Paying for grad school: scholarships, fellowships, and financial aid

Grad school: Is it right for you? And how can you find financial aid?

Joshua Yang, grad student and Sallie Mae Bridging the Dream for Graduate Student Scholarship recipient, gives tips on paying for grad school, using tools like scholarships, fellowships, and even the financial aid office.

I had always dreamed of being at the frontiers of medicine and science, advancing innovation both at the bedside and bench side. I earned my way to a fully funded MD-PhD position at the Johns Hopkins University. I was on a path to make my dreams happen, and even better – I didn’t have to think about how to pay for it. What more could I have wanted?

Yet, sitting in lecture halls listening to why X therapeutic works best for Y disease, I wondered if I was in the right place. While I strongly believe in the value of practicing medicine, my experiences in healthcare entrepreneurship showed me that I would rather lead and spark innovation than practice as a pure clinician. Was this fully funded program even the right path for me? Suddenly, a lesson from a former business class popped into my head: pivots are essential for long-term success. To gain credibility in the biotechnology space and to be a future leader in healthcare, I knew that I needed to complete an MBA. It was time for my pivot. But at what cost?

After some serious research on my options, including how to pay for grad school myself, I decided to enroll in Stanford’s business school. It’s a decision I’m supremely happy with, but it took countless hours to discover what financial resources would be available.

To help other students considering grad school (or their own pivot), here’s what I learned about paying for grad school:

Consider your motivations

First, I strongly believe that if you determine grad school is a necessary step to achieve your dream career path or life path, then you should pursue it – even if you’re unsure about how to pay for it. There are so many resources available to you. If you have serious intent and rational motivations for grad school, apply. This is really the first and most important step you’ll take.

Seek aid from your school

A lot of graduate schools offer institutional financial aid that is merit- or need-based. They may also have their own loan resources or partnerships with external scholarship providers. You can lean on the financial aid or career offices at your school to find opportunities that will help reduce your tuition, including becoming a teaching assistant or RA, or signing up for a work-study job (if you’re eligible). Start with your school’s financial aid office, and you’ll have a solid plan (and to-do list) to source the necessary aid.

Apply for fellowships

Graduate fellowships are highly beneficial, and competitive, programs that offer a monetary stipend (and in some cases, benefits like housing or healthcare) awarded to graduate or doctoral students. In exchange for the stipend, which usually helps cover tuition, students are required to study a specific topic, complete some sort of work, or conduct research.

Some schools will offer fellowships, and you can check online databases or even online job boards for external programs. After you’ve found a suitable fellowship, make sure your application stands out from the rest. You’ll need to rely on more than your undergraduate transcript or work experience to help you stand out. Take time to craft a meaningful and compelling story, about your journey or your aspirations, for example. Be sure to include how you think the fellowship will help you reach your goals.

Find scholarships tailored to you

Just like with undergrad, there are lots of scholarships for grad school. The difference? Many graduate school scholarships have unique eligibility requirements. The good news is that the more unique the scholarship requirements, the smaller the pool of applicants.

Knowing how to search for these opportunities is important. Before you begin your scholarship search, think about what makes you unique: if you’re a Girl Scout from California who wants to study beetles, for example, you’ve got three scholarships to start searching for.

Next, search for scholarships related to the field of study you’re interested in. Do you want to study architecture, biology, medicine, fine arts? Search for a society website related to that type of field. From there, you may find scholarships related specifically to your interests and aspirations.

Then look for general scholarships

While more difficult to find, there are general scholarship opportunities unrelated to a specific field of interest or school, too. For example, check out Sallie Mae’s Bridging the Dream Scholarship for Graduate Students. This one awards graduate students who creatively tell their story a $10,000 scholarship. (Surprise! I’m a former recipient!)

Enter to win $2,000 for college

  • A new winner is drawn each month.
  • NO essay!
  • Takes less than 2 minutes to enter.

No purchase necessary. Void where prohibited. Odds of winning depend on number of entries received. Ends 12/31/2024. 
See Official Rules.

Reflecting on my path to grad school, and my decision to pivot, I asked a mentor of mine about the difficulties of predicting determining the trajectory of one’s career. Her response continues to resonate with me: "In this time of your life, do what you are really passionate about. It tends to put you in a direction that will open other doors later."

If you’re passionate about continuing your education, don’t let the thought of paying for it be what stops you. You can work directly with the school to identify financial aid opportunities, and who knows, maybe even win a huge scholarship or two. Apply for grad school, and doors may open for you, too.

footnote Sallie Mae does not provide, and these materials are not meant to convey financial, tax, or legal advice. We make no claims about the accuracy or adequacy of this information. These materials may not reflect our view or endorsement. Consult your own financial advisor, tax advisor, or attorney about your specific circumstances. Reproduction without explicit permission is prohibited.

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