.

At the time I was busy juggling NIH funded research, several manuscripts, two summer courses, and my dissertation. Though I had little free time, I accepted, both because of the added income (about 1 months rent) and because of the possible networking opportunities that might present themselves. In the long term, this could pay off dividends.
Over the course of three months I was extremely open with my time and met with the program lead frequently to share my knowledge and skills. Towards the end of the program I also offered to conduct several focus groups, just about the only evaluation option available in a short notice. Though they would take additional time from my schedule, an evaluation seemed important.
Three months later (today) I presented my findings in the form of a written report and discussion at the monthly staff meeting. More importantly, the last 30 minutes of the discussion were about me, my education and research, and my long term employment goals. The team lead even asked, “If the planets were to align, would you be interested in working in this office?” I smiled and replied, “absolutely.”
Finding the time to assist in this project was not easy, and I found myself working in the evenings and weekends on more than one occasion (I realize, now, I probably under-billed my hours). I was crammed for time, stressed, and on more than one occasion up late working on some project that was reaching a deadline.
The benefits of the extra effort and small consultation work, however, far outweighed the concerns. By doing this sort of consultation work I:
  • practiced (and learned new) research skills;
  • was paid doing something I enjoyed doing;
  • listed the consultation work on my curriculum vitae (academic resume);
  • networked with a new academic unit (and the associated faculty) and set up a time to meet others;
  • lined up possible employment.
All of this certainly seemed worth the effort and I recommend it. Give it a try. Put yourself out there and start some side consultation work. You may find you like what you do.

Spend Less than Your Summer Fellowship

(Hi All, I’m testing a new headset and dictating this post…. let me know what you think of the quality, and errors).

I recently mentioned that you should not be as dumb mass and do a lot of work this summer.  Another suggestion, is not to spend the entirety of your summer fellowship check.  The summer is a great time to save some money, but only if you are savvy and make the most out of your paycheck and your network.  When you’re in a new city is extremely easy to spend a lot of money, which followed a couple of tricks you can actually save some cash.
Number 1: make a budget for the summer given your paycheck, and be sure to save 15 to 30% of your check.  This will make the summer difficult, but if you are not spending a lot of money will be using other resources and saving some cash for when you need it.  With a budget of the way continue to number 2.
Number 2: make a list of all of the free resources and activities you can think of the city you are visiting.  Take a look at things like art museums and free art openings, zoos and free outdoor activities, outdoor music festivals, and depending on the city or at there may be other things that you can consider.  For example, if you are staying in Washington DC there are free fireworks on the ball, many, many, many parties at embassies, and opportunities for interns and fellows to get together.  Make a list, put them on your calendar, and there you have a list of free and affordable things to do.  In fact, if you put this on a Google calendar you can start to shared with other interns and fellows so that you have a detailed calendar with many options each and every single day.
Number 3: although you think you might have everything planned, you don’t.  Find the e-mail list and network that’ll let you know when there are fund parties to go to.  This may be parties involved for work, at international gatherings, or with certain clubs such as alumni associations.  These are great opportunities also to network, and to meet new people that are involved in the city you live and work in.
Number 4: one last suggestion of how to find affordable things to do is to join some sort of an outdoor group or activity.  Outdoor groups get together to go on hikes on the weekend, bike rides in the evening, to gaze at the stars using a telescope in someone’s backyard, and all sorts of other random things you never would’ve thought of but that are a lot of fun.  Try finding these clubs are searching at libraries, outdoor shops such as REI, or online.
Number 5: when you do have to spend money do it wisely.  Many cities have happy hour specials, were food and drinks are cheaper than usual.  Find restaurants that have these happy hours and use them as your networking sites.  In other words, if you have to spend money, do it wisely and so that you benefit from it.
So there you have it.  Here are ways that you can have fun and save money on your summer internship or fellowship.  All of the other budgeting experience you know, such as eating out as little as possible, using public transportation when possible, or subletting and sharing rooms, will of course make the summer of affordable.  Good luck and have fun!

