The Cost of the PhD/MA/MS program

  • Professors forget that money doesn't grow on trees. They might promise you that money will show up somewhere, when it in fact never does, or only does in small amounts. Look for a fully funded program, bargain your tuition down, and do not settle for vague financial promises unless you are actually prepared (i.e. with a savings account, a money-earning partner, or a free place to live) to head up Shit Creek.
  • You might be used to living on <$20k a year, but you might not be used to doing that while pretending to be a young upwardly mobile academic/scholar. A lot of networking opportunities are expensive (conference fees can be $300+, plus flight, hotel, food while you're at the conference, being cool and offering a glass of wine or cup of coffee to your scholar crush, etc.). Dressing for and playing the part of someone who knows what they're doing at these things can be stressful for the not-so-WASPy.
  • Others might disagree, but never pay for your Ph.D. If you can’t be fully funded then you’re going into debt and in all likelihood you will not get a job that can carry that debt. Even if things are rough, don’t take a loan (to pay for tuition). Instead ask around, chances are there is money sitting somewhere that you can use. (In a grant that needs to be spent down, for example.) Although, professional doctorates (EdD, DSci) are NOT a terrible option depending what you want to do with your degree. Moreover, if you’re unable to get accepted into the university that you want and you consistently try year after year and get rejected year after year, professional schools are there for you. Some include (CIIS, Alliant International University, Palo Alto University, Argosy University, JFK University). Find out from those who have the types of position you want whether the degree you are considering will get you where you want to go. For example, you can get a PhD from some institutions and not be prepared for many academic positions because of the competitive job market.
    • When you are calculating the cost of a PhD, don’t forget to calculate the amount you would have been paid in a real job (opportunity cost). E.g., if you would have been paid $50,000 a year at a copy editors and it takes you 5 years to finish your PhD, but your stipend is only $20,000, that’s (50-20)=$30,000/year x 5 years = $150,000 that you are actually foregoing to get a PhD. No PhD is free. This is why it is actually important to FOCUS during grad school and graduate ASAP - because living on 20k a year really does suck.
        • When you do this calculation, also think about the benefits you’re giving up, particularly an employer match to a retirement program. Compounding interest means that not contributing during your early and mid-twenties has an outsize impact on your eventual retirement savings
        • When you’re making this calculation, also think about the undergrad loans that you will be able to defer. If they are unsubsidized, you will still be paying the interest (and may have to compound it at the end if you can’t pay all along). On the other hand, I deferred undergrad loans while I was getting my PhD and it gave me enough leeway to pay down some crappy consumer debt that I never would have been able to get out from under while paying on student loans.

Other Money Issues

  • I was born and raised in AR (Arizona?) and then ultimately earned an MA from Columbia University in NYC as a single mother. I have lots of little tid-bits on how I did it and pep talks for when one gets discouraged. However, I think it's important to state that I failed when it comes to money. I got talked into big loans that I can never pay back.
  • It is important to figure out before starting grad school how much you will be paid and how much you will have to pay in tuition AND fees. If you are on a TA/RA, you usually figure out your stipend amount and that tuition is covered before you start grad school, but fees are often a hidden cost. Many schools cover them, but my (large, highly regarded, public) school does not unless you are on a training grant or fellowship. The fees are over $4,000/year, which is equivalent to a year of lost salary over the course of a PhD.
  • For groceries, also look into food co-ops. They all work a bit differently, but usually you volunteer or pay a small fee to get much cheaper prices on groceries. The food co-op close to me in Pittsburgh also offers part-time jobs complete with benefits and deeper discounts on food.
  • You may think I'm crazy, but Whole Foods can have some good deals. They have an app now that tells you your local store's promotions and coupons. They also have a coupon book by the checkout counters in the store (You can double up on store sales and coupons!!).
  • Whole Foods also takes manufactures' coupons. Their in-store brand, 365, is also sometimes more affordable than what you can get in regular grocery stores. Thus, you get high quality groceries at a great price if you shop the promotions and sales.
  • If your school has a food bank and you qualify to use it, use it. It's likely not just to be for undergrads!
  • When considering various tips on how to be "frugal", be sure to place some value on your time.

