Grad School Funding
For some folks, the biggest concern regarding grad school is money. And it’s a very valid concern: PhDs do cost some money. However, I can confidently say that the AMOUNT of money it takes varies widely depending on the school you choose. Tuition can vary nearly an order of magnitude from well ranked public schools to the most expensive private schools. Some schools are located in highly affordable cities, and others are located in the most expensive parts of the country. I’m a strong proponent of finding an affordable school and location, unless of course you get a full ride financial offer or fellowship.
If you’re considering a graduate degree in a technical field such as engineering or science, you’ll find very often graduate students are provided reasonable financial offers: tuition paid for, plus a (usually small) stipend to live on, in exchange for a typical grad student job like a research assistant or teaching assistant (grading papers, etc.). Make sure you look hard for funding opportunities like these.
Another important consideration: if you have industry experience, there is a good chance you will be highly competitive if you pursue a graduate fellowship such as those provided by the National Science Foundation. I was able to parlay my previous grad school and then work experience into a winning application for a fantastic NASA fellowship that paid for my entire PhD – yet another advantage of returning to grad school after working full time.
I also know of many folks that have gone down to half time in their current job to pursue a graduate degree: in addition to your halftime salary likely being higher than a typical grad student stipend (even after paying tuition, assuming you attend a school with reasonable tuition), many employers will go a step further and provide additional funds in the form of tuition payments. They usually want to keep you onboard, especially if your advanced degree will also serve the interests of the company.
Finally, if you really can’t obtain any sources of funding, or enough to cover all your costs, you do have the option of student loans at (usually) reasonable interest rates. Here you must think about Return-On-Investment: if you expect your salary to jump significantly after obtaining your degree, then taking a small amount of loans can be a prudent investment. Just don’t let them become monster loans – those are usually quite difficult to dig your way out of unless you are making MD/Lawyer salaries.
Overall, remember that there are usually far more ways to reasonably fund a graduate degree than you might think, and I encourage you to not let the fear of how much a graduate degree will cost dissuade you from pursuing that degree.