Circuit Board Designer

Today’s post is by a PhD student who learned an important lesson about setting boundaries as a contractor with an employer.


Name: Mark

University: University of Illinois

Department: Mechanical Engineering

1) What was your side or temporary job?

PCB circuit board design for a small local company. Designed and tested a small electronic device. Then I sent out for a PCB to be made, and I personally assembled and QA checked the devices. Finally, I provided product support for when the prototype devices were field tested.

2) How much did you earn?

$25/hr, ~0-12 hrs a month, sporadic hours typically on weekends.

3) How did you balance your job with your graduate work?

This work began as I was getting near to finishing up my graduate work, but before a timetable had been set for my preliminary exams. I made clear that my education was my first priority with limited number of hours/week, that at times I would be unavailable due to school, and that during school hours (regular work hours where I had a TA/RA position) I was generally unavailable. There were no cases where my education was hindered by the side job, since it always had priority. However, the limited availability for working on the side job did cause some friction. These are very restrictive conditions for an employer, and do not work well with time sensitive work such as providing product support.

Make a clear boundary between when you are working at school vs working on the side job. Likewise, though I used my apartment to do work for my side job, I chose to maintain boundaries by never meeting my employer at my apartment, instead booking meeting rooms or choosing a public place. While the limited hours worked well for the research and development phase, some issues arose in product field testing. When the company was testing devices while I was at school, they occasionally had issues that required immediate responses. This is difficult to do while maintaining separation between graduate and side jobs, and would be better served by a full time employee.

Despite the limited involvement of my advisor, his friendly relationship to the CEO of the company meant that it was possible at times for a conflict of interest to arise. Ideas from the CEO could make it to my advisor who would then want independent (but ultimately related) work for graduate research. This did not occur for me, but did for a lab-mate who was also working in a similar capacity.

4) Did your job complement your graduate work or advance your career?

There was no direct correlation to my graduate work. However, it added real-world project experience in a related field. Although the money was nice, I was mainly pursuing it because I was interested in the project and because I wanted the experience. Most importantly, as the primary engineer on the device I learned the value in extensive QA of the design and assembly.

5) How did you get started with your job?

The position started through a one-time introduction by my advisor. His involvement in the project was limited to the introduction to avoid a serious conflict of interest.

6) Is there anything else you would like to share about your experience?

Ultimately what my employer wanted was a full time professional, but for the cost of an undergraduate intern. While a professional engineer could probably have completed this project quickly compared to the average intern, the cost was considered too much. I possessed a masters degree even at the start of the work, but in mechanical engineering instead of electrical engineering. I requested to be paid at a discount to the going rate for an experienced electrical engineer due to my inexperience, but was unwilling to accept undergraduate intern level pay. As mentioned above, I was interested in the experience more than the extra money. In some instances, I refused work different aspects of the project because I was unqualified for it, suggesting he find a more qualified person.

Finally, make clear at the start what the scope of your work is and whether you are acting as an employee or contractor. Get it in writing, along with what your compensation will be. As an employee, you are working under the direction of your boss to fulfill work needed by the company. As a contractor, you negotiate what services you are providing before doing the work, leading to well defined deliverables. I would suggest acting as a contractor if possible, though in my case I ended up acting as an employee due to my inexperience; I was unsure as to how to appropriately estimate the extent of the work required and I didn’t want to seriously underestimate number of hours needed.

Want more ideas on how to generate a side income? Check out our seven-part video series!

Hairstyles YouTuber

Today’s post is by a PhD student runs a YouTube channel about her passion-hobby, which also happens to bring in some money!

shannonName: Shannon

University: University of California, Los Angeles

Department: Social Psychology & Neuroscience

1) What is your side or temporary job?

Making hair tutorials on YouTube.

2) How much do you earn?

$200-250 a month

3) How do you balance your job with your graduate work?

My work and my YouTube channel are pretty darn orthogonal, haha.

4) Does your job complement your graduate work or advance your career?