Don’t Be a Dumb Ass. Make the Most Out of Your Summer

Congratulations!  You’ve recently been accepted to a summer internship, recruited for a summer job, or made it through another semester of graduate school.  The summer is ahead of you and you’re looking forward to getting your head out of the box and into the real world.  As I told new crop of interns in Washington DC earlier this year,  “Don’t be a dumb mass.  Make the most out of your summer.”It should go without saying that you should be professional and respectful of others in your workplace.  By being professional means dressing appropriate for your role and acting as if you were in a job interview (which you are).   Take a look  and with the staff at your new workplace is wearing.  They’re wearing shirts with collars, ties and coats, then you need to wear shirts with collars, ties and coats.  This does not mean that you need to lose your individual style.  Instead, look at what people are wearing and then say how does my style fit in.  For example, when I had my 1st internship in Washington DC many years ago, I wore a suit to work.  The minute 5 o’clock with and I would put on a pair of red Adidas soccer shoes you ready for my commute home.  The red shoes became a bit of a joke in the office as people knew but had a fun site I still could be a very serious.  Course, if I was going out for drinks after work, the red shoes stayed in my travel bag.

I also suggest that you make a plan for the summer that lists:

  1. What you wish to produce (outputs),
  2. What you wish to learn, and 
  3. Who you would like to have as a long-term contract.

Going into the summer with the plan of what you produce is especially useful.  At the end of the summer you will be able to use this item in the portfolio, on your webpage, or for other recruiting prospects.  It is also something that you can develop further, say if you were employed at the group later on.

In a similar vein, consider what you would like to learn for the summer.  If you’re interested in a certain career path, speak to the head of that department organization and say you’re interested in a career path.  Expressive them that you have a certain list of things you would like to learn, and ask them what else they might add to this list.  For example, if you are interested in statistics but have less experience with statistics, ask to be involved in a project that involves stats.

Next, consider who you would like to have as a long-term contact of that organization.  I suggest 3 individuals that each working a different capacity.  First, individual that directly supervises you should be able to write your reference when you leave for the summer or 5 years down the line.  Keep in contact with his individual the years to come.  Second, I suggest you meet the direct supervisor or head of the department you’re working in.  But you may not work with them directly, they need to be aware of your work and certainly there are great contact have in the years to come.  Third, I suggest you meet someone in a different department, as this individual might be able to help you network outside of your arena.  Take all of these individuals up to lunch, even a casual one, add them to your LinkedIn page, and when the internship and send them all a thank you note.

Good luck and don’t be a dumb ass!

Avoid Day of Travel Travel Screw Ups to Save $ on Conference Travel

I’m on my back from an academic conference in and had a rather interesting time flying on 2 different airlines.  Actually, in the way up here and was hell and the return flight was great.  This got me thinking on a couple of things that I did that actually made the flights cheaper, and easier and might save you money in the future.

So here’s what happened.  I showed up at the airport on Tuesday morning at 6 AM, clutching a cup of coffee, before my 7:20am flight.  I was unable to check in using the automatic kiosk and the flight representative that came to help me explain that my flight had been changed to depart at 5:55 AM.  In other words, my flight was changed without any sort of notification and I would not make my connecting flight later in the day.Now I’m a veteran traveler and I know this is not a big deal, and I have to explain this to the traveler was flying with.  Once he was calm and we were able to work with the flight attendant to rectify the situation.  Here are the things that made a difference:
Number 1: although the tickets were purchased using, probably the reason why things were screwed up, I was a frequent flyer on the airline and was able to have “preferential treatment on the flight for that day”.  This treatment also continued to my travel companion.  If you’ve not already joined up on airline frequent flyer miles, perhaps using a credit card, I suggest you do it for this sort of benefit.
Number 2: missing a flight in the afternoon meant that we were going to have a layover.  No one likes a layover.  However, be free drinks vouchers we received simply by asking, made the travel much easier.  Before we got on the flights we had a couple of drinks, and some food, and looked at it as a chance to catch up before the conference.  The lesson we learned, after perks the worst that can happen is that they say no.
Number 3: when we try to check in for the return flight, we were unable and expected a similar problem.  We call the airline and informed us that because the tickets were purchased elsewhere it would not be able to help, so we decided to go directly to the airport.  We arrived early, work with an agent, and in no time had our tickets for our flight home.  Lesson to remember here, face-to-face conversations work better than over the telephone.

Should I Live On or Off Campus?

Last week I attended a departmental party full of faculty, graduate students, and prospective graduate students.    Among all the discussion about academic topics, current movies, and the assortment of microbrews, was a good discussion about the cost of housing in graduate school (or college).  A prospective student asked me how much it cost to live off campus versus on-campus I found that I actually had a few things to say.  There are 5 main issues you must consider when deciding if you want to live on or off campus: housing, utilities, food, transportation, and your social life.


