in Economics, Uncategorized

You Mean I Can Get Paid to Stay in School?!?

If the title caught your attention, read on to find out how funding and money works in graduate school.

Photo by Good Free Photos on Unsplash

Graduate versus Professional Degree

The biggest distinction in economics is between ‘traditional’ graduate degrees (which typically pay you) and ‘professional’ graduate degrees (which typically you pay for).

The Professional Master’s Degree

Recently there has been healthy growth in what are called professional master’s degrees in economics.  If you are admitted, you pay tuition to the university, take classes, and get a degree at the end. Of course, the material is more advanced and more specialized than an undergraduate degree, but it costs money to attend.

They tend to be shorter than a traditional research based graduate degree, and the research component will be small or non-existent. It works well for professionals who want to return quickly to their careers, want deep disciplinary knowledge, but don’t necessary need advanced training in research.

The Traditional Graduate Degree (Masters or Ph.D.)

I am calling a traditional graduate program one where the student gets either a master’s or a Ph.D. degree in which they will take classes and conduct a significant research project that will culminate with them writing a master’s thesis or a Ph.D. dissertation. In this kind of program students are often admitted with full funding and given a stipend.

That’s right, students do not pay tuition, and they receive a stipend – usually around $20K a year.

This sounds too good to be true, right?


Well, there is a catch. In exchange for this funding and stipend students usually have either a Teaching Assistantship or a Research Assistantship.

TA Funding

TA’s are expected to help with teaching activities like grading, preparing course materials, lecturing, or running discussion sections. If a class is big, your whole assignment might be helping with just one class. Otherwise you may be assigned to two smaller classes.

This is obviously good for students because they get paid while working toward their graduate degree. It is also good for the university because teaching classes is a labor intensive process (especially classes taught the traditional way), and paying graduate students to do some of this work is actually cost effective.

RA Funding

RA’s are expected to help with the research activities of a professor. Oftentimes, but not always, this professor will be your adviser. And sometimes, when you are lucky, the topic will be related to the research you will do for your thesis (M.S.) or dissertation (Ph.D.).

Where Does the RA Money Come From?

So where does the money for RA’s come from? RA’s are typically funded from either grant money or through an endowment the professor controls.

Grant money: Research professors often apply to government agencies (like NSF, NIH, USDA, etc), non-profit foundations, or corporations for grants to complete specific research projects. Money is typically budgeted for graduate student help in these grants and used to cover the financial cost of hiring the RA and waiving their tuition.

Endowments: You might have noticed some professors have funny titles like, ‘John Doe is the XYZ professor of such and such.’ These named positions are created when a donor gives a large some of money to create this position; these are called endowed chairs. The professor usually gets to spend the interest off of this money for research, and usually will fund graduate student researchers, data, machines or any other things needed to get the research done.

Why do donors give money for this purpose? Usually they believe in the mission of the university and they especially believe in the promise of that specific area of research to make a positive impact in the world in some way.

Graduate Fellowships

There is a third category called a fellowship. Fellowships can be awarded by the university or by an outside organization. They typically come from a donor that wants to invest directly in graduate students. If you receive a fellowship you will have your tuition waived and you will receive a stipend and you have no specific ‘job’ you are supposed to do in exchange for this except be an awesome student. Obviously this is the best case scenario for most people, and most fellowships are highly competitive. Some you can apply for and some are internally awarded or internally nominated during your application process.

If you get one of these, Congratulations! That’s amazing! But, do make sure you are making connections to professors. If you don’t get connected to someone you can float around too long without a research topic.

Study at ACE!

If this all sounds great, consider applying to ACE – Agricultural and Consumer Economics at the University of Illinois!


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