Friday, 14 February 2014 00:00

Grad School Pays in Other Ways

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empty pocketGoing to grad school pays,
but not with a huge stipend.
Photo Credit: DG EMPL
When I sat down to write this essay I intended to describe how bad graduate student stipends are, how overworked we are, and how graduate school is slowly killing our love for science. We often joke, at least in my department, that our stipends are so small that we effectively live below the poverty line (we are actually ~200% above the poverty line). The financial struggles of graduate students may be more pronounced in some cities than others but it is not the whole story. We graduate students knew what we would earn when we signed up for this gig, and I would guess that if we had to do it all over again, we would. I'll admit that I often moan and groan about my stipend; I'd love to be able to eat out and travel every now and then. Yet, while we may be limited in how often we can frequent a fancy restaurant, what about the things that graduate school does afford us?

1. Freedom to think independently

This freedom may not be the same across labs and departments, but for the most part graduate students are left to their own devices. We have access to almost any piece of scientific literature we want, a "freedom" (universities pay thousands for this access) that is often taken for granted. We also have access to some of the most sophisticated tools known to mankind. Further, we get to choose what we research and how we do it; this to me is the essence of being a scientist.

2. Flexible hours

If I wanted to stroll into lab one day like Peter Gibbons in Office Space, well, for the most part I could. My boss doesn't make me keep strict hours because she realizes that science and experiments are flexible, and because our hours are dictated by our experiments, we in turn are flexible. That said, I love to come in early and have a nice coffee in the lab alone. What? Just because I can come in late doesn't mean I do—I told you that I chose this life and would do it again!

3. We can continue to take classes and learn new things

Taking classes can be seen as an unholy chore, but people pay thousands of dollars to take college classes and advance themselves and their knowledge. It is a great luxury to be able to take whatever class we want and it is one that we should remember the next time we are paying our bills.

4. Awesome health insurance

This may not be the case for everyone, but grad student health insurance is generally pretty awesome because the average age of the insured is so low. I hesitate to say it is a pleasure to go to the student health center, but the last time I had to go I was amazed at how quick and efficient they were. Oh, and I didn't have to pay $100+ dollars to just see a doctor like I did on my previous non-student plan.

5. We don't have to worry about planning our next night out or vacation

We know we're going to the bar with two for one drinks, and who has time for vacation anyway? Disagree with me? Sounds like a debate for the bar.

So, even though the book Surviving Your Stupid Stupid Decision to Go to Grad School certainly does resonate with me, I also know how lucky I am. And who knows, maybe other graduate schools will follow Johns Hopkins' lead and increase our stipends one day!

Josh Nicholson

Josh is currently a graduate student in the lab of Daniela Cimini at Virginia Tech.  He is working towards understanding the role of karyotypic alterations in cancer.  In addition to his interests in cell biology he is also interested in how science is practiced from publishing to funding.

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