Working For Money vs. Research & Learning

After you get past your freshman year of college and you’ve got a good handle on what kind of time demands your coursework is going to require, you may run into this extremely common dilemma about how you should spend your “free” (non-studying) time:

Should I use my spare hours for academic pursuits/personal growth, or should I get a job and work because I’m broke as hell and I need money?

Alicia at UCLA is going through a variation on that dilemma right now.

Hello Judge Josh,

My questions concern the upcoming school year as a sophomore at UCLA. I currently have a partial plan of what courses I am going to take for fall quarter, which leaves me with room for either a work-study job or getting into research.

Flo is the patron saint of waitressing and also grit-kissing.

What about a smaller amount of research and a job with fewer hours per week so that you can do both? (FORESHADOWING ALERT!)

However, my parents want me to go into work-study to start earning money to pay my tuition,

Can’t blame ’em for that….

while I would rather like to get into research

and of course, that’s natural, too.

(I already feel behind in finishing everything because I have many more prerequisites to finish for my major, chemistry).

Well, if you’re just beginning your sophomore year, how behind can you really be? Just curious.

I am not sure what to do because I sincerely want to start doing something worthwhile with my education rather than just learn material day in and day out.

Just for the record here, that’s a great attitude to have. Lots of students just “punch the clock,” as it were, learning whatever they need to know for tests and then moving on. The ones who really try to learn all the material and then go out and independently augment their own learning are the ones who eventually do very well, in my experience.

But work study does seem like a helping hand in this critical moment of not receiving much money from the school or from outside sources

Yeah, it’s great, I think. Exactly HOW great it is depends on your actual job, I suppose — library clerk or computer lab work probably beats sweating it out in a cafeteria somewhere — but swapping a few hours a week at a job in exchange for a tuition chunk is pretty sweet.

(I am currently applying to scholarships using your tips, but alas I still have no good luck in receiving positive responses, or any responses for that matter).

It’s a bitch out there, man. Keep your chin up.

Please provide much-needed feedback, and I thank you for your efforts to your audience!

Yeah, the time battle between things like research that Alicia wants to do (academic/personal enrichment stuff) and working for cash is a timeless one because both are really important. Yeah, I suppose money will always come first if you’re forced to choose, but if you didn’t care about learning and academics and such, then you probably wouldn’t be in college in the first place, would you?

One thing that immediately jumps out at me for you, Alicia, is the possibility of killing two birds with one stone. Have you looked into work-study jobs that involve research? I don’t know how work-study jobs get assigned at a huge school like UCLA, but it’s at least worth looking into. I only mention this because I had one work-study job during college, and it was a research gig. So I know the jobs are out there, at least in some places.

If you can’t score a work-study job doing research, then a natural compromise seems to be going half and half. If you were planning on 20 hours of either work or research, why not do 10 hours apiece? Assuming your folks could live with that compromise, which seems reasonable enough to me.

A third idea would be to go the research route and then get your own job off-campus to make money. That’s pretty common. Waiting tables or bartending anyplace at or above the Chili’s/Applebee’s level ought to make you quite a bit more cash than similar hours put in at a minimum-wage work-study job.

That’s my advice for the day. What about you — what do you think Alicia should do? Let us know in the comments below.

17 thoughts on “Working For Money vs. Research & Learning”

  1. I would suggest contacting the Chemistry department and asking about undergraduate teaching assistants, lab assistants and office assistants. While it’s not strictly research, it would afford the opportunity to make contacts within the department while also possibly giving work experience worth noting on a resume post graduation.

  2. It’s possible to research AND work, especially in lower level courses that require less effort. I’m a rising senior and I’m working full-time in the summer and making time for a full research study. Alicia writes as though she wants an excuse to ignore one or the other.

  3. If you’re a solid student, you should also consider tutoring which can be quite lucrative, especially if you can get a regular group session going.

    You can also pursue alternative, non-job income sources, but that’s obviously much riskier and requires a lot more entrepreneurial intuition. I personally resell stuff on eBay that I buy at garage & estate sales (that’s what my blog is about, actually).

