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

Tips on Applying to Grad Programs in Religious Studies (Part VI): Funding August 12, 2009

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).


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