Committing to a Full Time Doctoral Program Without Full Funding
In 2016, when I found out that I got accepted to the Educational Leadership and Policy doctoral program at New York University's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, I was elated. However, my excitement was put on pause with a temporary fear: how was I going to pay for all of this? Unfortunately, my program only offered one fully funded PhD but had space and funding for part-time EdD students. I gave my verbal acceptance and figured I would work out the details of funding later. There was one caveat, I was committed to doing my doctoral studies full time.
I had just come out of a really stressful position and I knew that I needed to make the commitment to focus on this degree for my future. Plus, I was freshly healing from a massive surgery that removed a tumor from my lower right jaw (that is another blog post), so I could not reasonably expect to heal, work full time, and do a doctorate full time. I spoke to financial aid and learned that I still had some federal funding available through Stafford Loans, but only up to the first year because I already had 2 master's degrees and a bachelor's degree that ate through those unsubsidized and subsidized loans. The alternative, the Graduate Plus Loan - this was my best bet for funding my education and cost of living while in school for 9 months of the year, the rest would be subsidized through my part-time employment that I secured on campus. Now, keep in mind, I still had part time funding, through scholarships that funded the cost of my coursework, so I had some flexibility in how much of a Graduate Plus Loan I could take out.
In my four, er, I mean, five years at NYU, I have maintained several positions. Most recently, I was working BC (before Covid), I secured two on-campus positions, one administrative and one research-based. Unfortunately, when Covid hit in March, I was out of not one, but two jobs. I thought that was it, but NYU did something great, they continued to pay graduate student workers even if they could not do their jobs because the university had gone fully remote. Fortunately, when the fall 2020 semester began I was able to start two, NYU-based research positions and a course assistantship. Yup, that's right, I was juggling 3 jobs and a researching and writing for my dissertation. I DO NOT RECOMMEND THIS - I almost burned out. Yet, here I am again, spring 2021, up to my neck in my dissertation drafts and I am a course assistant for the winter session (4-weeks), a teacher's assistant at Barnard College for 2 courses (6-weeks each and staggered in two sections), a research assistant and of course, completing my dissertation and preparing for a spring defense. I opted for work that gives me experience that benefits me in my academic journey, which is ultimately a tenured professor position, and all of these roles contribute to that goal.
My biggest piece of advice, if you have a goal, think of the sacrifices that you will have to make to get there and make your decision accordingly. Have I missed out on five years of potential savings and building my 401k? Sure have. But I knew what I was getting myself into. Let me be a cautionary tale to you; learn from my actions, take my advice and craft a journey that works best for you. I have no regrets.
Advice for Prospective Doctoral Students:
Secure a part time position before you start your coursework. This will allow you to establish yourself in your department and become close to the faculty, who will in turn think of you when other opportunities arise.
Apply to work on grant-funded research programs. Doing so will create a funding stream for you and you can get paid at a higher rate while completing your research. Most universities will limit the amount of hours you can work weekly, typically around 20 hours per week. If you can negotiate full health care benefits and join the graduate student union if there is one available at your school.
Seek out teaching opportunities early on. Look for teaching assistantships or course assistantships to gain more teaching experience. Ask your professors if they need a TA, they usually have funding for these positions.
Make sure that everyone in your department knows who you are. Let your presence be positive and helpful, talk to professors that you do not normally work with, do some background research on them. This is academic networking 101.
Join the professional networks for your specialization. I am a member and previously elected Graduate Student Council (GSC) of AERA and UCEA, which are the top organizations for educational leadership and administration. You want to attend these conference
Ask for office space*. This is self-explanatory. You need space to work and be productive and I found that I did my best work on campus. Speak to you department's administrator to see if you can get 24/7 access to your office space. Thank me later.
Find a tribe. I have a sister circle of scholars and we are all at varying levels, some have graduate and are professors, some just finished and got their degrees, some are writing their dissertations and some are in proposal phase, but we all have each other. We work together via zoom, Monday - Friday from 9am - 11am and share our projects and hold each other accountable.
* Post-Covid 19 or whenever your university re-opens.
Secure external funding. Look for grant opportunities early on and diligently. If you are involved in education, you can look for various grants and fundings through membership in AERA, the American Educational and Research Association and UCEA, University Council for Educational Administration.
Secure internal funding. Graduate Student Councils at your school as well as your department have funding for conferences, dissertation research, and more. Make sure you are taking advantage of everything that the have to offer
Graduate Plus Loans & Stafford Loans. Just because your university is offering you loans, it does not mean that you have to take them. However, if you need to cover your cost of living, take them. There is no point in struggling. Think of this as an investment into your future, but borrow wisely, do not take more than you need. You can always return loan money received.
Always stay in communication with your advisor and /or chairperson. In good times or bad times, they need to know what is going on with you and your research. Don't ghost them.
I hope that these tips are helpful. If you have any questions about pursing a doctoral degree, feel free to send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and I am happy to set up a 15-minute consultation.