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Wendy Robinson is a PhD candidate in higher education at Iowa State University. You can find her on Twitter @wendyrmonkey.

A little background before I begin: I’m a doctoral student in Higher Education Administration at a land grant university. Within this program, I’m in a cohort that is made up mainly of current student services/affairs professionals and administrators. A sizeable chunk work at community colleges—the program is probably responsible for 75% of the Drs. running community colleges in the state. Almost nobody in my cohort has a teaching or grad assistantship, as working full-time in higher ed is the norm. Some folks in the cohort work for schools that offer tuition assistance to employees. I am not, alas, one of them.

When I decided to begin the program, I had to make a decision about how to pay for it. I was offered a very small scholarship ($800, which basically covered books for my first few semesters) and applied for financial aid. Although I had money in savings, I opted to use student loans instead. This turned out to be a good decision, given that we ended up purchasing a house earlier this year and we squeezed our savings account like a sponge to get as big a down payment as we could.

So, even though I haven’t paid off my undergrad loans yet (my master’s degree was basically free, thank goodness, because of a generous tuition policy at a past job), I’ve taken loans out to fund this go round. I’ve tried to not take out more than I need to pay for tuition, but I’m still expecting that once my loans go off of deferment, I’ll be looking at monthly payments of about $500. Yikes.

But tuition was expected. There have been lots of other costs associated with this process that I didn’t expect:

1. Fees: Holy. Crap. Fees are ridiculous. A $50 technology fee for a one-credit class that met one time and used the super expensive technology of PowerPoint. A $150 course delivery fee, a $50 alternative format fee, etc. I am certain that I have paid well over $1500 in fees so far.

2. The cost of doing research: I’m doing a mixed-methods dissertation, for which I want to interview students. You know what helps you get students to show up for interviews? Gift cards! You know who pays for them? You do!

Research costs can include travel, recording devices, software … it adds up. And if you want to present your research at a conference? Whelp. I hope your credit limit is high enough for registration fees, plane tickets, and hotels. Some departments may have support for that; many don’t.

3. Speaking of hotels: Some of the very best money I have spent on this process has been the $1000-1500 I’ve spent on hotels. I do my best work when I have big chunks of uninterrupted time. I also have a two-year-old and six-year-old who won’t even let me pee by myself. I can get more done in two days at the Embassy Suites than I can in a month trying to work at home. If you are a parenting grad student, I implore you: put hotels in your budget.

4. Cost of living: My program tends to have classes that meet less frequently but for longer durations. This often means a Thursday night class from 5-9 and then class Friday from 8:30-4:30 or so. These are long stretches to get through without treats, and so I estimate that the average student in my classes probably spends $30 or so per class meeting on coffee, snacks, lunch at the nearby Mexican place, and the occasional after class happy hour.

In addition to money spent on snacks and caffeine, I think grad school increased the amount of money I spent on eating out or delivery food on non-school nights as well. Studying takes time and energy away from other areas of your life, sometimes including cooking.

I also tend to soothe my grad school anxiety with the purchase of school supplies, paper products, and online ordering of kid’s clothing (this last one was a budget-buster, but I’m getting better at avoiding the websites where I can one-click myself into trouble).

There is another money suck that I’ll mention because it is common in my program, and that is paying for an editor. Many members of my cohort will shell out money for someone to edit their dissertations (and, in some cases, their capstone projects) before sending them to their committees. I hear the average cost runs around $500-600. I don’t plan to use an editor because I have hopes that I can take full advantage of the fact that I have an in-house English PhD who happens to love me and will accept payment in the form of sexual favors.

This is obviously not a reasonable plan for all students. So when you’re considering the cost of grad school, don’t forget that the tuition bill is really just the beginning.

What are the unanticipated costs of grad school that you’ve encountered? Share your stories in the comments!

[Photo courtesy of Flickr user Tax Credits and used under a Creative Commons license.]


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