One of the many reasons why people don’t apply to graduate programs – or pursue further education at all – is that they believe it is too expensive. In the wake of the Great Recession, many people are struggling to make ends meet, and the thought of taking on [more] loans – even to pursue their dream career – is just too much.
Because I was fortunate enough to earn my way through two separate higher education programs with my tuition* fully covered at both, I want to share my story and offer the best advice I can about how to go about finding funding for your graduate education in occupational therapy (or anything else, for that matter!).
I’ll start by saying that my experience is somewhat rare, but it’s absolutely not unheard of. A friend of mine went from undergrad to her master’s to her PhD at the same institution without stopping, and she doesn’t owe a dime – I swear! She accomplished this by developing strong relationships with people in the departments where she studied to help her find funding, include her on funded projects, and connect her with other opportunities (and you can too!).
While I have changed schools since undergrad, I definitely haven’t changed tactics. If anything, my skills for finding and earning funding have only been further honed by my decision to pursue a graduate degree in occupational therapy. Lest you think that I am taking all of the credit for my achievements, I absolutely must credit the good Lord for all of the many blessings (financial and otherwise) in my life that have allowed me to go to school for almost nothing! I also have wonderful friends and family members who have read scholarship essays, cheered me on, and picked me up when times were not as good that I am so, so, thankful for.
With that said, I am going to be very open here about my financial situation, not because I am bragging or showing off, but to show others how I am paying for grad school and how you can go about funding your own OT education. Read on to find out how I’m becoming an OT for (almost) free!
I have made a great effort to find and apply for scholarships since I was in high school, and in the past few years the Great Recession and its effect on the economy, my family, and other sources of financial support have motivated me to work even harder to find funding. Since starting OT school in fall 2014, I have earned nearly $40,000 in grants, scholarships, and forgivable loans to help cover my graduate education expenses. I have also taken out a $20,000 loan to cover living expenses, so I am not completely debt-free, but “technically” the funding I have received helps cancel out the loan.
The table below outlines my current financial situation as a second year occupational therapy graduate student. I started school in fall 2014 and will graduate next year.
ACADEMIC TOTAL: $38,000
ANNUAL TUITION: ~ $17,000
TOTAL GRADUATE TUITION: ~ $35,000
Information accurate as of 9/2015
As you can see, I have earned several awards at the local, state, and national level that are paying for my graduate education, as well as working over the summer to help pay for additional expenses. Although I was only able to apply for the academic funding opportunities after deciding to attend my current OT program and receiving financial aid information, I was aware of the different kinds of awards available at the state, local, and national levels for multiple schools well before I knew where I would be going. And while I was completing my OT school applications, I kept a continuous cost comparison in my head as acceptances came in and I had to make a decision about where I would attend.
It is important to note that I am attending an OT program with a relatively “low” cost for an in-state student. For students who are attending programs with significantly higher costs or attending programs as out of state students, it is much less likely — though not impossible — that you will be able to get your academic expenses fully covered. This fact was a key deciding factor in my decision about which program to attend; in the end I decided to attend my current program partially because it was a good personal and academic fit for me, and largely because it would be affordable. My “second runner up” school was similar to my current program in ranking, distance from my hometown, and other important factors, but the cost of attending was likely to be significantly higher. Making judgment calls like this is something completely personal, but I firmly believe that while OT school is a great investment for a rewarding, well-paying career, it is not worth going into deep, deep debt for.
I believe that much of my success with finding funding can be attributed to my determination to seek out money wherever it may be, in addition to the skill I have developed with writing effective scholarship essays. This is not something I can exactly give a formula for, but I feel that I have gotten very good at expressing myself in ways that clearly demonstrate my skills and talents and make a strong case for why I am a deserving scholarship recipient. If you struggle with writing quality essays in spite of having great experience and qualifications, use a local library, writing center, or skilled writer friend to help you find out where you might be going wrong in your funding/scholarship applications and how you can fix it and hopefully find more funding.
