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How to Get Funded in Grad School When You Don’t Have a Scholarship


How to Get Funded in Grad School When You Don’t Have a Scholarship

Are you a scholarship seeker? and you did not get it even after seeking for a long time?

I prepared this article today from one of the testimon who also was seeking on getting scholarship.

“I had received seven admission offers with no scholarship, yet I started anyway and secured full funding for my Master’s degree”

Securing funding for your graduate studies is challenging. Universities have tight budgets and qualified candidates may not receive a fellowship offer.

Don’t let a scholarship rejection discourage you from pursuing your dream of graduate studies. There are ways to get other sources of funding, and if you are persistent, you can eventually land them. Though I didn’t initially get funding for my studies, I was eventually able to do so and graduated debt-free.

I had received seven letters of acceptance for my master’s application from these universities:

  • • Purdue University
  • • The University of Florida
  • • SUNY, Buffalo
  • • Rutgers University
  • • The Pennsylvania State University
  • • Texas A & M University
  • • The University of Minnesota

To my sheer frustration, none of them provided a scholarship. My inclination was to decide between Penn State and Purdue, and I chose Penn State.

The tuition rate was significant at Penn State. It was higher than the University of Florida and Texas A & M University, my next two choices. Two years of tuition, along with living expenses, would put me and my family under immense financial stress.

However, I was undaunted by the challenge ahead. I took the risk as I was determined to secure funding.

It paid off! I got funding within three months of arriving at the campus for the full duration of my program. I received a full-tuition waiver and also secured a job as a Graduate Lecturer. This helped me get a stipend that paid for my living expenses.

Things to Consider:

What I learned along the way might help you, too.

Analyze the Research Interests of the Professors.

There are a few applicants who build up a healthy rapport with a faculty member before applying for graduate school. This helps them secure funding before joining the program.

If the faculty member finds you a good fit for their requirements, they will be happy to recommend your application for admission and scholarship. However, the Graduate Admissions Committee of the university and the department you are applying to evaluates most of the applications.

This means that—unless you do something to change this—the professors do not always know who you are until you have joined the program. Professors are busy with research and teaching obligations. Besides, not every student who receives an acceptance ultimately joins the program. So professors are not looking at the details of who is applying.

If your financial aid application is rejected, do not give up. You might still have the opportunity to impress the professors of your program and receive a scholarship. The key is to not email them en masse with your resume and cover letter like a job application.

A standardized resume and cover letter will not work even if you are approaching two professors of the same department. A university professor isn’t a recruiter or HR professional. They have secured their tenure. Hence, their success does not revolve around hiring new graduate students.

They are receiving hundreds of emails every day requesting them to take a look at an applicant’s resume. Keep that in mind before you email them.

The following steps will help you develop a foolproof strategy to grab a professor’s attention:

• Introduce yourself briefly. As mentioned earlier, the professor does not always know who has joined the program. Hence, your email should have your details clearly mentioning your department and how excited are you to join such a prestigious program. Do not describe your entire resume and work experience; the introduction should be very brief.

• Mention one of their recent publications. When you email a professor, make sure you have checked out their recent publications on the faculty page. Try to read a few of the publications, preferably the three most recent ones, and summarize at least one of them in your email. The professor is not looking for a peer review or a graduate-level analysis — they know you joined the program to learn more. However, what they are looking for is a clear indication of interest in their area of expertise.

• Try connecting your experience with their interests. When I emailed a professor who was doing research in metals and alloys, I made sure to emphasize my internship experience in a foundry. I also mentioned my experience in a research lab analyzing the corrosion rates of stainless steels. While the professor could not offer me a position due to restrictions in fund availability, he referred me to another professor with similar research interests and who had funds available.

• Do not bombard them with emails repeatedly. This is a big mistake that many students make. Sending follow up emails repeatedly is not a good idea. Neither is pestering the professor by asking if they checked your email; they do not care about your persistence. It is not a virtue for securing funding. However, patience is. Be patient and pursue multiple options simultaneously.

