Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A chemistry grad student talks about money worries

Not much time to blog today, but I enjoyed the recent interview by NPR's Planet Money of one Diogenes Placencia (what a wonderful name!). He's a chemistry doctoral student who grew up poor in the Bronx and is now ABD at the University of Arizona:
Do you worry about money?
Constantly. I worry mostly about my mother. I worry about providing for her when she gets older, and giving her some good years.
Are there any recent purchases you regret?
I really don't regret anything, because I put everything through such a rigorous process of whether I should get it or not. I do a cost-benefit analysis.
So what was the last purchase you put through this process?
It was an arm-band for my iPod. I swear it was like $15, and I looked at it for two months.
What's the next thing you're going to buy?
A pair of flip-flops.
Have you gone shopping for flip-flops?
I went around the other day and I looked at some. And I was like, "Oh, 20 bucks. That's a lot."                            
A son like that will put a smile on a mother's face.


  1. only if she doesn't want grandchildren.

  2. At the risk of sounding heartless, I can't sympathesize with Candidate Placencia. While I'm not from the Bronx (what's up with the prestige of the NYC street-cred label anyway?), I grew up in some dodgy neighborhoods and learned not to flaunt any modicum of wealth. I was frugal throughout college and grad school, both of which I attended within the past 15 years so don't accuse me of being out-of-touch with recent increases in living costs. I didn't have an iPod in grad school, much less a freaking iPod arm-band. I went to grad school in a high-cost, high-theft area, so no X-Box, no PS2, and no car. My personal luxuries included a 13" CRT-TV and a 2001 generic laptop lasted me throughout my PhD.

    If he were so concerned about money, why didn't he stay in NYC for grad school and live at home? Why didn't he go into something more lucative like finance or pharmacy? From his mentioning of semiconductors, I assume he's studying polymer and materials chemistry; NYU and Columbia have decent grad programs in those fields. Also, what kind of expensive flip-flops was he looking at? You can find trashy flip-flops for $5 in any K-Mart, Chinatown, Barrio, or flea market.

  3. If you have big feet, you have to order flip flops online. For real! and yes they are twenty bucks. It is also professionally frowned upon to NOT move significantly for the early part of your professional career.

  4. @3:15PM: "It is also professionally frowned upon to NOT move significantly for the early part of your professional career."

    I think Anon @3:04 PM was referring to having geographical not institutional constraints. For example, many California undergrads stay within the UC System for grad school primarily because of costs. Plenty of students do the Harvard-MIT exchange. Staying at one place for both your undergrad and grad degrees is not necessarily detrimental to your academic career, as shown by examples from past and present: Woodward (MIT), Corey (MIT), Houk (Harvard), Grubbs (U Florida BS & MS before going to Columbia), Padwa (Columbia), Breslow (Harvard), Klinman (UPenn), Zare (Harvard), Abby Doyle (Harvard, with a brief Stanford PhD foray), etc. Aside from educational interests, personal obligations can dictate where one attends grad school. Anyway, no flip flops in lab! Especially with the way my labmates generated shrapnel by dropping flasks or hurling test tubes into the waste box!

  5. “Electrochemically Wired” Semiconductor Nanoparticles: Toward Vectoral Electron Transport in Hybrid Materials" and “Photosensitized Electron Transfer in Semiconductor Nanoparticle-Polymer Hybrid Materials”

    Re: earlier JACS rejection letter post, looks like there are plenty of pubs to be had there for Mr. Diogenes!

  6. @Anon315: K-Mart is running a sale on mens collegiate team flip-flops, all sizes, 50% off ($12.50).

    @Eka-Silicon: Since we're Google stalking, a Pubs@ACS search brings up an Accounts of Chemical Research and J Phys Chem C for Diogenes. Maybe he's got a bunch of papers lined up before graduation.

  7. Anon@5:36PM So I guess the moral of your post is once you're at Harvard or MIT Chem, why go anywhere else?

  8. For what it's worth, $20 flip flops are worth the investment. I used to staunchly refuse to spend that much money on flip flops, but after wearing through (or breaking) several $3-5 pairs I finally caved. I'll never look back, all of the $20 pairs I've bought lasted multiple years. My most recent pair is ~3 years old and are still going strong even after a surf trip to Costa Rica.

  9. With size fifteen shoes, I've found that if you are going to pay 20 dollars for flip flops, just pay 50-60 dollars and get the tevas. They will last longer, and are way more practical than your run of the mill flip flop. (No I do not wear them in lab!)

    As for moving and not moving? Well, it pains me to say this, simply because I'm sick of the expenses and lonliness I've acrued while moving, but it may have made me a better chemist. I grew up poor, and my family is not always understanding of the demands and rigors of being a starting scientist. Shunting roots has helped almost keep my bills paid. It's miserable, but hey, it's science these days. The exceptions might be the bay area or bean town, simply because the market is still saturated with institutions, start-ups, and big pharma, you may not have to leave. (It's expensive!)

    Success in science I think is becoming more and more of a moving target. It's tricky, and maybe it's becoming a bit futile to even pursue anymore. I like to think that being flexible, available, and reasonably networked might help.

  10. Anon@7:04AM Although moving has made you a better chemist, it has made you a worse speller! Hopefully economic conditions will improve soon enough to allow all of us chemical mercenaries to finally set down roots!

  11. Mr. Placencia: [Food] Ramen noodles, canned soup, frozen broccoli and bulk chicken, Walmart package of cookies.
    [Folks] Tell them they can fly out to see you, treat you to some dinners. The only ticket you should buy is Xmas.
    [Rent] Get a roommate. No dog or cat..wait a few years!
    [Fun] Free shows on campus, library card - most of 'em rent DVDs and CDs for free now!

    Seriously, how can a stipend not keep you alive in AZ? It's NOT NYC, LA, or Boston!

  12. Wow the commenters here are sad. Bragging about frugality? Or publications? Not much of a life.

  13. @Anon 5:26 PM: Who are you to judge? Did you go through grad school without being pressed for publications or not having to worry about money? I feel especially bad for grad students who have kids. Relying on your spouse's income and hardly ever seeing your children don't exactly constitute a happy life.


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20