Advice From a PhD Student: How to Pay for Grad School

Q&A With A PhD Student: How To Pay For Grad School


Considering a graduate program, but not sure if it’s for you?

TalentEgg had a chance to sit down with Matthew Cain, a PhD candidate in Carleton University’s Canadian studies program. Matthew completed his Bachelor’s degree in English and a Master’s degree in English Literature. He’s now working on his PhD in Canadian Studies.

We asked him about his decision to pursue higher education and how he handles the financial costs.

Why did you decide to pursue a higher education after your undergrad?

Matthew: After I finished my BA, I felt like I wasn’t done with school; I wanted to learn more. I also wasn’t sure what I actually wanted to do with my life – the only thing I knew was that I wanted to continue studying because I loved learning so much. So I took a year off of school to work before applying to a one-year master’s program at Queen’s University – the same school where I completed my undergraduate degree.

How did you make the transition from an MA in English Literature to a PhD in Canadian Studies?

Matthew: When I finished my master’s, I already knew that I wanted to go back to school at some point. But I needed time to decide on the program that would best suit my interests. I considered technical school for a while but didn’t think it was the right choice for me – I prefer philosophical, intellectual challenges as opposed to hands-on challenges.

So I went back to working for a couple of years and used my time outside of work to do a lot of reading. I’ve always been interested in Canadian politics, and I thought that political work could be a great way to make a difference. So I eventually narrowed my decision down to law school or a PhD. Ultimately, the PhD won out because of finances – law school is significantly more expensive and there are far fewer options available for funding.

Like many students, you have accumulated a student debt. How do you manage it?

Matthew: I have a student loan leftover from my BA that I will need to pay off when I finish my current program, but other than that I’ve managed to avoid borrowing much more since my undergrad (I took out a small loan for my master’s).

I think it’s possible to cover the cost of tuition, textbooks, etc. and living expenses during a graduate program with graduate awards, a teaching assistant position, part-time work and/or scholarships.

Has it been difficult to access these sources of funding to help you pay for school?

Matthew: It’s been manageable, actually. When I started my MA, everyone in my program got a graduate award – I’m not sure how widely available these awards are, but I think it’s a way of trying to encourage more students to pursue a graduate program. The award was enough to cover most of my living costs that year. And unless there aren’t many Teaching Assistant positions available in a given department or program, graduate students usually have a good chance at getting a Teaching Assistant position.

In my experience, the income from being a Teaching Assistant is enough to pay for tuition. I’ve covered my other costs by working between degrees and during summers – I may also need to find a part-time job when I’m working on my thesis. I should also mention that I’ve applied for a few scholarships (the Ontario Graduate Scholarship and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council)!

Is there any other advice you can share?

Matthew: I can’t stress enough how important it is to be sure that the program you’re applying to is in a field you really care about. You have to be 100% committed to the subject you’re taking on to make it worth the investment. If you don’t really love the subject, think twice before applying – you could save yourself a lot of time, energy and money.

I also suggest looking at the employment opportunities that will be available to you after you graduate. The job market can be challenging right now, and with more and more people doing graduate or professional programs, the competition is stiff. You want to make sure your effort goes to good use, so do your research ahead of time.

Education certainly isn’t cheap, but it is possible to pay for a graduate program without digging yourself deep into debt. If you’re wondering how affordable a graduate program is, look into funding that’s offered by schools and the government, find out what part-time work is available on or off campus (including teaching and research assistant positions) and inquire about scholarships or bursaries that you may be eligible for. Once you’ve done your homework you can make a more informed decision about whether or not a graduate program is the right choice for you.

How do you manage your student debt? Let us know in the comments!