• Register for the course taught by the professor you wish to work with. If you have analyzed the research areas of a professor, emailed them, and they haven’t replied, all hope is not lost. Register for the course they are offering where you can get a chance to prove yourself. I have found this to be very effective. You can demonstrate your interest and expertise in the subject the professor is teaching. Additionally, you will have access to their office hours where you can bring up the topic of joining their research group. The professor might recommend you to a colleague if his group is not taking any new students.

• Request an appointment. Most professors are welcoming when it comes to discussing their research interests. An in-person appointment where you can discuss your ideas clearly will give the professor a better idea about you. It also allows you to evaluate the professor and understand their requirements to make sure you are a good fit. Remember, you will have to work with them for the next two to three years if it’s a master’s degree and four to six years if it’s a Ph.D. degree. Unlike a job, if you quit halfway you will not gain work experience but you will lose time. Even if you transfer to another research group you will have to start from scratch. Hence, make sure the professor’s requirements are something you can deliver.

Develop a Rapport With Non-Faculty Members of Your Program

Faculty members have the funds and determine which students will receive scholarship opportunities. However, establishing a rapport with non-faculty members can assist you with information regarding which professors have funds.

Non-faculty staff members who handle administrative duties, graduate students who have joined the program before you, and lab technicians can be great resources in your quest to secure funding for your studies.

Non-faculty staff members: A goldmine of information

Non-faculty staff members play a crucial role in the smooth functioning of a department. They are likewise the first to know about different opportunities such as research positions, teaching assistant positions, and part-time openings available in a department.

The faculty member who has an opportunity will email the administrative assistant, and they email the students in the department. Assuming they announced the position in the fall semester and you joined the department in the same semester, you will receive the email.


However, there are a few alternative scenarios to examine:

They advertised the position in the summer semester and you joined in the fall.

• They announced an opportunity in a different department.

I will discuss the second scenario later in this story. Let us look at the first scenario.

A professor announces a position in the summer. Students who have at least completed two semesters (the fall of the previous year and spring) receive the email. They most likely have secured funding by summer, hence the opportunity will not be relevant for them.

As a result, the position is not filled and will be available for students joining in the upcoming fall session.

In such a scenario, establishing a cordial relationship with the administrative assistants helps you in the long run. Basic courtesy and good email etiquette build a positive image of you.

In this scenario, administrative assistants might recall the email they sent out in June and update you regarding the available opportunity when you are about to start your classes in the last week of August or the first week of September.

You have read about the so-called “invisible job market,” where jobs are not visible to us because many positions are never advertised. This is likewise the case for graduate school funding.

There are “invisible funding opportunities” that you can tap into. Good professional relationships with non-faculty members of your department make it more likely that you will become aware of them.

Network with existing grad students

Though it appears obvious, grad students who joined the program before you can give you detailed insights about a professor. They may also provide you with information regarding which areas of research have funding.

Grad students, including myself when I was in the second year of my master’s program, are involved in the drafting of grant proposals. Grant proposals are sent out by professors to secure research funding for the future.

Hence, grad students have insider knowledge of funding that will likely become available with a professor for research (though this knowledge will typically be limited to their own research groups). Hence, expanding your network and reaching out to more graduate students will be useful.

As the majority of the existing grad students have secured their financing, they are unlikely to view you as competition and will help you.

My first recommendation for a professor who researched metals came from a graduate student who completed a brief project under his guidance as a part of her research. She gave me in-depth knowledge about the professor as a person, his research areas, funding sources, and the exposure the professor would provide. (A well-connected professor who regularly participates in conferences is a good choice to work within the graduate school.)

I followed the steps I have listed in the previous section; the professor gave me an appointment and was impressed by my credentials. He forwarded my name to his industrial sponsors for financial support. However, because the industry head, who was financing his research, incurred a mishap, the funding for my project fell through.

However, I made a positive impression on him. He was happy to recommend me to his colleague in the Materials Science department who had the requisite funds.

The professor of Materials Science called me for an interview. After a couple of meetings, he approved my funding for the next two years, and I completed my master’s thesis under him.

This wouldn’t have been possible without the reference from the graduate student I met at a picnic hosted by the department.