Costs of books

  • Ask the previous year students for their old copies; group share with those in your class (you buy a set together and keep in an office or some other central location); ask the prof to borrow their comp copies. Some books you need to own and others you just need to read. Ask the prof and other students which are which.
  • Be aware of shadow libraries. Ask other students which ones they use and remember to contribute back. >> What is a shadow library?
  • and other sites for inexpensive books, used and new. because on campus bookstores are a giant rip-off
  • It is also much cheaper to rent books on Amazon,, and - especially if they’re books you won’t want to keep.
  • Amazon also buys back certain books and pays you a small sum per book they accept.
  • If you teach, you might be able to request desk copies of books--if you teach courses in your specific field of study, all the better. Check with dept admin, and make contacts with local book representatives from various publishers. Some press, like Oxford, will allow you to contact directly to request desk copies. This is easier than it sounds. Often you can just go to the publisher website and request a desk copy. You’ll have to say what class you’re considering it for and, later, if you will be ordering it for that class. OK this with your advisor. You can also get in contact with the sales rep for your area and s/he will send you the books. The department administrative assistant may know the sales reps for major publishers your department works with, check in with him/her; otherwise you can do a search on the publisher’s website for your local rep and contact him/her that way.
  • Go digital. This ties in with the cost of bookshelves and moving. It is not easy to move with boxes of books. Check if your university holds digital copies. If not, google the book. Some authors and professors believe in free and open software and sharing of knowledge. Get on your VPN and search Google Scholar, Research Gate, Many entire books are available in PDF.
  • Have you checked to see if Inter Library Loan has your book? They probably do… but make your request early as you may be competing with other students for your library / interlibrary loan copies
    • At the start of each semester, I would get the syllabi and put the readings in my calendar on the days I would need to request them through ILL (or BorrowDirect for some) to get it in time for class.
    • If the library at your university does not own a book, you (or your advisor) can request that they purchase it (i.e. desk copy). In many places, faculty are asked each year to suggest new books to their subject librarian to add to the holdings. If there are books that are foundational to your field or that faculty are asking you to read, they should have it in your library.
  • Wait until Day 1 of class to see whether you truly need all the texts on the syllabus. Sometimes professors are mandated to list them but might not actually use them - so wait before spending $ on them. Alternatively, consider emailing the professor a few weeks in advance to ask whether you truly need all the books on the list (or just ask which ones you need on Day 1). If you wait til Day 1 to purchase required books, you may end up having to choose between buying the new book(s) full-price at the school bookstore or falling behind in reading while waiting for used book(s) in the mail.
  • Go to the campus bookstore early in the semester to check what the professor has ordered as a required text (they will submit that well before you get the syllabus) and then order cheaper copies online.
  • After the semester is over, resell the textbooks online if no longer needed. makes this easy. Buying used textbooks online and then reselling will help keep your book costs minimal.
  • Compare editions online before you buy. Sometimes textbooks that are very expensive to buy new have older editions you can purchase for pennies on the dollar. Photocopy chapters not found in your older edition at the library.
  • Ask the professor or library to put texts on reserve or order books for classes on interlibrary loan. Scan what you need and learn to do your reading on a computer, instead of paying for photocopies.
  • When you have a few years under your belt, you can ask to review copies of books you want but cannot afford. Check with your advisor.
  • Find out if your school provides software you'll use. Many schools have contracts with software companies that allow you to download Microsoft Office or other software at no charge. This is not a handout but is included in your tuition or funding. Additionally, software created by academics and used to analyze data is often freeware. Don't assume you can't afford it until you check!
  • Use citation management software, such as Zotero or Endnote, to store and format the citations for your papers. Some of these are free and they can make your life immeasurably easier! Start using it on your class and conference papers and you'll be familiar with it when you are trying to format your thesis or dissertation.
  • If you only need a chapter from a book (not the whole book), requesting just that chapter through interlibrary loan will usually get you a scanned pdf of that chapter, sometimes the same day or within a couple of days.

Department administration and salary payments

  • Ask your fellow grad students if the department has ever paid out the first salary/ pay check late. This happens-- you may move to a new college town in July/Aug and only get your pay in Sept/Oct. You need savings to tide you over from May-Sept in such a case.
  • Set up automated bank account transfers of your salary if you are going to a US school and this is your preferred choice-- this may not be the default option in some antiquated or state universities.