How to Survive, Thrive, and Succeed with a Graduate Student Stipend


Faith Summersett-Ringgold
Northwestern University

Graduate school is a job that entails much dedication and effort; therefore, many psychology doctoral programs offer graduate student stipends. Stipends are often provided through part-time employment via a Research Assistantship (RA; assisting faculty with research) or a Teaching Assistantship (TA; assisting professors with grading and lectures for undergraduate courses). The RA or TA stipend typically covers the essential costs of living (e.g., housing, utilities, transportation, and food); however, the stipend amount varies significantly depending on the university, program, and location. Additionally, some institutions guarantee five years of support whereas others may only be able to provide one. Doctor of Psychology, or PsyD programs, place greater emphasis on clinical training than PhD programs, and are often unable to provide student stipends. The aim of this article is to outline strategies for surviving on a graduate student stipend.

Financial Planning

Financial management is vital to surviving on a meager graduate stipend; therefore, decreasing spending on superfluous habits is crucial. The first step to savvy financial management is to create a budget. Budgeting for food, housing, utilities, and transportation is the most salient aspect of managing the graduate stipend. Creating Excel spreadsheets is beneficial for tracking spending and planning monthly budgets.

Food. Dining out less and preparing meals in advance can help decrease the chances of impulsively purchasing prepared food. Investing in freezer safe containers can be helpful for prepping large meals in advance and saving them for the week. This saves money and time for busy graduate students. Additionally, shopping for food and household supplies at bulk stores (e.g., Sam’s Club or Costco) can be more cost effective than purchasing smaller quantities. Furthermore, purchasing food from local farmers markets or joining crop sharing associations can be significantly cheaper than purchasing food from grocery stores. Fact: Most graduate students need coffee. Additional fact: three dollars spent at Starbucks each day costs $1,000 annually, whereas making coffee at home costs approximately ten cents per day (per cup), or $40 per year.

Housing. It is difficult to comfortably live alone on a stipend. Therefore, finding one or two roommates to help split housing and utility costs can be extremely helpful. Also, graduate students currently in the program can help you find roommates and explain options for affordable housing near campus. Moreover, universities have listservs and community message boards where students can post information about housing.

Utilities. Using services such as Netflix or Hulu instead of purchasing cable are entertainment options that can help save resources. Additionally, universities may offer reduced gym fees to students. However, busy graduate students may not have time to use the gym; therefore, schools may allow students to opt-out of including gym membership with their student fees. On another note, decreasing one’s cell phone data plan can help eliminate unnecessary cell phone charges. Additionally, monitoring the amount of electricity used by turning off lights and lowering the heat or air when they are not in use can help lower costs associated with electricity.

Transportation. Some schools in urban areas have arrangements with their city’s transit authority that allows students to have unlimited bus and train access during their enrollment at the university. Schools in suburban areas without easy access to public transportation may offer travel reimbursements to their students depending on their distance from the university. Also, students who live near campus can bike to school to cut down on transportation costs. Students who live further away can coordinate carpools with other students to share gas costs.

Part-time Employment Opportunities

Unfortunately, it can be difficult to make realistic financial arrangements that cover the essential costs of living; however, there are several opportunities for alternate income sources. Part-time employment within the university, including participating as a research subject, working as a research assistant in another department, or seeking employment at the library or bookstore are all flexible sources of supplemental income. Additionally, professors may have opportunities for students to make money by dog-walking, baby-sitting, or tutoring. Furthermore, editing articles for peer-reviewed journals is another great option for an additional income source and a great way to obtain related experience in editing.

Some programs overtly forbid students from seeking external employment; however, having a conversation with the program director about student expectations may be valuable. Outside employment opportunities such as hotlines, babysitting, tutoring, and volunteering as a research subject are flexible jobs that will not interfere with graduate students’ course and research responsibilities.

External Funding

If programs implement a strict policy on external employment, options such as applying for supplemental funding or loans can be additional sources of income. Joining organizations such as the Association for Psychological Science (APS), Psi Chi, and the American Psychological Association of Graduate Students (APAGS) may be useful because they offer fellowship opportunities and provide travel accommodations to conferences. Additionally, organizations such as the National Research Service Awards through the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation (NSF), National Defense Science & Engineering Graduate Fellowship (NDSEG), and Ford Foundation Fellowship offer fellowships for students proposing research that overlaps with their mission and goals. These fellowships are also extremely impressive to include on CVs. Moreover, many schools have financial aid representatives who can help students apply for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) or emergency loan funds to help in cases of financial emergencies.

Graduate school is time-consuming and highly intensive. Therefore, it is important to have a comprehensive understanding of the financial package and options for supplemental financial sources to avoid an added financial stressor during an already stressful period. It is helpful for students to have an open and candid dialogue with their faculty advisors and financial aid representatives about their stipend. Therefore, students will have an understanding of their expectations to be productive. This can increase students’ well-being and result in a more rewarding graduate school experience.


Author Note

Faith Summersett-Ringgold is a third year clinical psychology doctoral student at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine researching the protective factors among families involved in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems who have experienced trauma. She is a past APSSC Communications and Marketing Officer, and past reviewer for the RISE Research Award Competition. Faith wants to thank Jessica Schubert for her helpful comments on versions of this manuscript.