Funding Graduate School: Where’s the Money and How do I get it?

You don't pull rabbits out of this hat.

Your anxiously awaited graduate school acceptance letter has arrived. Hooray! Assuming that this is the school for you, one of the next steps is to consider the financial implications of choosing this institution. There are huge variations between graduate programs. A “one-size fits all” approach may work when discussing interview tips, but when it comes to funding, it gets seriously complicated! Let’s keep it as simple as possible and just explore what I consider to be the gold standard of graduate education: fully funded Ph.d programs.

Fully Funded PhD Programs- Many apply and few are accepted. How few? Not to scare you, but last year’s acceptance rate for the University of Washington’s Adult Clinical Psychology program was 0.5%. No typo friends, that is actually point 5 percent! This is an extreme case but the reason for the daunting figure is that a) money was especially tight last year and b) people were choosing to go back to school during the recession, especially since it’s possible to make more money as a graduate student than as someone battling it out in the job market! Now you may stop and think whoaaa, getting paid as a student? How is that possible? Is this an academic ponzi scheme? Do I have to regularly donate plasma? Not at all folks. Let’s break it down and get into the details.

Where does the money come from? Students in fully funded graduate school programs are typically expected to spend countless hours doing research and teaching. Their funding comes in the form of Graduate Student Research Assistantships (RAs) and/or Teaching Assistantships (TAs). Research and teaching assistantships together make the prettiest seven-letter word in all of academia, a stipend.  Stipends typically range from $18,000-$22,000 and usually come from your academic advisor’s research grants or from special funds allocated to the department. In addition to your rent and groceries being paid for by the graduate school stipend, let’s throw in some awesome health insurance!  Now if that isn’t sweet enough, here comes another magical pair of words, tuition waiver! That’s right, no need to worry about government loans and high interest rates because your tuition is completely taken care of by the university.

Now I’m no genius when it comes to finance, but I can tell you we are talking about nearly a $250,000 investment by the school for each student (assuming 6-year education). Here in lies another reason these limited spots are so competitively sought after. If you’ve got what it takes, polish up that C.V and kick butt on the GRE because we are talking about some serious money.

Stay tuned for Part (2) in which I’ll discuss funding issues for other kinds of programs.