Friday, 4 March 2011

Choosing and getting into MPH programs: Part 5: Getting funded

At long last, the conclusion to my MPH series! I hope it has been helpful to people out there. Here's the full list of the series:

Part 1: Should you even get an MPH?
Part 2: What is a Master's in Public Health, anyway?
Part 3: Which MPH program(s) should you apply to?
Part 4: Getting in

So! Getting funded.

There are, as far as I can tell, the following ways to get funded for your MPH:
1) Loans (federal or private). Obviously, these are the least preferable as you will have to pay them back!
2) Grants: the school pays part of your tuition, and you are not obliged to pay them back.
3) Assistantships/fellowships/etc.: these come under several different names, but you are generally employed by the university - doing something like working on a research project, assisting professors, TAing classes - and in return get some or all of your tuition paid for. Sometimes these also come with a monthly stipend.
4) Outside fellowships/scholarships: Funding you apply for completely independently of the university
5) Tuition assistance as an employee of the university: Many schools will let employees take one free course a semester, and/or offer a discount for classes
6) Tuition assistance as an employee of a lovely, generous outside company: Some companies/organizations will pay for their employees to take classes or pursue a particular degree that is relevant to their workplace

(Does anyone have other sources to add to this list?)

So how do you sort this all out and figure out how YOU will pay for school?

Again, I'll tell you a little story to start. When I applied to schools, I basically figured nobody would offer me a full ride, and nobody would offer me zero aid at all - they would all offer me some variable amount of aid. I also figured I had relatively little control over whether or not I got said aid.

Come decision-time, I discovered that what I thought was my first choice was offering me basically nothing. They just deducted the expected family contribution from their tuition, and offered me the rest in loans. That really dampened my enthusiasm, along with a campus visit that made me realize this wasn't really the ideal program I'd thought it would be. On the heels of that realization I got an offer from another school for a full fellowship my first year, with the possibility of finding more funding my second. I then visited the school that had been my second choice, had great interactions with some faculty there, told them about my full-funding offer from the other school, and they offered me what amounted to a third of their tuition in grants - the rest I would still need to cover or take out loans for.

So, so much for my ideas that I would get all the same funding offers and had no control over the process! I basically lucked my way into a great situation, despite having started the process with a lot of misconceptions. (If you're wondering what the end of the story is - I weighed my options with no small amount of agonizing, and ended up taking the fellowship. And I've never regretted it!) So let's talk about a few things I learned:

You do have control in some situations - and if you don't, you should find out.

At What-I-Thought-Was-My-First-Choice, I talked with a faculty member, with the administrative director of the program I was applying to, and with a financial aid officer. I also talked to a student there I happened to know. Everyone told me the same thing: you can only avoid paying full price if you find a position as a full-time employee, and go to school part-time using your employee tuition remission. There were literally hundreds of applications for every posted position. I had very little control in that situation! I was not one of the people at their accepted students day still asking about how to get funding - I already knew the score.

Talk with students, administrators, and faculty realistically to get an honest assessment of whether this program could be affordable for you. Even if you don't have control, at least you'll know about it.

At Second-Choice, I had more control than I realized. By meeting with faculty and expressing my enthusiasm for their program and talking to them about my other offer, I was able to get an offer of more grants - although still not what I would have liked.

If you get competing offers, let the other schools know diplomatically, while letting them know how much you'd like to be able to attend their program.

At Where-I-Ended-Up-Going, I had way more control than I realized until I got to campus. I had a fellowship that gave me tuition remission + a stipend, but other students had assistantships that gave them the same thing, and they had come to campus to meet with faculty and network for assistantships before they were even accepted. Knowing I would need something for my second year, I did the same and my fantastic advisor helped me find an assistantship for my second year.

At our school, not everyone was promised an assistantship, and the positions weren't generally posted - your advisor might talk to somebody who had one to offer, or you might hear from a friend that she was quitting hers for a different position. Networking was a necessity! At a couple other schools I applied to, they more or less said upfront that they would help anyone who wanted an assistantship find one.

Again, talk to faculty, students, and administrators to find out how you can get funding, and network, network, network! I told everyone I talked to at the end of my first year that I was looking for funding. Don't be shy!

Continuing in the networking theme, look for funding sources outside your department. If you speak German, a TAship in the German department could get you just as much tuition remission as one in the MPH program. If your school offers employee tuition assistance, working for the admissions office full-time won't get you through school as quickly, but it could mean a lot of $$ saved.

If you'd like to try to get funding from an outside source, many schools have a listserv that lists opportunities for outside fellowships and funding you can apply for. Also keep an eye out for programs that the university administers, but come from outside sources: I could kick myself for not applying to the Foreign Language Area Studies Program.

Important consideration for public universities: It's important to find out who can be considered a resident for tuition purposes, and how to establish your residency. Some states are huge sticklers - you have to be living there for many years before you can be a resident and provide signed proof from your landlord, your great-grandmother, and God. Some are much more relaxed, with shorter terms and less proof needed. The difference between in-state and out-of-state can be huge, so investigate this carefully. (Also check to see if the new state has an education compact with your home state, where the states agree to offer in-state tuition reciprocally to each other's residents.)

Finally, be realistic about where this program will get you financially and what you're able to pay back if you'll need to take out loans. I found the NY Times article Is Law School a Losing Game?, to be great reading for anyone considering any type of graduate school. Here's an excerpt:

Compared with the life he left four years ago, he has lost ground. That research position in Newark, he figures, would pay him $60,000 a year now, with benefits. Instead, he’s vying with a crowd for jobs that pay at rates just a little higher, but that last only a few weeks at a time, with no benefits. And he’s a quarter-million dollars in the hole.

At least no MPH will put you a quarter-million dollars in debt! But let's be real: we're not in a good economy right now. Think carefully about whether graduate school will put you in a better situation - financially, career-wise, health-and-happiness-wise - before you commit to the debt it can entail. Don't just ignore a lower-cost program that you love less. I loved What-I-Thought-Was-My-First-Choice; then I loved Second-Choice; I was really unsure about Where-I-Ended-Up-Going. I finally made the decision by saying to myself, "Any school you go to, some parts of it are going to make you pissed off or seem useless or that you just hate. You might as well hate them for free." Like I said, I've never regretted that choice! (Just to clarify, I ended up liking my program just fine, but there were of course parts that drove me nuts.)

This concludes my extremely long-drawn-out series! I hope it's been helpful to people out there (and continues to be). (If you're thinking about e-mailing me with questions, please read through the whole series to see if I've already answered them.)

Best of luck with your MPH journey!