Girls just wanna have FUNding

My perspective on the proposed tax bill H.R.1

Joining thousands of other activists at the March for Science last spring, I proudly held my handcrafted, glittery poster in the air. “Girls just wanna have FUNding,” it said. Now, I realize I should have been more specific: “Girls just wanna have FUNding­–for their research, but also for themselves.”

A poster large enough to accommodate all that text might have been difficult to march with, but the House of Representatives newly proposed tax bill, H.R.1, warrants it. H.R.1 would have devastating consequences on graduate students by treating graduate student tuition as taxable income by dissolving the tuition wavier. The tuition waiver does not count the tuition that PhD students have paid for as taxable income, meaning these students only pay taxes on the stipend they receive. It’s important to note that this bill is still in draft form, and the Senate’s proposed tax reform, while not without its own adverse consequences on higher education, does not include this provision. Nonetheless, I think it is important to draw attention to how this bill would hurt students, and most importantly the alarming message it sends to the country about how little our elected officials value higher education.

But first, I think there is some confusion about what a PhD program is. “You get paid to go to school? HOW?”

In brief, a PhD is a full-time research job aimed at tackling unanswered questions. During the course of study, you also take and teach classes and publish novel findings. Your advisor pays your tuition through grant money the lab is awarded or a fellowship you apply for. You receive a small stipend to live off of during the course of your degree. The stipend varies, based largely on cost of living (Boston is expensive). Mine is $39,000. The ~$32.5k I take home post-taxes is not a lot of money in this city, but if I buy off-brand yogurt and live in a tiny apartment 20 minutes from campus with two roommates, it’s livable. However, the key is not only a modest lifestyle. A huge factor in how I’m able to pursue this six-plus year journey without incurring debt is because the current tax code does not treat my tuition as income.

Contrast this with the House’s tax proposal with some back-of-the-envelope calculations. My tuition at MIT is $49,580 annually. My math may not be 100% here, but from what I understand if I add this to the $39,000 per year I make, I’m being taxed on a theoretical income of $88,580. Even with the increased $12,000 standard deduction, I’m paying 12% on the next $33,000, and 25% on the remaining $43,580. This increases my federal taxes to nearly $15,000, almost 40% of my stipend (my rent is 40% of my stipend!). Having my tuition covered is a huge benefit I am grateful for, but it doesn’t reflect economic reality to tax this number as if it were tangible money received.

The consequence of this bill is that a PhD suddenly becomes cost-prohibitive. It’s no longer affordable to take six years of low pay to tackle risky and unpredictable research projects and near impossible to do so debt-free. If assuming debt was necessary to pursue this path, I wouldn’t have made the same choice. I’d be an entry level engineer at a biomedical device company, not investigating mechanisms of drug resistance in skin cancer, or how the immune reaction to drugs in glioblastoma can be exploited to increase treatment efficacy. Maybe someone else would have taken my place, but maybe not. My fear is this policy change would disincentivize many students from a PhD.

Being a PhD student is a job, but also a training program, and an apprenticeship in research and teaching. A time to explore, to try risky science, and to fail. PhD students do great work that is often not undertaken by private industry because we are not constrained by financial pressure to turn research projects into profits. You lose the graduate student work horses of the academic machine, and the research simply won’t get done.

But look, it’s not solely about the money. The larger concern here is the lack of importance our government officials place on higher education. We, as a country, want to be at the forefront of technological advancement, but if you take away our ability to do that, whether it be through cutting our funding sources or making it financially unaffordable for student to pursue PhDs, our progress is going to slow down. Your future policy makers, teachers, scientists, engineering leaders and more are coming from higher education. How can we expect to keep up if you are taking out a key part of the work force?

If there is a bright side, it’s that this bill is only a draft. Things can change. I’m not totally freaking out (yet), but we shouldn’t ignore that this policy change is even on the table as being a reasonable solution to make up for tax cuts elsewhere.

H.R.1, you can do better.

Originally published on the MIT Graduate Admissions Blog, the Minnesota Star Tribune, and the the Sun Current.

My Recipe for Getting In

An application assistance program to level the playing field

I had never considered a PhD until late in my undergraduate degree. Most students in my program were either grabbing one-year master’s degrees or becoming entry-level grunts at consumer goods or biomedical device companies. I remember a career fair where I talked to a recent graduate who was working as an entry-level engineer at Proctor & Gamble. He discussed at length about how riveting it was working on improving the “absorptivity of tampons at the molecular level.” 

Really, dude? That’s riveting?  

No, no. That was not for me. So… PhD?  

Unfortunately, I didn’t know a single other person applying to a PhD program — so I applied to 13 of them (because nobody told me that was an absurd number). The last application I sent in was to MIT, on the last day, because I didn’t think I had a shot. I remember hovering my finger over the submit button, weighing the $75 application fee against 75 one-dollar beers at my favorite college bar. Senior year priorities…  

So, how did I land at MIT? In all honesty, I probably got a little lucky. But I also had a strong research background, I identified professors with whom I wanted to work, and I articulated why in my personal statement. In addition, two of my recommendation writers had personal connections to MIT. Those connections count, a lot.  

It’s really hard to write a strong application, for almost anything, if you don’t have an idea about what is supposed to be included. For graduate schools, the information just isn’t available on application websites. If your school doesn’t have institutional knowledge about how to be a strong grad school candidate or rarely sends students to PhD programs, how can you expect to compete?   

