How to Build Wealth During and After a PhD

I’ll never forget the day I had to hock my TV for food. I was an undergraduate. It was a little color one with a VCR built in (I’m dating myself here). I cradled it in my arms on the bus all the way to the Hock Shop.

I guessed it was worth $100.

The guy at the Hock Shop gave me $40.

I was insulted enough I almost left with the TV, but I didn’t want to carry it home… and the whole needing food thing.

$40 didn’t buy a lot, but it got me through to the next student loan deposit in my bank account.

It wasn’t just that I was poor. I had mismanaged the first student loan payment so much that I was left with no money at the end of the month.

When I look back at my time as a student, I can’t believe the amount of stupid shit I did with money. I didn’t know what money was. We didn’t have it growing up. So as a poor kid who was the first in his family to go to university, predictably, I made a lot of mistakes.

Wealth isn’t a common topic for students to talk about–probably because it’s assumed that most don’t have any money. Plus there’s this whole thing about ripping apart capitalism that somehow doesn’t fit with the idea of building wealth as a PhD.

Unfortunately a lack of financial awareness is setting a lot of PhDs up for financial disaster, and bad decisions before, during, and after the PhD exacerbate this.

If you’re thinking, “I’m not driven by money,” let’s flip this around. Do you want to be precarious for life? Do you want to constantly have to put your bank account into overdraft protection to go out for beer with friends? Do you want to be a Walmart greeter in your 80s?

A few years go, media outlets got hold of the story of the adjunct, Margaret Mary Vojtko, who died in poverty after a lifetime of teaching at a university. I thought of her every time I was tempted to apply for adjunct or precarious work, and I didn’t.

In fact, there are decisions you can make right now, during your PhD, that will set you up for financial success in your life after.

1. Avoid debt like the plague

The old adage was that a PhD should be funded or it shouldn’t be done at all. You ignore this at your peril, and I’m not talking about getting passed up for tenure track jobs because of it (although apparently that happens too).

As I indicated above, I grew up poor. When I took out student loans, it wasn’t because my parents and I had thought through what that debt meant. They thought that any investment in education was a good one and destined to raise my fortunes in life, even if I did study–ahem–History and English.

You should pause at this point and watch this John Mulaney routine if you’ve never seen it.

Apparently a lot of people thought the same, since the average doctoral student in Canada graduates with $41K in debt–in the U.S. a recent study put it at $98K. Student debt can kill wealth.

If you’re independently wealthy and want to do a PhD, go for it.

But please don’t take out debt to do it. Figure out how to make money on the side. Apply for more scholarships. Pick up TA or RA work. Don’t borrow.

And if you have debt, pay it down as fast as you can.

2. Apply for every source of funding

Everything you can find. I remember reading this in Karen Kelsky’s book—The Professor Is In. She gave an illustration like this. If it takes you 3 hours to apply for a $1,000 grant and you get it, what’s your hourly wage? $333 and change. That’s a lot more than TAs make, last I checked. Apply for every source of funding you can, even if you’re already funded.

3. Learn personal finance

By the fourth year of my undergrad, I’d learned the basics of forensic science, how to use the cards method for historical research, and I could name the Canadian Prime Ministers in order. I spent so much time learning all that useless crap I never use anymore, and I’d never learned the basics of personal finance.

If you don’t know anything about personal finance, it’s time to start. I went into a PhD knowing nothing about personal finance, how to budget, what net worth is and how to build it. That’s all changed.

Take time to educate yourself about finance. I know the Millennial Money blog is great. I read the book The Millionaire Teacher when I was in grad school, and I’ll occasionally listen to Dave Ramsey’s Podcast. I tend to read, watch, or listen to something on personal finance once a week at least. Because even though money isn’t my life, I want to take care of what I have and earn what I’m worth.

You know the ins and outs of grasshopper DNA or Stoic philosophy. It took a lot of time to learn that. Personal finance doesn’t take that long.

4. Reject adjuncting

Yes, I’m saying to reject adjuncting. If you need to get some teaching experience for your CV, teach a max of two courses. If you’re teaching as an adjunct year after year and lying to yourself that you’re putting in your time before a tenure-track job, get out! Run!

Think about this. The university guarantees an unlimited access to cheap labor as it recruits PhDs to their programs while simultaneously eliminating any real jobs at the top. Basically, the business model of the university is to take money from poor students on the premise that it will improve their future, and then to prey on them once they’re broke and have no options. If they collapse, there’s a steady stream behind them. If you can’t see this as exploitation, you’re reading the wrong stuff.

Don’t do it! This whole site is dedicated to telling you how to build a career with a PhD outside of academia. Leaving sucks a bit, sure. But my first year out I made $70k and had more impact on the world than in my entire PhD.

5. Limit your postdoc applications

If you want to apply for a few post-docs that pay, say $60k+ sure, go for it. I mean, I probably wouldn’t. Especially if it’s just delaying the inevitable.  But take a good, honest look at your field and see if a post-doc helps in some way. See if you can identify some post-docs who got hired in academia.

Here’s why I didn’t.

I was tired of living in limbo. The fact that there were tons of post-docs and no tenure-track jobs in my field did not give me confidence that doing a post-doc would get me to a real academic job.

Plus, if you do a post-doc that doesn’t get your career ahead, you’ve just wasted years of your life and earning potential. If you get your first alt-ac job that pays the same as the average post-doc (say $50K, which is easy to make) your next job should pay $80 or $100k. (P.S. Canada has a cool “industry postdoc” program through Mitacs that’s a great bridge for some PhDs. If someone tells me what the American equivalent is I’ll add it here.)

I’m saying $50K is EASY to make, especially if you choose the right city to live in. Frankly, if you play your cards right your first post-PhD job could pay as much as a tenure-track job or more.

I wrote a post where I tried to calculate the possible cost of delaying entering the non-academic job market: How Delaying Your Post-Phd Career Can Cost You +$500k.

6. Start saving for retirement

Ok, so I hear all of those people saying that you should treat a PhD like a job.

If that’s the case, you should be saving for retirement. I’m assuming you won’t have the extra cash to start socking away hundreds of thousands of dollars, but open a retirement account and learn how to use it. Set your account to take out, say, $20 a month automatically and invest it. Learn about why compound interest is your friend. Basically start establishing the patterns for building and growing wealth that will serve you for the rest of your life.

Do you have any tips on building wealth? Add them in the comments below!

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