Reflecting on my experience with funding in grad school, I wondered: what does “fully funded” grad program really mean?
Now that I’m on the other side of it, I think that the “fully funded” PhD programs that my professors told me to apply to are really a myth. No grad program will support you financially 100% of the time. It’s more like somewhere between 70-80%.
Ultimately, it’s up to you to figure out how to make up for the remainder. This could involve anything from applying for fellowships to getting a part-time job.
There are so many moving parts when it comes to funding in grad school. In this week’s post, I’m reflecting on my own experience with funding as a grad student. I’m also sharing some things to consider so that your own experiences are as painless as possible.
Someone told me that students did not have to compete for funding during my recruitment visit to Michigan. In other words, because our interests and academic goals were so varied, this meant that we rarely competed with more than one person (if anyone at all) for the same funding opportunities.
In general, our funding was a mixture of internal and external fellowships, plus a minimum of four semesters of teaching. Occasionally a research assistantship might become available. You can see a breakdown of my funding over the seven years of my PhD below.
2016-2017 (Year 1) – Rackham Merit Fellowship (both semesters)
2017-2019 (Year 2-3) – Graduate Student Instructor (4 courses)
2019-2020 (Year 4) – Rackham Merit Fellowship (both semesters) + Graduate Student Instructor (1 course, Spring/Summer)
2020-2021 (Year 5) – Research Assistantship at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology (Fall); Rackham Merit Fellowship (Spring) + hourly curriculum consulting (January 2021) + invited guest lectures
2021-2022 (Year 6) – Rackham Predoctoral Fellowship (both semesters + summer)
2022-2023 (Year 7) – Rackham Merit Fellowship (Fall); Rackham One-Term Dissertation Fellowship (Spring)
I want to highlight two things from this breakdown of my funding over the course of my degree.
Something I think I overlooked for most of my first year of grad school is the timing of my funding. At Michigan, we usually get our last paychecks in late April or May, and our first one in mid-September.
This means that we have four months without regular pay.
If you’re in or about to enter an archaeology program, it is important to find out about summer funding ASAP. You should also check out this article by Heath-Stout and Hannigan on the cost of archaeological field schools.
Initially, I thought that my program was pretty generous with summer funding.
This was before I had to get through an entire summer – including fieldwork abroad – on a measly $2500. While the project I worked on covered my room and board, this still wasn’t enough to account for international flights, rent, and utilities for four months.
I remember having to ask my mom for a loan that first summer because I could barely get by when I returned from Greece.
Sometimes summer funding can come with strings attached, so ask for clarification. Can you use the funding for anything (including rent and utilities), or must you put it towards a university project if you participate in one?
Get these questions answered upfront so you’ll know how much money you have for the summer.
Knowing your options for summer funding is just as important for students in non-archaeology programs.
Archaeology students aren’t the only ones who have other responsibilities to think about during that time. Bills don’t stop being due once your last paycheck rolls in for the academic year.
Other Sources of Funding
Second, there are some things I included that were not strictly part of my funding package from the university or my program.
The most obvious one is probably the invited guest lectures, which I largely gave virtually in AY 2020-2021. I included these because I received an honorarium for just about all those lectures, which provided further financial support during my PhD.
Various faculty members approached me to give these talks. However, it’s not uncommon for grad students to seek out additional funding sources, including part-time employment.
I did this only once, when I worked as a curriculum consultant by my department in January 2021. My fellowship limited me, however, to working a maximum of 10 hours a week.
Most students, I think, take on part-time jobs in the summertime, especially if they have no other source of income during that time (and most don’t).
Other Funding Things I Wish I’d Known Sooner
One of the biggest hidden costs of grad school – and indeed academia – is reimbursement.
This Twitter thread sums it up pretty well:
This article from 2019 expresses similar sentiments. In it, Ana Rosado argues that this system of reimbursement is “one of the clearest forms of structural inequality in academia.”
I did not know about this system – so deeply ingrained in academia – before starting grad school. But it is something that I have experienced countless times over the last seven years.
Each time I remember how this system disproportionately affects so many people. Not all graduate students are independently wealthy. I certainly am not.
There are many people out there who have horror stories to tell about dealing with reimbursement. But I’m not sure about how to solve this problem.
Cost of Living
One thing that the University of Michigan’s grad student union is still fighting for is a living wage for all grad workers. This is because “our wages haven’t kept up with Ann Arbor’s sky-rocketing cost of living.”
The fact that there were 15 academic strikes in the US in 2022 makes it clear that this is not an uncommon issue.
According to one website, the cost of living for one person living in Ann Arbor is $2260 a month, including rent and utilities, food, and transport. Another website puts Ann Arbor’s COL at $2887, which they consider reasonable as they calculate the average monthly salary to be $4103 per month.
On fellowship this past year, I made a little over half of that estimate per month.
I’ve been pretty lucky with my living situation over the last seven years.
I was able to live comfortably on my own for the first five years of my degree. My rent and utilities living in a one-bedroom apartment about 1-1.5 miles from campus were approximately $1200-1300 a month.
If you want to live closer to campus, it may make more financial sense to share a place. After having roommates for four years of college, I decided that having my own space was more important than proximity to campus.
Ultimately, it’s important to seriously consider how the funding you receive relates to local cost of living. Is your paycheck enough to live on?
Can you pay rent with that and still have money left over for food and transportation? Health care visits? Emergencies? A night out with friends?
One of the many questions that I suggest asking when you visit a grad program concerns this very issue. Start asking for advice from current students ASAP.