Does Everyone Starve in Graduate School?

by Judge Josh on October 7, 2010

Mike’s headed off to grad school — that lovely purgatory between the dream-world of college and the hellish incinerator that is the working world.

Is grad school the bread line that it’s mythologized to be?

Hey, thank you for taking the time to answer my question and give advice on others.

You’re welcome. Thanks for reading!

I have a situation that may be a little unique. What happened was during my first years at university, I liked to party and my grades suffered (1.95 GPA).

starving grad students

This place has kept grad students alive for decades.

They must’ve been good parties. :)

I passed all my courses just fine but it wasn’t until the final years of my degree that my courses started to get very interesting. In fact, I loved my program and my grades and work improved making the Deans list twice and the presidents list once in the final 3 semesters of my course.

Congrats! Yeah, general-ed courses, a few thousand newly liberated students and unfettered access to booze can spell a bad GPA for a while. Good job for turning it around.

Actually my thesis work was good enough to get published in two conferences.

Wow, very nice. Congrats again.

I have been accepted into a graduate degree program but I am now running into a lot of problems trying to find money.

The school itself is usually going to be the best source of grad-school money. And, of course, Uncle Sam. More on that in a second.

I have decided that this is what I love to do and want to do it, but I would like to live above the poverty line while doing it. What do I do?

Well, I’m shooting a little in the dark here since I’m not sure exactly what you’re studying, and therefore I’m not sure what sort of job prospects you may have in front of you *while* you’re getting the degree.

I do know that lots of us who have graduate degrees paid for them by doing teaching and research assistantships while we were going to school, and that’s where I’d suggest you look first. Some schools try to place every grad student in an assistantship (mine did), and it usually wipes out your tuition and also gives you a monthly stipend.


You can be a TA and help some professor do grunt work, labs, actual teaching, whatever. Or you can be an RA (research assistant) and do — surprise! — research, or other stuff. Depending on your field, RA can be a catch-all job for basically anything that any department needs a warm body for.

I was in grad school for two years and did one of each. My first year, I was a warm-body RA for the Missouri Department of Education, designing specialized publications and newsletters. Second year, I was a teaching fellow.

In neither year did I feel like I was starving, although my situation was a little odd. I was living with an exotic dancer at the time (we were actually married for about 5 seconds) and she made halfway decent money doing that, so that helped. Plus, I took out student loans for extra living money (because I was helping care for her daughter, so every little bit helped).

Point is, I never felt broke as a grad student. I felt more broke as an undergrad, actually. Hell, when I was an undergrad, no one was offering me tuition-free schooling for in exchange for an easy 20-hours-per-week job.

Now, there are some elements of my personal experience I’d advise none of you replicate, and I’m sure you can figure out which parts (back up two paragraphs and read carefully!). However, the assistantships are pretty sweet if you can get them. Be flexible — a crappy job that pays your tuition is worse than no job that’s not paying your tuition.

— What about you guys — grad students out there, are you starving? If not, why not? Let us know in the comments below.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

V October 7, 2010 at 5:07 pm

Getting an assistantship or a teaching job is a great idea in theory but it depends on the school you are at. I starved in grad school with the 75k in loans without the opportunity to get an assistantship. My school doesn’t automatically and fairly give them out to all students. Every semester I filled out an application and was rejected while other classmates of mine received multiple semester’s worth of assistantships. I have a few peers that got ALL of their tuition covered because they had so many opportunities for student teaching and researching.

I think I know why I didn’t receive an assistantship and I hope this will not open Pandora’s box. As far as my school is concerned (I don’t know if it is that way for other schools) you are more likely to get an assistantship if you are extroverted and come from a ethnic background. That’s the pattern I observed. I’m not prejudice or anything so there’s no need to assume that. (And if anyone gets upset and wishes to take some stabs at me, know there is no point because I won’t read this page again). I only thought it was unfair that people who have severed one or more assistantships were still able to get offered more when there are other students who were never offered any.

Ironically some of my friends who received those positions were not in any financial need. (My school does not give out need based positions…it’s even in their policy!) These friends had already saved up for graduate school and paid it in full without any student loans or had rich parents who paid it for them. On the other-hand, I have taken out enough debt to incur a monthly check of 2k (which of course I cannot afford) upon graduation. So I still can’t find a job and am in a financial mess. After observing this painful lesson, my husband decided it is not worth applying to graduate school.

My advice is to figure out your school’s policy and decide whether it is fair. If it isn’t, think long and hard to decide if grad school of worth it. Otherwise you are gambling your tuition on the hopes of attaining an assistantship that may never happen.

