If you are planning to apply to graduate school, you may have already started to investigate the options available to fund your studies. Graduate school tuition and fees can be crippling—and coupled with the fact that you may need to take time off from full-time work, it might be looking like a financial impossibility. There are several ways to finance your studies through fellowships and scholarships. However, navigating these options can be confusing. We’re here to help! Here’s what you need to know about graduate school funding.
Fellowships vs. Scholarships
Funding for graduate study at the master’s or doctoral level is typically called a “fellowship”, not a scholarship. But unlike a scholarship for tuition offered at the undergraduate level, a graduate fellowship may fund your graduate school tuition and provide you a stipend for living expenses. Graduate fellowship funding is more commonly offered to doctoral students, and less commonly offered to master’s students. (For more on this, see “Master’s or PhD? My Advice – Follow the Funding“).
Internal vs. External Fellowships
There are two types of graduate fellowships that can be used to fund your tuition: internal and external. Internally, graduate schools sometimes offer full or partial merit-based fellowships to the top applicants. An example is the Roy H. Park Leadership Fellows Program for top MBA students at Cornell University. Internal fellowships are sponsored by the school or department and sometimes are not openly advertised. You may have to submit an additional application component or apply to the graduate program early to be considered for these awards. Sometimes there is no additional application and all candidates are considered. The department may also offer needs-based tuition scholarships to some portion of applicants, but this is rare at the graduate level. To find information about the university department’s merit and needs-based internal funding opportunities, check the department’s website for prospective applicants.
There are also several external graduate fellowships offered by foundations, non-profits, companies and government agencies to fund a master’s or doctoral degree. We list many of these opportunities in the ProFellow database. Some examples include the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans, the Frédéric Bastiat Fellowship, and the AAUW American Dissertation Fellowships.
You can find awards like these in the free ProFellow fellowships database. Under Fellowship Type, select “Graduate study” and/or “Doctoral study” to return graduate school fellowships. You can further filter by Discipline(s), Location and Citizenship Eligibility.
It is worth seeking out a combination of internal and external funding sources to increase your chances of securing the needed amount of financing. However, there are some important things to know about both internal and external graduate school fellowships and funding sources.
Graduate fellowships have early deadlines.
Both internal and external graduate fellowship deadlines typically fall between October and February and fund the following academic year. This means you need to apply to them at the same time you are applying to graduate schools. Sometimes prospective applicants make the mistake of looking into funding opportunities after they have completed and submitted all of their graduate school applications – this is too late! Begin your research on graduate school fellowships now so you don’t miss these critical deadlines.
Most external graduate fellowships fund only one year of study or dissertation research.
When searching for the best fellowship to suit your needs, be sure to consider how many years of funding the fellowship offers. If it is only applicable for one academic year and you have a five-year PhD or even a two-year master’s program to finance, you could find yourself scrambling to make up the funding deficit. Having said that, getting at least your first year of academic study funded can be helpful in securing funding for the following years from both internal and external sources. Speak to past fellowship recipients to see if they were able to access extensions or different funding sources after their first year of funding.
It’s also important to know that there are very few external fellowships to fund the first two years of a doctoral program (called the “predoctoral” period), when you are only engaged in coursework. External doctoral fellowships typically fund dissertation research that happens in your third, fourth or final year of your doctoral program. The foundations and organizations that fund these fellowships are seeking to support specific topics of research. This is another reason to research fellowships early so you can identify which dissertation topics would be of interest to external funding bodies.
There is more competition for external graduate fellowships.
If you are applying for an internal fellowship offered by a specific university, you are competing with a relatively small pool of applicants. Recipients of the internal fellowships will be selected from the small group of candidates that are offered a spot in the graduate program.
External fellowships, on the other hand, draw from a much larger crowd. Opportunities like the NSF Graduate Fellowships will have you competing with candidates from hundreds of universities, in various departments. This is no reason to steer away from applying to external fellowships, but external fellowships should not be your sole strategy for financing graduate school.
Assistantships are a primary source of graduate school funding.
Graduate Research Assistantships and Graduate Teaching Assistantships are part-time research and teaching positions at universities that are offered to graduate students. Assistantships offer a stipend and in many cases, tuition remission. In some cases, these positions also offer other benefits like health insurance, housing and professional development funding. If you receive “full funding” from your university, it often is in the form of an Assistantship, which will provide a stipend of $10K – $45K per year, depending on how many hours you work. Although working part-time may sound challenging with a full-time academic schedule, often the Assistantships provide important research and teaching experience that is complementary to your studies.
Many prospective graduate students are unaware of Assistantships and miss this important opportunity for graduate funding! Because of this, some prospective applicants assume that a part-time or online program is more financially viable. However…
Students in part-time and online graduate programs are often not eligible for Assistantships and fellowships.
Universities tend to invest graduate student funding in full-time, on-campus students. Part-time and online programs that are geared toward working professionals often serve as a source of revenue for the university, and therefore, students in these programs typically are not offered scholarships, fellowships or Assistantships. They are also less likely to be eligible for external fellowships. Therefore, it may be more affordable to attend graduate school full-time so that you can be eligible for these sources of internal university funding.
The vast majority of graduate school funding is from internal university sources.
Very few graduate students are able to win external fellowships to fully fund their master’s or doctoral study. Therefore, it is recommended that you apply to universities that offer full funding and Assistantships to all or a good portion of accepted students, particularly if you are pursuing a PhD (see lists of universities that do so here – note, these lists are not exhaustive!). This entails doing as much research as you can into what universities have to offer. Information on the university’s website about financial aid and fellowships may be limited, so reach out to the department directly by phone or email. While speaking with staff and current students, find out how you can set up your graduate school application to be a competitive candidate. In addition to this, consider looking at smaller or lesser-known schools. You will find yourself competing with far fewer candidates for outstanding funding opportunities.
If you are already enrolled in a graduate program that you are paying for out of pocket, the first thing you should do is look into Assistantships. Sometimes you may be able to negotiate an Assistantship position that does not yet exist if your department has discretionary funding. This is where a little “hustle” can helpful! Also look into the deadlines and requirements for the external fellowships that may fund your studies the following year or later.
There is a vast array of opportunity available for graduate school funding. The trick is knowing where to find it, when to apply, and how to give yourself a competitive edge. Good luck!
© Victoria Johnson 2018, all rights reserved.