financial aid for grad students

Financial Aid for Grad Students: How to Get Started, Research Universities and Contact Faculty

The dream of an American graduate degree, along with the hope of a rewarding career, comes with a big price tag. The typical master’s degree from a good American university is going to cost you anywhere between $40,000 to $100,000. For the average citizen from other parts of the world, this could mean the lifetime savings of an average family. Even worse, it could be simply impossible.

The good news, though, is that America has millions of dollars waiting to pay for your education. If you are smart, America wants you and is willing to pay for you. The problem you have to tackle is getting some of that money.

Do Grad Students Get Financial Aid?

If you are confident that you have the abilities, and you can convince America that you do, getting financial aid for your graduate studies is no problem. I have written this article to help you do exactly that!

Before you get started on your search for aid, it helps to understand how universities run graduate programs and the nature of the relations between universities, government and industry. Much of what I’m writing about applies to most types of graduate study, but I will focus on engineering.

The USA has thousands of universities of all sizes. Most large universities that offer graduate programs are research universities, where academic research is very important. A highly ranked university department may spend several million dollars on research every year, especially in engineering, pure sciences, medicine and other fields that are of commercial importance either to private industry or government agencies.

Research is carried out by graduate students guided by individual professors, and for larger projects, by groups of professors. Faculty members with big reputations may run research projects involving dozens of graduate students and sometimes teams of undergraduate students as well.

Research Funding

Funding for research comes from several sources. Government agencies like the National Science Foundation or NSF, fund a variety of research projects. Other government agencies like NASA or Air Force Office of Scientific Research, or AFOSR, may fund specific projects in engineering and science that are of interest to them. Every year government agencies invite proposals for hundreds of research projects. Faculty members compete for the funds by writing proposals outlining their plans and funding requirements. Projects are usually funded for several years, with annual reviews of progress.

Funds are often separately allocated for equipment or operations and for hiring graduate students to do the work. The other important source of research funds for universities is private industry. Research requirements from industry are usually very specific, and results are expected quickly.

Apart from research money, universities allocate money specifically for hiring teaching assistants to reduce the workload on professors. Most of the better universities also have fellowships, which are full scholarships with no teaching or research obligations, awarded to exceptional students. These are awarded by the faculty in consultation with the agency or trust that sponsors the fellowship.

Now with that background in mind, it is easy to understand how universities award research and teaching assistantships. Research assistantships are awarded by individual faculty members or, for large projects, by the team of faculty members that runs the project.

Professors usually prefer to award research assistanships to students after one or two semesters, so that they have a chance to evaluate prospective candidates. Teaching assistantships, or TA, are awarded by a committee of faculty members.

The most important point to remember about the financial aid decision process is that every department strives to maximize its research funding and reputation.

Financial aid decisions are guided mainly by the research ability and potential of an applicant. Teaching assistantships are awarded to students who are good research prospects. Faculty members who have a lot of funding for their projects have a strong voice in awarding teaching assistantships. If you manage to impress an important faculty member, you have an extremely strong chance of getting aid.

On the other hand, if all you do is fill out a financial aid form, your chances are pretty slim. You will only be considered if there aren’t enough candidates who have personally contacted faculty members.

To get aid therefore, you have to do a lot more than merely fill out an application form. You have to work hard to find and contact good prospective advisers at a lot of universities or hiring one of the college admission consultants listed on The following sections outline the most efficient way of going about this task.

Getting Started

Begin your search by looking through a list of American universities . Standard reference books like Peterson’s guide — which also has online resources, though they might not be very up to date, and are more geared to American students — are very useful if you have no idea at all about colleges in the USA. Get hold of a good map of the USA and get an idea of the location of each university. Your first task is to compile a list of around 50 to 75 universities that suit your requirements.

Ask students from your college who are in the USA. Examine the rankings for your particular discipline in a standard source like the U.S. News and World Reports rankings list. Figure out which location is best suited for your discipline.

If you are interested in mechanical engineering for instance, you would look in Michigan and Ohio, which are the industrial heartland of the USA. With this information, you can make up your list of prospective universities. List at least 30 to 50 universities according to how well they suit you.

It’s important to keep in mind a few things when making up your list. Be sure to include at least a few of the top-ranked universities. Include the largest universities . Try to choose from the top 50 to 75 universities in your discipline. A very low ranked university can be a horrible experience for a foreign student.

It is usually easier to get aid in state universities — run by state governments — than in independently-run private universities, but some of the famous private universities have a lot of money available, so include a few. If you are not sure whether a university is public or private, ask your friends or look up the Web site. If your field is strongly related to a particular industry, include all major universities in regions where that industry is strong.

Include all universities where people from your undergraduate university have received admission or aid in the past few years. Other things being equal, professors prefer students from places they know or recognize from previous experience. Finally, include any universities that your adviser and seniors recommend.

Don’t waste your time researching extremely small, unranked universities. Universities in extremely rural states should be low on your list. These may have very poor resources for foreign students, and be far from the mainstream of America. Now that you have your list of universities, you need to do some detailed research.

Researching a University

Once you have your list of prospective universities, it is time for some serious work. To begin with, you need to request application packages from all the universities on your list. If you do not have access to the Web for researching the universities, make sure you request your application packages early — five to six months before the admission deadlines, which are usually in December or January for September admissions — so that you have some information on the faculty.

