Money Matters

When funding dries up

Nicole Strange can almost see the finish line. Her dissertation committee just approved her proposal, and she's applying for internships. She's just a year or two from completing her doctorate in counseling psychology at the University of Kentucky. But for the first time in her academic career, she's thinking about dropping out. Why? She has exhausted all sources of funding.

She managed to find a practicum position that pays $15,000 a year, but it doesn't offer tuition or insurance benefits. She applied for three dissertation grants and two tuition fellowships. One of the grants came through, but paid only $360. Strange already spends 50 to 60 hours a week on her practicum, classes, dissertation and internship applications, so another part-time job is out of the question. So is taking on more debt. Her credit cards are maxed out, her student loans total $148,000 and she has run out of options to borrow more.

"I didn't think money would derail my education," she says. "I don't know what to do."

Strange isn't alone. As schools across the country grapple with dwindling budgets, many grad students are losing their teaching assistantships and watching as other funding sources dry up. Given these harsh realities, even students who feel relatively secure in their funding may want to consider searching for outside support and trumpeting the value they bring to their departments, says Nabil Hassan El-Ghoroury, PhD, APAGS associate executive director.

"The recession definitely hit graduate students," El-Ghoroury adds. "But students can be proactive; there are preventive things to do."

The big picture

Today's financial woes are bad enough. But beginning in July, graduate students will no longer be eligible for subsidized Stafford loans, in which the government pays interest while the student is enrolled full time. This is a serious change — $10,000 borrowed in year one of graduate school, at 6.8 percent interest, could grow to nearly $14,000 after five years of graduate school.

Plus, several other federal funding sources for grad students will be slashed. For instance, the McNair Scholars program, which helps minority students to pursue doctoral degrees, lost $10 million of its $46.2 million budget last summer, and the Jacob K. Javits Fellowship program, which funds doctoral studies in psychology and other disciplines, was canceled.

But the news isn't all bad. Graduate students and other APA members worked with the APA Education Directorate to keep the Graduate Psychology Education (GPE) program, the only source of federal funding exclusively for psychology training, safe from the federal budget ax. APAGS officers and others attending the 2012 Education Leadership Conference conducted hundreds of meetings on Capitol Hill to ask for lawmakers' support. Thanks in part to their efforts, Congress maintained level funding for the GPE program at about $3 million.

In addition to the Education Leadership Conference, students also can learn more about advocacy at APA's State Leadership Conference, by getting involved with state psychological associations and by attending APAGS programming at the APA Annual Convention, says APAGS Chair-elect Jennifer Doran.

Doran, a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at the New School for Social Research, encourages graduate students to write, call or even visit their elected representatives to discuss funding issues. "They really do listen," Doran says. "Students have a really powerful voice."

Coping with cuts

When funding evaporates, students should consider non-traditional avenues, says El-Ghoroury. Options could include searching for jobs outside of your department and using social media. "Letting people know 'I lost my funding and I need a part-time job' is a real way to access resources you might otherwise not have thought of," he says.

You may not want to connect with supervisors on Facebook or other personal social networking sites, but be sure to connect on LinkedIn, El-Ghoroury says. "Because it's business-related, it's really appropriate," he says. "Sometimes funding opportunities come up that may not be publicized," so having that connection with a supervisor could give you an inside track.

It also helps to find your own funding sources, says El-Ghoroury. "Apply for national grants and training grants, and be on the lookout for adjunct positions with supplemental funding," he says. You might also want to search APA's website for grants, scholarships and other awards.

Third-year doctoral student Julia Kearney* knows that graduate funding is never guaranteed, but she didn't expect to find that out the hard way. When she lost her counseling psychology teaching assistantship earlier this year, school officials told her it was because dwindling enrollment had cut revenue. Now Kearney is weighing her options to make up the $12,000 in lost funding. She's thinking about cashing in retirement funds she saved before starting her doctoral degree. "I'll try to go as long as possible before I do that," she notes.

In the meantime, she has applied for adjunct teaching jobs at community colleges. But few are closer than an hour's drive away. "Then it would become a push, with how low adjunct pay rates are and the high price of gas," she says.

Sometimes, students can avoid getting hit by budget cuts by promoting themselves within their department, says Doran. "Advocate for why you're a good student and a good researcher," she says. "If one student gets funding in your program, you need to be able to make a case for yourself to be that student." Don't be hesitant to tell your advisor or mentor about financial difficulties. "They don't always realize your situation," Doran adds.

Finally, be aware of the funding climate at your school. If you're at a state university with severe budget problems, it's probably time to start lining up new funding sources. That's especially important for advanced grad students, because assistantships tend to go to students who are just beginning their graduate training.

"If you're a more advanced student, get those grants or get an adjunct position at a local college," he says. "At least have something in your back pocket."

*Name changed to protect privacy.
Rebecca Voelker is a writer in Chicago.