The following is a guest post from Ross at Cash Rebel. He’s a 20-something engineer who writes about frugality, sustainability, and stick-to-itiveness. This is his story about losing funding for graduate school.
The year was 2010 and I finally knew what I wanted to do with my life. I’d graduated college with a degree in Mechanical Engineering earlier that year and although tons of recent grads were signing up for grad school because they couldn’t find gainful employment, I decided that I was going to grad school for a totally different reason (or so I thought). After getting a few nice job offers, I turned them down to do start graduate school and do research for a promising young professor who’s work focused on energy efficiency and controls. If you’ve been over to my blog before, you should know that this is a subject I’m quite passionate about.
I spent the summer before I was to start grad school relaxing, learning more about my new field of study, and training for a marathon. It was going to be a sweet setup. I’d go to classes half time, and do research for my adviser the other half. He was a cool guy, and I knew we’d have a fun time working together. The best part was that since I was signed up for this research assistance-ship, it meant that my tuition would be covered, and they’d even agreed to pay me about $1,700/month or about $20,000/year.
I don’t know about you, but I thought being paid to go to school and learn more about what I loved seemed like a great deal. And it would have been great, if things had gone according to plan, but you know what they say about the best laid plans…
Funding Is Fickle
I arrived in town 2 weeks before classes and my research were set to start. We had grad student orientation and it was great to move into my cozy little apartment that I was renting with a friend. I think I was paying $375 for my half of the rent, so living on $1,700 didn’t seem especially daunting.
It wasn’t until I talked to my potential adviser that things started to go downhill. It turned out that he’d lost some funding over the summer so he wouldn’t be able to pay me to be his research assistant. It took me a few minutes to comprehend what he was telling me, and once I did, my eyes kind of bugged out and had to go for a walk to calm down.
See, I hadn’t actually gotten the commitment for funding in writing because I’d been told that it was pretty much a done deal, and that this sort of thing could never happen. So instead of getting paid $20,000/yr to get my masters, I’d instead owe $27,700/yr. That meant that in order to walk away with my masters I’d be $55,000 in debt plus living expenses. And it was clear that I wouldn’t have enough free time to get a job on the side.
Over the course of a ten minute conversation, my future went from exciting and profitable, to the prospect of being buried by student loans. The cherry on top was that now that I didn’t have funding, If I wanted to stay enrolled, I needed to pay $13,836 by the following Tuesday! That’s one semester’s worth of tuition and about $4,000 more than I had in by bank account. So I did what most people would do, I got desperate and experienced the 5 stages of loss.
- Denial – As I walked around campus, trying to calm down and make my eyes bug back in, I couldn’t really accept what I’d heard. I figured that it must just be a misunderstanding. None of the professors/grad students I’d talked to had ever heard of anything like it.
- Anger – Why couldn’t my potential adviser drop funding for something else to allow me to work for him. How could he not know how awesome I am?!
- Bargaining – Now here’s where it gets interesting. I met with anyone that would listen to me. I annoyed the Bursar folks, the Administration staff, and various professors who might have funding. I asked to be a teach assistant, a research assistant, really any kind of assistant that would pay my tuition. I met with professor after professor who felt my pain, but couldn’t help me out (remember where the economy was back in 2010?).
- Depression – By Friday, I was despondent. My $13,836 bill was due in 4 days, and I had made zero progress. I knew I’d failed, and I’d have just one weekend to decide whether to take out massive student loans or drop out and do something completely different with my life.
- Acceptance – By Sunday I’d made my decision. It would be quite embarrassing and throw my life in a new direction, but I decided I needed to drop out. I wasn’t willing to take on the massive loans it would take to stay in school. Making up my mind didn’t make the feeling of hopelessness go away, but at least I had my answer.
And Then The Impossible Happened
On Monday morning I was about to head to the administration office to officially drop out of school when I saw a new email from one of the many professors I’d reached out to over the past week in my desperate search for funding. He’d agreed to meet with me, so I figured I’d go if only to get a little more sympathy.
But instead of lamenting the lack of funding, he sat me down for an interview. He was researching material properties, a topic I had no interest in, but I faked it as well as I could. After a 20 minute discussion about my future and my goals, I guess he decided that I passed the test. He informed me that he’d fill out the paperwork that afternoon, and have the $13,836 charge would be removed from my account.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Literally the day I was going to drop out of school and move on with life, this random professor came out of nowhere and paid my $28,000/yr tuition. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. It was like some Deus Ex Machina from a TV drama, but it actually happened! Of course, this was just the beginning of a long and complex story (that you can hear more about here), but for the moment, my enrollment was secure and I was done with the most financially tumultuous week of my life.