Free Money for Grad School

By Elizabeth Kountze

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 the total.

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 fellowship.

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 or

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 assistants.

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 cash.

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 advance.

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.