Your university library may have several guides to American universities, such as the popular Peterson’s guide. The rest of this section assumes you are researching the universities on the Web, but you can follow the same procedure using the application packages for information.

Maintain a notebook with a page for each university. From a convenient list of links to American universities, visit the Web site for the department you are interested in for each university. Request an application package over the Web if the feature is available.

Note the following information:

  • Number of graduate students and the size of the faculty
  • Deadline dates for applications, especially deadlines for financial aid applications
  • Number of faculty members in each broad discipline

What’s Next?

Now you need information on what research activities are available in each department.

Follow the links to the home pages of individual faculty members, and write down the name of every faculty member whose list of research activities matches your interests, along with the following information:

  1. Title (Professor, Associate Professor, Emeritus Professor)
  2. Specific research interests and publications if any are listed
  3. Email address
  4. Any information regarding large research projects that the faculty member is involved in
  5. Names and email addresses of any graduate students if they are listed

Finally, look up any Web pages detailing large research projects run by the department — for example, the projects in electrical engineering at the University of Michigan —and note points of interest to your particular discipline.

If you cannot find any names of students in the professors’ pages, write down the names of a few students from the student home pages, preferably students who are from your country.

Here is what a sample page from your notebook might look like:

University of Anytown, Department of Mechanical Engineering. Deadline: Dec. 15

·  20 Professors, 110 graduate students

·  12 in Fluid Mechanics, 5 in Design, 3 in Production, 1 in Controls Professors in fluid mechanics

·  John Doe, Professor,, high-speed centrifugal pumps, rotor design, cavitation studies, grad students Tom Wang

·  Sam Waltz, associate professor,, hydraulics, high speed valves,

·  P. T. Tompson, assistant professor,, compressible fluid dynamics, supersonic flows

·  S. Krishna, associate professor,, computational methods

Large project on high-speed pumps run by Doe and Waltz.
Grad students: Stan York, york@college,edu, F. Miller,


Finally, remember to ask the professors in your university about any contacts they may have in the USA. If they are willing to put you in touch with their colleagues, you have a much higher chance of getting aid. If any of your seniors are in the USA, asking them to help may also be very useful in yielding good contacts.

Contacting Faculty

Once you have the basic information, you are ready to start the really important part — actually asking for aid. In your notebook, mark how strong the possibilities look for each university, based on faculty strength in your specialization, large research projects and reputation of the faculty. You are now ready to start the chase!

A great deal depends on how you approach a professor. Unless you are rich enough to travel to the USA to meet all the likely prospects, your only chance of making an impression is through your emails or letters. Both your cover letter and resume are far more important than in a normal interview where you have an opportunity of a personal meeting.

Before approaching faculty, you can try emailing some of the graduate students in the department, politely asking for information on the kind of research the department is engaged in.

If the response is friendly, you can ask more questions, such as which professors are good to work with and which professors have funds. Do not try to send a 10-page email asking a whole bunch of questions! You will almost certainly annoy the person you are asking.

You should contact professors soon after the beginning of fall term, which is usually in September. Send a brief email comprising a brief cover letter introducing yourself, and a short one- or two-page resume. Your email should be polite, businesslike and to the point.

Email is the best way to contact professors, as it is fast and very easy to reply to. If you do not have access to email, you can consider sending a normal letter, but that is a slow and difficult process.

Your cover letter should cover the following points:

  • A brief introduction
  • A quick summary of your interests
  • A brief mention of the professor’s current research and why you can be useful to him.
  • An indication that you will provide more information if required.

Remember, professors are busy people who receive dozens of email everyday. They will not read pages and pages of information. A good rule to follow is to restrict your letter to a single screen of text. You must mention that you are looking for financial aid, but don’t try to write a long, sad story about why you cannot afford to pay tuition.

Americans prefer a friendly and professional tone. Professors are smart people; don’t try to pretend to be what you are not. Don’t say that you have read all his research papers and hold him in great esteem; he doesn’t expect undergraduate students to have the maturity or knowledge to read serious research papers and will likely not appreciate flattery.

But if you have read a particular paper and understood it, it can be useful to mention it.

For example, you could write: “I read your paper ‘Intake Manifold Design for High-Speed Pumps’ in the International Journal of Turbo Machinery and found it extremely useful for my senior thesis research.

But don’t try to pretend that you have read everything he has written! Points to keep in mind:

  1. Use American terms to describe yourself wherever possible.
  2. Be businesslike.
  3. Don’t try to summarize your whole resume in the cover letter. Keep it short!
  4. Don’t worry too much if your English is not very good, just keep it simple. Your English must be good enough to allow easy communication; if your English is poor, get a friend to check what you have written, but don’t ask someone else to do your correspondence for you! Not only is that dishonest, if you do succeed in getting aid based on lying about your English abilities, you will be found out eventually! Make sure there are no spelling mistakes.
  5. Keep it honest and straightforward. If your resume is not very strong, boasting will only make it worse.
  6. Don’t try to use the same letter for each professor by just changing the name. Use any information you have about the professor’s academic work to write a personal letter. You can try to change your style depending on any personal information you have, but do this carefully.

We have seen how to get started on your search for aid, how to research universities and how to contact faculty.

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