Because my work and my channel are so different, it’s difficult to balance. At the beginning of grad school I was able to put out a new video every week because I could film on the weekends and edit in the evenings during the week. However, now I’m involved in a lot more projects at work, so I’ve been failing to meet the every-week benchmark. Since this is my hobby, I always have to remind myself “if I feel like it’s something I have to do instead of something I want to do, then I need to back off a bit.”

5) How did you get started with your job?

I started my YouTube channel somewhat accidentally back in undergrad. I recreated a bunch of Game of Thrones hairstyles for fun and posted them to reddit, which went viral. Lots of people were asking for tutorials, so that’s why I created my channel and it’s been steadily growing ever since. That big boost at the beginning was really important to making this channel monetized, because for most channels it’s really difficult to get past the first 5k subscribers.

6) Is there anything else you would like to share about your experience?

I definitely recommend finding something in grad school that’s unrelated to the work you do, monetized or not, so that if all your experiments fail one week, you still have something meaningful to throw yourself into. YouTube is a difficult way to make money on the side, though, I will say. I was really lucky with it. It takes a lot of work to make it monetized, and at times it’s been like another full time job. So I wouldn’t recommend this route if you’re just looking for money. But if you have a passion that you like sharing with others through video, it can be very fulfilling while still getting you money for groceries!

Want more ideas on how to generate a side income? Check out our seven-part video series!

Data Science Consultant

Today’s post is by a PhD student whose side job perfectly complements his graduate work and career goals – and pays him incredibly well, too boot!

KimName: Edward Kim

University: Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Department: Materials Science and Engineering

1) What is your side or temporary job?

Data science and machine learning consulting (freelancing, remote-based).

2) How much do you earn?

Between $100-200 / hr; it pays much, much better than a grad student stipend, so that’s nice.

3) How do you balance your job with your graduate work?

I keep my consulting hours at ~10hr/wk, and I don’t do research on weekends or evenings unless it’s an emergency. I generally try to keep a pretty relaxed attitude regarding grad school, so keeping a balance isn’t too much trouble.

4) Does your job complement your graduate work or advance your career?

It’s directly related, since I plan to work in an industry position doing machine learning (or something related) after I graduate. I’m also interested in remote work and entrepreneurship, and so this ties in nicely with both of those goals too.

5) How did you get started with your job?

Surprisingly, I just posted on one of the Reddit job boards and got a reply from a manager at a company who wanted some consulting services. I didn’t think that it would be so straightforward, but I guess I got lucky.

6) Is there anything else you would like to share about your experience?

I think that if you market your skills carefully, then even as a grad student, you can offer a lot of value to a company. The trick is in having a sense of what kinds of business problems you might be able to solve.

Want more ideas on how to generate a side income? Check out our seven-part video series!

Summer Intern at BP

Today’s contribution is from a PhD student who participated in a summer internship. For the short-term sacrifice of his time, he received unexpected benefits to his subsequent research.

RamirezName: David Ramirez

University: Rice University

Department/Program: Electrical and Computer Engineering

1. What was your side or temporary job?

Intern at BP’s Upstream Engineering Center

2. How much did you earn?

I earned more as a three month summer intern than I did as a twelve month ECE PhD student.

3. How do/did you balance your job with your graduate work?

Graduate work got delayed during the internship itself since I would only find time over the weekends and some rare nights for it. Once the internship was over I was able to bring ideas and knowledge from my internship into my research. It wasn’t a good balance at the time, but overall it helped out in guiding me to good research problems.

4. Did your job complement your graduate work or advance your career?

I took my internship knowledge and used that as a good starting point for research ideas (i.e. I learned about 802.15 which led me to scheduled networks). I did get some exercise in poster presentations during an internship event and wrote up a paper out of a technical report. While the work itself did not equate directly into my graduate work, having the internship on my resume has been great to get attention from various companies. Overall, little to advance my graduate work but a tremendous positive impact on making me more noticeable when looking for industry jobs.

