Money counts: some tips for researchers and academics

‘When I raised the fact that I hadn’t received my monthly stipend for six months, my adviser replied, “If you don’t like the way I do things, you can leave.”’

— Elena*, researcher

Elena’s experience may be extreme, but it is not unique. For some, academic research is too lofty a pursuit to be tainted by such mundane considerations as money. A pervasive belief that academics should be motivated by only the highest ideals can make raising financial concerns a taboo.

But in a sector known for the casualisation of its labour and levels of pay which can make waiting tables seem an appealing alternative, this is an unsustainable attitude which works for no one except those with an ample salary or independent means.

It’s also increasingly anachronistic, particularly given HE’s ever-growing focus on the twin values of diversity and wellbeing. Academics from diverse backgrounds are less likely to have recourse to inherited wealth and so are more adversely affected by low, insecure incomes – leading to hardship, limited career development and even drop-out. Without fair pay, diversity cannot flourish. In the same way, efforts to improve wellbeing are quickly eroded by the stress and distress that mounting money problems bring.

Financial hardship is a critical issue, and one that needs talking about. As long as silence or stigma shroud it, there will be too many cases of hard-pressed researchers still being expected to fund the open access publication of their work, or working without pay to wrap up outstanding projects after funding has finished, or covering conference costs out of their own pockets and waiting – sometimes weeks – for reimbursement.

If these challenges sound familiar, help is at hand. Here are Global Academy Jobs’ top tips to find funds, cut costs and invest in a more financially resilient future.

  1. Ask around. If you’re weighing up a possible new resource, research trip, conference or project it’s worth bearing in mind that – in many cases – funding is readily available to those willing to seek it out and ask for it. Why not:
  • Start by researching the different funds your employer offers. Then ask if your supervisor, mentor, peers or wider network know of any other opportunities. Find out what you need to do to be eligible – for example, do you need to present original research to access money for a conference?
  • Approach societies, archives and institutes, which can be useful additional sources of funds.
  • Remember that money left in a budget needs spending by the end of a financial year – so make a note to check in at the right time.
  1. Spend less. It may seem obvious but cutting or curbing your expenditure wherever you can yields a host of benefits. Take stock of upcoming expenses and look for ways to minimise them. Perhaps you could:
  • Source shelves, chairs etc for your workspace from your university’s surplus stock
  • Cook and freeze meals in bulk in your vacation, saving the money you might otherwise spend on expensive convenience foods
  • Use a waste-saving food-sharing app like Olio
  • Opt to share a room or book a budget hostel for your next conference
  • Borrow an outfit for an upcoming interview or formal event instead of hitting the shops.
  1. Diversify where necessary. When money is tight, earning supplementary income through activities like ad-hoc tutoring, editing or marking may make all the difference. Read your contract carefully: does it prohibit external work, or cap your hours? If you do take on freelance work it may be financially prudent to set up a separate business. Consider getting an accountant – they may well save you more than they cost.
  1. Make a plan. When it comes to building an academic career, it’s worth playing the long game. Accepting a series of a relatively low-paid fixed-term contracts may prove unsustainable. But it may be strategic to take on one or two to gain valuable experience. So check your short-term choices against your long-term goals and know why and how long you’re willing to work in certain conditions. Then set milestones to review and adapt your plan as necessary.

This kind of creative, connected approach to saving money can also prove environmentally, socially and personally beneficial.

Whether you are experiencing financial strain yourself or are aware of others in this position, it’s worth doing whatever you can to be an advocate and ally – identifying and advertising available funds, sharing money-saving hacks or offering proactive, sensitive support. The academic community will be stronger and more resilient for it.

Further reading:

Some Money Tips for Early Career Academics (or anyone else) by Jonathan Sterne, McGill University

How To Grad School While Poor from Karra HK Shimabukuro, Elizabeth City State University

*Name changed

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Jo Mitchell is an experienced writer and editor. After studying Modern Languages at the University of Oxford she worked in fundraising at Oxfam GB and Viva, where she specialised in writing communications for major donors. She now provides freelance editing and copywriting services at Nightingale Ink in the firm belief that sometimes words can sing.

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