Losing My Graduate School Funding

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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.


Getting Desperate


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.


  1. 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.
  2. 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?!
  3. 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?).
  4. 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.
  5. 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.


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27 Responses to "Losing My Graduate School Funding"

  1. […] I’m doing a guest post over at Evolving Personal Finance.  It’s all about losing my funding during graduate school […]

  2. Matt Becker says:

    Two really great lessons here. First, you were faced with a problem and attacked it with energy. The networking you did in that short time period paid off in a huge way. It never hurts to know people. But I think the other great lesson is that you were ready to drop out. We all have plans and best-case scenarios, but sometimes those plans don’t work out. In those cases, it takes courage to make a real evaluation of the new situation and make a completely new decision. Sometimes the decision is still to move ahead as planned, but sometimes it isn’t. I don’t know whether dropping out would have been the right decision, but I love that you had the courage to approach it even after all of the commitments you had made.
    Matt Becker recently posted..My Personal Investment Plan

    1. CashRebel says:

      Thanks for the kind words Matt. I think its always important to be willing to change you’re plan if its not working. Going into a crazy amount if debt for a degree I didn’t know that I wanted would have been quite foolish. I actually did end up dropping out eventually, but under better circumstances because I found a job that I enjoy.
      CashRebel recently posted..May 2013 Goals Update

  3. What a tough decision to make! Glad it all worked out in the end for you, and I respect your decision to drop out when it came to that. I also dropped out of college (during my undergrad) because I didn’t want to go too much into debt for a degree I didn’t want. That’s awesome you were able to make it work!
    Kyle @ Debt Free Diaries recently posted..Eating Healthy on $40 Per Week

    1. CashRebel says:

      When you know it’s the wrong decision, sometimes you gust gotta cut your losses. It’s not worthy going into debt for a useless degree.
      CashRebel recently posted..May 2013 Goals Update

  4. Things really do work out for the best. I think I would have done what you almost did and decide to drop out as well. No need getting into that much debt. 28k paid just like that what a blessing.
    Your Daily Finance recently posted..Personal Finances for Everyone – Even YOU!

    1. CashRebel says:

      Yea, it was a crazy feeling. It was quite a relief when he finally submitted that paperwork!
      CashRebel recently posted..May 2013 Goals Update

  5. Thanks for sharing that story. My wife is in a PhD program, and we faced a somewhat similar decision when she was choosing between two universities, neither of which could guarantee and funding (back in 2009). It can be a stressful time but I think there are a lot of lessons to be learned from your approach: use crisis moments as a chance to re-evaluate prior decisions, ask around for solutions, and don’t give up prematurely.

    Thanks again for sharing.
    Done by Forty recently posted..May Net Worth Update

    1. CashRebel says:

      I think you also always have to have a backup plan. I came into school without a backup plan. I had already signed a 1 yr lease and didn’t have a lot of flexibility to go somewhere else.
      CashRebel recently posted..May 2013 Goals Update

  6. What crazy and awesome timing! Seems like the universe really wanted you to go to grad school. Glad everything worked out and looking forward to reading the next chapter!
    Budget and the Beach recently posted..Job Anxiety Sets In

    1. CashRebel says:

      Yea, I guess the universe wanted me to go to grad school, but I only stayed for 6 months, haha! I guess I’m doing what I want instead of what the universe wants.
      CashRebel recently posted..May 2013 Goals Update

  7. eemusings says:

    Sounds stressful :/ One of my best friends had a lot of dramas with getting started on his PhD in the last year. It was funding-related too, I believe (and at the same time, government changes to student allowances kicked in, which made life doubly hard for him).
    eemusings recently posted..Cambodia, where my heart cracked open

    1. CashRebel says:

      So did he stick with it? At least when it comes to engineering, the opportunity cost to go to grad school is just so darned high!
      CashRebel recently posted..May 2013 Goals Update

  8. krantcents says:

    Some may think it was just luck, but I think you must have impressed him when you were an undergrad. Putting in the work beforehand provides opportunities that to outsiders just looks like luck.
    krantcents recently posted..Negotiation Starts When You Ask a Question!

    1. CashRebel says:

      I guess persistence and creating a good network really do pay off.
      CashRebel recently posted..May 2013 Goals Update

  9. anna says:

    What a great tale, though I attribute the successful outcome towards your gumption to get out there and find alternative solutions. Great work!
    anna recently posted..May Goals Update and New Prospective Venue

    1. CashRebel says:

      first off, great use of the word gumption! 🙂
      Secondly, thanks! There’s always another path.
      CashRebel recently posted..May 2013 Goals Update

  10. Wow, I’d never heard of not getting a written offer for funding. That’s crazy! I’m glad that you were able to work it out and keep your options open, even if you did end up leaving later for a job.
    Mrs. Pop @ Planting Our Pennies recently posted..PoP Balance Sheet – May 2013

    1. CashRebel says:

      Yea, I was certainly a noobie, so from here on out I’m not going to trust anyone’s word until it’s in writing!
      CashRebel recently posted..May 2013 Goals Update

  11. I also learned the hard way to get everything in writing. I moved out to Colorado with the promise of a job that had evaporated by the time I made it out.
    Edward Antrobus recently posted..Introducing my Yakezie Summer 2013 Team

    1. CashRebel says:

      Oh man, that sounds like quite a disaster. I hope it worked out.
      CashRebel recently posted..May 2013 Goals Update

  12. That is a crazy story…I’m it worked out in the end. It pays to network and to be persistent. I think a lot students have a different mindset as you. You were against taking $55k in student loans and were willing to forgo the degree (well at least for the time being). When I went to grad school, I knew many students who took EXTRA loans over and above their tuition for personal expenses…thinking they would be able to pay it off easily once they graduated.
    Andrew@LivingRichCheaply recently posted..$1250 and Other Freebies with Little Effort

    1. CashRebel says:

      Yea, and maybe they will be able to pay it off when they graduate… But there’s a lot of grads that can’t and who are drowning in student loans right now…
      CashRebel recently posted..May 2013 Goals Update

  13. Tushar @ Everything Finance says:

    Wow, that must have felt absolutely awful! I couldn’t imagine having that looming over my head days before the payment was due. You got lucky though, good job!

  14. […] This week we had a wonderful guest post from Cash Rebel on losing his funding right before the start of his master’s degree. […]

  15. […] Losing My Graduate School Funding was featured in the Financial Carnival for Young Adults. […]

  16. […] We also had a wonderful guest post from Cash Rebel: Losing My Graduate School Funding. […]

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