It is very important that you do not shy away from the social events hosted by your department. These events provide you with the best chance of interacting with graduate students from different research groups.

Keep track of campus groups that involve student activities both inside and outside of your department.

Graduate students host exclusive events that involve only graduate students as the goals shared by them differ from those of undergraduate students. These events provide you with the best networking opportunities with fellow graduate students.

Joining student associations can also be an advantage. I was a part of the Graduate Student Association and was elected as its Students Concerns Chair. That helped me develop contacts with students from different departments and understand their issues.

It helped me provide better guidance to future students who were eager to join our university. Hence, make it a point to reach out to the student leaders of graduate student associations both in your department and outside your department.

Look Beyond Your Department

“All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

Sometimes we find success using unconventional methods. In graduate school, most applicants are looking for funding within their department. We pursue graduate studies in the same field as our bachelor’s degree or a closely related field. It makes sense to look for funding opportunities in familiar territory.

One must remember, however, that there are many programs that are interdisciplinary. I was in the Materials Science program where students and professors from Mechanical Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Chemistry, Nuclear Engineering, Chemical Engineering, Physics, and Applied Sciences would work together.

I had joined the graduate program in the Industrial Engineering department and received a scholarship from the Materials Science department. A colleague of mine, who joined Penn State’s Industrial Engineering program in the same year, received his funding from the Statistics department.

There are many opportunities within a university in associated fields. We can explore these even though it seems like a daunting task to step out of your comfort zone.

The following strategies will help you discover funding opportunities outside your department:

• Apply for funding with faculty members who have joint appointments. Identify faculty members with joint appointments with at least two departments. Professors who have joint appointments lead multidisciplinary research teams and have multiple sources of funding.

If their area of research aligns with your interest, send them an email, incorporating the steps mentioned earlier in this article.

• Request subscriptions to the email lists of allied departments. Reach out to the administrative staff of departments similar to yours and request them to add you to their email lists. As a Chemistry major, you are unlikely to receive any help from the College of Education, but you want to receive position notifications from the Physics or the Applied Sciences department. The admissions committee of your department is not always aware of funding opportunities in other departments that might be a good fit. For example, if you applied for the Master’s of Science in Chemistry program and there was funding available in the Materials Science department, you are unlikely to know about it before you join the university. Do not despair if you don’t start with a scholarship in Chemistry.

• Connect with faculty members on social media. Faculty members often use social media to announce vacancies in their research group. It would be a good idea to follow faculty members related to your field and interest area if they are active on social media. The example below by Dr. Shawn Arent of the University of South Carolina shows the importance of following social media accounts of faculty members in your area of research.

• Join professional societies in your subject. Applicants seek funding opportunities within the college. While a college does provide many funding opportunities, did you know many professional societies also provide them? In a competitive scenario, with tight finances, it is worth exploring every scholarship opportunity.

Scholarship opportunities provided by the Society of Manufacturing Engineers.


As you can see from the screenshot above, the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME) provides scholarships to graduate students.

The advantage of being a college student is that you get a discounted rate to join such societies. Additionally, you also receive access to conferences at discounted rates.

That is a win-win situation. I had registered for the Materials Research Society (MRS), Electrochemical Society (ECS), and Society for Manufacturing Engineers (SME), and though I didn’t need to apply for scholarships provided by them, I benefited from the attractive pricing of the conferences and unlimited access to their journals and newsletters.


Graduate school can be a rewarding experience and will improve your career prospects. Candidates often hesitate to join a graduate program fearing further student debt. But the truth is, there are additional funding opportunities in graduate school to fund your education once you do join, so it can be worth the risk.

Like a job, graduate school funding depends on being at the right place at the right time and cultivating human relationships. A strong resume is helpful but is not the sole determining factor.

I didn’t have work experience or published research to support my application. But I secured funding and completed my master’s.

Your ability to persuade professors without being pushy and forming healthy bonds with your peers will be the key determining factor in securing funding and completing graduate school with minimum debt.

The relationships you cultivate in grad school will also serve you later in your professional career, perhaps when you are looking for an industrial research job or an academic position in a university.