This week’s list maker: Tara Campbell. Tara is a university admissions professional by day and a writer by night. With a BA in English and an MA in German Language and Literature, she has a demonstrated aversion to money and power.
Today’s job market is competitive and professional-level jobs are hard to come by, especially for candidates without an advanced degree. Despite the cost, many Americans are going to graduate school to sharpen their skills and build their professional credentials. Before you invest time and money in a degree program, consider these 10 tips for making graduate school affordable:
1. The Right Stuff. Going back to school is not just about the in-class work: you should also be looking for enrichment in extracurricular activities. Before you accept an admission offer, take a look at the speakers and events offered on campus. How often are they offered; what kinds of food do they serve? Prioritize programs that offer an even mix of breakfast, lunch, and dinner options. Consider studying international affairs for diversity of cuisine. And once you’re on campus, volunteer to help set up the events for first dibs. Just remember to slide the sandwiches around evenly on the platter after taking one.
2, Got Scholarship? What do you do if you get a scholarship, but still have a big financial gap to bridge? Or you get a fellowship offer from one program but not from another? Haggle. Some institutions are open to requests for reconsideration of award packages. If you get identical offers from competing schools, arrange a conference call with their aid offices and hire a local auctioneer to sort things out. If you visit in person, keep in mind that this is not a bazar: rolling your eyes, spitting on the ground, and saying they didn’t even pay half of what they’re asking for this degree are not winning strategies.
3. Buddy, can you spare a tire? You may be wondering whether you can afford to keep your car while you’re in graduate school. There are a variety of factors influencing this decision: how close you live to campus, public transportation options, and cost of gas, maintenance, and insurance. Try this test: grab a sleeping bag, a pillow, and your car keys. Could you sleep in the car if you ran out of rent money? Should you keep the car? The answer to both questions will be the same.
4. Seeking 6 Roommates for Spacious Studio Apartment. Rethink your tired, old notions about the maximum number of people you can live with. Learning to communicate effectively with many different kinds of people should be one of your goals in graduate school. Be flexible in your position on adequate sleeping arrangements. Inspect your apartment/houseshare for potential hammock locations, or consider sharing a bed. Don’t forget to cover sleeping shifts, shower schedules, and timing of significant bowel movements in your discussions with potential roommates.
5. Does this smell right to you? Contrary to popular belief, drugstores like CVS and RiteAid are not just a source of shampoo and tissues, but can be your primary source of groceries, as well. Be adventurous: try new foods! How do you know you won’t like Jalapeño Spam until you try it? Take a look at the weekly specials posted near the entrance; non-perishable staples like peanut butter are often on sale. Are you allergic to peanut butter? How do you know? Well, have you tried it again? Recently?
6. Textbooks, Schmextbooks! WTF, who reads books anymore? Picket the offices of Luddite faculty members who are still assigning costly textbooks until they start using online articles and electronic reserves. Until that happens, get to your university’s bookstore early to snap up the used books. If you can’t find the titles you need at your university library, try your community library or order them online. If you can trust your classmates, get one book, synchronize your watches and set up a book-custody system. Alternatively, figure out your classmates’ study schedules and read assignments over their shoulders at the library. (See item 8.)
7. Double-feature. Yes, this is technically illegal, folks, but times are hard and you need to stretch your entertainment budget. Those leviathan multiplexes will never be hurt by a few scruffy grad students scooting from one theater to another. Just don’t go crazy and try to sneak in two boxes of Junior Mints.
8. Study Break. Once you’ve blown through your entertainment budget, studying is the perfect low-cost activity to round out your day. Head to the library for free heat and electricity, and surround yourself with all the books and periodicals you could ever want. (See item 6.)
9. Going for Broke. If you really find yourself in a financial bind, you may have to take the nuclear option: getting a job on campus in the dining hall or as an RA in a residential hall. You may be resistant to working in these predominantly undergraduate domains, but think about the clear benefits of food and shelter they offer. Don’t worry about missing out on that important-sounding but unpaid internship or the opportunity to do research for a major professor for minimum wage. You’ll have lots of time to take advantage of those opportunities after graduation!
10. There is no number 10. Seriously, you can’t have everything. Learn to make some sacrifices.
Next: a feature for university administrators: Eight Ways to Make Firing Faculty Easier.