I started my fifth year of PhD last year in August, and with that, I entered that phase where new graduate students would look up to me seeking guidance. I was invited to a panel discussion as a panelist to share my advice with a wider audience. I realised that nothing new could have been said to them which they already don’t know, but re-emphasising the same points brought reassurance that it will all turn out well. However, sometimes conversation among panelist take unexpected turn that, upon reflection, are immensely valuable. One such issue brought up was on financial challenges during PhD.

Monetary challenges during graduate studies are one of the primary deterrents to pursuing studies after undergrad. In Indian academia, PhD students get ₹35T (₹31T for the first two years), which is significantly less compared to other countries, even after considering the purchase power parity. It forces us to reprioritise ambitions, bringing in readjustments which could be hard to accept but needed nevertheless.

It certainly helps if one has the necessary financial awareness, which develops with experience, and is not discussed at a young age. This is why those joining after spending some years in the industry don’t sweat from it. I wanted to write my thoughts on it, as for some it may be “emphasis” though for others it could be “re-emphasis”, either way I hope it brings “reassurance”. The suggestions I want to make are unusual and are seldom discussed, but after receiving occasional appreciation for peers, I was motivated to turn them into a more permanent form. They may not fit everyone, but it isn’t meant to be, as they only intend to light the spark for thinking about it.

Invest in Medical and Term Insurance

This was one of the first things I did when my stipend started, and I cannot stress enough the importance of it. It is interesting how everyone accepts the necessity of it but are still full of excuses not to buy one as soon as possible. Indian premier institutes extend health insurance to all their students from academic fees, including PhD candidates, with coverage of ₹1-1.5L. Health care cost in India are growing exponentially; on top of it, covid has worsened the situation. It is terrible to assume that such a modest amount would suffice for prolonged health care if needed. There are serval benefits to start with it early, but I will let my readers seek it from a qualified financial advisor.

Save for Academic Fees and Contingencies

Expenses required to continue graduate studies must be fulfilled using the stipend, which includes fees, accommodation, food, and basic transportation. Some of these expenses are not monthly, yet saving them every month takes off the load when they happen. It also includes saving enough for academic trips, domestic or international, to conferences and workshops. The institute, department or private organisation funds most such trips, but it’s a long and tedious ordeal which occasionally ends with disappointment. Building contingencies also helps later if PhD extends beyond five years, which is when the funding stops, and for relocation after finishing the degree.

Spending Consciously

We tend to overspend a limited resource at the beginning only to realise its finiteness too late. Weekend outings, unplanned trips to home or vacations can very quickly deplete savings, leaving nothing for the plan. Priority expenses take a back seat to compensate for unconscious spending. Budgeting properly with reasonable distribution for all types of expenses is important. In situations when PhD gets extended beyond five years, it becomes even more essential to carefully decide on expenses.

That being said, never hesitate to spend on yourself, which helps you and your career grow. That might be a laptop for work, a guitar for fun, or badminton for sports. Conscious spending is not to stop you from purchasing, but to encourage you to thoughtful spending.

Disciplined spending may not always be possible and unrealistic expectations can quickly take you off track. However, it is essential to get back on it because that is all readjustments we want to thrive on. The suggestions are not from a financial advisor, hence the list is not exhaustive and has its limitations. My intention is to motivate my readers to think more about it because even optimistically speaking I don’t see the stipends getting revised, competitive to the industry standards, anytime soon. And even if they improve, such challenges just don’t simple go away with more money. Let me know your thoughts @prateekdwv.