Graduate school is a massive time commitment; you’re in for about 5 years, give or take. If you’re familiar with the American education system, you know that the financial commitment to getting a Ph.D. is just as enormous. If you’re not aware of the costs of higher education in the US, I’ll let numbers speak for themselves.
State residents total: $31,524
Non-State residents total: $55,152
Ouch… For comparison, the average yearly salary in the USA is about $60,000 (if you are curious, find your country’s average here). When I first saw the tuition information on my I-20 (one of the main documents for international students on an F-1 visa), my jaw dropped. My education cost about $35,000 per year (+estimated $15,000 for living expenses). Coming from a BA program that I completed for free in a prestigious Russian university (which took a lot of work and commitment on my part but was possible due to the government sponsorship) and from a family that could barely afford to cover the flight from Russia to the US and the first month of living expenses, this number was beyond my comprehension.
Unless you or your family (a) have tons of money or (b) are fine with taking out massive loans, you want to carefully consider the funding situation in the programs of interest. University/program websites are a good starting point. They tend to indicate available types of funding but often don’t provide specific information about how many students actually get funded and in what amount (from my experience, getting funded in a Master’s program is extremely difficult; this post will focus on Ph.D. funding options). In my search of graduate programs, the availability of funding was one of the most important considerations.
Most of the programs I’ve seen offer 4 types of funding. Let’s take a look at each of them.
Teaching Assistantship (TA)
According to the AAUP report, in R1 universities (thatnis, universities with veyr high research activity) up to about 30% of graduate students are employed as TAs (see Figure 2 in the report). My graduate-level statistics labs were taught by TAs. One of my intro-level seminars was facilitated by a graduate TA (including grading and online discussion facilitation but not teaching per se). My undergraduate students told me about many classes in other departments that were taught by graduate TAs.
Sponsoring TAs is expensive because universities have to pay for students’ tuition plus a salary; yet, it is apparently a lot less expensive than paying tenured faculty (professors who have been with the university for a while and are basically protected from being fired except for very extreme circumstances).
Depending on the course and the policies of your university/program, TA responsibilities can include the following:
(1) Teaching a lab section (or two) of the undergraduate/graduate-level course (usually in STEM and statistics)
- The lecture class is covered by the main instructor.
- You will be provided with curricular materials to teach the lab on your own.
- You will do some, most or all of grading (including homework, quizzes, exams).
- You might have office hours to meet with students.
- You will communicate with students by sending out announcements, answering their emails and meeting with them.
- You might be in charge of maintaining the learning management system if it is used in the course.
- You might have meetings with other TAs and your instructor.
(2) Assisting the instructor with a graduate-level course
- You might be responsible for all “housekeeping” tasks, such as announcements, printing out materials, emailing invited speakers, grading, moderating online discussions…
- You probably won’t teach on your own.
I only saw this type of TA once in an intro-level graduate seminar in my first year which consisted of presentations given by invited speakers, so there wasn’t much to do there teaching-wise.
(3) Teaching a full course (usually two sections), online and/or in-person
- You might get a curriculum and detailed instructional materials or construct them from scratch.
- You will be responsible for every single aspect of the course (teaching, grading, communication, learning management system setup…).
- You might get more or less freedom in terms of how you teach and sometimes what you each.
- You are likely to have regular meetings with other TAs and/or TA coordinator.
I was teaching in this position for 3 years, and this was hands-down the best experience in my entire graduate career. I was lucky to have a lot of freedom and support from my coordinator, so I gained tons of experience in independent teaching. This, however, might be the most time-consuming position of all.
Important to know:
★ You will receive a salary that should be enough to cover your living expenses (mine was about $1,300).
★ TA is a considerable time-commitment; make sure you plan your coursework hours accordingly.
★ Most likely you will need to have a certain (pretty high) TOEFL/IELTS score to be eligible for a TA position since it requires a high level of speaking English.
★ If your TOEFL/IELTS score is not high enough, you might have to take a special course and pass an oral exam to be eligible for a TA position.
★ In my university, TA only covers Fall and Spring semesters but not Summer.
★ Your TA salary might be eligible for US retirement savings.
★ Some programs might have specific requirements of the minimal/maximum number of credit hours you can take while holding a TA position.
★ Most likely you will have to go through a couple of TA orientations at the start of each year if you are awarded the position.
★ The maximal official TA workload is 20 hours per week.
Research Assistantship (RA)
I have never held an RA so I can’t speak from personal experience. From what I know, the salary is similar to that of a TA position and the responsibilities include carrying out any type of research-related tasks. This position is usually sponsored from grants received by the program faculty. If you are research-oriented, this position will be a great fit and can help you start working on publications. It is also an easier position to get if you struggle with speaking English as not all tasks will be dependant on speaking.