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Lola October 7, 2010 at 6:01 pm

V, assistant poisitions aren’t the same as workstudy ones, which is why the schools pick the ‘best’ students who apply for them – not ones who are in financial need or just haven’t gotten any positions before. It’s not a handout. TAs and RAs have important work, and this work needs to be performed by those who professors deem capable.

And if by ethnic you mean Asian or Indian, it’s par for the course that these students are everywhere in the academic world and are known for being at the top of their class.

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Stephanie October 7, 2010 at 6:05 pm

Well, I just spent a year doing an MA in English. At my school and at most other schools I’ve heard of, applicants get their funding offer (from the school) at the same time as they get their offer of admission. You said you’ve already been accepted into a graduate degree program. Check that acceptance letter. See if they offered you any scholarships, fellowships, RA-ships, or TA-ships. If they did offer you money, then that money is yours; it’s a contract. If they didn’t, they probably won’t give you much if anything.

Grad schools are notorious for giving money based on merit and not need. (But I’ve never heard of a school that only gives money to minorities.) In terms of RA-ships and TA-ships, that’s because they want the most qualified students to work as RAs or TAs. But, more generally, grad schools will do everything in their power (i.e., give money) to attract the best possible students. Why? Because a grad school’s reputation almost entirely rests upon the quality of it’s profs and students. No offence, but if your GPA is only 1.95, you should just be thrilled that you got in to grad school; I doubt any school would give you much money.

Did I starve in grad school? No, but I was one of those students that the grad schools wanted really bad, so they gave me a fair bit of scholarship money, plus a TA-ship in Sept.-Apr. and an RA-ship in the summer, and I got an external scholarship from another source as well.

Honestly, I think your best bet is to take your acceptance and hope you can prove yourself worthy enough to get some internal (i.e., from the school) or external (i.e., from other sources) scholarships along the way, but don’t get your hopes up. With a low GPA, you may not get another acceptance.

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news!

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Katie October 7, 2010 at 6:16 pm

This advice should definitely be qualified as being valid if you’re a grad student at a public university. Private universities rarely waive tuition, plus the tuition is higher. And now with work-study not being offered at some institutions, it can be really hard to make ends meet without taking out $80K in loans for two years of school.

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Ed October 7, 2010 at 7:48 pm

I have to say that “starving” is a mindset in graduate school. If you are worried about something like that, get used to doing a few things that can help you.
1. Shop the sales at your local supermarket. There are many things that you will still like.
2. Get used to finding value menus at restaurants.
3. If you have a buffet once a week, such as in the cafeteria of your college, each as much as you can for the day. Go to the lunch or brunch, as you will get the best value. Get your fill of protein as well.
4. Learn to cook as much as you can. This helped me a lot and made me better able to handle grad school.

About other financial issues, such as paying tuition, try to look around in other departments. Even though your GPA is low, many students who have good financial support may not be interested in the financial aid.

As a point, I felt more comfortable financially as a graduate student, because I was a graduate assistant (GA). My stipend and tuition break was enough to the point i only borrowed for my living expenses, but I did budget hard and had realistic expectations for my money. Develop realistic expectations for your living expenses, otherwise, it will stress you out. You will make the experience.

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James October 12, 2010 at 2:45 pm

The ethnic thing does happen. It makes the school look good. As to schools wanting the best, many don’t care. All they care about is having someone half-way competent these days. Having a high GPA is meaningless at many schools. Grade inflation is common these days. Health issues caused me to drop to a 1.66 early on, now it is 3.3+.

Depends on the school. Many public schools offer the above things, but many do not and most private schools don’t.

I will say that extroverts are more likely to get positions for one simple reason. They network. The old saying about it’s who you know has more than a grain of truth. I think who knows you, or about you, plays a stronger part in the equation. In employment, 78% of new hires are a result of direct or indirect networking.

@ Ed, skipping 2 goes a long way to not starving. Eating out is an unnecessary expense.

If you use bulk stores (Sams, etc.), then make sure you are getting a good deal since they are frequently not discounted prices even in bulk. I can usually get better deals at Wal-Mart or my local grocery than I can at Sams.

I am not a fan of 3, but all you can eat buffets are the way to go if you have to do it. 4 is the best option. Create food menus that allow you to take it with you to school. A friend does all that cooking on the week-end and stores/freezes anything that won’t last all week.

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James October 12, 2010 at 2:54 pm

Keep track of all of your spending for a month. Then, go through it and see how much of it is unnecessary. Necessary means necessary. Eating out is not necessary. Soda, junk food, is not necessary. Movies, movie rentals, etc. are not necessary. Cable/satellite is not necessary. If you need cable/satellite to get Internet initially, most allow you to drop it once you have Internet (depending on contracts, etc.). Honestly, Internet is not fully necessary even for online students. There are plenty of Internet options (school, library, wireless at various places for laptops).

