Tips on Applying to Grad Programs in Religious Studies (Part VI): Funding

The follow post was written by oudenos as part of our continuing series on graduate education.

Fall is approaching and applications to Humanities and Religious Studies PhD programs become due as early as the first week of December. Last year FPR posted a series of discussions concerning PhD students’ experiences in various programs at various institutions. This post is an attempt to revisit and revive those discussions for the sake of this year’s crop of applicants. Specifically, I want to talk about the topic of funding—an issue inescapable to every aspiring grad student.

Some schools are very generous with funding packages, others are not and the reasons for this vary. Prestigious research schools which are also private institutions like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Duke, Stanford, and Notre Dame provide excellent funding for their admitted students because they are schools with well established and large grad programs, extensive endowments, and yearly budgets which not tied to the vicissitudes of state economies. With admission to such schools you are nearly guaranteed a full tuition waiver, health insurance (usually basics plans), stipends ranging from 16-25K per annum, and extra money for summer research (think travel, language training, and conference attendance). Usually such offers are for 4-5 years with the prospect of further funding once a student reaches the candidate level.

Depending upon the school, some stipend offers also come with work stipulations like TA-ships, instructorships, or research assistantships while other offers are without strings. Flagship state schools like Virginia, Michigan, Indiana, Texas, UNC, Colorado, Illinois, Wisconsin, etc., usually offer similar funding packages to admitted students in order to remain competitive with the wealthy private institutions. However, these schools generally offer stipends in the range of 12-20K per annum and they are more commonly attached to teaching/TA/research responsibilities. Also, their yearly cohorts tend to fluctuate in size based upon the money relegated by the respective state to its universities. Smaller private, prestigious schools like Emory, Rice, or Johns Hopkins tend to offer financial packages which exceed state schools and often compete with and sometimes exceed the larger private schools though their yearly cohorts are significantly smaller and sometimes no offers are made for an application cycle. Then there are schools like Claremont, Graduate Theological Union, or Catholic University which regularly admit PhD students but offer them only a small percentage of tuition reimbursement (25-50%) with no stipend or health insurance. To this same category (at least for US citizens) belong the super prestigious British universities (Oxford and Cambridge) and slightly less prestigious universities (Exeter, St. Andrews, etc.) which gladly accept American applicants but nearly never provide any substantial funding.

The real difficulties arise when you have been admitted to more than one program and decisions must be made. Easy scenario: admission to Princeton for your dream program and faculty, full funding, and 3 other admissions to state schools with less prestige in your field and with smaller funding offers. Case closed. Puzzling scenario: admission to Cornell with full funding but to a program which doesn’t really fit your research interests and with faculty who are not a perfect fit for your interests, and admission to several top-flight state schools with slightly less funding but with better fits to your interests. Hard scenario: admission to Wisconsin under a professor whose work inspired you to enter the field and with whom you have an existing relationship, your funding offer is decent (tuition, 14K, insurance), and admission to Harvard under a very busy and notoriously difficult-to-work-with professor but with tuition, 24K stipend, insurance, and further research money. Intriguing scenario: admission to a few good state schools with good funding, and an admission to a small up-and-coming program at a smaller private school…and they just sweetened the deal by offering you a presidential scholarship which covers tuition, insurance, and give your 25K for five years. Frustrating scenario: admission to Claremont with 30% tuition waiver, no stipend, and no insurance; also, no other admissions to PhD programs but MA admissions to Harvard and Chicago with half tuition offers (but you are still left shelling out about 16K per annum). Excruciating and potentially bankrupting scenario: admission to Oxford with no funding whatsoever, no other PhD offers, and 3 admissions to MA programs with half tuition waivers (although you are just finishing an MA already).

What to do? What to do? These choices are, of course, compounded by the necessities of families, marriages, locations, job prospects, careers of spouses or significant others, costs of living, and consummations and destructions of life dreams.

So, let’s hear your personal stories, your quandaries, your triumphant admissions, your self-esteem and dream shattering rejections, and most importantly, your useful advice for up and coming scholars in Humanities and Religious Studies (or whatever other field in which the readership of FPR is engaged).

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com TT

    I couldn’t agree more about avoiding debt at all costs for a PhD. I literally wouldn’t go if I meant significant debt. One makes little enough money as it is in this profession. One thing that you didn’t address though is going to debt for a masters. This I do think is acceptable I you makes you more competitive for a good doctoral program.

  • oudenos

    TT,
    I agree that going in to debt for a masters is not a bad thing especially if it is a respectable program which regularly places graduates from it in good PhD programs. These days it is almost a given that a PhD applicant (in Humanities or Religious Studies) will have a masters degree (or two) in a related field(s).

