“Look at me. I’m a grad student. I’m thirty years-old and I made $600 last year,” taunts Bart in an episode of the long-running series “The Simpsons” while family matriarch Marge scolds him. “Don’t make fun of grad students. They just made a terrible life choice.” Like many things on “The Simpsons,” there is a subtle truth in this scathing bit of comedy, but it only tells one side of the story.
The perception seems to be that grad school means resigning oneself to being buried in student loans. “I didn’t even consider grants as an option,” says Nneka Obiekwe, a first year graduate student at Emory University’s School of Public Health in Atlanta, Georgia. “I got a minor scholarship and did the rest in loans.” While it is true that graduate students are more likely to be dependent on federal loans than undergraduate students—nearly twice as likely, according to an October, 2012 article in The Washington Post—there are many grants available out there for students considering post-graduate education.
The first step is to plan early. Giving yourself as much time as possible (at least one year) between deciding to go to grad school and applying leaves you more time to research grants and other options applicable to your field of study. The next step is filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which determines eligibility for grants, scholarships and the dreaded aforementioned student loans. While grants (such as the Pell Grant) are more likely to be awarded to undergraduate students, this is still a necessary graduate students seeking financial aid.
Another way to research is to look for grants that are as specifically tailored to your situation as possible. Many grants are designed to assist those who are underrepresented—women and minorities, for instance—in a given field of study. The ACHE Albert W. Dent Graduate Student Scholarship awards funds annually to minority students studying in the healthcare field. The Women in Film Foundation awards many grants to female graduate film students. It is important to find your niche, both demographically and academically. The more specific your search, the fewer applicants and therefore the greater your chances.
One must not be afraid to get creative when looking for funds. If you’re already an established professional in your field, your employer may be willing to fund part of your graduate education. Also, working for your school, either as a researcher or assistant professor is an excellent way to subsidize part of your graduate education. Ben Cohen, a 2011 graduate of Georgia State University’s Graduate Film Studies Program worked as an adjunct professor, teaching introductory film classes to undergraduate freshmen. For Ben, this had several benefits.
Firstly, it cut the yearly tuition for his program—over $30, 000—nearly in half and reduced the amount he had to take out in loans. Secondly, it gave him teaching experience at the college level which he will always be able to use on his resume. “I think a lot of people assume that you can just graduate with a Masters and go teach college or even high school and that’s just not the case.” Ben states when talking about his degree. “It’s possible, certainly, but if you have that experience as a professor, even a graduate assistant, it helps so much with your job prospects. And if they’re paying you to do so, it’s that much better.”
Ben highlights something key that a lot of people neglect, which is making your educational experience, even grad school work for you. Even if your research yields no results, there’s nothing wrong with calling the school and asking what they can do for you. “Graduate programs are more selective than undergraduate programs,” says Niklas Vollmer, a film professor at Georgia State University. “When you are accepted, that means they want you. But it also means that it’s time to advocate for yourself. Find out what the school is willing to do for you to make it as easy as possible for you to attend.” Pedro Bermudez, a recent graduate of the American Film Institute Conservatory’s graduate directing program certainly heeded this advice.
When his financial situation put his ability to return to AFI for his final year of studies in jeopardy, Pedro took initiative and approached the school’s faculty. Because of his talent and the small program (only twenty eight students), AFI offered Pedro a grant that funded much of his second year education (tuition at AFI is upwards of $70 000 per year).
Along the same vein, applying for as many similarly disciplined graduate programs as possible, without overextending yourself, is an excellent tactic for garnering grants and scholarships. If accepted to more than one program, you may find yourself being courted. On a more personal note, my sister, Kisha Scarlett was accepted into both Emory University and Morehouse College’s doctoral pharmacy program, which are programs that fast-track qualified students with undergraduate degrees directly to doctorates.
Because of her credentials, both institutions wanted her as a student and she was able to leverage a great scholarship package. She ended up choosing Morehouse and will graduate with no grad school debt and extensive experience as a research assistant. “Grad school is always a bit of a risk,” she says when looking back at her experience. “But, if you’re smart about it, especially in the science field, you shouldn’t be paying for a cent of it.”
While not a method that directly pays for your graduate education up front, there are some programs that offer student loan forgiveness after graduation. For instance, students getting their graduate teaching degrees, there are programs, such as Teach for America or other federal programs which will forgive part or all of your student loans. There are requirements for these programs (they usually require you to have no undergraduate student loans), but they are certainly worth looking into for any graduate student looking to continue education.
Though a seemingly daunting notion, applying for graduate school and finding grants is not impossible. With a little research, planning and patience, graduate school need not necessarily become a debt sentence.