I do not have a lot of experience (as of right now) with handling, paying off, or negotiating student loan debt, as it is something I have chosen not to deal with until I get out of school next year. But when I graduate my plan is to find a position that will help pay off my loans by way of a sign-on bonus, loan forgiveness program, or other method (more about that in a later post!). For more info on handling debt after OT school, check out this post on the OT Potential blog.
Another thing to keep in mind is that these are just the funding opportunities I have been SUCCESSFUL in applying for! Don’t think that I’ve won every award I’ve ever applied for, because I definitely haven’t. Rejection is part of the process, and if you can get feedback from application reviewers about what you can improve, it will only make it easier for you in the future. Apply to as many sources of funding as you can dedicate time to, and even if you don’t get them all you have a better chance of getting something!
On the less positive side of this topic, I have sometimes faced negativity and rude comments from others who seem to think that I just fall into all of my funding and spend my days eating bonbons and swimming in big pools of money. In reality, I spend a LOT of time locating, researching, and applying for scholarships and I often have to continue working hard after receiving the money to maintain access to it. For example, the training grant I am currently on requires me to take additional coursework, complete various projects outside the classroom, attend various educational seminars and programs, and complete service and volunteer hours. So in addition to being a full time student, at times I have felt like I’m working a full-time job just to maintain my eligibility for this particular funding source. I am also obligated under the terms of the grant to work in pediatrics for a specific amount of time after graduating, which isn’t the worst thing, but doesn’t quite align fully with where I see myself working in the future. Of course, I knew these things when I signed on, and they come with the territory. But these are the kind of personal sacrifices I have made in order to graduate debt-free, and you may need to be prepared to put in similar amounts of extra effort and make a few compromises if you are a funding recipient. Make sure you read the fine print and that you’re OK with what you’re being asked to do if you do receive an award!
Here are the key points to keep in mind when beginning to think about how you will pay for OT school.
- Diversify. All of my funding comes from multiple sources. By looking for funding at the local, state, and national levels, you can find more money for school and increase the likelihood that you will win an award.
- Express yourself (well). Even if you are the smartest, most accomplished, and most well-rounded student ever, if you cannot succinctly and convincingly explain to a scholarship committee why you should win an award, you probably won’t get it. Hone your scholarship essay skills with the help of a college writing center, local library, or skilled writer friend.
- Increase your odds. I apply to a fairly large volume of scholarships, grants, etc. (4-6 per year), and on average I have gotten about 2 per year since I’ve been in grad school. Basic math states that this is about a 50% success rate, but this is just in my personal experience. I suggest applying for as many scholarships as you are able to, thereby increasing the odds that you will win one or more. If you don’t try, you’ll never know!
- Read the fine print. If you are considering various funding sources, make sure you are clear about what (if anything) will be required of you if you are selected. For example, will that awesome $5000 scholarship from an OT program require you to work in geriatrics, a practice area you have no interest in? Be sure you are honest with yourself and aware of the requirements for each funding source. Money can’t buy you happiness towards a job that you don’t like.
- Stay positive. If you get down about your chances before you even apply, it will be hard to stay motivated to continue writing essays and searching out scholarship opportunities. Have a positive attitude about everything you apply for, and your optimism will make things easier.
I hope this post helps clear up some questions people might have about paying for OT school. Again, I want to be clear about the fact that my situation is not the norm, and that you should not expect things to happen this way for you. But I am also an example of the fact that it is POSSIBLE, and that the more effort you put into finding funding, the more funds will find their way to you!
For more information about how other students are financing their education, check out this thread on the OT Student Doctor forum. You may also want to get in touch with current graduate students in the programs you are thinking about applying to in order to get a rough idea of what to expect to pay.
Please comment or email me at gottabeOT1@gmail.com if you have any questions, and stay tuned for my upcoming “Funding Your OT Education” series to learn more about what you can do before, during, and after OT school to save money and pay for your graduate education!
*My academic expenses were paid for at both schools. My undergraduate scholarship also paid for my room, board, dining plan, etc. but my current graduate funding does not cover all of my living expenses.