    I am not certain that I made it clear in the post but I strongly advise against incurring debt for the PhD. The only debt that I deem reasonable is if one must take out a loan to finish the dissertation (but even this is easily avoidable since most institutions offer dissy fellowships and external funding is also available for the dissy).

    My wife and I resolved during the application process that if it came to a scenario in which I was accepted to only one PhD program which offered poor funding I would not matriculate and instead reapply the next year. As it turned out, after applying to nearly a dozen schools I was only offered admission to one program and the funding offer was generous so my decision was made for me.

    Simply put, after years of graduate school and meager/poor living, the salaries of folks in Humanities and Religious Studies programs just isn’t enough to warrant going into 100K or more of debt.

  • oudenos

    *just aren’t*

  • http://juvenileinstructor.org Ben

    Thanks for this. As one who is about to take on a little bit of debt for a master’s degree at a respected institution in hopes to be “more competitive for a good doctoral program,” I appreciate the first two comments.

  • smallaxe

    I agree with the sentiment that unmanageable debt is best avoided, but I also sympathize with those who want to go to grad school and face some of the difficult financial decisions listed above. While in some cases I do think it’s best to wait a year and reapply hoping for a better offer, in other cases if funding is the only issue holding one back I would look for ways to make it work.

    As such, I think a helpful direction to take this conversation in is to discuss two questions:

    1) What alternative resources are available for funding?

    2) How much debt is a “manageable debt”?

    I have some opinions/suggestions on these issues, but don’t have the time to get into them right now. I would, however, highly recommend reading the discussion in the link below. It’s primary focus is philosophy PhDs, but it’s easily generalizable to anyone doing work in the humanities (and probably the social sciences). If I have time later I’ll try to skim through it and extract the related advice.

    http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2009/04/acquiring-substantial-debt-while-in-grad-school-how-much-how-common.html

  • http://www.approachingjustice.wordpress.com Chris H.

    The best way to avoid debt is to not have kids and to have a spouse who is working full-time. I have three kids and my wife stays home with them (though she does a lot more work and she worked out of the home when I was working on my MA).. I have lots of student debt.

    I think the Leiter link in Smallaxe’s comment is very good. Keep in mind that Leiter is usually speaking about elite programs and those thinking about also teaching at elite schools.

  • g.wesley

    i for one would not feel comfortable with more than $20K total, that is, for ba, ma, and phd together. is this more or less than ‘manageable’? i don’t know.

    it is such a gamble. at what point (if ever) does it become a good idea to incur debt in order to study at a more prestigious school (in order then to get into and continue studying at a more prestigious school) in the hopes of improving your employment prospects?

    so far, in my experience, an ma from lowly byu has been enough to get me where i want to go.

    even with little to no funding, there is something intoxicating about an offer of study at a well known institution. such offers, i think, are not to be accepted if it means incurring tens of thousand of dollars in debt.

    i confess that i am not currently at an ivy league school, and if it should turn out that i cannot find a job when all is said and done, i may come to think differently.

    as a worrying husband and parent, i consider funding to be the single most important factor in deciding where and whether to attend. i am not saying that it should be or necessarily has to be the only factor. what i am saying is that if forced to choose between accepting an offer at x school with little to no funding and simply giving up on the dream, i would opt for the latter and advise others to do the same.

    as scrooge is told in the muppet’s christmas carol, “yes some dreams come true. but some dreams die.” something like that anyway.

  • oudenos

    G. Wesley’s stark, realistic viewpoint is what needs to be drilled into the heads of would-be grad students (especially those with dependents). As for a lowly BYU masters, I have it on good authority that your particular program has had a particularly good track record of PhD placement in the last couple of years (Notre Dame, Cornell, Rice, University of Chicago, Wisconsin, a Fulbright scholar among others).

    The link posted by smallaxe is a good one and should be required reading.

  • g.wesley

    i should probably temper my last with some encouragement.

    getting an offer of full funding is not as impossible as it may seem. it just might take some time.

    as an undergrad i applied and was accepted to two masters programs and one doctoral program in the uk. but no money was offered.

    so i stayed at byu for an inexpensive ma. i reapplied two years later to a handful of phd programs in the u.s. and got a decent offer from a state school and a really great offer from a private school.

    my gpa was nothing special and my gre scores were a mixed bag (even after three tries). what i did have was university teaching experience, good letters of recommendation, and potential phd advisors whom i had contacted before hand and who were willing to help my applications along.

