PhD in NYC, money?
May 18, 2008 7:54 PM   Subscribe

I'd like to do my PhD in a scientific field, full-time in the NY Metro area. How can I make it work money-wise?

Cost of living is very high, of course, and assistantships pay very little: I've looked at teaching and research assistantships at Columbia and the range was 1000-2000/month for 20/hours of work per week.
I am willing to work part-time on the side, doing tutoring and hopefully some writing or programming gigs. Or whatever. I also hope to get some grants and/or scholarships to help out some more.

I have a Bachelor and Masters degree in Engineering.
I am married, so I can't bunk up with ten roommates. My wife doesn't make that money so I can't rely on her to support us both through this.
I'd say I need to make at least 50k a year, assuming tuition is paid.

Question is: Is this doable? Any resources out there? How do people actually do it?
posted by spacefire to Education (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
"I'd say I need to make at least 50k a year, assuming tuition is paid." = tuition paid for by the assistantship or fellowship.
posted by spacefire at 8:02 PM on May 18, 2008

Have you already applied for the program? My understanding is that most Ph.D. programs are fully funded - especially in the sciences (usually a package of research fellowships, teaching, etc).

I'm at CU now, living on a $20,000/yr stipend - not easy, but certainly doable. Live in the boroughs or north of 125th and commute: housing costs still aren't great, but they're at least comparable to other cities. Also, if you're coming from out of town, you can probably also get discounted housing through CU (only available for those not already living in the New York metro area)
posted by puckish at 8:05 PM on May 18, 2008

In most scientific disciplines, tuition is in fact paid for by the assistantship and/or fellowship you hold; very few students, if any, actually pay for their own tuition. You might also look into whether graduate students are eligible for housing assistance or renting from the University; I know that my own graduate institution (in Chicago) has a fair number of apartments that it rents out to graduate students, and I've heard that that NYU has something along those lines as well.

That said, your question strikes me as a little naïve. You definitely don't go into a Ph.D. program without having a passion for the field you've chosen, and the fact that you're asking about a Ph.D. in "science" doesn't speak well to having such a passion. Are Physics, Mathematics, Biology, and Computer Science really all the same to you? Similarly, the stipends given to Ph.D. students are enough to support one person, really. I'm not sure that it'd be possible for me to support a spouse on the stipend I'm getting, and it'd definitely require a fair amount of austerity. And you shouldn't rely upon having all that much time to do huge amounts of tutoring, writing, or programming; twenty hours per week isn't so much a ballpark figure as a lower limit, and depending on the field or the advisor you choose, you might end up working much, much more.

So, to answer your question: how do people get science Ph.D.s? Their spouses, if they have any, work full- or part-time to bring up the household income to enough for two people, since the stipends only really provide for one (if that.) They live frugally for six or seven years, sacrificing their material happiness for the ability to do something they really love. They have an idea of what this degree will do for them, career-wise. And — this is the most important thing — they love their field, and know without a doubt that they want to be studying it; because four or five years in, when they become bitter & jaded, their deep-seated interest in the work they do is the only thing that keeps them from dropping out.
posted by Johnny Assay at 8:26 PM on May 18, 2008

@Johnny Assay

-Sorry, I shouldn't have been so lazy to type details. I know exactly what I want to do my PhD in and I am very passionate about the field. (Applied Mathematics with a focus on Computational Fluid Dynamics, to be specific)

-I do know about subsidized housing, but I don't want to have to rely on that just yet.
I expect to be paying about 900 per month for my share of the rent. It's not that much, but an assistantship won't be able to cover that AND other living expenses.

-There are so many schools in the area, so I imagine there is a fairly high number of students making ends meet somehow. I really want to know how they do it. My wife will probably be working full-time through this, so I don't need to support her. But she won't be able to support me, either!
posted by spacefire at 8:43 PM on May 18, 2008

It's certainly possible to do a PhD in the NYC metro area and make a decent amount of money. I have the opportunity to do a PhD at Weill Cornell Medical College and will be paid a stipend of $30,000 + healthcare + tuition + $3000 academic expenses. Most universities pay a stipend to science PhD students. In fact, if you're not getting offered a stipend, don't do the PhD!
posted by peacheater at 8:46 PM on May 18, 2008

Make a budget. What are your projected expenses? What makes you think you need to come up with $50k? Many, many people in New York live on dramatically less money than that. Heck, many people raise families on less money than that. I lived in Manhattan for several years on less than $30k.

