This article is adapted from the QS Top Grad School Guide 2014/15. You can read about the 11 ways to fund grad school in the 2016-2017 edition of the Top Grad School Guide, available to download for free here.
One of the prevailing concerns for prospective students worldwide – at graduate level and otherwise – is funding. With many countries still seeing rising tuition fees, alongside cuts to government-funded financial aid, obtaining sufficient funding and managing debt are often the biggest obstacles facing students who wish to pursue further education.
To start with, the cost of graduate study can be overwhelming simply to work out. Depending on the location and your circumstances, you may need to account for some or all of the following: tuition fees, semester fees, student services fees, course material expenses, food, travel, accommodation, visa and health insurance costs, childcare and personal expenses. For some, there’s also the “opportunity cost” to calculate, meaning the cost of time spent taking a career break.
The good news? While costs are in many cases higher than ever, leading universities and national governments are focusing on ways to increase funding opportunities and their accessibility.
Sources of graduate funding
It is advisable to start looking for graduate funding opportunities while or even before applying to universities, as the two processes often require very similar applications. In general, applications for funding need to be submitted by spring if you’re starting study in the fall of the same year.
Fortunately, there are many types of funding available for graduate students: merit-based, need-based, need-blind, university-specific, course-specific, subject-specific, career-specific, demographic-specific, country-specific, ability-specific and non-specific… The following is a breakdown of the most common types of graduate funding available around the world.
Home- and host-country governments
The first places to check for funding opportunities are the Ministry/Department of Education in your home and host countries. International students may not be eligible for all government funding schemes in the host country, so it’s important to thoroughly check opportunities in your home country first. Globally, typical government-funded aid includes sponsorships, loans, grants, scholarships (also known as studentships in the UK when referring to PhD students) and bursaries, each with distinct rules regarding eligibility, deadlines, application procedures and amount of funding awarded.
Universities and higher education institutions (HEIs)
Many universities and other HEIs offer some sort of financial aid for international students, be it fellowships, scholarships, grants, awards or bursaries, distributed on the basis of need, academic merit or both. Funding information is usually available online – check the scholarship or international section of the university website. Apply to as many schemes as possible, but remember to check the criteria carefully to ensure you fit the requirements. While highlighting your strengths and any exceptional achievements are a given, those applying for graduate study should also draw attention to any research projects, academic events, papers or conferences to which they have contributed, as well as discussing future research plans.
Scholarships are prestigious, highly coveted and usually the hardest form of financial aid to secure. They don’t need to be repaid and cover the full or partial costs of tuition, sometimes along with a portion of living costs. Scholarships are usually based solely on academic merit, although there are also many specialized scholarships which are targeted at students with certain backgrounds, interests, skills or ambitions. For example, sporting scholarships for the athletically gifted are particularly common in the US, and you don’t have to be on a sports-related course to apply. Discover scholarships by country and subject here.
Teaching and research assistantships
Assistantships (also known as studentships in the US) provide funding for postgraduate students in exchange for time spent working in a teaching or research role. They may be funded by the university department or your supervisor’s research budget, or by an external funding body with vested interests in a particular field of development. Rarely offered for professional degrees such as the JD, MBA or MD, often a requirement for PhD programs, and particularly common in STEM subjects, assistantships are cost-effective for the university and provide valuable teaching and/or research experience for the student.
Students with an assistantship are obliged to carry out specified teaching and/or research activities, stipulated in a contract. In return, you’ll typically receive a modest salary and/or a waiver of your tuition fees. Some universities may also provide funding for field trips and conference participation. When working in this capacity, make sure to remain within the constraints of your student visa, which may specify some employment restrictions.
Charities, trusts, learned societies and special interest groups
Charities, trusts, learned societies and special interest groups often dedicate a portion of their budget to fund graduate studies. While some organizations target specific and niche demographics, many focus simply on students from lower income backgrounds, those experiencing particular financial difficulty, and/or those with demonstrable academic excellence. Usually awards are made for a year at a time, with renewal possible, and students can secure backing from multiple organizations.
