How to Become a Scientist While Poor
Science, for hundreds of years, was a hobby. From Darwin to Da Vinci, exploration and experimentation was reserved for the wealthy who had time and money to ponder life’s greatest questions. Today, research is a global enterprise, with a pipeline from student to professional researcher. However, the financial barriers to research opportunities are still present. In order to obtain a career in research, you must first have research experience. Because research experience is so highly coveted, almost every prestigious laboratory receives an endless supply of young students asking to volunteer in their labs, working many hours each week for free.
If you’re like me, and grew up in a poor family and started working part-time jobs as a teen to help make ends meet, working for free is a luxury. Despite that, I found ways to earn money while doing research and to apply to graduate school for less than $200. Most of my life decisions depended heavily on money; something that was not true for many of my peers. Today as a 5th year PhD candidate, I live a very financially stable life, more so than most people in my family, and certainly better than my parents. It is not impossible to live a rich life as a graduate student, even if your income is barely above the poverty line. If you grew up poor, the security of 5+ years of income as a PhD student can change your life. But first, here are some tips to become a scientist if you desperately need money to get there.
Disclaimer: There are valid arguments why pursuing a PhD may not be the best path for someone who could otherwise make over 2x the income going straight to a salary job. There are also systemic barriers to low-income people seeking academic careers that go beyond the immediate solutions the resources below can provide. This is a non-comprehensive collection of tips, limited by my own knowledge and experience. Please reach out if you’d like to share additional resources or tips!
How to make money as an undergraduate researcher
Summer research programs
Woooo, buddy! Did you know that you can make ~$3000+ doing research for 8-10 weeks? There are hundreds of summer research programs in the US and abroad that will provide housing, food, a lab, mentorship, and on top of that, a stipend! The goal of these programs is to increase access to research. Not only do these programs give you an incredible research experience, they can often be the source of income that feeds you during the school year. Most of these programs are going to revolve around STEM research, but summer programs through the Institute for Recruitment of Teachers are offered at many universities and aim more generally to prepare undergraduates for careers as faculty, starting with critical theory and GRE prep classes (Thanks Sa-kiera T. J. Hudson for letting me know).
If you have high financial need, chances are that part of your financial aid package is work-study. This money is not just given to you, but rather promised to your employer to subsidize your paycheck. Meaning, if you get a work-study eligible job that pays you $10 an hour, your employer only has to pay you $5 and the other half is covered by the university. If you qualify for work study, ask your PI if they can hire you through a work-study position. This didn’t work for me, so I went and got a science communication job that paid. If you can’t get your research hours paid for, try getting a job that would prepare you for graduate school in other ways.
You should always be applying to every scholarship that you qualify for, especially research-related ones. Not only do you need the money, but each award you win increases the chances of winning subsequent awards. Even if you get honorable mention, it will show that you made a very good attempt. One national undergraduate research fellowship to apply for is the Barry Goldwater Scholarship. You should also apply to the NSF GRFP as an senior undergrad since you only get one shot when you’re in a graduate program and applying as an undergrad doesn’t count against that shot.
Other ways to make ends meet
This was one of the least favorite things I did as an undergrad, but I’m not sure I would have been able to make it through otherwise. I was a resident assistant for a while, which provided me with housing and food. Even though it had nothing to do with science, it taught me important skills and kept me afloat. Get creative with how you can earn money - I sometimes even sold art and crafts for cash. Finally, don’t have any shame in going to a food pantry or making use of other resources. Universities often rely on data showing that people actually use these resources in order to keep them going, so in a way, you’re helping others by making sure these resources continue to be offered.
How to apply for graduate school for free or “cheap”
Unlike obtaining your undergraduate degree, most STEM PhD programs will pay a stipend. Each program varies - students working in the same lab might have a difference of $10k in their stipends. It’s important to do the research to figure out if you can live on that stipend, but for what it’s worth, my program pays about $35,000 a year and has increased by $500 each year. Your subsidized loans from undergrad will continue to have interest and payments deferred until you graduate from your PhD program.
Application Fee Waivers
You don’t always have to be low-income or show proof of your financial insecurity in order to receive a fee waiver. One of the best places to ask is at a graduate school fair, especially at undergraduate research conferences like ABRCMS or SACNAS. (Side note: these conferences also usually offer generous travel grants that will cover the full cost of attendance.) Alternatively, you can email the program and request a fee waiver and they will often oblige. This is a great way to save $75-100 per school you would like to apply to. Applying with a fee waiver should not affect your admissions decision. I applied to every school with a fee waiver and the only program I didn’t get into was a bad research fit.