If your wife is working full-time and you can get free tuition, benefits, and a $24k stipend, you should be fine. Not "Let's have dinner at Gramercy Tavern once a week!" fine, but definitely "be able to live in a non-dangerous apartment and eat from all the major food groups" fine. But prove it to yourself by making a detailed budget.
posted by decathecting at 9:03 PM on May 18, 2008

Many, if not most, graduate assistantships prohibit outside employment. Not sure about enforcement.
posted by ecsh at 9:48 PM on May 18, 2008

Seconding Johnny assay and esch.

Most graduate school contracts prohibit outside employment (mine does).

Second, you're expecting to have boat loads of free time. Trust me, you won't. The 20 hour/week assessment is not accurate. It may be lower or higher. As an experienced TA, I don't spend more than 8 hours a week for my teaching job (includes everything). However, it might be way more than 20 hours if it were a class I didn't know so well.

Research assistantships are different. They will take at least 20 a week, more if you have any academic interest in the project.

On top of either assignment, you will have to devote a bunch of time to your own research, which is the primary purpose of attending grad school. So it would be wise to give up on ambitions to make 50k through outside employment. Either ask you wife to get a job or find a grad school in a location with a low cost of living. good luck.
posted by special-k at 10:22 PM on May 18, 2008

I am willing to work part-time on the side, doing tutoring and hopefully some writing or programming gigs.

You won't have time. Sorry. And you won't be able to earn $50,000 a year while doing your PhD. Lower your expenses.
posted by grouse at 11:48 PM on May 18, 2008

I've lived in New York City for less than $40k/year. Since you say that you're assuming tuition is paid, I'll assume that includes registration fees, textbooks, computer, etc. Here's an estimate of what I was spending:

$500 rent
$50 utilities
$50 cell phone
$75/week groceries = $300
$150 for car (insurance, gas, inevitable parking tickets)
$160 lunch out (pretty much every day -- my own personal laziness / extravagance)
$200 dinner out once or twice a week
$250 bars/shows/movies/etc.
$1,660 x 12 = $19,920 after taxes

You can swap out $75 for a subway pass (has it gone up?) for a car -- I had it because of a unique home/work situation, but it's definitely not necessary. Your student ID will be your friend for entertainment -- it's an excuse to not pay anything at the Met, the Brooklyn Botanical gardens, American Museum of Natural History, etc. etc. I think Columbia also has limited numbers of passes for students (maybe just undergrads) to get into museums for free.

The big number up there that people are going to scream about is the rent number. Yeah, I had a very low rent. I lived in Inwood, which is the northernmost neighborhood on the island of Manhattan. It's a really nice, low-key neighborhood, but if you have friends in other parts of the city, it's a pain in the ass to ever visit them. However, it's right on the 1 line, which stops at Columbia, and takes about 30 minutes from Dyckman - 116th st.

Was I staying up for 60 hours on weekends doing coke with celebrities? No. But you can live comfortably in NYC on $2,000 a month. If you want, add $250 to your rent for $750. I think most people will agree that you and your wife can find a 1BR apartment for $1,500/month, and you're still spending less than $2,000/month. Pack your own lunch and you can actually start saving some cash.

Yeah, you could spend some "free time" working odd jobs to earn extra money, but as a graduate student it's just not in your interest to do that. You should be focusing on what you love to do -- applied mathematics. Use any down time you have to chill out, go on a date with your wife, go to the park, go to the library, etc. You could earn extra money tutoring, but what would you spend it on? I thought about doing that, but just decided I'd rather have more free time and a little less money. The point is -- there are lots and lots of graduate students in NYC and they're all surviving. Stipends and assistantships are set up to let you get by on them. You won't get rich, but you certainly won't starve. Try to save as much money as you can now, for moving costs, emergency fund, etc. Once you're set up, though, $2,000/month will keep you going. Let me know if you have any questions, and good luck.

[I went to school in NYC and worked at a nonprofit for two years, so I know what it's like to live there on very little money. I'm in grad school in Berkeley now, so I know what it's like to be living as a grad student on a stipend in an area with a very comparable cost of living.]
posted by one_bean at 12:04 AM on May 19, 2008

You'll be lucky to break 30 while getting your phd. I would estimate somewhere around 24-27? IIRC you won't really be taxed at a normal rate, so your take-home will be higher, though perhaps that has changed. Anyway, plenty of grad students at Columbia are doing it. So are the postdocs there, who are also making less than $50. $50K is pretty much impossible given what you are talking about, so you need to either find a way to live on less, or reconsider your plan. And your wife's salary will still be an asset. Even if she's making $40K, you guys can totally get by together. Don't expect to be living the high life though.

