The cost of graduate education dissuades many students from pursuing advanced degrees. Earning a graduate degree can be expensive! After all, higher education is an investment, and therefore deserves careful consideration before signing on any dotted line. As you research potential programs, it is important to consider both the cost of your education as well as the potential future earnings associated with completing that specific program.
Funding can be categorized in three ways:
- Grants and fellowships based on merit or income that do not have to be repaid.
- Assistantships (teaching and research) which often require work or research commitments.
- Loans or out of pocket payments that have to be repaid with interest or require maintaining employment in addition to your coursework.
Ideally, students will work to secure funding through scholarships or assistantships related to their career goals. Depending on the type of program and funding available, most students have to make a financial investment toward their own education. It is important to note that many of the income-based federal and state grants that may have been available to you for undergraduate studies are not offered to graduate students (e.g., PELL, TAG grants), although federal subsidized and unsubsidized loans may still be available to you. Below are detailed descriptions of the various forms of aid, as well as potential resources to find additional funding.
Types of Financial Awards
Fellowships are merit-based, non-service scholarship awards (scholarship is the term for undergrads; fellowship for graduate students). Customarily, this includes health insurance and full cost of tuition. Fellowships can be endowed through a competitive national award (e.g. National Science Foundation Fellowship), a university award, or a departmental award. Fellowships are usually accompanied by certain stipulations (e.g. fellows cannot receive more than 25% of their assistance in other support without penalty, maintain a minimum GPA, etc.). Terms vary based on the type of award received, individual university policies regarding scholarship, and between departments. If you are offered a fellowship, it is highly recommended that you contact the grantor for more information about any potential compulsory stipulations.
Teaching Assistantships (T.A.)
Teaching assistantships may be available in the form of either part-time or full-time opportunities. A part time teaching assistantship may involve grading papers and providing support to undergraduate students in the form of tutoring or proofreading assignments, with a relatively low per semester compensation. A full time assistantship, primarily in a Ph.D. program, may require that you lecture and grade coursework for an introductory level course. Full time assistantships such as these will likely include a larger stipend and medical coverage, but may also include a clause forbidding you from maintaining outside employment.
Be sure that if you are selected for an assistantship that you are fully aware of the expectations and requirements, and understand that the work you perform will be a valuable addition to your C.V.
Funding from Advisor Research Grants
If you are fortunate enough to work for a professor who has a large amount of grant funding, s/he may be able to pay you to perform tasks associated with the lab from that grant money. This typically only occurs after you have been a productive research assistant for some time and have proven yourself to be worth the investment. This is by no means the standard, and simply because an advisor has grant funding (unless it is an exceptionally large grant) it is not typically offered to offset graduate tuition. The decision to provide this funding option to graduate students is solely up to the discretion of the Principal Investigator(s) of the study for which the grant was intended to fund.
If an advisor has the means, and wishes to bestow this opportunity on an outstanding student, it should be considered a gift for which required work will be performed. It is important to recognize that the Principal Investigator(s) of a grant-funded study has multiple other costs that must be accounted for (e.g., expensive lab equipment, recruitment materials, participant compensation, etc.) and funding graduate students may be in excess of the awarded amount. In addition, a grant is not readily handed out by organizations and is extremely competitive to acquire. If a professor is awarded a substantial grant, it is a direct result of the hard work s/he put into writing the grant proposal, and it goes without saying that s/he retains the right to utilize the monies associated with that grant for the purposes of furthering research. Nonetheless, this is an option and many generous advisors do compensate experienced graduate students for work performed on research made possible through their own grant funding. If your advisor does not have such funding, you may consider other faculty or labs on your campus, even in separate departments related to your area of research interest (e.g. a medical school funding a health psychology study, or a business school funding a study of workplace performance).
Student grants can be found through the McNair Scholarship, National Institutes of Health (NIH), NSF, Psi Chi, The International Honors Society in Psychology, and other and private organizations, but they are extremely competitive. A comprehensive list of grants available to fund graduate studies can be located on the McNair Scholars website found here: https://mcnairscholars.com/funding/ or on Psi Chi’s graduate grant web page at https://www.psichi.org/?page=2_graduate_main.
Although grant funding for graduate studies is very limited, many graduate students miss out on the opportunity because they simply do not apply for them. As the old saying goes, “How will you ever know unless you try?” If you are passionate about the research that you wish to perform, you have a sound methodological plan, and the writing skills to put together a proposal for a grant, you should definitely seek out these opportunities. Be sure to ask your advisor if s/he is willing to review your documents and write a letter of recommendation.
Graduate student recipients of grants are highly sought after due to the fact that such prominent financial awards are viewed as very prestigious. Graduate acceptance committees base decisions at least partly on how much funding is available to draw the most qualified graduate students to a given program, and if you have acquired your own funding, it may open up the opportunity for the department to make room for you in their program. Plus, your grant funding for a university-affiliated research project at their institution makes them look good, too!
Most grant opportunities for graduate students are nominal, and are intended to assist you with funds to travel to conferences or pay for some part of your graduate student research. Most universities offer grant funding for these expenses to their students, and additional opportunities can be found through professional organizations that you may be affiliated with such as the American Psychological Association (APA) or the Association for Psychological Science (APS). It is helpful to join the divisions associated with your discipline(s) and special interest groups that may send out emails to members about upcoming deadlines for grant submissions.
More substantial grants are available, and may even offer enough funding to pay tuition to a university. If you are one of the lucky chosen few to receive a sizable grant to fund your graduate research, you may be able to attend a choice school, as long as you: 1) meet the general application requirements (GPA, GRE scores, good letters of recommendation, etc.); 2) seek out an advisor who will agree to oversee your work; and 3) you secure documentation of grant approval. It is important to note that this presents an extremely rare opportunity, and only a very small percentage of graduate students actually receive “full-ride” grant funding, and it is even rarer that such funding would cover an entire Ph.D. program. In addition, there is a distinction between having a good enough research proposal to receive a grant of this magnitude, and students who wish to pay for acceptance out of their own pocket. The research that you intend to perform with the grant money is the deciding factor, and not your ability to independently pay your tuition in a PhD program.
Includes all tuition fees associated with a graduate degree, but typically does not include the cost of student fees, parking, lab fees, etc. Individual universities vary in their tuition waiver policies. Most tuition waivers are awarded by merit and generally reserved for PhD candidates only.
Typical Funding Methods based on Degree Level/Type
Master’s degree (M.A./M.S) or Equivalent
- Limited fellowships may be available from the institution/department for which you apply. The amount of funding often is based on a combination of a high GPA, GRE scores and timeliness of your application submission.
- Most master’s level students are funded by graduate student subsidized and unsubsidized loans, or paid for out of pocket.
- Full-time and part-time teaching or research assistantships are typically available on a competitive basis.
PsyD., EdD. or Equivalent
- Mainly funded by graduate student subsidized and unsubsidized loans, or paid for out of pocket.
- Full-time and part-time teaching assistantships may be available.
Doctoral degree (PhD)
- Typically includes financial aid package with tuition waiver, paid teaching assistantship/research assistantship (approximately $10-25k/ yr.) or a fellowship (for which work is not required) and health insurance. The financial aid provided should be enough to cover the costs associated with the amount of time it takes the average PhD student to fulfill graduation requirements (approx.. 4-5 years). Should you find that you will require additional time to complete your requirements, you may have to secure alternative funding. Many programs also offer summer funding in addition to semester-based awards.