  4. I recently applied to be a part of a paid internship program, which pays $10 per hour to work on a community health project (I’m an exercise science major, so the internship is applicable to my area of study). If I’m accepted I will make just enough to pay my rent every month while still having enough time to work at my evening job, which will go towards things like groceries and building my savings account back up. Long story short, I would look into any paid internships that UCLA might have to offer, which would allow you to have the best of both worlds.

  5. Do what I did: research and work at the same time. Find a non-profit that will hire you as a work-study student, and if your work there furthers your education, the Federal Work Study program will pay 75% of your wages. I’m an Education/Child Development student and I found a school that would hire me, and harassed my financial aid office into signing a contract with the school. Result: $2000+ and I could do my research on Social Justice education.

  6. Try to get a job in the chemistry lab at the school. Try to get a work study job in the field you’re getting your degree in. If it doesn’t work out right away, find a professor you like and make good friends out of him/her, then he/she can help you get a lab job.

    Get paid to learn….that’s the best way to go.

  7. How about looking for work in a lab? For instance – blood donation labs here hire people who have ‘some lab experience’ and a high school diploma.

  8. Ugh,

    Sorry I just commented a whole list of things for you to do, but my comment was marked as “spammy.” Judge Josh can you please do something about that? Or do I have to write my comments all over again if I put in a link next time? (If so, I won’t put in a link but a long description of how to get there).

    I just put in a link to UCLA’s scholarship/research opportunies, now I have to start again. Go to UCLA’a home page, click on Research, then opportunities for UCLA undergraduates. There’s something there for Science, engineering and math majors.

    So basically what I wrote before is that once you click on that and then “Research Program$” you can find lots of scholarship opportunites for doing research. However you may find the requirements are being a junior. I previously wrote you shouldn’t be discouraged though instead talk to your chemistry/science professors to see if you can volunteer in their lab this year (later ask about getting elective/lab credit in your major…lots of professors won’t let you step into their lab if you ask them for a job which requires them to train you and then give you money…they don’t get much money either). If you have the nerve though, ask away! You can even start in the summer. By the time you’re a junior, you can apply for these scholarships and your experience in the lab will make you a better applicant. I had more recommendations…oh, yeah, start soon. As soon as possible. For the past two years I’ve been applying to research programs and talking to my professors about volunteering in their lab. I just got a volunteer position back in January (I’m a senior). So yeah, please, please start early. The professors will like that because it means they can have you work in the lab longer. They prefer committed individuals who work five hours a week for three years rather than someone who works for 20-40 hours a week for a summer.

    So basically, do your own research on your school’s website (it’s not that hard), talk to professors, and don’t anticipate to get money at the beginning of your research experience.

    I hope that helps!

  9. I’m not a science major and want everyone to be informed that I don’t know anything. However, if you are forced to choose and actually get to make the decision, I would recommend doing research. Here’s my reasoning:

    Premise 1: You want to be some kind of fantastic chemist, researcher, or medical guru. In other words, you aren’t JUST getting a chem degree because you love learning. Although you probably do.

    Premise 2: Those kinds of chemistry-ish people make decent money. Lots more than you will make waiting tables or even doing the bloodwork that some people have mentioned above.

    Premise 3: Doing good research (paid or unpaid) makes you much more likely to get into a great graduate program or placed into a great job, where you’ll make the decent money. In fact, doing unpaid work early in your undergrad probably improves your chances at getting a paid research gig later down the road. UCLA, being a big research school, probably has more competitive (and hence, more useful) research programs.

    Advice: Do what you need to do. If you just can’t get by without the job, do that. But they did invent student loans for a reason. Nothing will outweigh getting to do great things with your life. Of course, not everyone wants to stand out, or to go far with their course of study. If you don’t, forget the research. If you do, take risks.

    Good luck!


