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Funding Your Grad School Dreams

An illustrations with a grad cap and pencil.

Have you been looking for a way to stand out from the crowd of fellow job seekers vying for a career in the social-impact space? Then the idea of earning a graduate degree has probably popped into your head as of late.

While graduate degrees can come with many perks —networking opportunities with alumni and professors who also work in industry, learning new skills, and positioning yourself for more leadership roles —they can also come with a large price tag. The actual cost of the program, the time you will spend working on your degree, and your general living expenses will most certainly add up.

But don’t let that deter you! There are many ways to help fund your grad school dreams—and you don't always need to rely on loans and loan forgiveness programs. This article is an entryway into the exciting (and sometimes daunting!) world of graduate school funding opportunities.

Start with the basics

Know where your money needs to go, even if you don’t know how much. Having an idea of how you will be spending next year (or couple of years) can help you quantify how much funding you’d like and help motivate you to keep applying. Try creating a costs spreadsheet in Google Sheets or another program to compare schools and keep track of potential expenses.

Know the opportunities

Fellowships are generally short-term (a few months to a few years) professional development opportunities sponsored by a specific organization or association. Awards usually support a specific field of study, type of research, program/organization development, training, or other opportunity to engage in work outside of the classroom. Compensation is usually not the equivalent of a full-time salary, but if they align well with your coursework and career interests, it may be that you are being paid to do what you would still be doing otherwise (everyone wins!). Here's how to start researching what's available and what may be a fit for you:

  • Ask program directors (or another points of contact) for information on available fellowships, and be sure to ask which fellowships students have been awarded in the past. 
  • Research grants can help support those long hours of research you will need to put in for your thesis, dissertation, or final project. The applications tend to be very detailed, but don’t let that discourage you. The experience looks great on your resume as many organizations are in need of people with grant-writing experience.
  • Turn to well-known funders of research, such as the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, and Fulbright. They also have resources available to help you complete a successful grant application, and can point you toward more grant opportunities, such as those listed on the Fogarty International Center site. 
  • Find professional organizations in your field of study, general interests, or career area. Many will have research grants available for members, as well as other types of support. I found the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation a few years ago while I was looking for arts and child well-being organizations on Idealist. Their mission aligns well with my interests so I routinely check their site for funding opportunities and jobs.
  • Search for charitable foundations and organizations whose mission aligns with your research interests, then look to see if they have research grants or other funding sources available. This is especially useful if you are interested in social impact work since they will likely be interested in supporting research and programming with longevity. 

Identify the people

Ask for help. You can’t afford to be shy if you want to make the most out of your grad school experience. Letting people know you are on the lookout for sources of funding is the best way to ensure opportunities are not missed. They can help you with your letters of reference, application materials, and funding search.

When I mentioned that I was looking for graduate school funding, my cousin pointed me toward the McNair Scholars Program, a resource I hadn’t found on my own despite looking for over six months. Family and friends are a great place to start, but you can expand your network even more:

  • The program coordinator at each school you're applying to is just as interested in finding funding as you are! Having students who are earning fellowships, research grants, and other awards makes their program looks good and can help the program grow its resources. This is also the person who is likely to know what past students have found and what is needed from the program to help you with your application.
  • Contact the school’s office of finance. They will have insight into what types of awards are available through the school and they'll likely have some resources to share with you.
  • Read about people whose careers you admire! They may have received awards or attended programs that you should consider.

Outline the details

Being organized is essential to a successful funding search. There are a wide variety of funding opportunities that are relevant at different times in your academic career. Don’t miss out on an opportunity because you lost the application information, couldn’t remember a previous award/experience you had, or forgot the contact information.

  • Create a spreadsheet of every opportunity and achievement you’ve had. Be incredibly detailed. These notes will be useful in determining whether you're eligible for an award and when filling out the application.
  • Have a dedicated “Grad School” folder on your desktop with subfolders of schools you are interested in and types of funding opportunities.
  • Create a separate calendar for your grad school applications and funding applications.
  • Add a reminder (at least once a week is a good framework) on your personal calendar to check your application timeline. Also be sure to dedicate time to your funding search. Just getting in the habit of routinely checking on the information you’ve collected will keep the information fresh in your mind and help you stay on top of the work.


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By Jhia Jackson

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