How to Finesse that Graduate Degree for the Low

Photo:  AdobeStock

Photo: AdobeStock


In the process of choosing a graduate program, whether for a master’s, doctoral, or other professional degree, we aren’t always exposed to the same resources and advice we may have had when weighing our undergraduate options. In our quest to pick the best paths for our careers, we can sometimes overlook the financial burdens that attending certain programs may entail. Still, the steps to choosing the best graduate program for you—and your wallet—are quite like when applying to undergrad.


After deciding what to pursue, you should first consider how geographically flexible you are, if you will attend your program full or part-time, and how feasible it would be to attend your dream program if funding was limited or non-existent. Asking yourself these questions helps you immediately eliminate options that you know aren’t going to fulfill your needs and goals long-term.


Next, take to our good sis Google—or Bing, I suppose—for a thorough search into whether the programs meeting your aforementioned needs offer graduate assistantships, fellowships, traineeships, or other stipend-based/work study options. For example, I knew I wanted to attend graduate school immediately following undergrad. However, my initial focus had been on getting into a PhD program in Psychology—which can be difficult for many students coming straight out of undergrad and applying to certain sub-disciplines of the field.


I researched and compiled a list of said programs that offered tuition remission and a living/support stipend in exchange for working on campus or in the department in some capacity—usually as a research assistant to a professor or lab, or as a teaching assistant. This info is typically listed alongside the graduate program’s application information, with some programs, such as a few at Rutgers and NYU, providing an estimated figure for support packages/stipends; this information will help you seriously determine if a program will be able to support you, especially when considering costs of living, travel, and relocation, and if you’ll need to supplement your income with additional funding or loans.


After a less than stellar first attempt at PhD programs, I applied to terminal master’s programs in Psychology. I knew that I couldn’t afford to pay for my master’s out of pocket, so I talked to other students and asked my professors if they had any advice. While funded terminal master’s programs are few and far between compared to funded PhD programs, I was able to find three in my research area that offered support. Ultimately, I ended up with a position at the University of Dayton for my MA in General Psychology.


In exchange for two years of tuition remission and a living stipend, I worked as an assistant researcher in various labs, and a teaching assistant, resulting in approximately 20-30 hours of work per week outside the classroom. UD’s General program only accepts a few students per year to ensure full financial support for the duration of the program. And, what do you know: my time in my MA program helped me further myself as a researcher and scholar, catapulting me into a successful PhD application season 1.5 years later!


Also, don’t forget about scholarships! While at UD, I was able to submit a research proposal for a summer fellowship following my first year. In exchange for an 8-ish page project proposal—for thesis research I had to complete to fulfill my degree requirements anyway—I was able to supplement my stipend while subsequently affording resources for my ongoing projects. Similarly, when it came time to apply for PhD programs again, I made sure to note if the programs to which I applied provided additional scholarship/grant opportunities beyond the stipend alone, including potential diversity funding.


After receiving acceptances to a few programs, I was offered a well-rounded scholarship package from the University of Cincinnati, which included a graduate assistantship, tuition remission, academic excellence awards—for my experience gained through my terminal MA program—and a plethora of diversity-focused support. In addition, the fact that many of their students had been successful in securing internal and external grants in recent years, including funding from the NIH and NSF, helped solidify my decision to attend.


Ultimately, I mention all of this to say: there are programs out there that will support you while you get your degree. It takes some digging, but seek out those that combine the most important aspects you desire—fit, work-life balance, funding, research/practice focuses, etc.—and decide which places will be able to support and allow you to get your degree with less financial stress. In short: “If you want to go to grad school, don’t pay for it unless you absolutely have to.” Get that [free] sch-money, y’all!


About the Author

Sierra Corbin, a Detroit native, is a student in the Experimental Psychology Ph.D. program at the University of Cincinnati. Her research focuses on the embodied and action-specific properties of visual-spatial perception in real and virtual environments, specifically focusing on the intersection between visual perception and non-visual/cognitive information. She holds a B.S. and M.A. in Psychology from the University of Georgia and the University of Dayton, respectively.

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