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Paying for College

Free Money for Grad School

Boost your chances of getting someone to pay for your master's or PhD.

Editor's note: This story has been updated.

When Elizabeth Kerr was a full-time PhD student in religious studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara -- and she made a decent living to boot. Thanks to two fellowships, she earned the equivalent of $42,000 a year, including the full cost of tuition and health insurance plus a stipend for living expenses.

A year of graduate school costs, on average, a total of $28,375 for a master's degree at a public school and $38,665 at a private school (most master's programs take one to two years). Four out of five full-time grad students receive financial aid, and the average package is $20,000 per year; student loans usually make up 75% of the total.

But some students like Kerr graduate virtually debt-free.

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Compared with undergraduate education, far less money is available for grad school on the basis of financial need alone. "Grad schools give awards based more on merit than need," says Kalman Chany, author of Paying for College Without Going Broke (Princeton Review, $20). In 2007-08, only about 9% of master's-degree candidates received an institutional fellowship, according to the Council of Graduate Schools, and 7% scored a break on tuition. About one-fourth of doctoral candidates received fellowships, tuition waivers or both in 2007-08. Students in the physical sciences, economics, engineering, religion and theology have the best shot at getting a fellowship; fewer grants are available for advanced degrees in business and education. (For more information on fellowships, visit FastWeb.com or www.cuinfo.cornell.edu/Student/GRFN.)

Assistantships, which require you to work in return for a stipend (the average was $14,055 in 2007-08 for research assistants and $11,763 for teaching assistants), are most common in the physical sciences. Nearly half of all full-time candidates for master's degrees in science are paid for work as assistants.

Start early. Decisions concerning fellowships, scholarships and assistantships are made at the department level, says Mary Pat Doyle, associate director of financial aid for the graduate school at Northwestern University. Awards for the academic year beginning each fall are determined within a month of the application deadline, generally the previous December or January, so it pays to start lobbying a year in advance.

A request for financial aid won't be held against your admission, says Peter Diffley, co-author of Paying for Graduate School Without Going Broke (Princeton Review, $20) and an associate dean of the graduate school at Notre Dame. Tell the school if you'll be giving up a salary. The more the faculty wants you, the more aid you'll get.

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Network. Seek out departments where you'd be a good fit. A year before applying for grad school, Kerr e-mailed scholars in religious studies whose research she respected to ask for academic guidance. They pointed her to UCSB's professors, who were impressed with her undergraduate record in anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Spiff up your résumé. Graduate-school admission is based on your undergraduate grade-point average, the reputation of your undergraduate school, recommendations and your specific research interests. If your GPA isn't as high as you'd like, use your application to tout other strengths -- field work, jobs, extra classes -- that might not appear on your transcript.

Consider a PhD. Doctoral candidates have a better shot at receiving free money, so go for a PhD rather than a master's if that makes sense in your field. Most PhD programs support their students for at least four years. "If they really want you, a PhD is going to be free," says Diffley.

Also look into outside funding from a company or organization that would benefit from your research. Rachel Johnson, who received a master's degree in industrial engineering from Arizona State University this spring, received a full-tuition scholarship funded by Intel through Semiconductor Research Corp. And that was just the beginning: Johnson, 24, also landed an Intel internship that led to a job, and she plans to eventually earn a PhD on the company's dime.