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I graduated from college 5 years ago, and I was very fortunate to graduate with no debt. For the 3 years after graduating I worked hard, had solid employment, and saved very carefully. This afforded me the opportunity to use a portion of those savings to buy a used car that people comment on while I am driving down the street which I have owned for 2 years. It looks a lot nicer than the cost because I bought it after a large portion of the value depreciated. I love the car, it is very reliable, and I very much want to keep it.

I know I am supposed to be a "poor graduate student", and my offer included funding plus a stipend, so I consider myself very fortunate.

I was very adamantly told by someone that owning such a car would make me look bad, and that if funding became tight I would get the short end of the stick because my car was too nice. He said the exact same thing happened to a fellow graduate student when he was in a PhD program at the same school 30 years ago.

If it really would reflect poorly on me to have a certain car I'm willing to take a step down, but I wanted to hear from others. Is this perception accurate?

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I think you should worry about attitude, but thats coming from a fellow graduate student so take it with a grain of salt. –  Neo Apr 27 at 16:28
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It might help to know which country you are in, to better frame the questions. In some nations, cars are a bigger status symbol than in others. –  Federico Poloni Apr 27 at 17:21
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If you bike to school, nobody will notice your car. –  JeffE Apr 27 at 21:10
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@Shion He is asking about whether a grad student's perceived wealth will affect his funding. How is it not related? –  Superbest Apr 28 at 5:11
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Enjoy driving your car, you didn't steal it. I personally hate the poor-grad-student-who-eats-ramen-noodles cliché. We need more rock'n'roll lifestyle among scientists. –  Cape Code Apr 28 at 19:39

5 Answers 5

up vote 21 down vote accepted

[This answer is based on my experiences in the U.S., specifically in math grad school but I think many fields would be similar.]

Your fellow graduate students will initially take your car as evidence that you're rich. They'll probably wonder whether you'll be a snob, but personal interaction should allay those fears. Once they get to know you, there will still be comments and jokes about your car for the entire time you're in grad school, but I don't think it will be a real problem. In the program I was in, most grad students didn't have cars, and the ones who did gained a little popularity if they took their fellow students on road trips (or even trips to get groceries or see movies), so your reputation may even benefit from having a fancy car.

Faculty don't necessarily know whether a student even has a car, let alone what sort of car, but this sounds like a car that will lead to rumors going around the department. You may get similar reactions from faculty as from students, but they are less likely to care about social interaction with you (for example, whether you're a snob). Your apparent wealth could theoretically play a role behind the scenes in allocation of funding, but I don't think this is likely, and it would be inappropriate for it to be a factor in most decisions. The most plausible scenario might be if money were tight and you requested extended funding beyond the years you were promised. If the department head is deciding which requests to approve, there's not enough money to approve everyone, and your car leads to a reputation of being rich, then the car could work against you. However, I don't think this is likely enough to be worth worrying about, and you can always address any rumors about your wealth with your advisor early on in grad school if you think they might be a problem.

The main disadvantage I see is that your fancy car might be your most salient, defining characteristic, forcing you to work a little harder to establish yourself in people's minds for your research rather than your car. Once again, I don't think this is a big deal, but it might make you feel a little uncomfortable knowing that half the department thinks of you primarily as a person with a car. (On the other hand, this is far from the worst thing you could end up being known for.)

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To reinforce this point, funding is usually based on merit, not need. And even if there's an implicit need-based component that kicks in, I can't imagine how "this person has a nice car" is a valid indicator of need. –  Suresh Apr 27 at 17:56

My honest feeling is that this is a trick question: it's not anybody else's business what kind of car you drive. If you didn't already have the car then there would be the question of whether buying an unusually nice car is a wise allocation of your (perhaps scarce) financial resources. Since you already have the car: great, you like it; keep it.

Will some people judge you differently because you drive a nice car? Sure; people will judge you differently depending upon how much hair you have and how you style it, depending upon how often you go to the gym, depending upon your regional accent....You are who you are.

The idea that driving a nice car could make you less competitive for academic funding seems almost offensive to me. Most graduate academic funding is not "need-based". If it is, then presumably you need to submit more comprehensive financial information than just the car you drive, and presumably you're not willing to give away or hide substantial amounts of income in order to qualify for more need-based funding.

In summary: What do you care what other people think? The fact that something bad allegedly happened to someone else 30 years ago is not nearly a good enough reason for you to stop doing something that gives you pleasure and that in no way interferes with your professional life. (FYI: most academic programs have changed significantly in the last 30 years. Stories from 30 years ago are still interesting; it is much less clear whether they are still relevant.) Live your life for yourself and the others that you care about; do not optimize for the perceptions of others.

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Don't change your life just so you can conform to the expectations of people who know nothing about you and will judge you for such superficial and idiotic things. It really shouldn't even matter whether you worked hard and bought a used car that looks nice, or just won the lottery and bought a brand-new Ferrari. It's your life and it has absolutely nothing to do with how good of a graduate student you will be.

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It depends; TA stipends seem to be roughly the same across the country, but $1700/month goes a lot further in Manhattan, KS than it does in Manhattan.

It also depends on the car. Here in LA, it takes a lot more than a BMW or Mercedes to draw attention.

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"Across the country". I hear rumours that there is more than one country... –  David Richerby Apr 28 at 0:41
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So in what state is your country in, then? :-P –  queueoverflow Apr 28 at 17:19

My graduate experience on a social level seemed to have a lot to do with appearances and judgments thereof. It took a lot of time to bust some barriers that people unfairly made about my certain identities. That being said, no one that interacted with me for any amount of time judged me unfairly for long. That being said, driving a nice car is nowhere near the type of difficulty that other people may have due to their gender identity, sexual identity, race, ethnicity or socioeconomic status.

That being said, I had an issue close to yours where I wanted to be a TA trainer in my department. A year after I was passed over for this opportunity, I came to find out that the reason was because I had an external stipend and they wanted to "spread the funding" around instead of give the opportunity to me.

This is a bit troubling and there was some pushback on the deciding committee, but in the end they did not give me that opportunity because I "did not need the extra money." I believe this had to do with my current funding package instead of how much money it looked like I had, but this is something to consider.

A year later, the university itself had no problem giving me the university-wide equivalent job analogous to the department one which was a better experience and paid better, so in the end it worked out for the best.

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