Anyone working within a budget will tell you that "free" is preferred, especially when looking for resources to assist us with our online courses. And while I'm a proponent of free options, such as those that can be found for career exploration and with open academic journals, sometimes it's difficult to find exactly what we need without having to pay some kind of fee.
There are two times I can specifically remember having to face the music and pay for online materials as a graduate student. One purchase was a massive textbook in which a single chapter I needed to review could be found no other way. The material presented in that chapter eventually became the crux of my thesis. On another occasion I paid a monthly fee to access a web-based survey system. I needed to be able to randomize a subset of questions to collect data for my dissertation research and at the time only one vendor offered this, as part of the "premium package." The added expenses weren't welcome, but were a means to an end.
Products and Services
What would you be willing to pay for? Here are just a few of the types of products and services you may find yourself considering as part of your course preparation or professional development:
- Cloud Storage: There are many options out there to help you store and access your files from multiple locations and devices. And while you'll find lots of free accounts, if your storage needs exceed the limits, it may make sense to pay for additional space. Popular free tools like Dropbox also offer advanced features (e.g., project management, messaging) for a fee.
- Data Collection: In addition to special capabilities, such as the randomization of survey items I mentioned earlier, paid services may also provide data back-up, custom URLs, enhanced security, and other kinds of tech support.
- Publications: Your institution's library should be your first stop when you identify a specific book, article, or other publication that you need for your coursework or research. If it's not available, check with the publisher to find out how you might be able to purchase access to the materials.
- Community Access: As you continue your studies and build your career, it can be helpful to join a group of other like-minded individuals. Associations and other similar organizations often charge a membership fee to access things like mentoring programs, workshops, and reference archives. Look for these kinds of activities if you want a more intensive experience than something like a LinkedIn Group.
- Conference Attendance: Virtual attendance options are increasingly available, even for in person events, and this kind of registration is often highly discounted. Some face-to-face events also offer a variety of attendance options such as a one-day pass, which allows you to actively network, attend sessions, and visit exhibitors.
Before You Buy
Free accounts are getting more robust every day in terms of the flexibility they provide. Once you've found a tool or resource you want to use, fully explore the free account details to see if you'll need to make a purchase. If you do need to upgrade or find none of the free products meet your needs, use these questions to guide your decisions:
- Is there a free trial? Start with the opportunity to try out the product or service before you sign up for a paid account. Then put the resource through its paces to make sure it meets your expectation before the trial runs out.
- Does your school have access? From organizational memberships to software licenses, your institution may have what you need or be able to provide access to it. Check with your department, the research librarians, and the office that provides you with technical support to find out what additional resources are out there. Alumni may also be able eligible for no- or low-cost access.
- Are there any education discounts? Some companies have separate pricing plans for students and educators. If you aren't sure, ask. They may be receptive to this, especially if you are using the materials as part of a research project. Conferences and professional associations offer similar discounts for students.
- How long will you need it? You may be able to save some money if you only want to access the materials or system for a short period of time. Check to see what options are available, ranging from a one-time download to monthly and annual subscriptions. Again, if you only need something for the short-term, ask the vendor for more information.
Finding a free resource is certainly helpful, but sometimes it's worth taking the plunge for a subscription or special tool that your school doesn't have access to. Be budget conscious and shop around. You may find more than one way to do what you need to do, and some options will be less expensive than others.
Image credit: kenteegarten, Flickr, CC:BY-SA