5. How did you get started with your job?

The department coordinator mass forwarded an email she received from the company asking for applicants. The email was vague in regarding required education and while I was assuming it was meant for undergrads I applied anyways. Turns out they were looking for graduate students.

6. Is there anything else you would like to share about your experience?

Before starting the internship I had some doubts as to how relevant it would be for me to work in an oil company. Turns out the big oil companies do a lot of engineering and they get to look at some very unique wireless networks (my main interest). I would strongly encourage others to seek out internships even if it isn’t “the perfect fit” for your research. Expanding your horizon and showing you can tackle completely new problems is a great quality to humblebrag about!

Want more ideas on how to generate a side income? Check out our seven-part video series!

Graduate Housing Resident Advisor

Today’s post is by a PhD student who served as a resident advisor in on-campus graduate housing. He has a great note at the end of the post about knowing when to stop doing a side job.

RamirezName: David Ramirez

University: Rice University

Department/Program:Electrical and Computer Engineering

1. What was your side or temporary job?

I was a Resident Assistant for a Graduate Housing residence.

2. How much did you earn?

I was not directly paid, instead I was allowed to live on campus graduate housing for approximately half the rent. Campus graduate housing highly prefers incoming students, thus the chances of having stayed there beyond my second year (and close to campus) would’ve been essentially zero otherwise.

3. How did you balance your job with your graduate work?

I would read during my office hours. Any time I wasn’t doing an RA task was invested in reading. Having to be on-call over weekend nights gave some incentive/alleviated not going out at least one weekend a month.

4. Did your job complement your graduate work or advance your career?

There’s really no direct impact from that side job to my graduate work, other than a reading space. I was able to bring up my RA experience (specifically handling a fire emergency) during an interview. The company I was interviewing with is big on ‘safety’, so my experience had a big positive impact on me getting the internship.

5. How did you get started with your job?

While a resident I approached the RAs to learn how they got the job. This then helped me be on their radar, and management’s radar, for when they put out an email asking for people to apply.

6. Is there anything else you would like to share about your experience?

Being an RA for graduate housing is a lot different than being an RA for undergraduates. A lot less drama, but there’s a more serious tone to everything. Overall it was a good outlet for me to do something ‘other than research’ while still feeling productive. I do want to point out that, at some point along my PhD my time became more valuable than what I was getting paid/getting out of this experience and it was good for me to have recognized exactly when the tipping point was.

Want more ideas on how to generate a side income? Check out our seven-part video series!

Online Freelance Academic Writer

This grad student used an online freelancing marketplace to find academic writing jobs that paid her a nice hourly rate. She shares a great thought at the end about valuing your own work.

JohnsonName: Vicki Johnson
University: Massey University (New Zealand)
Department/Program: PhD, School of Psychology

1. What was your side or temporary job?

I was a freelancer for academic writing on Upwork (formerly Elance). I did short to long-term projects editing journal articles, analyzing qualitative data and preparing literature reviews for academic and corporate clients.

2. How much did you earn?


3. How do/did you balance your job with your graduate work?

The beauty of Upwork is that you can apply to jobs when you are available to work, and you can choose projects of different time frames. Most of the academic writing jobs that I received were short-term – a few weeks at a time. I was careful not to take on too much work when had deadlines for my graduate work.

4. Did your job complement your graduate work or advance your career?

Absolutely! It was a great opportunity to fine tune my writing and research skills. Also, almost all of the projects I took on were outside my own discipline, so I had the opportunity to contribute to research in areas such as entrepreneurship, education, change management, and international relations.

5. How did you get started with your job?

I created a profile on Upwork with my resume, some writing samples and a professional photo. When I had no track record of experience on Upwork, I applied to many jobs with no response. Finally, I bid on a writing job for a flat fee of $200. It took more time than I preferred for the amount I was paid, but it was the perfect opportunity to get a good review on my profile and learn the ins and outs of the system. Once I got my first 5-star review, other jobs came much more easily.