  10. I’m also a rising sophomore with a similar problem, balancing work and clubs, etc to balance out my social life. I go to a small liberal arts school, so it may be different from a big school like UCLA, but I got a work-study job on campus (well, 3). This ended up working out pretty well, because I got slow moving office-type jobs where i would sit around and wait for them to give me work, in the mean time getting my own work done. i worked 2 hours 3 times a week on one job (which ended up being most of the time I would have been somewhere else doing the exact same thing: studying) and another job 6 hours on the weekend. It sounds like a lot, but it was actually very reasonable and an excuse to get my work done with no distractions from friends. Since it’s designed to be a student job, the hours were quite flexible, and I also worked in one of the departments I am majoring in, so it made some great connections with the faculty. Although it’s minimum wage, I still managed to max out my work/study grant for the semester (and my one job was willing to find the funds in their budget to keep me longer!) So that ended up being a great option to get some money while still having time for a life. Maybe this’ll work for you too 🙂

    My roommate is a bio major, and she’s going a different route: she’s staying on-campus for the summer (which you do have to pay for, but hear me out) while volunteering part-time at a local hospital. When she’s not there, she has a job with the bio department with very flexible hours, and is looking for another job off-campus which would pay more and hopefully carry on through the year. So that’s an option to kind of get all that you want in over the summer so you can relax a bit during the year.

    Hope this helps 🙂

  11. As a undergraduate Chemist, who is going to be a senior and is getting ready to apply to graduate school, I very strongly think that the right direction to go is research, if you plan to go to a good graduate school. For many graduate programs, your research experience/ your letters of recommendation are the most important factor in determining what quality of graduate program you will get into. Assuming you’re over 3.5 GPA and a US citizen, research experience is much more important than grades. Even if what you do next year in terms of research might probably be unpaid, you can certainly work your way up to being paid, if you’re doing something worthwhile in the lab. This is especially true if you’re school will allow researchers to hire students work study, which I suspect is likely true.

    Furthermore, your graduate degree in chemistry is basically free in terms of costs because you either get a stipend or you get a paid position that cancels out tuition, which means that it may be a long time until you are obligated to pay back student loans, depending on the exact types of loans you have.

    Even if you’re thinking about Medical School, medical schools many love research.

    I’m skeptical about saying that you go 10 hours a week work-study and 10 hours a week research. Although it sounds like a fair compromise, you may have less flexibility in your work study job, so you will skip out on your research time which builds neither your confidence in your nascent abilities as a young chemists nor your boss’s confidence that you have what it takes to go to a good graduate program.

    In summary, don’t go work study unless its a research job.

  12. I go to a large public school. We have an undergraduate research office, which routinely gives out grants to students doing research. At my school, you can get up to $3700 a semester. To apply for this, they generally like you to have prior research experience. Perhaps you could compromise with your parents; this semester you could volunteer to gain research experience and then next semester you could see if you can get paid to do research, especially since it pays decently. Another thing to consider for the summer is a SURF internship (summer undergraduate research fellowship) which can pay anywhere from 3k to 7k for one summer and then you could work during the school year.

    If you have any more questions about research, feel free to poke me. My email is dyserenity at gmail. Hope this helps!

  13. I had a posting a few days ago that never materialized here, but I will briefly restate what I wrote. I am a undergraduate Chem Major who is going to be applying to graduate school in a few months. I’ll hopefully be graduating with a joint masters degree on top of a B.S. (4 years)

    If you want to go to graduate school in chem or med school, you should do research. I’m skeptical about the working 2 jobs and trying both because the one with the more rigid hours will cause you to shaft your other job during busy periods, which probably means that you won’t be impressing your principal investigator with your work ethic because you’ll be not doing his work. Letters of recommendation/ publications/ research experience are by far the most important factor to going to a good graduate school (assuming you’re a US citizen with a GPA>3.5).

  14. Alicia is great no doubt about that. She must not be confused about work study. All she have to do is to get her priorities right. A good time table that will be adhered to strictly and to have friends of like passion that will strenghten and encourage her. Good luck to you Alicia

  15. Maybe you should ask your supervisor to make a schedule that works around your classes and having a social life. That way your able to make money for rent, keep your grades up, and still have a social life.

  16. This advice came just in time. I was just talking about this with my roommate no more than 5 minutes ago. I have a job and am a full-time student. It has gotten to the point where it is hard to distinguish whether I attend this school or work for the school. The money is great and i really do need it. Cutting my hours would hurt me financially. I am doing well in my courses so far, but I am not sure how long that will last. I have time for community service and other academic activities, I think…

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