Did you know that people actually pay high prices for their graduate degrees? This was news to me when I graduated with my M.S. in wildlife biology and conservation.
Why? I got my grad degree basically for nothing — and I didn’t know anyone else in my field who paid to earn their degree, either.
And it’s not just my field. I have tons of friends who studied math, history, science — even English — and didn’t pay to go to school for their degrees. If you listen to our advice on how to go to grad school without drowning in debt, you might be able to pull it off, too!
1. Do Your Research on Cheaper Options
If you want to go to grad school, your research starts long before you get accepted into a program. Unlike the more cookie-cutter undergrad programs, each graduate university, degree program, and even individual course of study is unique. It’s up to you to sort out how each one that interests you works.
Oftentimes you’ll just apply to the general program that you’re interested in. Schedule a phone call with the department of interest to get the full scoop on how it works. In my case, I first tried to find a professor with my interests and approach him or her directly to ask about potential grad openings.
He told me: “The best piece of advice I ever got was not to pay for your degree. If you do, you’re doing it wrong.”
In some fields — like wildlife biology and mathematics — it’s almost unheard-of for people to pay for their degrees, regardless of where they go to school.
In other fields, you’ll first need to scope out how each individual university works, then apply to a bunch. After that, you can sit back and wait to accept the offer that lets you pay less for the same level of education. Another friend took this route to get her master’s degree in history, and she has a word of advice:
Even if you’re applying to a university program rather than working one-on-one with an individual professor, you should still research what each professor’s specialty is. Mention these topics in your application essay for bonus points. “This demonstrates your interest in their specific program and shows your willingness to do research,” she says.
2. Work as a Teaching Assistant
Here’s the heart of how we were all able to pay less for grad school:
We worked as teaching assistants, either teaching intro-level college classes in our field or running the lab sections of certain lecture courses. These arrangements usually grant you a tuition waiver, plus a living stipend. In my case, my stipend worked out to just over $26,000 a year.
While in school, I saved $24,688 on tuition and got $5,553 worth of health insurance for free. Most of us had to pay fees (which weren’t insubstantial), but the stipend fully covered that amount, as well as living expenses.
3. Work as a Research Assistant
If you’re working on a thesis project as a part of your degree, the university may pay for grad school. My thesis project was fully funded when I was accepted into the program.
This meant that the university already had a pot of cash sitting in an account waiting to pay for me and my research expenses.
All I had to do was work as a TA during the school year (for which the university paid me); and during the summer, the university paid me at the same rate, pulling from the initial funding that my project came with. If it hadn’t been fully funded for my degree, I wouldn’t have accepted the position.
4. Apply for Scholarships to Help You Pay Less
Unfortunately, the pot of money ran out in my last semester (we found some cool things to test in the lab, but it was expensive to do so), and so I turned to another lifesaver: scholarships.
Scholarships are an excellent way to pay less for grad school. I applied for a few scholarships and was surprised to win two awards that fully covered my final semester. My math buddy now teaches at a community college and serves on scholarship selection committees.
His advice? “Apply for as many scholarships as you can.”
“Each semester we give away $3,000 in scholarships,” he says, “and we usually only have three or four people apply for that money.”
5. Apply to Tuition-Free Schools
There are several grad schools that pride themselves on allowing their students to graduate without debt. NYU Medicine, Curtis Institute of Music, and MIT’s Media Lab Program are among these amazing programs.
U.S. schools are not the only programs offering free tuition. This is also the case in all graduate schools in Norway and Germany. Best of all for American students, a significant portion of these programs are taught solely in English. You would still have to pay for your daily living expenses, but that cost would be much less than the average American grad school.
6. Join the Military
While this is a drastic solution, the military is an option for attending grad school completely free. Among the benefits of being a member of the armed forces, the Post-9/11 GI Bill affords veterans and current military members 36 months of full tuition at any public university. If you would prefer to be a part-time student, those 36 months would be extended to 72.
The GI Bill also provides funding for housing, books, and course materials. If you are already interested in military services, be sure to take advantage of this opportunity.
The Bottom Line
As long as you’re creative and flexible in where you go and what you want to study, there’s no reason why you need to take out thousands of dollars in student loans to get a graduate degree.
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