So following my article a few weeks ago on how I travel so much on my graduate student’s budget, I’ve gotten some questions about graduate school in general. Someone asked about how I attended graduate school for free, so I figured I’d expand.
Let’s back up to college. I (reluctantly, but that’s another conversation) went to Harvard University wanting to major in Molecular Biology and be pre-med so I could be a pediatrician for black kids in urban neighborhoods. Got to college, took a few classes, and was like YEET, let’s do a humanities major because all these labs are playing with my social life. Anyway, I ended up majoring in History of Science which exposed me to public and global health, and the sociological aspects of medicine. My junior year, I became interested in the high rates of children’s asthma, so I wrote a paper on summer and year-round camps for asthmatic kids. Senior year, I decided to write my honors thesis on the shift in medical understanding of asthma from a predominantly white disease to a black disease, and applied to PhD programs
This brings me to step 1 of going to graduate school for free.
Be Interested In Something People Want to Pay For
You’re more likely to find somebody who wants to pay for you to attend graduate school if you’ve already shown evidence of graduate-school level thinking – in my case, an original thesis that took a disease people had already written about, but conceptualized from a unique angle. What academics think are exciting topics are a weird combination of ideas that are obscure, obvious, and innovative. Your ideas can’t be too common because then you’re not set apart from everyone else, but they can’t be too far-fetched like trying to prove that water is actually purple. A good starting point is the unanswered questions at the end of books and articles you’ve read about topics that have interested you.
Be Academically Great
This goes without saying, but your graduate school of choice is more likely to want to find you money not only if your research interests are cool, but if you’ve proven you can do the work. You can have the coolest idea that will save mankind, but if you cannot articulate it well in writing and/or speech, no one will pay you any mind. Make sure your grades are legit, and your GRE score is on point, because those are common weeding out mechanisms for your application to even be seen.
Enter a PhD Program
This is the biggest piece of advice and the most hardest to follow because it’s not all in your control. Funding options for master’s programs are few and far between simply because there are thousands of people also trying to get their masters, and it is a professional degree. On the other hand, PhD programs are typically academic/research-based programs with smaller entry pools, and many schools cover tuition and fees, as well as provide a stipend. Contrary to popular belief, a good chunk of PhD programs will accept you without a master’s degree, you just have to take more courses. PhD students do a lot of grunt work, from being research assistants to grading papers and teaching seminars, so it’s not free money, but it’s money you’d otherwise not have.
Be a Minority
Now don’t take this the wrong way – because this is the LEAST that America can do for us – but there are a number of scholarships for higher learning that are exclusive to minorities, underrepresented groups, first generation college students, members of historically disadvantaged or discriminated against groups, etc. Some that I know off the top of my head are the Mellon fellowships, Gates Millennium (funds undergraduate through graduate education), Ford Foundation fellowships, and the Paul & Daisy Soros (for 1st & 2nd generation Americans) scholarship. Schools sometimes have diversity fellowships for students as well, and that’s how I was funded my first two years.
Find Funding Yourself
Even if you have a great idea, get awesome grades, get into a grad program, and are offered a funding package, sometimes your program will only offer you money to cover part of your time in the program. This baffles me because I think it’s rude to say, hey I’m going to give you money for 5 years of this program that is IMPOSSIBLE to finish in 5 years, just so you can spend an additional 5 years trying to finish while working 7 jobs to have a roof over your head. I digress. Luckily, there are field, topic, gender, race, location specific fellowships and grants available in both the humanities and the sciences, and all they typically require is a convincing essay and some letters of recommendation. Non-school tied funding is great because it often frees you up from time you would have to spend being a TA or a research assistant, so you can spend more time doing your own work and graduating sooner (or to run a natural hair blog!).