I am a graduate student and the first in my extended family to complete an undergraduate degree. I supported myself through college by working in labs during the academic year, and in the summer I worked fulltime, taking work wherever I could find it. My only source of income as a graduate student is my stipend—which is barely a living wage at my university. During my graduate career I have been at times unhoused and found myself couch surfing with friends or going on “vacation” at my parent’s house. Knowing of my financial situation, my PI and lab mates have helped me as much as they can. My family provides me great emotional support but no fiscal support.
I’m writing because I will be defending my dissertation in a few months and I’m worried—and not about the dissertation or the presentation. It is customary here that after the defense, the candidate provides lunch or snacks from a well-known deli for the committee and those who attended the defense. In addition, gift cards are included in the thank you cards given to the committee members after the final draft is accepted. Typically the gift cards are valued between $50 and $100. I cannot afford to provide an elaborate meal and most certainly no gift cards. I had planned to make some cookies and a fruit salad and to provide coffee and tea for the defense. I had also planned on setting up my defense after lunch so that the “snacks” would be appropriate. In addition, I have thrown some pots at a community art space and I had planned on giving those to my committee along with my hand-painted thank you cards. I have been squirreling away funds to pay for my move to my postdoc position that begins a few months after I defend. I am feeling like a cheapskate, but I just don’t know how much money it will cost me to move there and I cannot ask my parents for financial support. I do appreciate how much help and support my PI and my lab mates have provided me during my PhD years, but how do I navigate this?
—Not a Party Pooper or Cheap, Just on My Own
DEAR Just On My Own:
Congratulations on reaching your goals! Labby knows how proud your parents and family must be, and you should be proud of your accomplishments too!! Finances can be very stressful especially when you are completely independent from your parents, and you should not have to deal with this additional worry on top of finishing your dissertation and defending. Traditions around celebrating the defense and thanking committee members differ among institutions, and giving gift cards is by no means universal. Thanking the committee members with a gift is a nice gesture, but is not something committee members should expect, and they should certainly not expect anything with significant monetary value. And unless a university has unusually generous stipends for students, expecting the refreshments provided to be anything elaborate is unreasonable if the burden falls solely on the student. You should certainly discuss your concerns with your PI, who is clearly supportive and understands your situation, and will be able to make sure that you don’t feel stressed on the day. Your plan is thoughtful, and Labby thinks your committee members will deeply appreciate the personal nature of the gifts you plan to make. You know that you are showing your appreciation of their support in the best way that you can. It is time to focus on preparing your defense and getting papers submitted based on your graduate work. Next you will begin to transition to becoming a postdoc.