Path to Grad School: Focus on funding


If you are interested in going to graduate school in Ecology or other Environmental fields, the first thing to consider is what degree you want to pursue.

Here is a separate post where I argue for pursuing a Masters degree:  LINK.

If you are going to pursue a Masters, then the next major decision is about the type of Masters you might pursue.  There is a major distinction, a fork in the road, that undergraduates should think about when pondering this situation.   That distinction is between a Thesis-oriented degree and a non-Thesis degree.

If you choose a non-Thesis degree then you will have to pay for grad school.

If you choose to pursue a non-Thesis degree then you will most likely have to pay tuition and you will not be paid a stipend.  You are effectively choosing to take more classes.  This is a decision that each student will have to make.  I would urge the student to think very carefully about what, exactly, benefit they believe they will gain from taking this approach instead of pursuing a Thesis option.  Then seek hard evidence that they will, indeed, gain the professional benefits they are seeking.

If you choose a Thesis-oriented MS, then you should get paid to go to grad school

If you are doing a Dissertation-oriented PhD, should get paid to go to grad school

If you are more interested in research and excited to pursue a Thesis or Dissertation focused degree then you should not pay tuition and you should be paid a stipend.

Therefore, if you are interested in a Thesis/Dissertation-focused degree, then the “grad school search” is really about finding SUPPORT for your graduate activities.

To find a good situation you need to dedicate yourself to finding a program where you can pursue your research interests and match up those interests with a faculty member who is looking for a student and has funding available.

In a separate post I outline keys to finding a fit with a future mentor:  LINK

Here I want to focus on the financial particulars:

Sources of support for a Thesis-Dissertation option / Research degree

Teaching Assistantship (TA)

This is the most typical kind of funding for graduate students. Generally you are required to teach undergraduate introductory labs. This job basically involves reading some material from some kind of lab manual and then teaching it to freshman. Around 50% of those students are barely interested. You might get lucky and teach some upper division labs where the students are more focused.  Generally you teach 2 or 3 labs each semester, and that is the justification for the university paying you. Your “real” job during the TA is doing research on your project!

Graduate Assistantship (GA)

These are rare. Sometimes it is simply, you just get paid for doing your research project! Cool, right? Sometimes a GA will have some kind of odd duty, like taking care of the plants in a greenhouse, or working in an animal care facility. Basically, if the department has a job that it needs done by someone who is invested in the process, they can “hire” a grad student via a GA and get that work done on the cheap. It is still a good deal for you, cause doing a GA usually is more flexible than a TA

Research Assistantship

These are nearly at the level of the passenger pigeon now…this is funding directly related to the research project you are working on! This usually comes from grant funding for the project. The faculty member effectively hires you to be a graduate student! If you get one of these, you are very fortunate and can just focus on your “real” job full time.

Financial particulars


Rough Range: $12,000 to $27,000.

The level of funding for stipends ranges widely depending on the type of program you are involved in, the location of the university, and the source of funding. At a large Research I university in a major urban area, your stipend can be expected to be considerably higher than those in smaller universities in more rural settings. A “Normal” Stipend is in the range of $18,000/year. That generally includes 9 months, and you might have opportunities for extra money in the summer.


Tuition may or may not be lower than the amount that undergraduates are charged…it really depends on the institution. The good news is, though, that if you are on a research project, the tuition should be forgiven through a process called “Tuition Remission.” You should be paying NO TUITION. You MUST get clear on this before you accept a position! If you are expected to pay tuition, that could radically change the financial viability of the support!  See our list of questions to ask advisors in a separate post:  LINK.


Fees can eat into your meager stipend in a way that is significant. Sometimes grad students are shielded from all fees- sometimes they have to pay some, but not others. Fees are one of the mysterious ways the university gets extra money from undergraduates, but does not have to account for them in the tuition number they publicize- as a graduate student living on a relatively small stipend you do not want to be caught up in this. Ask about fees!

Health Insurance

The university should offer students coverage for free or at very low prices. You might be restricted to health care at the university hospital or through the student health services. Check on this.  If you are in a relationship and might have a child during your PhD you need to find out if their health insurance covers dependents (i.e., your baby).  Note that, in my opinion, it is unethical (and ~despicable) for the school not to cover dependents of graduate students; however, this unethical choice is common.

Travel Funds for Meeting

Going to professional meetings to present your work is a key step for graduate students. It allows you to network and show off what you have done. Most universities have set-aside money to fund grad student travel to meetings. You need to check on this. The cost of attending a meeting is ~ $1200/meeting.  You might find opportunities that are cheaper (for instance, if you dont have to fly to the meeting), but my number is a good one if you want to be realistic, and might be a tad low, actually.   You need to ask about support for meeting travel.

Research Money

You should not spend your own money on your research project. I mean, if you need to buy a box of garbage bags or something, okay, fine. But, generally,you should NOT buy things on your own. Also, think about travel funds for research. If  your project requires a lot of driving, you need to think about, and ask about, how you will get there- are you expected to drive your own car? Is there money for reimbursement? Don’t sweat the details…again, if there is a time or two you fill up your tank, that is one thing. But if you have to drive 300 miles every two weeks for your research and there is no money, this is major problem!


See other posts in the Path to Grad School series here:  LINK






Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s