When you decide to go to graduate school of any kind, you are making a financial decision that will dramatically affect your earning capacity for the duration of the program and throughout your life. While the caliber of school, available mentorship opportunities, and research resources are important factors to consider when making a decision about which university to attend, students often forget to carefully assess the financial realities associated with each opportunity.
The financial decision surrounding attending graduate school
Unlike students in professional graduate programs, most PhD students do not plan to pursue high-paying careers, and they depend on the fact that doctoral programs automatically include “full funding” to offset the cost of long-term research degrees. Though many graduate students receive admissions offers that are referred to as “fully-funded,” such funding packages require PhD students to teach multiple years in exchange for tuition waivers and teaching stipends. Once students start to work for the university and balance their many responsibilities, they quickly realize that “full-funding” isn’t exactly the same as a “scholarship” or a “full-ride.”
Common misconceptions about what it means to be “fully-funded”
Depending on the university and its location, the value of one’s teaching stipend in relationship to workload and cost of living can vary greatly. In reality, graduate student teaching stipends for students who live in large United States cities are not enough to cover basic necessities. As a result, most graduate students go into additional debt to complete their programs.
Since tenure-track jobs have become increasingly elusive in the United States university system, today’s doctoral students must also satisfy a growing list of requirements to be considered for well-paying and stable teaching positions upon graduation. The added responsibilities associated with producing early publications, progressing through the degree quickly, regularly attending conferences, and pursuing ongoing professionalization or certification opportunities all require significant time commitments.
However, since doctoral students must work for the university in order to waive tuition and fees, they cannot devote all of their time to academic and professional progress. To avoid burnout and set aside more time for completing research, I suggest that prospective and current graduate students continuously apply for extramural funding, research fellowships, and community-based scholarships throughout their degrees.
How the academic culture deemphasizes the financial aspects of the work
The common phrase “no one goes into a PhD to make money” is thrown around frequently in academic settings, and seems to suggest that pursuits related to funding are selfish and “anti-intellectual.” Especially in the humanities and social sciences, there is significant cultural importance placed on the fact that academia is not about money, and that academic careers are shaped by intellectual merit, not an individual’s financial capacity to stay in school.
Historically, however, the option to waive tuition in return for a few years of university teaching was an affordable way to enable individuals to pursue intellectual projects in the not-for-profit environment of the public university. One generation ago, doctoral students transitioned into tenure-track jobs with much more ease than those currently on the market. They also entered public institutions carrying far less student debt, and upon employment, they received guaranteed state pensions and salaries commensurate with the cost of living.
In today’s public university, the labor commitments of teaching assistants have grown significantly while the pay has not caught up with the steep rise in the cost of living for most university hubs. For example, throughout my graduate program at UCLA, I received between $15,000 and $22,000 in annual pay as a teaching or staff stipend. Given that my Los Angeles rent was upwards of $1,200 per month and rising, I was unable to continue my degree without applying for extramural grants and taking on work outside of the university.
Furthermore, the number of tenure track positions is diminishing so it is unlikely that I will ever make the stable and generous income to which my advisors have access. So the cultural norms of the intellectual community, which eschew any discussion of financial wellness, are no longer sustainable for most graduate students.
Though most graduate programs do not emphasize the financial aspects of navigating life as a student researcher and university employee, I have found that the pursuit of additional funding is neither a greedy nor an “anti-intellectual” use of my time in graduate school. Rather it is a great way to empower myself to set aside more time for conducting critical research and preparing for a successful career.
Strategies for applying for funding throughout your doctoral degree
In addition to my own efforts to build funding applications into my graduate studies, as a Student Affairs Advisor at the UCLA Scholarship Resource Center, I have worked with graduate students to generate strategies for incorporating annual cycles of grant writing into their studies.
Here are some of the most important takeaways from that work:
- Apply for extramural funding while you are applying for the degree
Most applicants are so anxious about whether or not they will be accepted to their desired PhD program that they don’t think about funding until after they’ve found out where they have gotten in. But there are a number of organizations, like the Ford Foundation, the Paul & Daisy Soros Foundation, the Stanford-Knight Hennessey Scholars Program, the National Science Foundation, and the Fannie and John Hertz Foundation, that offer funding for prospective graduate students.
Like university admission applications, these also run on an annual cycle that requires students to apply one year before they plan to enroll in school. So, if you are planning to spend this fall putting together applications for graduate school, it is well worth it to add a number of fellowship applications to your list as well. Even if you aren’t successful with your first round of applications you will be well prepared to add scholarship applications to your graduate school routine. This is an activity that you should engage in throughout your entire degree, and you have to start somewhere!
- Upon acceptance, carefully read the letter of admission as if it were a job offer and employment contract
Below are some questions that you should be able to answer by carefully analyzing your letter of admission. If you can’t answer them, try to find out the answers before you make your decision.
• How many years of teaching assistantship does the university commit to you? How many students are you responsible for teaching, assessing, and holding office hours with for each term?
• Are there stipulations related to your progress through the degree that may create limitations on your access to university funding or campus work opportunities?
• Does your status as university student or staff come with health benefits?
• Does your university have a union for teaching assistants? If so, what employee rights do you have through your union membership? Pay close attention to issues of pay related to maternity leave, medical leave, absence in the case of the death of a family member, and access to childcare.
• Is there an employee handbook for student staff and teaching assistants?
• What is the pay scale associated with the teaching positions that the university has offered you?
- Research the cost of living in the area in relation to anticipated pay
Before you decide where to go to school, do the research about your housing options. How much does university housing cost? Are there other options?
Some universities offer annual budgets on their websites that include the cost of housing, but you have to analyze these carefully to understand how these budgets translate to your degree. For instance, UCLA’s estimated cost of attendance for graduate students only lists the annual budget for the academic year, which consists of 8 months. So you’d have to add four months of summer expenses in order to get a true sense of the living costs associated with each calendar year.
- Map out the sections of the degree that go with different types of funding
Once you’ve chosen a university, I would suggest that you map out the various phases of the program, the skillsets that you wish to build, and the accomplishments that you will achieve as you progress through the degree. There are different types of funding for every step of progress that you make, and if you are intentional about identifying related funding you can apply for specific opportunities throughout.
Here are some examples of different achievements or degree phases associated with specific funding opportunities:
• 2-3 years of coursework
• Conference travel
• Master’s exam period
• Master’s thesis writing year
• Language study
• Building a technical or quantitative analytical methodology
• Preliminary fieldwork or archival research
• Prospectus development
• Qualifying exam period
• Preliminary dissertation research
• Primary fieldwork or archival research
• Dissertation writing year
- Build an annual routine of writing funding proposals throughout your degree
Most research-related funding opportunities do not pay out until a full academic year after the application submission period. This means that you should plan out your goals an entire year in advance, and apply for funding in the year before you carry out the projects and goals that you propose in your application materials. If you can continuously conceptualize your degree in the long-term, you will be able to anticipate the types of funding that will support your progress.
- Plan ahead for paid summer opportunities
Whether you work for the institution or not, it will likely be up to you to cover the cost of your summers during graduate school. Rather than wait until summer starts to figure out how you’re going to pay the bills, start making plans the preceding fall. You may find paid opportunities to conduct research, fieldwork, or language study during your summer. But you also have the option to take on paid internships in a number of research fields in both the public and private sectors.
Do you need help with your PhD admissions or PhD funding applications? Our expert advisors are here to walk you through the PhD application process, from strategy-building to final send-off. Check out our Graduate School Admissions Consulting & Editing Services for more information on how we can help you GET ACCEPTED…with funding!Want Rebecca to help you get Accepted? Click here to get in touch!
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