Paying for Grad School
Graduate & professional degree programs vary widely in their cost and funding. Some programs, like PhDs in sciences, will pay you a salary while you are enrolled. Others expect you to pay full tuition and cover all of your own costs. In between, there are lots of programs that will offer some level of funding for some or all applicants. When assessing a graduate program, consider: Will you need to take on debt to complete this degree? If so, can you expect to earn enough money to easily pay that debt back once your degree is in hand?
The main source of financial aid for most graduate programs is the graduate school itself. Programs may offer assistantships (usually teaching or research assistance; this is like the graduate school version of work study) or fellowships (competitive, based on your application). If there’s no funding from the program, you might pay for your graduate degree out of pocket with your own savings, by taking out loans, or by attending graduate school part-time while working. You may also investigate national fellowships that can fund your graduate education.
PhD programs are typically at least partially funded: the university waives your tuition and, in many cases, provides a stipend to cover your living expenses. Essentially, you are paid a salary to go to school. Full funding—i.e., tuition + stipend—is particularly common in science PhD programs. Do not go into debt for a PhD! If you are applying for a research-based degree, either doctoral or master’s, in science or social science, consider applying for the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.
Terminal master’s degrees in academic fields (MS or MA) are likely to offer assistantships to offset costs, but these are typically not guaranteed. Master’s programs like MSW (social work), MPH (public health), MFA (fine arts), or MPA/MPP (public administration or public policy) are similar, although programs will vary in the amount of funding they have to offer.
Professional doctoral degrees like JD (law) and MD (medicine) tend to expect most matriculants to pay full tuition, on the expectation that with the degree in hand, graduates’ earning potential will be high (i.e., it’s “safe” debt). Many law schools offer merit scholarships to their most competitive applicants. Finally, professional master’s degrees in finance, business, and related fields, such as MBAs, are rarely funded. Assess graduate outcomes carefully if you are considering one of these programs—do most graduates land in the high-paying jobs that would make this safe debt for you?