School books, try http://www.fetchbook.com to find textbooks. It searches 145 book/textbook sites. Chegg or several other rental sites are other options. I have used Amazon, Ebay!, Chegg, fetchbook, and several other rental sites to get books. Intl. books are legal in this country, not too mention much cheaper (40 vs 140+), but may have slightly different end of chapter assignments. Used may be an option unless you need a code.

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Savrina Jay October 15, 2010 at 6:05 pm

Hi everyone! I am now working on my second Master’s Degree. The first degree was from the University of Phoenix, which I paid a hefty tuition fee. I learned as of this point that financial aid seemed completely different than my undergrad. In my undergrad days, it seemed like I always had extra funds from financial aid. I worked a little, didn’t have any scholarships or tuition assistance other than federal student loans. I decided four months after graduating with my MS/Administration of Justice and Security that the job market wasn’t as accepting as I would have hoped for. I decided to defer my loans, which is right now at about $80,000 and jump in grad school for a second time. Currently, I am working on my MBA. I would say that I am starving. The grad books are too expensive and I find myself making constant changes to accommodate for a lack of funds. I find myself choosing my classes based on which classes that don’t have textbooks or what classes I can find of through the University of Phoenix’s Online Library since I am Alumni and have access.

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Shannon November 20, 2010 at 5:51 pm

All I know is for me, its been all about finding the right combination between working too much to afford school, and taking enough classes to finish in the right amount of time. I think its really important to say, hey if I take 5 classes this semester, I am going to be getting a lot done, and may be able to finish in a year, but am I going to have to take out too many loans to do this because I won’t have time for a job?
For me, a lot of grad school has been about making really great professional connections, getting un paid and pain internships to help this, attending conferences I couldn’t really afford just to network, and I really feel its paid off. I know I will have a lot of loans to pay off on the end, and yea there has been some cutting back of my going out/fun money, but I think the connections I’ve made and the experiences I have had as an RA and intern make the loans worth it!

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Anonymous December 17, 2010 at 1:52 pm

Technically, you should not starve to death. If worse comes to worse, in some states, college students are eligible for Food Stamps.

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Grey_GirlPTK September 14, 2011 at 4:48 pm

I am ramping up to do my applications for grad schools currently, so have been looking into options in the financing depart.
I find it depends on what your program is and which grad school you attend influences how many TA & RA positions are offered. I have discovered that some schools let you do TA or RA outside of your program as they don’t fill all posoitions in some departments. So check with your program and departments that may bein a similar field–if you are a English major possibly work in History, etc.
Most grad students I have talked to work, at least part-time, is thy don’t land a RA or TA position. 20 hrs a week can help with food. Some also opt to live on campus, depends on the school, as housing gets lumped into their financial aid package. So they have a place to live.
All grad students I’ve spoken with apply to outside scholarships/grants on top of ones offered through their program/school.
Private schools do offer TA/RA positions. All that I have researched do. Public schools usually have far more applicants then positions, I’ve found. Also the private schools I’ve researched have suffered less impact from the economy than public schools that are dependent on state budgets.
For example, Seattl University offers TA & RA positions for grad students. SU has larger endowments and is not dependent on Washington State budget for funding, so hasn’t had to start making the cuts that University of Washington is looking at or the third tuition hikes for the third straight year.
It also depends on what your major is that you are pursuing. Vanderbilt U has the best rep for masters in education/teaching and is significantly less costly than say NYU. So where you go and live during the program affects your costs, too. NYC is very, very expensive. Other cities/towns are less so.
Basically you need to look at not just your loan debt, but also your overall cost of living while pursuing your master or PhD. Rent, utilities, etc all eat at your ability to feed yourself while in grad school. Some areas of the country are really very pricey and some are more affordable. So ask yourself if you must go to a prestigious, high end grad program? Must you live somewhere like NYC, Boston, or Malibu where it is so expensive to live? Or can you get the same quality from a smaller school and in a more economical area? Or online?
Also where do you want to live when you’re done? If it is NYC then you might be stuck there, but if it is somewhere else check the grad schools there. It might be less expensive there to live and tuition costs might be lower. Also you will be able to do internships and network where you ultimately like to live.

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Judy Arroyo September 17, 2011 at 2:09 pm

you wrote: Some schools try to place every grad student in an assistantship (mine did), and it usually wipes out your tuition and also gives you a monthly stipend.

What grad. school did you go to and what did you major in?

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