  • smallaxe

    Here are some brief thoughts in terms of the practicality of how much debt is manageable.

    Let’s say that there’s an LDS PhD student who’s married with a couple of kids, and expects to have his family live off of his sole income. Let’s say that after graduation he lands a $60K/year job. This may be on the high end, but of course over the life of the loan his salary will increase (as will his expenses with more children or children getting older). This is $5K/month.

    What’s left after:
    Taxes ($1000)
    Tithing ($500)
    Retirement ($250)
    Housing expenses for utilities and relate things ($750)
    Vehicle expenses ($500)
    Food ($500)
    Entertainment ($250)
    Saving for vacation ($250)

    Before a mortgage (and property tax) this is nearly $4K. Of course these numbers may be inflated and one could cut some of these down one way or another, but the issue becomes one of how much leeway there would be for another payment (i.e., the student loan) and how much it could be before it became unmanageable.

    Given this scenario, I would not think it manageable to pay more than $250/month toward a loan. For a 20 year loan at 4% (I admit, I have no idea what interests rates are for student loans) this would be $40K in debt.

    I imagine that even with full funding if you have children and your spouse does not work, coming into $40K in debt in the 6 years it takes you to do a PhD is not unlikely.

    So as not to be so bleak, I’ll post a few suggestions in terms of “alternative funding sources” in my next comment.

  • smallaxe

    I did want to add a little in response to my previous comment. Many, despite the difficulties mentioned regarding grad school and employment afterwards, are highly motivated to pursue a PhD (or an MA). Generally speaking I think LDSs pursuing graduate degrees in religious studies should be encouraged, as they contribute to the next generation of scholars thinking deeply about problems related to religion. Another way to think about it is if you’re smart (or lucky) enough to get into a grad program you may also be smart (or lucky) enough to figure out a way to pay for it without getting into unmanageable debt.

    With this in mind here are a few suggestions in terms of obtaining funding that is not part of a stipend (or tuition waiver) provided by the school. Because of time I won’t reference too many specifics.

    1) External scholarships for course work. There are a number of scholarships available to fund the first two years of coursework. They may also be very competitive, but even if you can round up a couple thousand dollars extra it might pay off.

    2) Fellowships for dissertation work. After you complete your coursework there are also scholarships available to facilitate completing the dissertation. Many of these encourage living abroad for a period of time.

    3) Two years and move. Many people opt for the “two years and move” strategy of living near the school for the two years of coursework and then moving to a less expensive location (usually back home), or to a location with a job (teaching classes at a location institution for instance).

    4) Working part time. The school may offer employment opportunities such as working at a library or writing/tutoring center.

    5) Spouse working part time.

    6) Teaching or assisting. Most schools encourage teaching courses or assisting in teaching courses. Aggressive students might be able to find more teaching opportunities to make more money.

    7) Paying per credit. I’ve known some schools that find ways to lower tuition by having a non-funded student enroll in 11 rather than 12 credit-hours per semester. In one case I know of this reduces tuition nearly in half.

    8. Government assistance. WIC, Foodstamps, state-sponsored insurance, etc.

    Each of these, of course, has their pros and cons. For instance, moving away after two years may not acquaint you very well with the department you’re studying in, or with the advisor you’re working with (or the material you’re working with, for that matter).

    One possible scenario could look something like this:
    Live near University X for two years, utilizing government aid, applying for external scholarships, teaching at the University, and working at the library. Let’s say that your total costs per year are $40K: $20K in tuition and $20 to live off of (you won’t be living or eating very well, but oh well). If you get $5K from external scholarships, $10 from teaching, and $5K from working in the library; after 2 years you’ll have about $40K in student loans (the maximum manageable debt). Move back home, live with your parents and teach at the local university while you work on the rest of your degree.

    I’m sure others could relate some of their experiences in terms of how they’ve managed to get by. Overall I’ve found that most advisors tend to care about their students and as such try their best to assist them in finding ways to make the program work.

  • http://maklelan.blogspot.com Daniel O. McClellan

    It seems the author of this post is intimately familiar with Claremont’s M.O. I was accepted to a PhD at Claremont right out of my BA at BYU, but also to masters degrees at Trinity Western and Oxford. I had a good chance at getting my tuition covered at TWU, but my wife didn’t want to go to Canada. Claremont offered 30%, which would have cost us more than what I’m paying to go to Oxford (they offered 1/8 of tuition and fees). The trick now seems to be getting good letters from Oxford profs (with only a couple months to do it). If one can do that then they have a better shot at a PhD program with good funding.

