How is Graduate School Free?

By: Niaja Farve

Coins and calculatorThe most common justification given to STEM students for pursuing a graduate degree is the promise of a “free” education. Rarely is there an explanation for why this is the case and how it works. Is simply being accepted and registering for a program enough? While the large majority of STEM students never pay out of pocket for their graduate degrees, they do work for them. Graduate school is generally available without out-of-pocket tuition expenses because you, as a graduate student, are now a researcher. In return for the knowledge you create through your research, your advisor, department or institution takes care of your academic fees. Therefore, as a graduate student you are employed by the school — you now have a full time job! However, it is not your only job. You are a still a student expected to fulfil certain academic requirements prior to receiving your degree. So yes, your graduate diploma may not cost you money, but it will not simply be handed to you.

There are several ways to achieve a debt-free graduate experience — each has its pros and cons. The following options are specific to STEM graduate programs.


Research Assistantship (RA)

The majority of your academic fees are paid for by serving as a research assistant. This is the default title for a graduate student conducting research. Most research institutions will require you perform research every semester, regardless if that is how you plan to pay for your semester. To obtain an RA appointment, you typically need to seek out a professor with funding for an open research position that you would fill. Therefore, although you may be in love with a lab and the research they do, if the professor does not have funding, you cannot hold an appointment with that lab unless you have your own way of paying for your academic expenses.


A fellowship is the ideal way to pay for graduate school. Fellowships are comparable to scholarships. They are given based on merit, although applications will ask about your research experience. Fellowships allow you to have more control over where you do your research. You are essentially a free student to a professor. If they have the time and resources for you, there is not much incentive for them to turn you away. The only caveat is that fellowships come in varying amounts. Therefore, you will need to make sure you understand how much funding the fellowship provides and for how long.

Teaching Assistantship (TA)

A teaching assistantship is exactly what it sounds like: an appointment for a semester where you help teach a course. Most programs will generally require you to hold an appointment for at least one semester. While serving as a TA, you are still expected to progress with your first job (research) and depending on your schedule, your own courses. Therefore, a TA position  typically functions as a third job that you have to balance.


Grants are funding specifically for a research project. A graduate student would most likely only apply for a grant with an advisor that will serve as the primary investigator. This route is generally only pursued once you have joined a lab and have a clear project. Since it is given based on a set research proposal, a grants limits the flexibility of your research.


Last but not least, loans. Loans are an extreme effort taken in very rare cases.

SuccessEach STEM graduate program is different and has varying funding methods for students. While most programs leave it to the student to decide how they will find funding, some programs take care of everything as soon as you are accepted. This article is meant to help inform you about the options that exist. Make sure to know all the facts before making a decision on where you want to earn (and pay for!) your graduate degree.