By Tyler Wilkins 

Hannah Smith knew pursuing graduate education was the right decision, but she didn’t know she’d need to take out loans to supplement her monthly income.

Smith, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Crop & Soil Sciences at the University of Georgia, earned a master’s degree from the University of Arkansas. She took an assistantship with a $14,000 stipend, but it didn’t fully cover the cost of fees, food, rent and gas during her program.

“You feel like you’re starting out behind,” Smith said. “You have this mountain of debt that you have to overcome once you finally do get a job. And sometimes it hits you, and you’re like, ‘Oh, man, this is accruing interest right now, even as I speak.’”

While it was not optimal to incur debt before entering the workforce, Smith said she expects to pay off the loan a few years after working in the agricultural chemical industry.

To better the prospects of working in her dream industry, Smith returned to her home state of Georgia after she completed her master’s program. She said she sought advice from people working in her industry, and they said earning a doctoral degree would be the best route for landing a job in her field.

Smith holds an assistantship while completing her doctoral program, but its stipend is about twice the amount she received from her previous assistantship, allowing her to cover all of her expenses.

Without an assistantship, Smith said she probably wouldn’t have gone to graduate school at all.

“It would have been too much financially,” Smith said. “I had some mentors as I was going for my bachelor’s and master’s that said, ‘You should not have to pay for that. You should be on an assistantship.’” 

To offset the costs of living while completing a graduate program, Smith said prospective graduate students should seek an assistantship, which will help cover the costs of tuition and other expenses. She said the process of finding an assistantship involves networking to find the right adviser.

Kristin Short, a UGA financial planning doctoral student, whose previous assistantship sought to educate graduate students about personal finance, agreed with Smith. Not only do stipends help pay for tuition and other expenses, but “they enhance your experience in the program,” Short said.

When looking at graduate school programs, it’s best to find one that offers full funding for tuition, Short said. But if completing a graduate degree will significantly enhance someone’s earning potential in their industry, then resorting to loans to cover the cost of graduate school is worth it, she said.

Much of the research Short conducts for her doctoral program pertains to stress that graduate students face. Graduate school can be stressful without the attached price tag, but many graduate students find the opportunity costs, like delayed salary earnings, worth it once they complete their program and enter their desired field, Short said.

And rather than working in a non-industry-related job while completing a graduate program, Short said students should try to complete assistantships and internships to gain valuable work experience in their field that will separate them from other graduates, even if that means taking out more loans.

“There’s this big fear about student debt,” Short said. “Instead of taking on student loans, they’ll take on a part-time job. The problem is they’re scraping by in their classes and bussing tables at night, stretching themselves thin when they could be building their resume and making themselves more marketable after they finish their degree.”

Tyler Wilkins is a journalism student at the University of Georgia. The reporting for this article was completed before the campus closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.