6. Is there anything else you would like to share about your experience?

When working as a freelancer online it’s important to carefully choose jobs with clients who have a track record of paying money on the platform and working well with other freelancers (e.g., giving other freelancers good reviews). This is to avoid working with clients who might have unrealistic expectations or want more work than they are willing to fairly pay for. Also, do not be put off by the fact there are many other freelancers on the site bidding for the same jobs for a much lower hourly wage. I was concerned I would never land a job due to the competition, but I found there were many clients who valued quality over low costs and wanted someone with my particular academic background. Therefore I stood by my proposed price and did not waver, and I found this to be a successful strategy for winning jobs.

Vicki Johnson graduated with her PhD from Massey University in 2014 and is now a Policy & Government Affairs Manager for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. While a PhD student, she founded ProFellow, the go-to source of information on professional and academic fellowships, which now has more than 22,000 members.

Want more ideas on how to generate a side income? Check out our seven-part video series!

Freelance Writer and Learning Consultant

Today’s post is from Derek Attig, whose freelance and on-campus jobs during grad school helped him transition into his post-PhD career. He has a great point at the end that all grad students should apply in their lives!

AttigName: Derek Attig

Graduate Institution: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Department/Program: History

1. What were your side or temporary jobs?

I wrote for the book culture website Book Riot and worked as a teaching/learning consultant (helping grad students teach more effectively) on campus.

2. How much did you earn?

The teaching consultant job was a graduate student hourly position and paid $13.50/hour. Book Riot has a revenue sharing system where contributors are paid quarterly based on the traffic their posts generate.

3. How did you balance your jobs with your graduate work?

I was lucky in that both of my side jobs were pretty flexible. I could write for Book Riot whenever I found time, and the teaching consultant job could adjust to fit the needs of my program. But still, it was a lot to juggle. I managed by carefully blocking out my time, assigning different time slots to different tasks, and carefully prioritizing.

4. Did your jobs complement your graduate work or advance your career?

My dissertation was on the history of print culture (bookmobiles!), so writing for Book Riot was both relevant and energizing as I worked on it. Teaching was always central to how I imagined my career (whatever that was going to be), and the teaching consultant job kept my knowledge and skills in that area sharp.

And, it turns out, they were both central to my transition from the academic job market to a non-academic job. Having Book Riot on my resume helped me land a marketing/communications job immediately after receiving the PhD. And my job now involves working with graduate students—a set of skills I honed in the consulting job.

5. How did you get started with your job?

Networking, of various kinds.

I got the Book Riot job thanks to blogging and Twitter. I had started blogging about (or, at least, adjacent to) my research when I started dissertating. Then I saw on Twitter that Book Riot wanted contributors. I used a blog post and an article I’d written for Boing Boing (a gig I picked up by through a connection I made as a Google Policy Fellow) as writing samples and got the job.

I got an interview for the teaching consultant job because I knew someone who worked in that office. The position wasn’t really advertised, but she knew about it and encouraged me to contact the supervisor. I got the job because I had extensive teaching experience and had pursued various opportunities to mentor other grad students on teaching within my department. Just one or the other might not have cut it.

6. Is there anything else you would like to share about your experience?

I’d encourage graduate students to pursue a lot of different opportunities while in school, even ones that are at a slant from what they usually do. It’s easy to get tunnel vision as a grad student, but if you open yourself up, you can develop really useful skills while reinvigorating your academic work.

Want more ideas on how to generate a side income? Check out our seven-part video series!

Med School Learning Techniques Entrepreneur

Today’s post is from Alex Chamessian, who leveraged a study system he developed for his own use into online passive income.  Alex has a vital message of both caution and encouragement for anyone pursuing passive income strategies while in grad school.

ChamessianName: Alex Chamessian

Graduate Institution: Duke University

Department/Program: Medical Scientist Training Program (MD-PhD)


1. What is your side income stream?

I sell digital medical spaced repetition flashcards on my personal blog DrWillBe and I just co-authored a book called Learning Medicine: An Evidence-Based Guide with my friend and colleague Dr. Peter Wei.