To get this position, you need to work with various faculty members (or professors and centers outside of your program) and to show them that you can bring in strong skill sets that make you worth hiring from their grant funds. You might be assigned to work with one specific professor or help out multiple professors in the program.
Graduate Associateship (GA)
These positions are rare in my program. From what I’ve heard from my classmates, they hinge on administrative tasks (organizing events, supporting program development) and might include some research elements to it - depending on the program you are assisting with. I assume the salary is similar to that of the TA position.
My first year of school was funded through a fellowship, and I am currently funded with a different fellowship for my last year. Fellowships give you an opportunity to focus entirely on studying and research without having any other work responsibilities. They also tend to cover three consecutive semesters. Fellowships differ in the salary amounts (my current fellowship pays about $2000 a month while the first one was about $1300) but they should cover all tuition and sometimes other university fees. Getting this type of funding in the first year gave me unanticipated long-lasted benefits; my program had to provide funding for me in some form in the next 4 years, which meant that they couldn’t leave me there without any funding. I still had to have a strong application to get desired funding, but in case funds had been scarce I would have been given priority in getting funded. Such benefits are program-specific, so it’s a good idea to ask your adviser(s) about this.
You can get a fellowship from your university funds, from your department or program, or from an external source (such as an association in your field of study). Both of my fellowships were sponsored by my university funds; I also applied for The Spencer Foundation's Dissertation Fellowship but didn’t get it. Some fellowships are available only to students in the dissertation stage; some - only to students from certain ethnic or gender backgrounds; some only accept applications when students work on a specific topic relevant to the cause of that foundation.
Fellowships will give you the most freedom because you don’t have to work outside of your coursework and research. If you hole a pre-candidacy status (meaning, you haven’t passed your Candidacy exam yet), you might be required to take more credit hours if funded through a fellowship. My first fellowship required me to take 12 credit hours minimum as opposed to 8 hours when I was a TA.
That freedom is precisely why these positions are the most competitive among all. You will have to go through an extensive application process, and fellowships are few in number (ranging from 1-2 to 20-30 per university or a few hundred/thousand students). You will need to have very strong recommendation letters, research agenda and oftentimes support from your program/department chairs.
The fellowship I’m currently funded with is only available to students working on their dissertation. The application was focused on describing my dissertation study. I was able to independently submit an application to enter the competition. My first fellowship was aimed at sponsoring incoming students. You have to be nominated by your graduate program to enter the competition and have a decent Curricular Vitae (CV) and strong recommendations from the program faculty members to get it.
*Scholarships and awards
Scholarships and awards are generally smaller amounts of money that can range all the way from $500 to a couple of thousand dollars. They are one or two-time payments that can be spent in any way you see fit. Some awards are given for specific achievements (e. g., to winners of TA competitions), and some - based on the strength of your application in which you usually specify why you need this type of support and how it can help you with your goals. In my program, an application for all available scholarships is included in the application for yearly funding. I received three scholarships in the past 4 years. All were two-time payments, one in Fall and the other in Spring semester. They were a nice small addition to my salary.
*Travel funds, small dissertation grants, and other sources of funding
Depending on your program and department, you might have other sources of funding available. They won’t pay you a salary or cover tuition but they will prove useful when traveling for conferences or requesting small funds for research or dissertation work. For example, my program provides about $500 in funding for travel (you get reimbursed when you provide receipts for your travel expenses including flights, lodging, transportation and even food), and you can apply for these funds all year round. My program also has funds set aside for dissertation expenses (up to $1000).
This information might seem overwhelming but here’s the good news: your program/department most likely have this information available on their website and your adviser should know the ins-and-outs of funding in the program, so they will help. My program also sends out reminders and newsletters about important funding opportunities to keep us in the loop.
★ Skim all newsletters form your program/department/university and make a note of all available funding opportunities. You can create a spreadsheet where you put down their names, deadlines, and requirements.
★ Talk to your adviser or program coordinator about available funding. They might know about opportunities that are not advertised.
★ Put down all major deadlines for financial aid applications in your calendar and revise them when necessary. Even if the dates change a bit, you will know when the deadline is coming up. It’s too easy to forget about paperwork amid coursework and paper deadlines.
★ Apply for all funding you can. Even if your application is strong, you can never account for some factors such as internal department/program power and social dynamics.
If you are interested in the nitty-gritty of working as a TA or writing an application to receive a fellowship, stay tuned for more posts to come!