The Terrors of Graduate School Funding
Arguably one of the most stress-inducing things about applying for graduate school is securing funding. I have read instances about students having to turn down their dream school because they didn't have the money. One year at the University of Oxford will run me between $20,442 (considered a UK student) and $27,581 (considered an overseas student) for just tuition and college fees. These amounts are assuming that the exchange rate stays where it is. Housing, food, transportation, and the cost of my research will cost another $14,000 to $20,000. The prospect of securing roughly $40,000 for just one year of graduate school is daunting and so I began my search for funding when I first decided that I would apply to UK graduate schools, almost a year ago. I have since learned a great deal about different funding options. Before I continue, I will say that I am both an English and American citizen, have lived in the US for the past 18 years, and will be pursuing a MSc, and later a DPhil, in the UK. This means that my situation may be radically different from yours. There may be more or fewer options for funding for you based on where you live, where you want to attend school, who you are, and your desired program. Whatever your situation is, I'm sure some of the following information will be useful.
Organizing Your Opportunities
Before I begin writing about the different types of funding available, I want to stress the importance of organizing all of this information. When I first looked at different funding methods, I created a spreadsheet. Mine currently looks like the one above, and has different tabs for when I can apply (before acceptance, after acceptance, once research proposal is written). But it didn't always look that way. I learned to include deadlines and what was needed for each application because I missed two deadlines for incredible scholarships which would have provided me with a full ride. I assumed that the deadlines for these massive scholarships would be similar to graduate school deadlines, but that wasn't the case. I checked on these deadlines just before I left on a five week trip to Europe. It turns out that both deadlines were while I was away, leaving me no time to secure letters of recommendation or write personal statements. The second reason to organize funding opportunities is to plan when to apply. Some scholarships and grants are to pay for tuition costs. These may require you to submit evidence that you have been accepted to a course while others allow you to apply with just the intention on attending. Scholarships for research usually require your research proposal, including what you will use the money for. It is important to group grants and scholarships into categories for when you are eligible to apply so you don't miss deadlines.
Scholarships come from a variety of sources. The first place to look for scholarships is through your desired universities. The University of Oxford, for example, has a ton of scholarships for students from all different backgrounds. The University offers full scholarships in partner with the Clarendon fund. Oxford colleges also offer scholarships to cover living costs. Many of these scholarships do not require an additional application, while some only require you to check a box on the course application (take it from me, remember to quadruple check your application before submitting it to make sure you checked those boxes otherwise you may feel the sharp sting of regret once you realize you will no longer be eligible for another chance at a full ride scholarship because you accidentally missed checking that one important box). Your department may offer funding, too. Sometimes, you must email the department directly and ask about possible funding options as there may not be an official application. This should be done at the time you apply to the university.
There are, of course, many different outside scholarships. Eligibility ranges from your ethnicity or your academic ability to how well you can write 300 words on a goofy topic. I first began my search for specific scholarships by typing into Google all sorts of different combinations such as "scholarships for women" or "scholarships for vegetarians." You'll find some opportunities this way, but I found the best way to search for scholarships was to check the following websites:
I suggest spending some time (or many, many hours in my case) going through every scholarship that you think you may be eligible for and adding information to your spreadsheet. Remember to check these websites every few months to see newly added scholarships. Deadlines can be any month of the year.
Most grants are awarded based on your financial need or to cover costs associated with the research component of graduate courses and not to cover tuition or living costs. These grants come from a variety of sources and many require you to submit evidence of your financial need or your research proposal and a breakdown of the cost of your research. Some grants come from the government while others come from large NGOs in your subject field. If in America, you can fill out FAFSA as an independent graduate student to see if you qualify for a grant. If you're a duel citizen like I am and are planning to attend university in the country that you are not a current resident in, be sure to check out your eligibility for government grants in both countries.
Charities are a source of graduate school funding that I hadn't previously considered. I don't know how plentiful charities that provide education funds are in the US, but they are fairly common in the UK. Many of these charities are also incredibly specific, like having to live within seven miles of a certain pub in England or having a family member who works in the leather industry. I haven't had much luck when searching for charities, but have found a few that I might be eligible for. Many of these charities don't have applications available on their website, so you must contact them and politely ask if you can apply to their graduate school fund. This database is awesome and contains a huge list of charities that donate money to graduate students in need. If your desired university subscribes to the database, then you can access it for free, otherwise you can pay for it. That website is also really great for tips on writing personal statements, preparing a financial statement, and information on loans.
Borrowing money is something I intend on avoiding. However, $40,000 is a heck of a lot of money to raise through scholarships alone. Student loans offered by the government are better than loans banks offer simply because of their low interest rates and that students don't need to begin repaying them until after they've graduated. I have yet to truly research US student loans because I really don't want to have to take out a loan. However, I did stumble across a new loan for UK students that allows them to take out a loan of £10,000. Loan repayments do not begin until the student makes £21,000 per year or more. That seems like a pretty sweet deal for students pursuing careers in low paying jobs, such as wildlife conservation.
If you're in a well-paid field, working prior to attending graduate school and saving money now is a great option. Even earning minimum wage at a full time job where I live could earn me $12,800 before taxes in eight months. Unfortunately, the jobs I can get in my field at my experience level all pay well below minimum wage. This means that saving money myself to cover living expenses during graduate school may be out of the option for me unless I work a retail job and put a giant pause button on building up my CV. It's a difficult decision to make, and hopefully you'll be in a better position than I am.
Although there are a few other funding methods (getting your employer to help pay your tuition for one), the last funding option I'm going to talk about is crowdfunding. This is when you use sites such as GoFundMe and Kickstarter to raise money to cover grad school costs. There are many challenges here including actually getting people, such as friends, family, and strangers, to give you money. It helps to offer something in return, such as a newsletter updating donors about what you're up to at grad school or offering to put their name under the Thank You section on your thesis. You may face backlash from people calling your entitled, but others may actually give you money. The real problem is marketing yourself in such a way that people other than just your friends and family donate to your campaign. More and more students seem to be using this method to gain funding, so you better make a great case about why people should donate to your fund.
Keeping track of it all
Last, but not least, keep track of all the money you've won and earned. Keep a list of people who fund you and send them Thank You cards. Be sure to obtain letters from each funding source as some universities, such as Oxford, require you to prove sources of your funding. Many scholarships are willing to fund you again in following years, so keep a note of these to apply to when you need more funding. Although I have not secured funding yet, it is still early in the game, and I do plan on keeping a visual guide to funding won and earned, such as a giant thermometer I can color in whenever I am awarded funding. This will be a good way to keep track of what money you still need and keep your spirits up when you think you won't be able to make it.
Funding graduate school seems impossible, but acting on it a year or more before attending will make the dream more realistic.