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Talking About Money- And Why You Need To Do It

People, I’m about to get brutally honest here. Well, not brutally—maybe viciously, if viciously means I’m going to couch my serious point in sarcastic humor because I never learned to talk about money until my only mental defense was to be witty about it.

But regardless of personal feelings, we need to talk finances. I know, just the thought of talking about money makes everyone’s academic souls begin to cringe in sympathetic embarrassment. And that’s my point. It’s 2016. The economy is not great. We can’t all sit around not talking about the one thing that is on everyone’s mind ALL THE TIME.

When I was grad student I spent 50% of my time thinking about my studies, 40% worrying about how I was going to pay for those studies, and the last 10% obsessing over Doctor Who. (Was Matt Smith really going to be able to follow David Tennett? Tennett was the best!! In hindsight I think we can all agree Smith brought it, but this was a very anxious times for Whovians.)

You need to do research on finance options the same way you research your dissertation. You need to know your options and talk about them—with your family, your cohort, and your department leadership. I always felt weird bringing up money with my adviser, as if they would think less of me if they knew I was anxious about how school would affect my financial future. As if they hadn’t also been a grad student at some point worrying about the same thing.

And while I think that students today feel the pressure in a way that many of our advisers didn’t, that just means we have to talk to them so they know how you’re feeling.  It seems like a bad thing, talking about money, as if by doing so you’re betraying the “casual, intellectual, only care about the work” persona of the academic.

But professionals talk about money, academic or not. You don’t take a job without asking about the salary, you don’t gamble your future without some sort of guidance. Guess what? Those little freshman babies over in Gabelli business school walk into class the first day and ask how much they could make with an MBA. We don’t do that.

And cool your jets— I’m not saying we need to be like business majors. But we do need to take some of the good things they’re doing and modify them for our own needs. Do you flat out ask your adviser how much you can make with a MA in English? Maybe not. But you could ask how much debt the typical student has after graduating. They may not be able to give you numbers but they might be able to give you an estimate to tell you whether you need to private loans on top of the federal.

We need to be more upfront about money so we don’t feel blindsided when we graduate. Graduating should be amazing but you’re not going to be feeling great if you’re panicking about the future.

And after we graduate we need to know how to discuss salary, and that means knowing what we should be making. You might have a little less negotiation room if you’re taking a T-T position, but what does having a MA or an MS mean when you move outside academia? For many who are more professionally oriented, having an MA is supposed to be the difference between entry-level salary and a more livable wage. You can’t get that if you don’t know 1) industry norms and 2) how to talk about salary without becoming a sweaty mess and/or an over-agreeable pushover.

I, and most other academic-orientated people I know, tend to fall into the second category. We’re told so much that our degrees are useless, or that the economy is so bad that we’re so grateful for a job when it is offered, that we jump at it, thus loosing most negotiating power. But if our degrees were useless we wouldn’t be being offered the job, so we have to rein that desperation in. You deserve it, and you deserve to have a reasonable wage. Worst comes to worst, they say no. No one’s going to fire you (or not hire you) for asking for more money—and if they do you really shouldn’t work someplace so miserly.  That’s a warning sign.

You have a lot more power in the hiring process than you think you do, and you need to know how to handle that situation, and how to talk about it, when the time comes.

  • Dewis Shallcross, Director of Student Development, GSAS ‘14

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Filed under Finances, Graduate Students, GSAS Students, Professional Development