When it comes to handling my time and money, I'm rather responsible. I am great at organizing both my calendar and my budget, but quite often this has been motivated by necessity. As a student, my year is full of deadlines, and being tardy could have horrendous effects on the next chapters in my academic life. Moreover, my schedule throughout college was so jam-packed that I often could not spend money on non-essentials if I wanted to; having limited time for work and a lengthy commute meant I had little cash leftover anyway, sometimes at the expense of making savings account deposits.
As a Fulbright fellow, my time management and money skills are being put to the test, but I'm happy to say that (I think) I am passing with flying colors. Bringing my own (well... Fulbright's) money has a lot of benefits, but it also has its challenges too, many of which are preparing me for the inevitable challenges of being a poor graduate student.
One of the greatest benefits of having my own money is that I get to decide what to do with it. When I first got to the Universität zu Köln, the lab head—Stephan Schlemmer—asked me how I wanted to spend the year. He told me that his goal for me was that I get the best out of my Fulbright as I saw fit; I was not free labor. Stephan helped me find an Advanced Astrophysics course (I have never taken an astro class before this, but my elementary German wouldn't help me in the basic class...) and gave me the option to work on different projects until I found one I liked. A former research Fulbrighter friend of mine had described her experience quite differently; upon her arrival to her host university, she found out that the PI hadn't been straightforward with her about what work she could do. Rather than working on a project that interested her, she was put to work doing work for someone else's paper. Perhaps I was just fortunate with the lab with which I chose to work, but I have not once felt like labor courtesy of the Fulbright Kommission.
In addition to the awesome opportunity to work on projects that I want to, having my own funding means not having a set schedule. Doing things like taking off for vacation or American holidays is simple; I just run it past Stephan, he chuckles, tells me he doesn't mind (giving me a look almost as if it is silly that I am even asking him for permission), and I go. On the other hand, if I were being paid by the Universität, I would have to apply through HR and submit several forms before getting approval. While taking days off is something I rarely do, it is comforting not having to stress about taking a last-minute day trip on a beautiful day or coming in late because of appointments with the doctor or Ausländeramt.
Of course, the stipend benefits will continue long after the payments stop coming in. As a grad student, future post doc, and forever researcher, stipends and grants are my lifeblood. Learning to live off them full-time is definitely helpful, especially with a family. For instance, my current rent takes up over half of my stipend, and when I am in grad school, based on where I am leaning, I will be in a similar situation. Sure, I'll make more money in grad school, but I'll also have additional costs. Between internet and groceries being more expensive in the states and having all the expenses that come with driving a car again, not to mention having a baby on the way, the additional money won't go very far. Alex will have income too, but we still need to anticipate stretching our funds and keeping a close eye on our budget.
So here's to Fulbright, preparing me not only in my research but in how to live as a researcher as well.