Woman doing taxes

Taxing Times

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

This is not tax advice. I am by no means a tax guru. Please don’t misconstrue this as helpful. 

Well, I hope that all of you have filed for taxes as you sit down to read this. (If you are a graduate student reading this, you are probably standing waiting for the elevators or commuting.) The tax season recently passed, and it meant unprecedented stress for the first-year graduate students. 

Not only did we have to wrestle with finals in the famously hard winter quarter, but also navigate the ultimate test of our tax-filing acumen. 

Remember the days when we received W2s and how easy life was? Most first years on stipends don’t get W2, so a life of such luxury has been taken away, as we navigate the treacherous waters of adulting. 

I can’t help but wonder how many of us pondered upon our choice to attend graduate school while wading our way through this tax frenzy. People have been paying quarterly taxes perhaps, since no taxes are withheld.* 

Now is the time to check whether the calculations were right. Here are some of the thoughts that were heard out loud when graduate students sat down to do their taxes.

How could it have been wrong? Do we owe any additional amount? Why can’t money be credited to us instead? How does our previous job complicate this? 

After all, tax forms seem like artifacts from alien lands. I take comfort that the wise and old say that this game gets old quickly and soon we will feel comfortable (although the same was said about how the winter quarter would be better than fall, so consider it with a pinch of salt). 

There are some useful resources available (workshops carefully organized to clash with mandatory meetings; no worries, they were recorded) but also just a lot of random resources, so it became very quickly overwhelming. 

I was sinking in a sea of tax-related paraphernalia. At times it felt like trying to decipher hieroglyphics would be easier. The group slacks were quickly filled with intense arguments about best software, companies and even favorite box numbers in tax forms. The students who couldn’t normally remember ratios of antibodies in their most common flow panel could suddenly remember box numbers in several different forms. 

Hypothesis driven testing was performed with everyone experimenting on the different platforms. But to NIH’s continuing fear, the reproducibility crisis made its grand entrance, replicability proved to be an issue. 

What worked well for student A definitely didn’t work for student B. Meanwhile student C was just grappling with the idea that they were now full-fledged adults and had tax responsibilities. People reached out to their friends, neighbors, family for help and everyone had thoughts. 

The MUNI subways and UCSF shuttles echoed with suggestions for the tax season and what was right and what was wrong. Kudos to the rare graduate student who responsibly dealt with their tax obligations in February and was now the cohort’s superhero, earning a gold star in the graduate student hall of fame! There was a reason they mail us the tax forms in January.

When we were finally ready to file it, we faced a dilemma – do we file it electronically or do we file it via snail mail? 

If one considers the mail option, then one secures some time to go visit their local post office. The post office is decorated for tax season with all the displays highlighting the certified mail option.

There are envelopes in every color and every size. Once a suitably appropriate envelope is picked, the tax documents that were hesitantly filled in were sealed in it and one chooses from several different delivery options.

Sweat breaks out in the indecisive graduate students as they stare at these several choices. Relax! It’s not like you are picking a thesis lab, it’s just mail.  

Ever heard the joke, how much income you make controls the quality of life the chickens that lay the eggs you eat have? (No? Look up “Chicken happiness afford meme - an egg-istential crisis”.) 

The same can be said for how the IRS receives your taxes. There is the special overnight offer (not that precious or urgent); there is a 48-hour option (seems reasonable till you realize that it is a $5 add-on to a mail that otherwise costs cents); and the cheap graduate student offer of regular mail. 

People opt for certified mail out of good scientific practices – after all in the past two quarters, we are taught to verify every finding in multiple ways – so one may opt for certified mail (evidence for you turning the mail in) and a return receipt (a mail for a mail delivered). 

One finally chooses multiple add-ons for the mail till it becomes more complicated than their favorite drink at the café and finally turns it in at the post-office. 

Ah, the sighs of relief when people filed taxes were tremendous enough to scare Karl (the fog) away and reveal lovely sunshine in the Bay Area.  

The spring quarter now awaits! Another wonderful financial year off to a strong start with the national graduate student appreciation week. 

We appreciate you graduate students! 

* Note: If you are international, these rules do not apply. ISSO version of this article will come out shortly.