When applying for funding, focus on anything that makes you particularly distinctive. Points to highlight include: the relevance and potential future applications of your research; any ways in which your interests and/or background align with those of the funding organization; any disadvantages or challenges you’ve faced, along with your drive to succeed and potential to do so.
If you’re starting your postgraduate studies after a period of work, you may be able to persuade your employer to sponsor your education. Most companies are supportive of staff training and development, and may even have a budget set aside for the personal and professional development (PPD) of their employees. Professionals requiring further education to become fully qualified include accountants, architects, engineers, social workers, lawyers and teachers.
Employers will be more receptive to your request if you show your aim is to improve your ability in the workplace, advance your career prospects, and/or aid your long-term development within the company, rather than simply indulging your own academic or personal interests. If you do use this route, you may need to sign an agreement which will tie you to the company for a specified period after graduation (usually one to two years).
Student and professional development loans
Dedicated student loans typically have lower repayment rates than regular loans. While common in North America for graduate studies, they are harder to obtain in countries like the UK, which concentrate on providing student loans mainly at undergraduate level. However, a possible alternative is a professional development loan. In the UK, banks offer Professional and Career Development Loans (PCDLs) for students who intend to work in the UK, EU, Norway, Liechtenstein or Iceland upon graduation. The loan funds up to two years of study, covers course fees and some living costs, and has more flexible repayment terms than a regular bank loan.
National research councils
National research councils (RCs) are often the main public-sector distributors of investment in research, including that conducted by postgraduate students. In the UK, there are seven RCs offering competitively sought-after graduate funding covering a wide range of disciplines. Elsewhere, similar investors include the European Research Council for EU countries, the National Research Councils in the US and Canada, the various institutes within the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) in France, the Australian Research Council (ARC), and the German Research Foundation (DFG).
Eligibility criteria usually stipulate residency within the country where the council is based, a good bachelor’s degree and/or relevant work experience. Funding may provide partial or full fee coverage, along with a cost of living grant (known as a stipend), which is usually tax-free. Competition is intense, but highly specialized subjects typically have fewer applicants. You will usually need to apply via the university, rather than directly to the council.
Alternative graduate funding options
While graduate funding options are plentiful, they are greatly outweighed by the number of students vying for those opportunities. In addition to the fierce competition involved, these traditional funding routes are also not guaranteed to cover the full costs of graduate study – so creative candidates may consider some alternative avenues:
A form of crowd-sourcing whereby private loans are given to individuals without the mediation of an official financial institution, peer-to-peer (P2P) or social lending provides funding for a variety of endeavors. Specialized online platforms are often used, with some (such as GraduRates.com and StudentFunder.com) focusing on the student market. While the lending is unsecured and you may need a solid credit history, P2P lending is more flexible in terms of repayment and interest rates for the borrower, while lenders have the opportunity to invest in a project or career they believe in. It can also provide a more formalized structure when lending among families and friends – turning a favor into a business transaction.
Portfolio funding involves securing small amounts of money from multiple sources. This can mean applying for all the types of funding mentioned in this article, or sending dedicated letters to a range of sources simultaneously. For this, students prepare a fundraising pack, with a letter asking for help in funding their degree. The letter explains who they are, what they want to study and why, what they will give back (either to the individual they address, or society as a whole) and how to make a donation.
If you intend to use a student job to supplement your finances, remember that each country has its own rules about whether, where and how international students can work. Typical restrictions include limited working hours during term-time, and rules about whether you can work off-campus or need to stick to jobs within the university. For example, international students in Canada must obtain the Off-Campus Work Permit (OCWP). Most campuses offer many opportunities for part-time work, including working in a shop or café, in the student union, as an organizer or helper at university events, in an administrative role, or as a student tutor or advisor. You could also consider freelance work as a tutor, capitalizing on skills in fields such as languages, sports, arts or music.
You might also consider enrolling for part-time study, which will mean your tuition fees are spread out over a longer period, while you have more time to work alongside your course commitments. If this is your plan, make sure you have a realistic balance between work and studies. If you do find yourself struggling to cope, your university’s student support team may be able to direct you towards funding opportunities that have opened up since the commencement of the academic year, or at the very least,