Stipends demystified

I received a fantastic question from a blog reader today about stipends. I thought I’d go over a few points on stipends today.

Do stipends cover housing or dining at the university?

Stipends, to my knowledge, do not cover housing or dining in the program. I don’t think graduate programs cover dining hall expenses, but I could be wrong. You can use the stipend  however you like–on housing, food, beer, pets, savings, etc. It’s like an allowance so that you can cover basic expenses and write, read, daydream, and socialize (important for creative work).

How are stipends given out?

In my MFA program, stipends were parceled out over 9 months. However, this amount could possibly be extended an additional month if you work as an editorial assistant. And other MFA programs might extend the stipend over the entire year. Stipends are deposited into your bank account like a paycheck.

How much is enough?

It’s important to select schools that give out at least $16-17k a year. This is manageable if you will live in a low-cost area. When I attended Johns Hopkins in Baltimore from 2008-2010, most students secured housing near the school, mainly row houses they shared with roommates. The average cost of a 2-br apartment in a row house was $800-900, and studios went for $550-700.

Don’t select a school with funding that won’t cover your basic expenses (unless money is no object to you). You don’t want to be worrying about making rent while creating work.

Will I need a part-time job?

Each program is different. In addition to the stipend amount and cost of housing/living, the number of courses you will need to take and teach will determine how much extra time you’ll have to earn side money. At Hopkins, students were required to take 2 courses and teach 1 during each term. This left a lot of  time to read and write, and after that, to work. Most people chose to take on tutoring and freelance writing in their spare time.

Anything else?

Check to see if there are winter intersession or summer opportunities to teach. Some people in my program  went back to their home states and found part-time summer jobs. Over the two years of my graduate studies (not all at once!), I taught  summer and winter sessions, read to a retired blind professor, farm-sat for my advisor, became a short-term caregiver to an Alzheimer’s patient, and tutored international graduate students in writing and doctoral applications. There may be some jobs posted on the university job board or forum–you just have to be open and slightly adventurous.

And look into fellowships and contests outside of the program. In my second year, I applied for a graduate book collecting contest and won $500. Not too shabby for putting together an essay and list of the books I already owned and wanted to own!


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