2. How much do you earn?

I make about $9.40 per sale on the flashcards after PayPal fees are taken out. I also pay taxes on the annual income when I do my federal taxes in April, so that’s a little more subtracted. I’ve been selling the flashcards since April 2013, with very little effort invested in marketing or promotion. Over this time, I’ve made about $5,000, with a slow drip of sales. The book is currently selling for $14.99. It’s early days so no earnings reports just yet…

3. How did you get started with your side income stream?

As I said, I have a personal blog called DrWillBe, which is where I write about my experiences as a med student. It started out as just a sounding board for me, but over time, I realized that all my posts were about how to study effectively. So that kind of became the theme for that blog.

I wrote a lot about a powerful learning tool called Anki that I used in med school to memorize all the information that got thrown at me. Anki is a smart, digital flashcard program that employs a method called spaced repetition. During my preclinical year of medical school, I made thousands of Anki cards for my personal use. At first, I shared them for free on my blog, which generated a ton of traffic. Once I realized that those cards were bringing value to other people, it occurred to me that I could probably monetize those cards if I put some extra polish on them.

So that’s what I did. I spent some additional time cleaning up my personal cards, checking them for accuracy, and making sure there wasn’t anything copyrighted in them. Then I put them up on my blog and just left them there. I didn’t do any kind of marketing really. I picked a price that I thought was commensurate with the value of my cards ($9.99). I spent hundreds of hours making them, so that seemed like a reasonable price. Over the last two years, I’ve made about ~500 sales of those cards, with very little additional effort. I wanted this to be a passive income stream. I’d already done the heavy lifting in creating the cards. I didn’t want to sell something that needed constant tending from me.

4. How do you balance your side income stream with your graduate work?

Well, for the flashcards, I was killing two birds with one stone. I was making the cards for my own studies in medical school. It was only after I had made them for my own purposes that I decided to sell them to others. This experience highlights a key insight I’ve made about making ‘side hustle’ while in graduate school (and probably the rest of my life), which is the following: aim to take the things you’re already doing anyway and find ways to monetize those things. Usually that means adding a little extra ‘polish’ to make your stuff valuable to other people. There just aren’t enough hours in the day to do something at a high level on top what you already need to do as a grad student. Find ways to repurpose the things you’re already doing in such a way that it brings value to other people. In my case, I knew other people were trying to learn the same medical knowledge that I was, so I put a little extra effort into cleaning up my deck for public consumption, but not much more. In contrast, had I tried to do something completely random and outside my daily sphere of activities to make money, like making crafts on Etsy, I would have failed, since I didn’t have the time or the skill.

A lot of grad students might feel that their daily work is so idiosyncratic that not many people would care about it. That might be true for highly technical work, but I’m pretty sure that most grad students do something or other that there is a market for. Maybe that market isn’t huge, but it’s probably not zero. Wherever there is a pain point, there is an opportunity, because other people are feeling that pain too, most likely. Successful e-learning sites like Udemy demonstrate that people are thirsty for knowledge and are willing to pay for it.

The book was different insofar as it wasn’t directly overlapping with my daily work. This was an add-on in terms of time, but definitely not a tangent. Writing about effective learning methods enhanced all the things I do on a daily basis, like absorbing information from all the scientific articles I need to read. As with the flashcards, I was doing something that I wanted (needed?) to do for myself anyway, but doing it with the purpose of then sharing my efforts with an audience.

Writing a book is definitely hard work. In order to accomplish this, I had to develop new habits. Taking cues from successful writers, I got in the habit of waking up early (~5–6 AM) and doing my writing in the morning consistently, when I’m at my peak energy levels, and before the buzzes and demands of the world can distract me. By putting writing first thing in the day, I made it a priority, ensuring that it actually got done. I think this is key. If you care about something, whether it be a side job or a passion project (or both), you need to prioritize it.