To qualify for a GRE fee reduction, you need to submit proof of financial need. Usually you will have to work with your university’s financial aid office to obtain the necessary documentation, so do this a few months before you intend to take the GRE. You can often find free practice tests online, and you can study for it just fine using old prep materials. However, the GRE fee waiver is still only a 50% fee reduction so you’ll still have to pay about $100 depending on where you’re taking the test and you only get the fee reduction applied once. Want to improve your score? You’ll have to cough up the full fee next time.
Better yet, apply to programs that don’t require the GRE. Not only is it a drain on your wallet, there’s an increasing body of evidence demonstrating that the GRE is not even good at predicting graduate student success. Plenty of top tier PhD programs are getting rid of the requirement. One caveat: the subject tests might be good indicators of readiness and success and they cost $150 (or $75 with fee reduction) so you might want to consider taking a subject test instead of the general GRE if you’re trying to boost your application and/or make up for a less-than-satisfactory GPA.
Too many schools charge their own students to send official transcripts. Not all universities do this; mine sent them for free if I requested them early enough. Check your university’s policy first, then if the fees are too high for you to pay, reach out to admissions committees to ask whether you can upload an unofficial transcript. Let them know you can send them an official transcript if necessary, whether it’s at the application, interview, or acceptance stage. I’d like to think most admissions committees would be lenient on this requirement, knowing that there’s no incentive to deceive with an unofficial transcript if you’re prepared to send an official one later.
Many graduate school programs will cover the full cost of your interview weekend from flight to hotel to meals at the airport. Unfortunately, a lot of this will be done via reimbursement, meaning you pay first and submit a form after the interview to recoup your money. If this is something you can’t do, ask them if they can book your flight and ground travel for you up front. Any program worth your while should be willing to work with you on this. Otherwise, I’d read it as a red flag that you’ll encounter other problems if you do eventually join this program.
Once you’ve gotten accepted and chosen your perfect program, moving across the country (or even a city) is no joke. Especially in a big city where rent is already sky-high, there’s a big chance that you don’t have the few thousand dollars laying around to pay a deposit, first month’s rent, and the actual cost of getting you and all of your stuff safely to your destination. Some programs will be able to provide some money for relocation costs. Ask about this at your interviews. If you’re getting directly accepted into a lab, ask them too. NSF and NIH allow relocation costs to be built into grants - let people know about this if they don’t seem to have an idea about what you’re talking about.
Ask for help
Very few people will know about your financial situation, especially if you’ve become a master at hiding your income level. If you need financial help, don’t be too shy or scared to ask for it. First, I’d ask the mentors who are already invested in your success. The professors who mentor you in the lab and classroom, writing your letters of rec, are a good place to start. Sit down with them and let them know your situation. They might offer to help you with some cash or find you a gig that can pay you. This might seem unbearably difficult, but if you are going to be in control of your future, you have to recognize that your financial need is a barrier that you need help overcoming. The people in your life who have already spent time on your growth will not hesitate if they can help you with some money. In fact, there are some research studies showing that people like you even more if they do you a favor. If this is still something you can’t do, you can try doing a fundraiser like a gofundme or even a bake sale. Do not let your temporary financial burden prevent you from following your dreams. Trust me, you will also spend much of your future finding ways to pay your privilege forward. You aren’t taking a handout, you are accepting a helping hand. On that note, if you’ve tried everything on this list and are still short, reach out to me on twitter or via email. I am always looking to find ways to pay my own fortunes forward and through Two Photon Art, we distribute small grants to help people who just need a little extra cash to make big things happen.
Students who have to choose between earning money to meet their basic needs and volunteering in order to boost their resume are at a severe disadvantage for building resumes that are impressive to academic gatekeepers. While I have tips for capitializing on past hardships to woo fellowship essay reviewers, the burden of leveling the playing field for disadvantaged students should not fall on the disadvantaged themselves. Academics should be proactively working to decrease barriers and build that into the application process. I propose the following, at minimum:
Get rid of the GRE requirement (check out the #GRExit hashtag)
Provide information on the application for fee/reimbursment assistance
Provide a field on applications to discuss ALL previous work experience - not just research related
PAY UNDERGRADUATE RESEARCHERS
Post undergraduate research positions on the same job boards as campus coffee shops and libraries
Again, I don’t know it all and I can only speak from the very limited amount of time I have been a part of the academic community. Please share your thoughts on how we can do better and other resources that may help students who are struggling financially. Cheers!