The Debt-Free Doctoral Route
Getting through graduate studies debt-free is both tougher and easier than getting an undergraduate graduation. Once you have a Master’s Degree, getting a Ph.D. debt-free isn’t hard at all. It’s getting that first graduate degree which might cost you money.
Cost for tuition at the graduate level is roughly the same for undergraduate studies – $6,000 – $12,000 per year in public institutions and up to $60,000 per year in private institutions. The problem with financing your graduate studies at the master’s level is that, unlike the undergraduate level, there are almost no opportunities for financial aid. You might be lucky and land a private scholarship from a big corporation or another private source of income, but the number of these is fairly small. In all likelihood, if you don’t have any money saved up, you will have to work to pay for your studies. If you can get a job related to your area of study it will help your resume for the next stage of your studies. Another option you have is to get your first graduate degree abroad. Several countries in Europe have programs where exchange students pay tuition at their national rate, which is often $500 per semester at most. The other option is to go to a reputable university in a place like Puerto Rico, where graduate tuition is $100 for graduate credit, which comes out to about $1,500 per semester. Of course, for you to do this you must have some savings and be willing to take risks. Most of us, I think, should find the lowest cost local institution that grants graduate degrees – that way you will be able to drive to work and school. As you do this, remember that graduate studies are far more rigorous than undergraduate studies, so never take more than 9 credits at a time.
If you manage to go through your master’s degree without any debt, completing your Ph.D. without any debt will be a piece of cake. You can use the same strategy that you followed for your first graduate degree, but it might be smarter to dedicate yourself to the Ph.D. completely. Most universities offer teaching and research assistantships to doctoral students. These programs offer different levels of compensation, but most of them offer doctoral students a full tuition reimbursement (meaning you won’t have to pay any tuition) and a stipend that ranges between $15,000 and $30,000. In exchange, doctoral students have to teach a number of courses or help university researchers with their investigations 20 hours a week. Make sure that when you reach this level you find a competitive offer, and relocate if you need to. This is the moment for you to apply to major flagship universities – UT Austin, UW Madison, UC Berkley / LA, or Purdue would make good choices. These universities offer the best stipends, but they also require the most labor from their doctoral students. Furthermore, they also require students to take several pre-requisite courses before starting to take credit courses. If you’re not inclined to spending 7 to 10 years working on your Ph.D., you might want to apply to emergent research institutions. These universities have solid reputations and are often on the list of Tier 1 institutions. These institutions sometimes will not force you to take pre-requisite courses if you can demonstrate competency on the required skills.
If you are accepted into one of the doctoral programs with competitive stipends you might need to relocate – do not hesitate. Remember that once you start your studies you will need to regard your doctoral studies as your full time work. You will literally be getting paid to work and study for the university. If you do this, you will spend anywhere between 5 to 10 years working on your doctoral degree. When you finish your doctoral degree you will likely be poor and unemployed, but you will also be part of a group of rising authorities in your field. You will be able to find a job in industry, research, or teaching. Furthermore, you will have gone through an amazing experience for networking and personal, as well as professional, growth.
Also, you’ll be able to call yourself “doctor” and have the ability to brag about how you became an authority in your field without having to spend money.
TIP: Unless you are a working professional with a large savings account, you will want to avoid for-profit institutions – not because they are “bad” institutions, but because of the cost. As I said in a previous post, I know many professors from reputable institutions in various states who also teach in for-profit institutions. However, if you’re not willing to pay over $50,000 a year for the convenience of completing your graduate studies at your own pace – and I guess most of you are not – you will want to follow the tips I’ve presented.