How to get paid to go to grad school

Dear (prospective) Graduate Student,

Did you know that you could earn a monthly income while you’re a grad student and even free tuition? There are limited options for undergrad students to earn an income through the university (that’s a can of worms for another day), but grad school is different and a number of undergrads I’ve talked to don’t seem to know about them.  For some, financial limitations are a major barrier to continuing their education so I want to share the many ways in which you can get an advanced degree without going into more debt.

First, you could earn a full scholarship from the graduate program you’re applying to that covers tuition and includes a research stipend. This option is reserved for the applicants who make up the smallest, smallest percent of the best and the brightest. Typically, even at large universities, there is only enough funding to offer this to a handful of applicants so I don’t recommend students rely on being offered such a position. See: How to get into grad school

Second, you can earn a fellowship like the one offered by the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program or the EPA STAR Graduate Fellowship. Fellowships award you an annual salary (paid in monthly installments) plus they cover all or most of your tuition. Many graduate institutions will match or waive the remaining cost of tuition if you’re awarded a fellowship. For an NSF Fellow, that means you earn an annual income of roughly $34,000 plus full tuition for 3 years. Obviously, these programs are very competitive and are awarded based on merit. A lot of great applicants don’t earn fellowships so again, I don’t recommend students rely on being offered a fellowship. I do recommend that students apply though, because if you get one you’ve essentially written your own ticket to grad school. See: How to get an NSF Fellowship

Third, you can work for the university through a teaching assistantship, a research assistantship, or some similar administrative position. As a university student employee, you’ll earn a modest income and a tuition waiver. Every university does this a little differently, but essentially all universities have some form of graduate student employment. Remember that “TA” you had in that undergrad lab? That was a graduate student employee serving as a teaching assistant. Running a university requires a lot of staff, especially with many state schools bursting at the seams with growing class sizes. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship where the university gets talented employees at lower cost and graduate students get an income and reduced or null cost of attendance. Talk with your potential graduate Professor about the options available at your intended institution. There are usually enough graduate positions for the students that need them so this is a good option to rely on. You will have to work and it will take some attention away from your graduate study and research time, but it’s also an opportunity to gain a lot of experience in higher education so if you’re considering a career in academia it’s really important to consider serving as a university student employee during your time in grad school.

Fourth, you or your Professor may have been awarded a grant that allows for personnel. This means that you can be paid for your graduate work pertaining to that grant for some period of time. Usually that pay covers a modest monthly stipend and tuition for the quarter, semester, or academic year. Some universities formally call this a “graduate student research” position and it’s essentially just another form of being a university student employee except you’re working for your own Professor on research in your own lab.

The reality is that most graduate students, particularly those pursuing degrees that take several years, will use some combination of grants and university student employee positions to maintain a consistent income and avoid going deeper into debt during grad school. Occasionally there are some grad scholarships that will cover tuition and/or student stipend too. Professors get really creative with how they support their students so when you go through your two-way interview, be sure and cover the topic if income is an important factor for continuing your education.

Stay positive.

– R

Did you cover costs and earn an income in another way? Let me know in the comments!