When I became a writing fellow at the Biological Engineering (BE) Communication Lab last year, I got a more formal introduction to the ingredients that make a strong application. It’s actually a recipe: 1 cup of your motivation, 3 cups of research experience, a teaspoon of name dropping, and a dash of personality and honesty. In the end, you really need to show you are qualified, and that you are a match for the program. As a Communication Lab fellow, I continue to conduct workshops for MIT undergraduates on how to write personal statements, and I offer one-on-one coaching. I also edit essays of friends that are applying. 

This work has fueled a broader interest of mine in the graduate admissions admission process for my program. Traditionally, students have not been a part of the decisions, but thinking we could have an impact on the stack of applications that the committee reviews (and knowing that some other programs like this existed already at MIT), I co-developed the Biological Engineering Application Assistance Program (BEAAP). BEAAP is a simple addition to BE’s application website where current students help review prospective applicants’ personal statements or answer questions about the department or application process — a “friend of a friend” for those who don’t have one.  

Our hope is that this begins to level the playing field. We can’t change how much research experience or publications an applicant has, or the name recognition of their letter writers or university, but we can help them mold their essays to address self-identified gaps and highlight why they are a match for the program.  

We rolled out BEAAP this year: 36 students applied to the program, and 30 enthusiastic graduate students volunteered to help. Excitingly, a majority of students who participated in BEAAP reported that participating strengthened their graduate application. Next year, we are planning more targeted outreach to underrepresented groups and colleges, and would love to see other departments create similar programs.

*To learn more about BEAAP, visit this page.

Originally published on MIT Graduate Admissions Blog

Finding great escapes

Take advantage of grad school flexibility and book a bargain vacation

As a 78 degree breeze brushed against my shoulders, I took my first sip of the local cocktail of choice, Ti Punch. I must look like such a local, ordering a Ti Punch and not a mojito, I thought to myself.

The burning sensation of alcohol shot up my nose. Whoa!

Punch was an understatement.

Doesn’t punch imply the alcohol is mixed with juice or something? I was in Martinique, an island in the French Caribbean. And apparently, in the beach town of Sainte Anne, a Ti Punch was literally a cup of rum with a slice of lime in it.

I poured a full packet of sugar into my “punch” and diluted it with as much water as I could fit in the glass. I must have looked like such a tourist.

Living in Boston has many benefits, but my favorite part of living here is the ease with which I can leave. That might sound contradictory, but traveling as a graduate student can be comparatively easy because you have more flexibility than most people. I set my own schedule, which means sometimes I work 3 weekends in a row, but then I can take a long weekend trip. I’m lucky to have an advisor who doesn’t mind (as long as I get my work done). As a result, I can take advantage of flight dates and times that most people would find inconvenient. And having an upcoming trip helps motivate me in the lab and gives me something to look forward to. It also keeps me on track because I know I’ve got to get certain experiments done before, for example, my flight takes off on Friday.

Geographically, Boston is great because it’s close to Europe and the Caribbean. A few hours of flying lets you experience radically different cultures. And Logan International Airport is huge, with many direct flights and lower fares than smaller airports. I recommend taking a look at discount airlines such as WOW! And Norwegian for cheap direct deals.

Last March, I booked a flight to Fort de France, Martinique, for $208 roundtrip through Norwegian Airlines (an unreal deal) during MIT’s spring break. Discount airlines often scare people with their hidden fees, but if you are informed, you can easily avoid them. My biggest piece of advice is to check the baggage policy online so you aren’t surprised when you check in. Norwegian Airlines only allows one small carry-on item (backpack), so my friend and I split the ~$20 fee to check a 40kg bag. We found out on our flight back that 40kg is a tight cutoff — people around us were chugging the rum punches they had intended to bring back in the Fort de France airport in order to decrease the weight of their bags. Luckily, we were able to quickly repack all our heavy items into our backpacks. Our checked bag weighed in at 39.5kg. Whew!

So, how I do I find these incredible deals? Google Flights is about to be your new best friend. It has two features. First, If I’m looking at flights for a specific desination with flexible dates, say Boston to Nashville, I choose the calendar option to see across the next couple months how flight prices change. For example, leaving Friday, February 10, 2017, looks like the cheapest Friday departure option. If I returned on Tuesday, the 14th I could get a nonstop flight for $126. Not bad! In contrast, leaving on Fridays in March is much more expensive. 

Second, if you have specific dates but a flexible destination, you can use the Google Flights “explore” option. Enter a departure airport and something as generic as “Europe” or “Caribbean” as your destination. Google pulls up a map of possible destinations for your chosen dates and displays the cheapest flight under each city. I entered dates for MIT’s spring break this year and see a $359 flight to Copenhagen… I might just have to take advantage of that.

My trip to Martinique last year was rejuvenating. Sainte Anne is a beautiful, lazy, little beach town on the southern tip of the island with peeling pastel paint on quiet street fronts. French sentences fluttered around us, along with the flip-flop noise of sandals. Across the street from our Airbnb, we found a bakery with espresso and freshly baked baguettes. Down the street was a market with spices, fish, jams, flowers, and bottles of bright rum punches. I still dream about the “flan de cacao.” Chocolate flan. SO GOOD.

It can be scary traveling to an unknown place. We got lost a few times, and I made a few language errors (tried to order a salami sandwich but ended up with imitation crab and mustard… yuck), but it was adventurous and a great break from my everyday grad school routine.

I encourage you to go outside of your comfort zone in graduate school. Explore destinations you’ve never heard of. Book a flight on a whim. Discover the world during a period when you can make your own rules and schedules. It doesn’t have to be extravagant or expensive. All in all, the trip cost me about $500 — a steal for international travel. I even brought back a set of the traditional Ti Punch glasses. Sometimes after a long day in lab, I pour myself a diluted Ti Punch and get on google flights and think about my next adventure.

Originally published on MIT Graduate Admissions Blog