Jul 2, 2022

Funding your graduate school experience- assistantships, fellowships, scholarships or loans


Overview: This post focuses helping you understand how graduate students typically fund their graduate studies.  Students typically see a shift in their financial resources between undergraduate and graduate schools.  In addition, it is becoming more common for graduate students to be supported by a variety of sources during their doctoral degrees.  Often, students will have a combination of teaching and research assistantships over those 4-5 years. 


Post Contributor(s): Marian Kennedy



Money is not something we like to talk about. 

Photo by FLY:D on Unsplash

However, not learning about how graduate students fund their studies can lead some undergraduate students to never even start the graduate application process, to end their application process early to pursue an alternative career path or lead some students to not negotiate successfully for the financial support they need to be successful in graduate school.  The financial resources available to students often change significantly between undergraduate and graduate school.  For example, it is much more common for undergraduate students to receive some type of financial support from their family than it is for graduate students. 


All undergraduates who are interested in attending a graduate program should begin by identifying the cost of attendance (COA) for the institution offering their intended degree. This information should be available on the institutional website, and it includes tuition, fees, housing transportation, etc.  Make sure to pull the COA for the graduate program as the COA for the undergraduate program is typically going to be easier to find.


So, your eyes may pop when look at the first COA for a program you’re interested in. Scrutinize the line items because other than tuition and fees they are estimates. These estimates may not reflect your specific lifestyle.  For example, you might buy used textbooks instead of new for your classes.  In addition, graduate students typically work while attending graduate school and this position can provide a stipend and tuition assistance.   Here are some common assistantships or fellowships for science and engineering graduate students and some and key facts about each:

·       Teaching or Grading Assistantship: 

  • Institutions/ departments select graduate students to participate in the education of undergraduates and their duties range from grading to facilitating classes to even teaching the courses that they have the credentials for.  
  • Graduate students who are provided full-time assistantships (20 hours/week) are referred to as Teaching Assistants (TAs) while those with partial support (10 hours/week) are referred to as Grading Assistants (TAs). 
  • These students typically receive a stipend and either reduced (for GAs) or covered tuition (for TAs). 
  • The primary instructor of the course is not normally the graduate student’s research advisor and selection is typically done by the department chair or graduate student committee. 

·       Research Assistantship:

  • Individual faculty members apply for research funding from a range of agencies and non-profits. 
  • Research Assistants are graduate students paid to work on these funded research projects for a total of 20 hours per week. 
  • Grants run approximately 2-3 years and students often switch between projects during while attending their graduate program.
  • Typically you will work on projects where the principle investigator of the grant is your dissertation or thesis advisor. 
  • These students typically receive a stipend, and their tuition is covered. 


·       Research Fellowships:

  • Fellowships are not tied to specific research projects or an institution. Instead, these are typically awarded by an external organization to a student.   
  • Example of a fellowship would include the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships (NSF GRF) or the
  • Typically, fellowships provide a stipend for the graduate student in addition to covering tuition. These stipends are typically higher than those for TAs, GAs or RAs.
  • Undergraduates and graduate students interested in being supported with a fellowship will need to apply directly to funding agencies either while applying to graduate programs or during their first or second year in graduate school. 


·       Scholarships:

  • A grant or payment made to support a student’s education.  They are often awarded based on academic or other achievement. 
  • Most departments/universities only have a few scholarships for graduate students and a small percentage of graduate cohorts receive scholarships while in STEM graduate programs. 
  • Some scholarships are need-based and require that the graduate students fill out a FAFSA to qualify. 


·       Loans: 


·       Miscellaneous:

  • The length provided by each type of funding source varies and many students use a combination of these sources to fund their program.  For example, students might be supported as both an RA and TA during the duration of their PhD studies or a TA/fellowship. 
  • Instead of working for their department, graduate students can work at other centers on campus.  For example, engineering students within the Clemson University Research Foundation (CURF) Tech Transfer Office can work as interns.  These positions allow these engineering graduate students to spend 20 hours a week within the research office learning about patents and marketing.  The remaining time is spent with their research advisors. 
  • Occasionally, graduate students are also offered tutor positions for certain organizations or the university.
  • With the approval of their advisor, graduate students can obtain an industrial or government research internship at another location.  Although most students would not be working on their own research (some do), such internships allow graduate students to better understand what it is like to work on a research team in industry or a national laboratory.  An example of programs for graduate students offered at Oak Ridge National Laboratory can be found here.


Acknowledgements:  This blog post was edited by Kate Epstein of EpsteinWords.  She specializes in editing and coaching for academics, and she can be reached at epsteinwords at gmail.com.


Revised on August 11th, 2022.