Mary Sun, grad student and recipient of the Sallie Mae Bridging the Dream for Graduate Students Scholarship, outlines the steps you need to take to pay for grad school, like filing the FAFSA, researching fellowships, and talking to your family.
Thinking of going to grad school? Congratulations! Graduate and professional school can serve as a catalyst for your career and your contributions to society. As an extension of your traditional education, grad school provides a platform for continued learning, growth, and discovery. This investment can have many benefits: career advancement, increased earning potential, additional industry and research expertise, and network expansion within your field.
Regardless of your rationale for making this step, a very serious and important question remains: how are you going to pay for it? I’m going to focus on the not-so-obvious steps – the moves you should consider making before adding numbers and signing loan documents.
1. Have a frank discussion with yourself.
Acknowledge that your financial stresses are real and accept that in order to take on a large investment like grad school, your lifestyle may need to change. Money has just as much of a mental impact as it does a practical one, and you should think early on about how the ways you spend, earn, and save money may need to change. For example:
- If you currently work, you may have to reduce your hours at work for part-time/online programs or quit altogether
- If you are applying locally, you may have to incur costs for transportation to class
- If you are applying out-of-state, you should think through relocation costs and feasibility (especially if you will be moving members of your family)
These changes can feel overwhelming, but remember that you’re not alone! Many people have overcome these challenges to further their education. A little adjusting now can lead to a great payoff later.
2. Next, have a talk to your family and/or partner.
This investment may affect more than just you. Aside from being open about how you’ll be spending your time (studying, studying, and more studying), you’ll want to discuss the amount you’re willing to finance in order to complete your degree. It’ll be helpful to share the projections of your future earnings, and walk through the interest of your loans (and how it works). There are very helpful loan calculators you can use to help illustrate your financial investment and understand what the impacts might be for you and your family .
3. Research grants and fellowships.
The financial landscape for graduate school, especially when it comes to financial aid, is vastly different than the one encountered in undergrad. There are many scholarships for college students and a wide variety of resources to help you find them. When it comes to grad or professional school, though, there are fewer opportunities to secure funding that vary by field, program, and even location. A few tips to get you started:
- Create a scholarship spreadsheet. This will help you keep track of the different scholarships that you’ve applied for, as well as their various requirements. Speaking of requirements, grad scholarships have a lot of them. They can be hyper specific to your industry, type of degree, geographic region, and specific university. However, there are some “unicorn” programs out there, though, that don’t require you fit a specific mold. For example, Sallie Mae’s Bridging the Dream Scholarship for Graduate Students is a $20,000 scholarship awarded to students in any field of study. (Full disclosure: I’m a winner myself!) There are also resources to help make the scholarship search a little easier. Be sure to carve out time to thoroughly explore all of your options.
- Unique to grad school, fellowships are short-term programs that may fund a portion of your studies and provide a stipend. Network with alumni to learn about internal fellowships offered by your school or department. You can also find some external fellowships from foundations, non-profits, corporations, or government agencies. Fellowships are highly competitive, so you’ll need to begin researching these opportunities as soon as you can. These programs are also significant commitments, so make sure you know exactly what’s required of you.
- If you are currently employed, you may be fortunate enough to have some of your tuition covered by your employer. While I was working for Microsoft, they graciously paid for my master’s in software engineering because the degree had obvious ties to my work. Your employer may have a program in place to sponsor all or part of a relevant degree, so be sure to investigate this prior to sourcing any other funding options. That said, make sure you understand how the program works: some employers require you stay with the company for a certain period of time after you’ve finished your degree.
4. File the FAFSA!
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) isn’t just for undergrads. And, since many students have been filing this form since their first year of college, it should be an easy process especially if you are no longer claimed as a dependent on your parents’ tax returns. Even if you don’t think you’ll qualify, file the FAFSA. You can use the results to talk to your school’s financial aid office about potential additional assistance.
5. Become familiar with your repayment options.
After you’ve filed the FAFSA and explored options that you don’t have to pay back (scholarships, fellowships, etc.), you may be considering federal student loans or private student loans. Before you decide to finance a portion of your education with federal or private loans for grad school, get to know various repayment plan options, especially those that are specific to your discipline. Investigate the different options based on the amount of interest and the repayment timeline. Also, look for programs that can help make repaying easier for you and/or offer loan forgiveness. For example, there are several federal and statewide programs that reward you for working in an underserved area by helping with your loan repayment. The availability of repayment resources has expanded in the last decade, so do your research to make sure you uncover all potential opportunities.
Regardless of how you intend to pay for grad school, start with a clear vision of how your lifestyle may change, talk to your loved ones about the investment you’re planning to make, and turn over every rock to find scholarships and fellowships before you start taking on loans. If you start with these tips, your path to (and through) grad school can be centered on what you’re setting out to achieve, instead of how you’re going to pay for it. Good luck on your new journey!