In my last post, I talked about one of my most embarrassing money decisions: using my student loan money from my undergrad degree for some not-so-scholarly purchases. I’m a bit in need of some redemption. I’ve already eaten too many pity-party tacos, so it’s time to focus on a good financial move. They’re few and far between, guys, I gotta take them as I see them.
Here’s a surprise: I was actually paid to get my master’s degree. Not only that, but how I ended up netting over $75,000 in the process! Now if only I could figure out how to do that with everything in my life…
How I Was Paid To Get My Master’s Degree
I received a Master of Science degree in Wildlife Biology and Conservation from the University of Alaska Fairbanks at the tail-end of 2014.
STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) degrees are unique. You’re required to complete a thesis project as a part of your degree, in addition to taking classes. Pay attention; herein lies the key.
Your thesis project is a real, honest-to-goodness research project where you have the opportunity to make a (hopefully) meaningful contribution to human knowledge. None of this hand-painting-poster-art kindergarten business. We’re adults now, guys. Repeat it to yourself if you have to. I am now a grown-up.
For my thesis project, I developed a lab method to find out how well caribou are able to extract certain nutrients from their food (i.e., digestibility). Arctic caribou herds are limited by how many nutrients they can get to make a new calf each year.
So, more nutrients = more calves. Boom.
I collected all kinds of caribou food from across their range in northern Alaska. I wanted to use my new digestibility method to actually see where the best nutrients really are for caribou. Are there enough for them to survive? Are some areas better than others? What does the nutrient landscape look like in relation to oil pads and pipelines? That kind of thing.
I received grants to fund me as a “Research Assistant” (RA) while I worked full-time my own project during the summer. During the school year, I also worked as a “Teaching Assistant” (TA), running the lab portion of a Human Anatomy & Physiology and a Wildlife Nutrition university course.
The RA and TA positions completely waived all my tuition charges, paid for basic health/vision/dental insurance, and paid me a stipend on top of everything! All that was left for me to pay each semester was fees, although the stipend I received more than covered this cost. Here’s how the numbers break down:
What I Was Charged – $34,158
I was charged $34,158 over the course of eight semesters, for an average cost of $4,269.75 per semester. This is purely tuition, fees, and student health insurance alone.
Thankfully my professors realized we were all broke AF. Rather than making us buy spendy books, they assigned us readings from free scientific journal articles. In fact, I think I only purchased two books during my entire time there. I don’t think I even cracked the damn things open.
What I Paid – $3,279
Thanks to the opportunities that UAF and the Institute of Arctic Biology (the research wing within the university) provided for me, I only had to pay a grand total of $3,279 in fees during the entire course of my program. My average cost over eight semesters was a mere $409.87 per semester.
I pay more than that each month in health expenses alone now, guys! Sheesh!
What I Made – $78,595.73
Again, thanks to the opportunities that UAF and IAB provided to me, I actually made a decent salary as a grad student. My net salary was, on average, $9,824.46 per semester. This works out to $26,198.58 per year, and a total profit of $75,316.73!
What’s truly sad is that I actually made more money on a per-hour basis as a grad student than in my first few post-graduation jobs. Sigh.
You Can Be Paid To Get Your Master’s Degree Too
I’m not an anomaly (even though my husband begs to differ). Everyone that I went to grad school with, and even within my degree field, also received the same deal.
In fact, I didn’t even realize that going into debt to pay for a grad degree was a thing, until I started diving into the personal finance world and saw how much debt some people come out of grad school with.
Here’s the good news: you can do this too! Here are some things to consider:
What’s your major?
An MS ≠ MBA in terms of how the program works.
An MBA just requires you to just take a lot of classes. There’s no thesis projects (at least to my knowledge). That means less opportunity for you to get in on the RA and TAship action.
An MS like mine, on the other hand, is more like an apprenticeship program. You’re doing actual work, and being compensated accordingly.
Related: Grad School Essentials: A Crash Course In Scholarly Skills (affiliate link)
Where do you want to go to school?
Different schools offer different packages to grad students in the form of jobs like RA and TA positions, or even scholarships and grants.
One new wildlife researcher offered me a PhD position in wildlife biology at the University of Wyoming working on an amazing thesis project. Sadly, I had to decline because it only paid $28,000/year before taxes. That just wasn’t enough income for me to support myself, our husband, and the bastard child that is our debt.
I mighta just been plain lucky when it came right down to it. I was in a spot that had an opening for a grad student. That job paid enough for me to live on. The project was effing awesome.
But, you don’t need to be lucky like me. Be flexible with your major. Choose a college that pays its RAs and TAs a decent wage. If you can do those two things, you too might actually be paid to get your master’s degree!
Have you ever thought about getting a master’s degree? What would you study, and how would you pay for it? Leave a comment below!