When people think of living on or off campus inmate immediately think about the distinction between living in dorms or living in their own apartment or other rental.    Dormitories, whether they are single room or apartment style, are convenient because they provide a lot of furniture, basic amenities, and you don’t have to worry about dealing with anyone other than the University.  I’ve known many individuals that have lived in university housing from college wealth through graduate school.  Students that live on campus generally prefer being close to their courses and not having to worry about dealing with others.

The cost of living on campus versus off varies depending on the institution in the city you live in, so you want to take a good look at exactly what sort of benefits received if you live on campus.  These benefits may include utilities, which I’ll talk about in the next section.  Living off campus means that you may have more flexibility in your living accommodations.  If you prefer to live in the downtown area that might be a possibility, or if you prefer to live in a more world area of town, as I do, that may also be a possibility.

If you’re interested in finding the cost of housing, I recommend taking a look at Craigslist, local university papers, and city papers.  Each of these are areas where landlords will most likely post rentals.    If you’re entering graduate school I also recommend you contact the department secretary to see if she or he knows of any housing options.

Personally, I have paid as much as $800 for a nice 1 bedroom apartment, all the way down to $350 for a very small studio.  Each of these served their purpose for me at the time.   Currently, I spent $650 for a one-bedroom apartment with a large backyard.

When you’re considering living on or off campus you also need to consider utilities.   if you live on campus generally water, electricity, sewer and garbage, cable, and Internet is included in your monthly bill.  This can be rather convenient as you have all of these amenities easily at hand.  If you live off campus, these may or may not be included in rent.  Often times, you will have to put utilities print this is electricity and gas) in your own name or the landlord keeps paying the water and sewer under their own.  In some rental markets, you even have to buy your own appliances for the home you’re looking for, though I do not recommend this.

A benefit of living off-campus is that you can minimize the utilities so that your rent is often cheaper than living on campus.  For example, I do not have cable and instead pay for cheap Internet, where I get my television and movies.  I do have a washing machine in my home  so I wash my clothing at home and drive them using a drying rack my living room.

All told, I spent $50 a month idolatrous city, a few dollars a month on gas, $25 a month on Internet, and if I do laundry elsewhere about $10 per month.   (One benefit of paying my own utilities as I am able to work with the electric company Rite Aid $50 a month for each utility, rather than the exact amount.  This is very nice especially when when there are peak and low periods).  For simplicity sake let’s say $100 in utilities.

Food is one of the most challenging parts of living underground.  Living on campus you have access to a meal plan and a dormitory, something that is especially convenient if you do not like to cook.  She do like to cook, or if you’d like to be at irregular times, living off campus is more convenient.  When considering housing for your 1st time you may have to buy a new kitchen utensils and appliances, but these can be bought at Goodwill in the Salvation Army for relatively cheap prices.

The average American family of 4 spends about $950 a month on food.  My partner and I spent approximately $600-$900 a month on food, mainly because we buy a lot of high quality produce.  However, I think would be quite possible for us to have a total budget of about $400 per month for $600 per month.  In college, I certainly had a smaller budget.  For purposes of this budget, but they spend $400 a month on groceries.

Obviously if you live on campus you have access to university transportation.  In fact, you may live so close to your classes that you don’t need to use transportation at all.  Living off campus however transportation does become a factor.  I recommend riding a bicycle I’m using the bus whenever possible, and in fact some universities have a partnership with local transportation where you show your ID to write for free.  My wife and I share a car, but it’s certainly is not necessary, so for purposes of this budget by transportation costs are about $100 per year.  In other words, in dollars per month.

Social Life
Finally, one of the most important factors when deciding if you want to live on or off campus is your social life.  Living on campus means you may have to follow more specific rules and regulations.   you may not be able to play your music very loud after-hours, you may not be allowed to have alcohol in her room, and you probably will not be allowed to have pets.  Living off campus to have more flexibility and oftentimes landlords will work out certain deals repay a pet deposit if you’re interested in having a daughter.  Graduate school can be lonely, so I recommend buying a pet, and this is often an important consideration your. Total cost for having a life, $0.  Priceless.

Some certainly not get it to you that you should live on or off campus, but I do think there are huge benefits to living off-campus.  If you have a little bit of money saved up and you know you will be staying at your university for 4 to 15 years, you may even consider buying a house,   But I do not recommend doing this to you have lived in town for about one year and know that you have been accepted and will complete your graduate program.

So, living off-campus I spent just over $1000 a month on housing, food, and transportation.  This is probably low nationally, but you could some hard work into where you live you too can find a budget that is reasonable.  Good luck and enjoy living economically humble!