Getting Graduate Degrees for Free

So you’ve decided to get a graduate degree, and now you’re worried about how to finance it. Can you get a graduate degree without going into (additional) student debt? I think you can, with some careful planning, being frugal, and having a budget. Here are things that I did to make sure I could get my graduate degrees for free.

Combined Bachelors-Masters programs

My university offered a bachelors-masters program in mechanical engineering, which allowed me to use some of my senior-level classes towards the masters degree. Lots of universities now offer combined bachelors and masters programs. See if your school offers something similar if you’re thinking of going to graduate school to get a masters, because it could save you a few classes worth of tuition and fees.

Company-paid Masters programs

I’ve worked at companies that provided this as a benefit to employees. Personally, I didn’t get my masters this way, but I know plenty of friends and colleagues who got their masters completely free as part of their benefits package.

University staff benefits

You could also get a full-time job at the university, and part of your benefits package could be free tuition. I know a few people who did this.

Scholarships

I applied to a lot of scholarships. I didn’t qualify for many scholarships or fellowships because of my international student status, but I was still able to get a total of $16,000 in scholarships. This helped pay part of my tuition and fees. My degree is in mechanical engineering, and there were specific scholarships I targeted:

  • Tau Beta Pi scholarship – if you’re part of Tau Beta Pi and still an undergrad, I highly recommend applying to this scholarship. They also have a fellowship program for graduate school. International students can apply.
  • American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC) – awards six generous scholarships each year. I specifically got ACEC-California‘s scholarship one year, but it seems like they’ve restricted the scholarships to US citizens.
  • Tons of scholarships from my undergraduate institution. I highly recommend you search what scholarships are available at your college and applying to every single one available.

There are several other engineering organizations that award scholarships, like Society of Automotive Engineers and Society of Women Engineers. And scholarships are often awarded to graduate students too, so don’t forget to keep looking while in gradschool.

Fee Waivers

Since I was an international student, I had to pay international student fees on top of tuition, which I think is a total scam by the way, but that’s a story for another day. Luckily, my school had an international fee waiver which would save me about $248/unit. Since I was taking about 16 units a quarter, I’d be saving almost $12000 a year on international student fees alone. So I applied, and I got the waiver for both years of my masters degree.

Fellowships

I did research for my master’s degree. At first, I did it to gain experience without funding in mind, but later, my advisor helped me obtain a fellowship at the Center for Energy and Sustainability, which provided me with a monthly stipend throughout my masters.

During my PhD, my PI advised me to apply for the NSF INTERN fellowship, which gave allowed me to do my research at an automotive company in the R&D department to gain internship experience.

Check with your school to see if there are any fellowship programs. There are programs like Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation that will help underrepresented undergraduate students in STEM who express interest in graduate school.

There are also fellowships through organizations such as Tau Beta Pi that award fellowships to (prospective) graduate students. And of course, there are well-known fellowships like the NSF GRFP, and DoD’s SMART fellowship.

Assistantships

My PhD program guaranteed funding for four years through assistantships. These were research and teaching assistantships, which paid me a stipend in exchange for being a graduate student instructor or research assistant. The assistantship also paid for my tuition and school fees, and I also got free health insurance for me and my spouse.

Final thoughts

Grad school can cost an arm and a leg. But it doesn’t have to, and you can get your graduate degrees for free. One more note: PhD degrees should, and is usually, free. Do not attend a PhD program if they cannot guarantee you funding for x amount of years through assistantships and/or fellowships, which should pay for tuition and fees. Better funded programs should also provide health insurance benefits. Please do not attend a PhD program that is unfunded.

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