The summer before my freshmen year in college I worked as an intern at an engineering firm and got paid $9.50 an hour. By the time this money made it into my bank account, 20% had been taken out for taxes and the rest went straight to my bills for school. After an entire summer of part-time work, my take home was less than $2,000. Maybe even closer to $1000. Sure, I got some money back from tax returns, but it wasn’t cash that was available for school immediately.
That same summer/spring semester, I applied to 10 scholarships. Now, I won’t sugarcoat this – I was 3rd in my high school class of 650+ students and was involved in just about every club the school offered. I also put a considerable amount of work into these scholarships, and I don’t have any clout whatsoever. I had to write personal statements, essays, and gather recommendation letters. These scholarships aren’t given out to anyone who applies, but the competition was probably as fierce (if not less so) than getting one of those coveted spots in a funded PhD program. I ended up receiving 6 out of the 10 scholarships, amounting to $17,500. I applied to everything I was possibly eligible for, including a scholarship offered by a local Buddhist temple (for the record, I’m not Buddhist, but I’m very open to exploring the viewpoints of other religions).
Before I ever applied to graduate school, I had amassed over $40,000 in independent scholarships. The best part was that it wasn’t even taxable. I don’t relay this story to boast, because not many people would find my situation enviable since I am still in considerable debt and will not be able to pay it off until after my 5-7 year graduate program. And that’s if I get a job right after I graduate. I honestly would have been better off if my parents had paid for all of my undergraduate degree and I hadn’t earned a cent of scholarship.
I relay this because I have, in a large part, already put myself through the financial game of graduate school. I know how to search for the most obscure scholarships and I know how to market myself in order to get them. Since I was in charge of my scholarship money (my parents didn’t give me a monthly allowance to pay my bills), I had to budget that money to get myself through each year of undergrad, not knowing how much money I would have for the next year. It’s a lot like being a starving artist begging high-end clients to buy into your highly abstract work. Only your a student peddling your academic prowess for funding.
It’s no wonder there’s so many articles/blogs/etc. out there discouraging people from going to graduate school. Being a money scrounger is not a life of luxury, and you take a considerable risk in order to get any future pay-off. Many students will enter graduate school after years of living off their parents money, or even after years of holding a full time job and suddenly realize what it is like to be living off a stipend or fellowship. It’s a completely different experience than doing your 9 to 5 work and getting a pay check bi-monthly.
If you ask yourself one thing before you go to graduate school, it should be this: can you live with the cost of graduate school?
The cost will be years of lost earning potential, possibly going into debt for expenses your stipends can’t cover, not receiving pay for all the work you put in, not being able to leave your work at the office, and not having a lot of choice about where you live and the degree of luxury in which you live.
For better or for worse, the admissions committees will more or less decide for your whether you have the academic credentials to go to graduate school. Many schools, however, will leave the financial decision up to you by offering you funding, not offering you funding, or offering you mediocre funding. Do your reading, but really consider this above all else. Is the cost worth the rewards for you (and not for Grad Student John Smith who is writing an opinion article about it)?