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Recently, I posted a question about including humor in a personal statement for PhD school applications. In this question, I mentioned that I work full-time as a carpenter, in addition to working towards a master's degree. A comment expressed that one possible concern of the admissions committees' may be my ability to successfully live on the stipend offered and not attempt to seek jobs outside of my TA duties (which I understand is not allowed).

Some background information:

  • My master's is not funded nor do I receive any financial support from the school or my PI
  • I work full time to cover the costs of tuition in order to avoid taking out loans in addition to the costs of commuting or other costs associated with attendance

Questions

  1. Does my choice to work full-time, in addition to the fact that I work in a field far removed from my field of study, raise any red flags or make admissions committees question my ability to be a successful graduate student?

  2. If the above is true, do I leave out this information about working in my personal statement/CV?

  3. Currently, my statement mentions "I work since my education is self-funded" (not the exact wording). Does this statement suffice or is a more explicit explanation needed?

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    I don't think a US university can restrict outside employment unless you're on a visa or it's a conflict of interest but, admittedly, it's been a long time since I was a TA and it may depend on the university. I'm not trying to discourage living on a stipend.
    – mkennedy
    Nov 19 at 17:55
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    @mkennedy: I ran out of money in the middle of Summer 1989 (while also studying for my Ph.D. qualifying exams to be given in mid-August) and wound up working here from approximately early July to early or mid October (except for a week off when quals taken). I was originally working full-time until school started again, and I began receiving my TA money again (a rather generous "2/3 time" assistantship). However, I stayed on for 14-16 hours weekend (7 AM to mid-afternoon) (continued) Nov 19 at 20:04
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    work because I liked the fast pace and break from graduate courses and studying, and although it might not seem much (minimum wage), the little bit extra was extremely helpful financially. Also, the manager really liked my work (I'd worked in the same capacity for the same company several previous times throughout the 1980s) and he wanted me to stay if I could, and it was a short walking distance from where I was living at the time. (continued) Nov 19 at 20:04
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    But then one day in October an office mate of mine said he thought he saw me working in the back when he was at the store one time, and said I could risk losing my TA for doing this. I discretely inquired about this to some other people, and found that I had to quit. For what it's worth, I don't think my Ph.D. advisor or the director of graduate studies at this time ever found out about this, and I don't think I've ever mentioned it online before now. Nov 19 at 20:04
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    @Dawn and Dave L Renfro I looked at a few universities before posting my comment. VT and MIT's DMSE do not restrict people with assistanceships from other employment unless there was a conflict of interest like a professor's outside company, fellowship/grant organization or certain visas. Other universities do restrict outside employment like Marquette. UConn says you have to get your advisor's permission. Like most things in the US, it depends!
    – mkennedy
    Nov 19 at 20:31

2 Answers 2

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I think the important distinction is between doing “outside” work as a Masters student and doing such work as a PhD student.

There are benefits to mentioning in a statement of personal history that you worked full time while pursuing previous degrees. The academy needs more people who come from middle-class and working-class backgrounds, and this conveys that information. It also makes previous performance more impressive.

You should not work full time during a PhD. This will raise red flags. PhD should be funded by the department.

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Very few doctoral admissions systems in the US would bother to consider this. The stipends, along with tuition remission, are considered adequate and they normally are for anyone with a frugal lifestyle. The doctoral education system, including TA and RA positions is intended (at least) to be able to support its students adequately (adequately).

But, if you'd rather be a carpenter than a TA, it will be difficult unless you work for billionaires, since without a TA you probably pay tuition, which can be very high; somewhere around the US medium income, IIRC.

So, what they want is someone who is likely to be successful and to not waste university (faculty) resources. Some "outside" interests and commitments can actually work against you in this regard.

Saying that you have worked on your own to support past education, however, is probably a plus since it shows commitment. But don't focus on this in a Statement of Purpose, which should be about the future, not the past.

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  • Thank you for this. Carpentry is just a means to an end. I would give it up in a heartbeat if I could find funding. I added a single sentence in my PS about it to explain the situation.
    – Lazarus98
    Nov 19 at 16:45
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    Obtaining a TA is pretty ubiquitous in the US if you are accepted, especially in STEM fields. In fact in most any field that has required intro courses in the undergrad program. TAs perform a valuable service and are needed, most especially in T1 institutions that want faculty to focus elsewhere.
    – Buffy
    Nov 19 at 16:49
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    Interestingly, my current institution was struggling to find more TA's. I offered to help but was denied because I was an M.S. student and not a PhD student.
    – Lazarus98
    Nov 19 at 16:53
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    Search on this site for info on PHD funding. The general rule is not to accept a non-funded PhD.
    – Dawn
    Nov 19 at 17:29

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