Boost your chances of getting someone to pay for your
master's or PhD.
At age 23, Elizabeth Kerr is a full-time PhD student in religious
studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara --
and she makes a decent living to boot. Thanks to two fellowships,
she'll earn the equivalent of $42,000 this year, including
the full cost of tuition and health insurance plus a stipend
for living expenses.
A year of graduate school costs, on average, anywhere from
$17,000 for a master's at a public university to more than
$56,000 at a private dental school. Four out of five full-time
grad students receive financial aid, and the average package
is $20,000 per year; student loans usually make up 75% of
But Kerr will graduate virtually debt-free. So will Matthew
Freyer, who's in his second year of a two-year master's program
in industrial engineering at Penn State University. Freyer,
25, covered his first-year tuition with a fellowship, and
this year he has a 20-hour-per-week teaching assistantship
that covers tuition. He receives $5,000 a year from another
Compared with undergraduate education, far less money is
available for grad school on the basis of financial need alone.
"Grad schools give awards based more on merit than need,"
says Kalman Chany, author of Paying for College Without Going
Broke (Princeton Review, $20). In 2003-04, one in five graduate
and professional students received a fellowship or grant --
averaging $7,500 -- with no strings attached. Students in
the physical sciences, economics, engineering, religion and
theology have the best shot at getting a fellowship; fewer
grants are available for advanced degrees in business and
education. (For more information on fellowships, visit FastWeb.com
Assistantships, which require you to work in return for a
stipend (the average was just over $10,000 in 2003-04), are
most common in the physical sciences. Nearly half of all full-time
candidates for master's degrees in science are paid for work
As a research assistant, Kate Kierpiec, 25, who is a fourth-year
PhD candidate in immunology and microbiology at Georgetown
University, earns $1,750 a month studying DNA in-vitro. The
money covers her rent and supplements the fellowship that
pays her tuition. "It's enough to survive but not enough
to live on," says Kierpiec, who waits tables for extra
Awards are competitive and not widely promoted. But you can
boost your chances of getting a share.
Start early. Decisions concerning fellowships, scholarships
and assistantships are made at the department level, says
Mary Pat Doyle, associate director of financial aid for the
graduate school at Northwestern University. Awards for the
academic year beginning each fall are determined within a
month of the application deadline, generally the previous
December or January, so it pays to start lobbying a year in
A request for financial aid won't be held against your admission,
says Peter Diffley, co-author of Paying for Graduate School
Without Going Broke (Princeton Review, $20) and an associate
dean of the graduate school at Notre Dame. Tell the school
if you'll be giving up a salary. The more the faculty wants
you, the more aid you'll get. For example, to lure Seth Parks,
31, from higher-ranked business schools, George Washington
University awarded him a 50% tuition waiver for an MBA.
Network. Seek out departments where you'd be a good
fit. In Freyer's case, an undergraduate professor hooked him
up with engineering faculty at Penn State.
A year before applying for grad school, Kerr e-mailed scholars
in religious studies whose research she respected to ask for
academic guidance. They pointed her to UCSB's professors,
who were impressed with her undergraduate record in anthropology
at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Spiff up your résumé. Graduate-school
admission is based on your undergraduate grade-point average,
the reputation of your undergraduate school, recommendations
and your specific research interests. If your GPA isn't as
high as you'd like, use your application to tout other strengths
-- field work, jobs, extra classes -- that might not appear
on your transcript.
Consider a PhD. Doctoral candidates have a better
shot at receiving free money, so go for a PhD rather than
a master's if that makes sense in your field. Most PhD programs
support their students for at least four years. "If they
really want you, a PhD is going to be free," says Diffley.
Also look into outside funding from a company or organization
that would benefit from your research. Rachel Johnson, who
will receive a master's degree in industrial engineering from
Arizona State University this spring, received a full-tuition
scholarship funded by Intel through Semiconductor Research
Corp. And that was just the beginning: Johnson, 24, also landed
an Intel internship that led to a job, and she plans to eventually
earn a PhD on the company's dime.