    The economy has influenced Oxford’s offers, also. I have a friend who did the same program six years ago, and then everything was automatically paid upon acceptance. Another friend went two years ago, and he got half. Two other friends got accepted with me and got the same offer of 1/8. I don’t know anyone from BYU who’s applied to the MSt at Oxford and been turned down, by the way.

  • g.wesley

    smallaxe’s scenarios make me wonder:

    how common/acceptable is it for a phd candidate to finish elsewhere these days? seems like it used to happen all the time that you would take a job and complete the dissertation there. but i get the feeling that this doesn’t happen (that much) anymore (because it took some people way too long to finish?).

    how easy/consistantly can teaching opportunities be found at the college or university level? in my experience, they are by invitation and not predictable at all.

    as for teaching opportunities at junior high and schools, demand for latin is much higher than for any other ancient language. undergrads in religion/bible might want to keep that in mind. the american classical league maintains a list of job postings here:

    http://www.aclclassics.org/tr_jobs.html

  • Nitsav

    “I don’t know anyone from BYU who’s applied to the MSt at Oxford and been turned down, by the way.”

    Ha! I defy your anecdotal evidence :) I applied and was turned down, after I had a non-BYU MA in hand, even. Not sure what happened exactly, as it surprised me a little.

  • SmallAxe

    I also wanted to draw attention to the Income Based Repayment plan started in 2007 (I believe). You can go here to read more: http://www.finaid.org/loans/ibr.phtml

    In short, your payments are calculated based on your income (15% of gross) and anything remaining is backloaded (meaning that it gets added to the amount that you owe). Anything remaining after 25 years is forgiven. In other words, you keep paying based on your income for 25 years and after that you are done paying regardless of how much you owe. Furthermore, if you work for the government, and I’m under the impression that public universities meet this criteria, then your forgiven after 10 years.

    Here’s a rough calculation from the website:

    For example, consider a single borrower earning $30,000 a year with $40,000 in federal education loans. Using the 2009 poverty line of $10,830 for the continental US, the monthly payment cap under income-based repayment will be 15% * ($30,000 – 150% * $10,830) / 12 = $171.94 a month. Under income-contingent repayment the monthly payment is 20% * ($30,000 – 100% * $10,830) / 12 = $319.50. This compares with $277.63 under extended 25-year repayment and $460.32 a month under standard 10-year repayment.

    Of course this may be the most helpful for those with a single income and debt well beyond the “manageable” threshold we’ve been talking about, and only certain loans qualify; but I’m wondering if this plan changes anyone’s minds about the feasibility of debt and grad school.

  • http://maklelan.blogspot.com Daniel O. McClellan

    To Nitsav-

    Sorry to hear about your situation. I hope things worked out for you anyway, but I guess I’ll have to amend my stats a bit.

  • smallaxe

    how common/acceptable is it for a phd candidate to finish elsewhere these days? seems like it used to happen all the time that you would take a job and complete the dissertation there. but i get the feeling that this doesn’t happen (that much) anymore (because it took some people way too long to finish?).

    It probably depends on what you mean by “take a job”. If you mean that they are offered a tenure track position while ABD, then it does seem rare. This is probably a combination of what you mention (people taking way too long to finish, or just not finishing) as well as the abundance of PhDs.

    You may of course mean something quite different. I can only speak for the programs I have some knowledge about, but in my program I know several people who have left the area and attempt to finish while away. The predominant reason is because a spouse gets a job in a different location or gets accepted to grad school somewhere else. A lot of other students finish their dissertation in a place that relates to their area of study. A candidate studying Korean Christianity, for instance, might spend a year or two in Korea and even finish the dissertation there. I also know of several candidates who get 1 or 2 year visiting positions and leave to finish their dissertations there.

    Leaving the university area, I’m sure, varies according to the institutional culture. In my school there’s a general feeling that you’ll be around for at least 4 years. Part of this may be because the department arranges teaching for years 3 and 4. To be honest at a lot of the larger programs, and this will also partially depend on your advisor, it’s fairly easy to disappear for a significant length of time and have no one even notice you’re gone.

    how easy/consistantly can teaching opportunities be found at the college or university level? in my experience, they are by invitation and not predictable at all.

    There are always of course visiting gigs that get posted in association newsletters. These may primarily go to PhDs who did not get a tenure track offer in this round, but I know several ABDs who have had them as well. Part of this certainly depends on the connections your advisor has (and other factors), but it does seem relatively easy to adjunct at another university. Although it may not pay well, and if you live in an area with few schools you may not have many options.