As a second-year graduate student, I’d like to think that I’ve finally learned all the tricks of the trade when it comes to university life. Grad school isn’t always the most financially friendly path to take, but I have spent the past year and a half looking for silver linings and thinking of ways to take full advantage of my graduate experience. Whether you’re in college or you’re a graduate student, chances are you’re pinching pennies, so it’s important to take advantage of the freebies and know about the resources available to you. After almost six years of schooling, here are seven habits I’ve picked up that help me get my money’s worth out of my school:
1. Shop around.
“Shop around” is pretty much my life motto. I applied to several schools before selecting my current program. The reason I chose my particular school is that it offered me funding while other schools didn’t have any. This sort of thing really depends on your field. Since I’m in international studies, there just isn’t a lot of funding available in comparison to other departments. While I understand that application costs dissuade people from applying to more than a few schools, for me, it helped to extend my search to schools that were potentially going to give me money. Also, if one school offers you a $10K scholarship, that’s a great opportunity to go back to another school and ask them to beat that offer.
2. Use your student fees.
I’ve become devoted to getting my money’s worth because even with a tuition waiver, I’m still paying student fees. Though I was never one to go to the gym before, I’ve started going to the pool once a week. I’m not a great swimmer, and getting lapped by 75-year-old men is never a great feeling, but it helps me to feel slightly less stressed. When I was in undergrad, yoga classes were also free (though they aren’t at my current school). My previous school also allowed students to print for free (up to a certain amount of pages per semester); I always made sure to never print at home in order to save money.
3. Use the library.
If there’s one thing I learned from watching PBS as a child, it’s that having fun isn’t hard when you’ve got a library card. As a graduate student, I’ve become a lot less hesitant to order things from Interlibrary Loan when they’re not available locally. I don’t waste time trying to track down hard-to-find articles anymore, either. Don’t be afraid to ask for help in the library. At my school, there is a librarian specifically dedicated to my discipline who often helps me find sources.
I also recommend using the library to study instead of paying to sit in a coffee shop. Since I’m at a large university, the library is pretty huge and has several branches, so I can always find a study area that has outlets and the noise level I prefer.
4. Take advantage of free and discounted software.
When I got a new laptop last year, I was pleased to discover that Microsoft Offices were free to download from my school’s IT website. Be sure to check what your school offers before purchasing any software. You can often get programs for free or at a reduced price using your student status.
5. Take advantage of free lunch.
Free lunch is a great draw for all the graduate students in my department. Although this is definitely not the same everywhere, my department has several lunchtime lectures every month; it’s a great opportunity to learn something outside of your area of expertise and get a decent lunch. Once or twice a semester, the university also holds large dinners for donors and students that have a big name speaker. Last year, I saw the Italian ambassador to the United States, and earlier this year I saw Bob Schieffer and Jim Lehrer. (And it all came with free food!)
6. Push yourself to go to the networking events.
I am perhaps the worst person at networking. Despite this, I still try to take advantage of opportunities to meet people who might be able to help me get a job after I graduate. I went to both of the all-university career fairs, as well as the smaller career fair that my department put on. When you’re in school (especially as an undergrad), it’s so tempting to blow off the networking opportunities. But the universities make it so easy on you that it’s worth going. All you have to do is show up! For me, the smaller career fair actually had more employers that were interested in international studies graduates, but I found one or two possibilities at the all-university career fair that I would not have considered before. Even if you think that a career fair will have nothing for you, just stop in to see what you can learn.
It’s a bit easier to connect with your professors in graduate school since they already know your interests and strengths. Although my professors don’t have a lot of experience working in policy, because they have chosen careers in academia, they are still valuable resources. They have connections and may be able to help you find post-grad opportunities. If you’re an undergrad and don’t know many of your professors well, try to make an effort with the professors who have shown interest in your work. I was a pretty shy as an undergrad, but found that if I had previously spoken to a professor about an assignment, it was easier for me to talk about future plans with him or her.
7. If you’re having trouble finishing your degree on time, talk to someone about the best financial course of action.
Just like with undergrad, graduate school is more expensive if you take longer to finish. However, grad schools recognize that many of their students are working in addition to going to school, just like in undergrad, college counselors know that students may have career doubts and need to take time off, leave school, or switch paths. Unfortunately, all of this can extend the graduate or undergraduate process, which can end up making school more expensive. In my case, if I don’t get my thesis done on time, that might cost me. If you feel like you need to take time off, or reduce your workload, talk to an advisor and figure out what the most cost-effective solution is. You aren’t the first person to feel like you’re taking on too much, and you don’t need to figure out every financial angle on your own. You can ask for help.
Chelsea is a graduate student living in Oklahoma. She is on Instagram.
Image via Unsplash