Should you take the full ride or pay out of pocket?: how to pay for grad school

Davis: Hey, everybody! Welcome back. This is GRE Bites. I’m Davis, an educator with over 10 years of experience.

Orion: And I’m Orion, the founder of StellarGRE.

Davis: We’re here to bring you your weekly bite-sized episode on GRE prep and grad school admissions. Check out our top-rated GRE self-study program at You can use the code “BITES” for 10% off all memberships. Let’s get to it.

So we often say in our intro: GRE prep and grad school admissions. But we often focus heavily on the GRE. So I want to switch tack today and pick your brain on grad school admissions. One question that prospective students are faced with is: do you accept the stipend, and not have to pay tuition? Or do you pay out of pocket? What’s involved with accepting the stipend?

Orion: Yeah, this episode will be specifically for folks who are getting PhDs or doctorates. It’s pretty rare that this will come up in the pursuit of a master’s degree. Basically, a lot of PhD programs – on the surface – are tuition free. A lot of PhD programs have a very small cohort, often fewer than 10 people at any one time. If you’re accepted into this doctoral program, it’s generally expected that you will be offered a free ride, in terms of tuition, as well as a small annual stipend to cover living expenses. Often the stipend is very, very low, in terms of standard of living in certain housing markets. For example, I know that the stipend for doctoral students at Stanford University, one of the top programs in the world, was about $30,000 a few years back, which would be very difficult to live off of in the Bay Area, which is one of the most expensive places in the world.

But a lot of students say, “okay, that 30,000 bucks in my pocket is better than going 150,000 dollars into debt.” And they might have a point. People should be very cautious about getting into that level of debt. They should have a plan associated with paying it off. Like, they should do some market research to see whether the degree would actually help them to secure a better paying job, so that it is a rational investment in their future. Absolutely. That’s right.

Davis: But the reason, as I understand it, that universities offer this type of PhD program stipend is that you’re expected to actually become a member of the faculty, essentially. You’re teaching classes. You’re helping your advisor on research projects. So, you know, teaching some classes seems like a much better deal than kind of being a free agent, where you’re paying out of pocket, but you’re not beholden to the university as part of the staff. So, really, what are the drawbacks of accepting the stipend?

Orion: Yeah, you touched on them. There is no free lunch. So grad students who accept the tuition and the stipend are expected to generate value for the university. So in addition to all of your studies, as a full-time student, you will also be expected to teach classes as an adjunct. Teaching classes requires you to create syllabi, which is incredibly time-consuming, to actually teach the classes, to have office hours, to grade papers, to be a research assistant to your dissertation chair. You will be expected to draft and edit academic papers based on that research. You will be expected to serve on committees, and potentially be involved in showing prospective students around the university, or interviewing them, or making yourself available for interviews.

The point is that there’s a lot of labor that is connected to the “free” tuition. And this is never really explicitly spelled out in the students’ contracts. It’s not like there is a 1000-hour per year maximum, after which the students can clock out. On some level, it’s very amorphous, it’s very ambiguous. And the university – which has way more power than these individual students – can sometimes lean on that in a borderline exploitative way.

So, personally, the way that I went through grad school is I paid out of pocket. I liked paying out of pocket because I could clock out. Like, once I was done with my studies, I could walk away from the university. Now in order to pay out of pocket without going into substantial debt, I had to work full-time on the side. But here’s the thing: if you’re taking the free ride, you’re going to be working full-time on the side anyway. You’re just going to be working as a research assistant, as a teacher, as an advisor. I could work full-time on the free market and make 10 times as much money as I would be making if I were a faculty assistant, for instance. So if I’m going to be working full-time anyway, I’d rather make more money and then pay the tuition out of pocket that way. Does that make sense?

Davis: No, that makes a lot of sense. And it also reminds me of the point you made earlier in this episode, which is, you know, really do the research. Understand what kind of degree you’re getting into, why you’re going to grad school in the first place. For example, if you know academia is your target job, then taking the stipend, and getting that experience, and working as an adjunct for that period of time is what you’re there for. And if your degree is going to facilitate you getting a professorship-type position, then that seems a much different, much smarter choice. It’s a different balance – as opposed to getting a degree that’s going to put you back out in the job market.

Orion: That’s certainly true. If your goal is to work in academia, it makes sense to take the free ride and get that job experience on campus. Here’s the thing about that. I’ve worked with a lot of students over the years who want to get a position in academia, to become a full professor on the tenure track. And there are two really important things to consider here.

First of all, there are just 50 times more new doctorates minted every year in this country alone than there are new openings for tenure track positions at universities. So the competition, among other really smart people who have doctorates from top universities, is absolutely fierce. And because of that, you don’t have a lot of optionality in that market. You might have to take a job wherever you are offered it, anywhere in the country.

The second thing to understand is that you should have some experience teaching, first. A lot of people have a romanticized vision of what being a professor looks like. You have this office full of books in this cozy little corner of an ivy covered, red brick building. And students come in all the time, and you get to discuss ideas, because you’re paid to think. And that’s not the reality of being a professor at a university. It’s far more tedious. The politics are insufferable. And most students don’t really care. They’re there to take your class so that they can get the credit to move on to the next thing. So you should know that you actually like teaching. Try it out. We date before we get married. So if you can, find a way to teach before you decide to put all of your eggs in this basket for five-to-10 years to become a teacher – only to realize that it’s not what you expected it to be.

Davis: I will just concur with what you’re saying there. And it’s interesting to note, as well, that – especially for the humanities, any kind of degree in the humanities – it’s doubly true what Orion has just been saying, in terms of the saturation compared to the availability of open positions in the marketplace. That was something that I faced after my graduate degree in the Bay Area, which is why I switched into the private sector and consulting. The point is: research. Know your trends. Know yourself.

Thanks, everybody, for tuning in. We’ll be back next week with another bite-sized episode of GRE Bites. If you have a topic you’d like discussed on a future episode, let us know at And if you’re ready to take your prep to the next level, check out our top-rated GRE self-study program at You can use the code “BITES” for 10% off all memberships there. Talk to you soon.

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