How I Made Easy Money During Grad School: My $500+/Month Side Hustle

Introduction

There are some industries that never go out of business, and one of them is anything related to kids and childcare.

Parents will do anything for their kids and are willing to pay a premium for quality. Parents that are extra busy and have a lot of money are great clients, because they just want certain jobs done and will pay for convenience.

There are a ton of incredible posts and guides out there about babysitting, and I’ve heard of people making bank by knowing the right people, but this post is going to focus on another key aspect of childcare: education.

When I was looking to earn some extra money on the side, I immediately thought about tutoring. I’d tutored in high school, a long, long time ago, and I thought that I’d be able to make way more as a grad student.

It felt like a decent option because I knew that tutoring wasn’t a job that required long shifts, I had a bit of flexibility during the week because I had full control over when I did my labwork, and I hardly ever went to the lab on weekends.

Working at an on-site tutoring center

My first step was to look for an on-site tutoring center. I quickly found one that was local to me and applied, interviewed, and quickly started tutoring there in my downtime.

It was easy because they handled all the scheduling, payments, tax forms, and advertising. All I had to do was put in my availability, get assigned students that need tutoring for my subjects, and show up.

Photo by Vanessa Garcia on Pexels.com

They paid $18/hour as their highest rate. I had such an incredible time working there, interacting with amazing students, but I felt pretty underpaid after a little while. The company mainly hired local college students and I felt like I deserved more.

I made $200-300/month working there, mostly in the afternoons, evenings, and on some weekends.

I learned a lot working there, and many of those lessons were extremely valuable in making me a great tutor. I learned that:

  • Younger students and their parents preferred to get their lessons in before dinnertime, right after school.
  • Older students were more likely to schedule their lessons in the evenings and on weekend mornings. 
  • It’s better to be a master at 2-3 subjects and to only tutor those, than to be a mediocre tutor trying to tutor subjects you barely remember anything about. By being open about what I could tutor, I never let parents down, impressed my supervisors with my honesty and reliability, and my lessons were always a breeze. It’s okay if you don’t remember AP Calculus and can only tutor Algebra. Trust me, there are students at all levels that need tutoring!
  • Tutoring doesn’t replace formal education. You’re providing support by identifying lapses in the students’ understanding of material they were already taught by a trained educator (their teacher), helping strengthen their understanding of those concepts, and increasing their confidence over time.

Switching to in-home, 1-on-1 tutoring

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A few months into working there, I decided to look for other tutoring companies to see if I could get paid more.

I found a really fancy one that charged $120/hour for in-home tutoring. They seemed more selective about who they hired. They specifically looked for folks with teaching experience and education degrees, and they didn’t hire undergrads, only grad students. They invited me for an interview and I passed the interview within a matter of minutes.

It really helped that I was a grad student and had plenty of tutoring experience at the local tutoring center.

I was getting paid $50/hour for any subject that wasn’t AP, and for AP subjects, I was getting paid $55/hour.

That felt way more appropriate for my skills and education level, and having to commute to the students’ homes wasn’t a big deal because I only chose students that were less than a mile from my apartment.

I quickly got matched with 2 students and had them in regular rotation – a middle schooler struggling with Algebra, and an AP Biology student. I tutored them for 1-2 hours per lesson. I easily made $500 a month in my first full month of tutoring for this new company.

I remember my Algebra student got 100% on the first test they did after I became their tutor, and the parent was thrilled!

Doing in-home tutoring had a lot of other benefits. Although the company still handled payments, responded to inquiries, tax forms, and managed the initial matching process, I was able to develop stronger relationships with the parents.

This was because I was in their home and interacted with them more than when I was at the tutoring center, where the kids just got dropped off and picked up. In addition, I was in contact with the parents via email or text, and this allowed us to schedule lessons without a middle-man. One of the parents even became a reference of mine for some opportunities down the line!

Another thing I liked about working in-home as opposed to the tutoring center was that I didn’t feel as exposed to germs and chaos.

This was all before COVID, but I still felt uneasy when I was in the tutoring center and heard kids coughing up a storm, or sneezing and then touching the whiteboard markers and door handles. I also learned that some parents are not really considerate and send their kids to the tutoring center even if the kids have symptoms of illness.

