It’s fair to say that I wouldn’t be in grad school if not for all the fee waivers I received. How many people didn’t pursue PhD simply because they couldn’t afford applications?
Too many, I’m sure.
— christine liu ? two photon art (@christineliuart) February 2, 2019
How much does it cost to apply to a PhD program in the sciences? When many scientists look back on how much they spent, it can easily add up to hundreds or thousands of dollars. This might be fine for someone with family support or a financial security net, but impossible for others. It was for me, which is why I did everything I could to spend as little money as possible on applying to schools. Here’s how I applied to 5 schools for less than $200.
Application Fee Waivers
You don’t always have to be low-income or show proof of your financial insecurity in order to receive a fee waiver. One of the best places to ask is at a graduate school fair, especially at undergraduate research conferences like ABRCMS or SACNAS. (Side note: these conferences also usually offer generous travel grants that will cover the full cost of attendance.) Alternatively, you can email the program and request a fee waiver and they will often oblige. This is a great way to save $75-100 per school you would like to apply to. Applying with a fee waiver should not affect your admissions decision. I applied to every school with a fee waiver and the only program I didn’t get into was a bad research fit.
To qualify for a GRE fee reduction, you need to submit proof of financial need. Usually you will have to work with your university’s financial aid office to obtain the necessary documentation, so do this a few months before you intend to take the GRE. You can often find free practice tests online, and you can study for it just fine using old prep materials. However, the GRE fee waiver is still only a 50% fee reduction so you’ll still have to pay about $100 depending on where you’re taking the test and you only get the fee reduction applied once. Want to improve your score? You’ll have to cough up the full fee next time.
Better yet, apply to programs that don’t require the GRE. Not only is it a drain on your wallet, there’s an increasing body of evidence demonstrating that the GRE is not even good at predicting graduate student success. Plenty of top tier PhD programs are getting rid of the requirement. One caveat: the subject tests might be good indicators of readiness and success and they cost $150 (or $75 with fee reduction) so you might want to consider taking a subject test instead of the general GRE if you’re trying to boost your application and/or make up for a less-than-satisfactory GPA.
Too many schools charge their own students to send official transcripts. Not all universities do this; mine sent them for free if I requested them early enough. Check your university’s policy first, then if the fees are too high for you to pay, reach out to admissions committees to ask whether you can upload an unofficial transcript. Let them know you can send them an official transcript if necessary, whether it’s at the application, interview, or acceptance stage. I’d like to think most admissions committees would be lenient on this requirement, knowing that there’s no incentive to deceive with an unofficial transcript if you’re prepared to send an official one later.
Many graduate school programs will cover the full cost of your interview weekend from flight to hotel to meals at the airport. Unfortunately, a lot of this will be done via reimbursement, meaning you pay first and submit a form after the interview to recoup your money. If this is something you can’t do, ask them if they can book your flight and ground travel for you up front. Any program worth your while should be willing to work with you on this. Otherwise, I’d read it as a red flag that you’ll encounter other problems if you do eventually join this program.
Once you’ve gotten accepted and chosen your perfect program, moving across the country (or even a city) is no joke. Especially in a big city where rent is already sky-high, there’s a big chance that you don’t have the few thousand dollars laying around to pay a deposit, first month’s rent, and the actual cost of making you and all of your stuff safely to your destination. Some programs will be able to provide some money for relocation costs. Ask about this at your interviews. If you’re getting directly accepted into a lab, ask them too. NSF and NIH allow relocation costs to be built into grants – let people know about this if they don’t seem to have an idea about what you’re talking about.
Ask for help
Very few people will know about your financial situation, especially if you’ve become a master at hiding your income level. If you need financial help, don’t be too shy or scared to ask for it. First, I’d ask the mentors who are already invested in your success. The professors who mentor you in the lab and classroom, writing your letters of rec, are a good place to start. Sit down with them and let them know your situation. They might offer to help you with some cash or find you a gig that can pay you. This might seem unbearably difficult, but if you are going to be in control of your future, you have to recognize that your financial need is a barrier that you need help overcoming. Others don’t need to ask for help because they don’t have this barrier. The people in your life who have already spent time on your growth will not hesitate if they can help you with some money. In fact, there are some research studies showing that people like you even more if they do you a favor. If this is still something you can’t do, you can try doing a fundraiser like a GoFundMe or even a bake sale. Do not let your temporary financial burden prevent you from following your dreams. Trust me, you will also spend much of your future finding ways to pay your privilege forward. You aren’t taking a handout, you are accepting a helping hand.
About the author: Christine Liu is a 5th year PhD candidate at UC Berkeley and founder of Two Photon Art. You can read more on this topic from Christine, including how to make money as an undergraduate student, in her blog post “How to become a scientist while poor.”