I’ve been thinking lately about how to pay for graduate school.  Now, obviously I’ve already paid for most of it using a variety of techniques (which I will address below).  But I have one more semester and have been trying to find the best way to fund it.  So I started making a mental list of ways to pay for school, and thought I would share.

1) Assistantships – These come in two forms; research and teaching.  In general these come from your department and support you by paying tuition and a stipend in exchange for labor. This is the most common support for PhD students, although it is generally limited in how long any one student will be supported.  While I hesitate to call it a living wage, it is usually more than you would make in a part time job while allowing you to stay focused on your academic work.

Research assistantships are, in my opinion, preferable, since they help you learn the real business of being an academic researcher.  That is the part of the job that will be most crucial to success as an academic and is likely to be most unlike what you’ve seen before.  Plus you will find that the process of being a research assistant will help you determine what you want to study for your dissertation.

Teaching assistantships are more common, since there are far more freshman classes than faculty can handle on their own.  You learn how to handle a class, how to grade and how to design a lesson plan.  These vary in quality but generally pay the same as the research assistantships.  My observation is that they are more work (since students will contact you at all hours for help) but money is money, and the less out of pocket the better.

2) Scholarships and Grants – In many cases you can get money from other organizations besides your department.  This can take more research. Standard types of scholarships will pay tuition and maybe a stipend.  Grants often are for specific work, with a common type being the dissertation grant intended to support you while you finish up.  While there are lots of them, they aren’t always obvious.

First you have to FIND the opportunities that are appropriate to your situation and interests. Some information will come through mailing lists for your area of study, some through other groups you are involved in, and some you will just have to trawl the internet for.  Most are not a LOT of money for any one grant, but a couple can support you if necessary.  The one I am considering is through the professional association for my field and focused on providing up to $20,000 for completion of the dissertation.

Then you have to convince them to give you the money. The grant to cover my last semester’s tuition involves a substantial application process including a recommendation from my adviser.  I expect that the application alone will take about 20 hours of work to pull together and wordsmith. If you go down this route, keep in mind that you will have to prove to them why they should give you money.

One final thought; some grants and scholarships are prestigious, some are not.  If you are headed down an academic path, pay attention to trying to get the prestigious ones as they will help you further down the road.  It never hurts to be able to drop these things on your resume as well as in your bank account.

3) Employment – There are a couple of ways in which employment can pay your way through graduate school.  The less out-of-pocket way is getting a job at the university you want to attend.  You can often get at least part-time tuition paid for as a benefit while earning money to pay for a roof over your head.  Better yet, if you are married get your SPOUSE to work for the university.  Tuition benefits are historically generous and if your spouse works there, you can work part time and still get the benefits of free tuition.

If that doesn’t work for you, consider taking a full time job with a company that has a tuition program and is interested in your area of study.  Granted, most companies will not pay for your doctorate in medieval english candlemaking but they MIGHT pay for one in advanced organizational development (if you work in that area) or the next new electronics component platform after silicon (if you work in that area).  The rule here is that what you are studying needs to be related to your work and clearly important to the company.  [I have heard of some companies paying people to go to school; ie paying the expenses and continuing their salary while releasing them from work.  This is very rare but worth pursuing if you think you have a shot.]

The last option, of course, is to get a good enough job to just pay your own tuition.  Doable, but whenever you can get someone else to GIVE you money for school you should do it.  If you go down this path, consider taking adjunct assignments at local colleges.  This will at least keep you focused on your area of study and give you classroom experience at the same time.  I cannot even begin to explain how hard it was to work in a completely unrelated field while trying to make progress in school.  Unless the job is truly mindless (in which case it won’t pay well) you’ll find yourself distracted and too tired to work on your own research.

4) The last option, to be avoided if at all possible, is student loans.  The U.S. government makes it incredibly easy to take out student loans to pay for school, but these things will haunt you for decades to come.  Remember that they are not GIVING you money, they are LOANING it to you.  You have to pay it back someday.  If a starting assistant professor makes $50,000, it isn’t worthwhile to get the degree and graduate with twice that in loans.

Remember; loans cannot be gotten rid of with bankruptcy and have the potential to ruin your credit, your chance of buying a home, your ability to rent a place and a lot more.  Figure out the cost/benefit of taking out loans.  What is your starting salary likely to be?  Are you stuck working for a university or can you go into private industry for a few years and make a pile of money that can be used to pay the loans off?  Is your field notoriously underpaid?  Think about these things before accepting the loans or plan on slaving to pay them off for a long, long time to come.

This certainly isn’t a comprehensive list.  In fact it is far from it.  But it should get you started thinking about your options.  The bottom line is to order your options like this:

  1. Money given to you
  2. Money you earn now and use to pay now
  3. Money you take in a loan and have to pay later

Try to stay away from the last option if at all possible.