On the other hand, in-home tutoring was nice because I had more control over scheduling and communicating health-related boundaries with parents. The parents generally respected me and my boundaries more as an in-home tutor because we had more face-time, as opposed to being one of many semi-anonymous tutors that they just dropped their kids off with (and therefore didn’t have to witness direct consequences of exposing their sick kids to).

Reflections and Other Tips

I had to quit tutoring when the pandemic started. Nevertheless, I made some great connections working for both companies. Working with students was always extremely enjoyable, and my hope for humanity genuinely improved after seeing how awesome they were.

Depending on your location, you may be able to find tutoring centers that you could get a start in. There will always be a demand for tutors and general childcare if you live in an area with families, so if you’re curious, try to look some up!

You can also look into SAT/ACT/PSAT (and other standardized test) tutoring, which is extremely lucrative. It’s a category of tutoring that never runs out of clients, and clients tend to spend a lot of money on it. Unfortunately, I don’t have any tips for you because I don’t have much experience with it, but I’m know there are great guides out there for that.

I also know that running your own tutoring business is totally possible as a grad student. At one point, when I already had the above tutoring experiences on my resume, I advertised myself on Craigslist as a tutor specializing in those 2-3 subjects, and got about a dozen emails from interested parents.

There were a few reasons why I didn’t move forward with any of them (mainly due to various logistical challenges), but they were totally willing to pay $50+/hour for great service. Just make sure you have the time and energy for all that it takes, such as scheduling, commuting, advertising, and paying taxes on your tutoring income.

One thing I’ll say is that a lot of the parents that contact you directly through Craigslist and other similar sites will want a reference from a parent that’s worked with you previously. That’s why working for a local tutoring company, even for a couple months before trying to run your own business, is helpful because you can get that reference, build up your skills, and familiarize yourself with the local curriculums.

It’s important to keep in mind that some grad programs and funding sources have rules as to what sort of paid work you can do outside of your research, so it’s important to be aware of the fine print before taking major action or publicizing your business.

It’s an unfortunate reality that Ph.D. students (and postdocs) are paid so little for the expertise that they have, are expected to put in hours doing extremely novel work to literally advance their fields, and are sometimes not allowed to have side hustles.

This is something that really needs to change.

Conclusion

Sure, having a sidle hustle during grad school is not for everyone, and I understand that some advisors and projects require stricter schedules and commitments.

For me, though, having a side hustle honestly helped me manage my time better and be more productive in the lab. I was more aware of the hours in the day, and I worked more diligently in the lab when I had other things going on. I became more meticulous about planning steps in my work, didn’t procrastinate as much, and broke up the monotony of research by having something I really enjoyed outside of it. I felt refreshed every time I went into the lab because I had something that was a nice change of pace.

Working with tutoring students was honestly one of the highlights of my time as a grad student, and it’s funny because it wasn’t even part of grad school (the other highlight would probably be conferences).

Hopefully this post inspires you to do some introspection and figure out if there’s something that you enjoy and that you can make money doing outside of grad school. Best of luck to you.

Post summary:

  • Tutoring was a great side hustle for me during grad school because of the flexibility of scheduling, short shifts, income, connections, and fulfillment I got out of it.
  • I started off at a local on-site tutoring center that paid $18/hour to build up experience and learn about local curriculums, but felt I could be paid more for my knowledge. I made $200-300/month.
  • I moved onto another company that did in-home tutoring and was paid $50-55/hour. I made $500+/month with 2 students in rotation.
  • Working for both companies was convenient because they handled advertising, payments, tax forms, and the initial matching step.
  • It’s possible to run your own business as well, but you need to be on top of all aspects of it, and have at least 1 parent reference.
  • It’s best to have a few subjects you’re really confident in, rather than be shaky in a wide variety of subjects. I only ever tutored 2-3 subjects, but I felt super comfortable knowing I could handle anything that came up, so lessons were always manageable and the parents were never let down.
  • Read the fine print when it comes to your contract as a grad student, because some programs and funding sources don’t allow students to have another source of income.

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