You won't have free time, but you won't really have that many expenses either, outside of food and rent. You'll save even more money if you live in a less expensive area (caveat: you'll be spending all of your time at school/work and it's nice to not need an hour transit time to get there/back).

I don't think you'll be able to find a 1br in the immediate vicinity for $1500 (seems to be around $2k-ish), but you can attain that rate if you are able to get an apartment through university housing. A word of caution, you can only stay in the university apartments for three years, so make sure you are saving for "market rate" because you will definitely be there longer than three years.

Another way people do it? I know people that took out loans to cover the living expenses that weren't covered by fellowships.

I tried my hand at one_bean's budget - A typical budget might look something like this. This accounts for your half only and assumes you are male. Your textbooks and computer will not be covered.

$700 rent ($1156-$1799 according to Columbia apartment housing for a one-bedroom. Average is around $1400, don't be surprised if you are in a studio, even as a couple).
$50 renters insurance
$75 utilities
$60 cell phone
$80/week groceries = $320
$100 for subway, occasional taxi (if you live near campus and will hardly be commuting/going anywhere, cut that to $50)
$75 lunch out
$125 dinner out (once a week)
$75 clothing, accessories, laundry, dry cleaning
$20 internet
$50 personal care and toiletries
$75 bars/shows/movies/etc. Lots of cheap opportunities for students.
$75 books (estimate $300/semester)
$100 misc

$1,900 x 12 = $22,800

Obviously I am taking out luxuries and savings like grocery delivery, house cleaning, dropping off your laundry, cable, vacations, retirement, savings, etc. This doesn't account for upfront expenses such as moving and furniture purchases. Your lifestyle may give you more flexibility (i.e. if you live in Old Navy tees, you don't need to spend as much on clothing). If you are paying the $900 that you mentioned for rent, that will change things as well, but hopefully this shows you it can be done with some careful planning and sticking to a budget.

Good luck.
posted by ml98tu at 6:51 AM on May 19, 2008

Just a small note: you mentioned tutoring as an extra way to earn money, and while it is true you will have VERY little time or energy outside of your classes and research, many of my friends (we're chemistry Ph.D. students) do tutor undergrads and even high school students for rates ranging anywhere from 30 - 60 bucks an hour (several go higher than that, depending on the situation, time requirement, class/material, etc.). It's not a ton of extra money but it's definitely helpful and it IS doable while you are a grad student. I plan on doing it myself just as soon as I pass my oral exams (and have a little more time!).
posted by rio at 10:27 AM on May 19, 2008

Sorry to be another negative nancy, but 50k a year really is unrealistic as at best you will have to work superhuman hours to make that kind of money, and you'll likely have to sacrifice time more appropriately spent on your own academic research for time on side jobs which may potentially be prohibited anyway. Having known far too many graduate students, I have yet to meet one making that kind of money outside of maybe the occasional online poker pro (and I would strongly recommend against that route).
posted by drpynchon at 10:58 AM on May 19, 2008

I think you should look into student housing, I have a friend who is starting a post-doc at Columbia and he will obviously be making more than you, but also has a wife + 2 little kids. He will be living in the student/subsidized housing. It's there for a reason in big cities like NYC.
posted by sararah at 2:07 PM on May 19, 2008

thanks for all the replies. I guess I'd better save some money till 2009 and make my budget and start applying ASAP.
posted by spacefire at 5:35 PM on May 19, 2008

I'm a little late to the party here, but I'm currently doing a PhD at Columbia at the medical center campus, making ~28K a year. I previously lived in the "subsidized" couple's housing, and paid $1460/month for a one bedroom (with a 5% increase scheduled every year, regardless of how much stipends increase). Granted, it was a large (700 sqft) apartment in a pest free building with a 24-hour doorman, but if you're looking to save money you can definitely get a better price on a 1 bedroom in Washington Heights in a less-nice building. Of course, with your computational interests, you would probably be working on the Morningside campus. But if you happen to want more information about housing on the medical center, MeFiMail me.
posted by twoporedomain at 7:30 AM on May 20, 2008

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