5. Does your side income stream complement your graduate work or advance your career?

Yes. Absolutely. As I said above, the things I make my side job either flow directly from the activities of my career, or they are things that are closely related and will enhance what I do in my career.

6. Is there anything else you would like to share about your experience?

Don’t do a side job primarily for the money. Sure, more dollars in your pocket are a good thing. But your efforts might not always bring you a profit, especially if you do something risky. If you only do something for money, when and if you don’t make any, you will view your time as wasted. It’s a win-lose game. On the other hand, if you do things that you enjoy and that you would have done anyway, even if nobody ever paid you a cent, then there can’t be a bad outcome. It’s a win no matter what. If you have no customers, oh well, at least you learned or grew in some way. If you do succeed in selling your product or service to someone, great, you made some cash, but the main pay off is the learning and personal development you achieved, and the profit is a byproduct.

Connect with Alex Online

Twitter: @achamess
Personal Website:
Blogs: (medical), (everything else)
Book Website:

Want more ideas on how to generate a side income? Check out our seven-part video series!

Jazz Singer

Today’s post is by Meggan Farish on performing jazz in a local band, which is an enjoyable hobby for her as well as an income stream. She has great advice about keeping organized with your side job and how to get started as a local musician.

Meggan performing
Meggan performing

Name: Meggan Farish

Institution: Duke University

Department: History

As a graduate student, I supplement my income by performing with jazz bands. I started in 2010, while living in Columbia, SC. Columbia has a thriving jazz scene, and I began “sitting in” with various musicians. In time, I built a following and put together my own band. When I moved to Durham for graduate school, I met a saxophonist in need of a lead singer and began performing with his quintet.

I have been playing with the same musicians for years, and since our repertoire has not changed drastically and we do not spend a great deal of time rehearsing, playing music takes up very little of my life (maybe two Fridays per month). The gigs in SC are generally more time consuming since I have to travel, but I would likely visit home that often regardless and am at a place in my graduate career where I can work from just about anywhere.

My advice to anyone thinking of making music a side job is to be prepared for the vicissitudes of performing in a local band. Promotional shows do not always pay, and regular gigs can get nixed with little to no warning. I recently lost a gig I had for several years because the restaurant needed to make cutbacks. It is a nice way to supplement my income, but I do not rely on it to pay my bills. Networking, having good YouTube videos (preferably at least one polished studio recording), and maintaining a presence in social media to promote your skills are all key to being a successful local artist. Additionally, it is critical to keep track of scheduled performances and to show up prepared and on time. Forgetting a gig or being late will quickly kill a career in music. Also, keep accurate records of your income and set aside a percentage to cover your state and federal income taxes. Typically, you will receive a 1099 at year-end from the establishments where you or your band perform.

While it is doubtful that music will advance my career as a historian, I believe it has made my years of rigorous graduate study far more enjoyable. If anything, it has allowed me a much-needed break from my studies and provided an avenue to meet new people.

Want more ideas on how to generate a side income? Check out our seven-part video series!

University Fitness Instructor

Today’s post is from an anonymous contributor. Her side job was very convenient for her based on its location and nature!


1.     What was your side or temporary job?

Fitness instructor at my university

2.     How much did you earn?


3.     How did you balance your job with your graduate work?

I work out anyway, so this was just like getting paid for something that I would do anyway!

4.     Did your job complement your graduate work or advance your career?

It did not complement my graduate work, but it helped me keep my sanity!  Exercise is a huge stress reliever for me and I got to meet some really amazing people who frequented my class, so I made new friends, too.

5.     How did you get started with your job?

One of my friends in the same graduate program started being a fitness instructor before me and I would attend her classes.  She mentioned that I would probably enjoy teaching as well, so I talked to the coordinator at the university gym.  She had a few teaching time slots that weren’t filled, so she asked me if I wanted to teach those slots.  I got certified through online training and started teaching the following semester.

Want more ideas on how to generate a side income? Check out our seven-part video series!