How to Pay for Graduate School in Geology

Money has never been an easy subject for me. Growing up, my parents were often stressed out about finances and were constantly searching for ways to make ends meet. Needless to say, I didn’t have a college fund set up so I had to figure out how to pay for my own education from the start. I saved some money by first attending community college and then transferring to a four-year university but I still had to figure out a way to pay for it all on my own.

I was fortunate to be eligible for Pell Grants which helped a lot. I also took out some federal loans that are partially being forgiven because I worked for the Federal Government for a few years prior to attending graduate school. Of course, one of the things that came to mind when thinking about leaving my job to return to school was how I was going to pay for it (or more correctly, have it paid for!).

So if you’re thinking about graduate school, or have already started graduate school, you may have realized that funding options are a bit different from what you may be used to from undergrad. The majority of graduate students in STEM fields in the U.S. are funded in one of the ways I discuss below: through fellowships, assistantships, scholarships, grants, or (forgivable) loans or some combination. Personally, I have received at least one from each category during my graduate career.


Fellowships are probably the most desirable funding option for graduate students because they allow you the freedom of working on a project that you can propose yourself and they don’t have to be repaid. Basically, you aren’t tied to a particular PI’s research grant which gives you more flexibility in terms of a research topic. They also sometimes pay a little better than some of the other funding sources. Because of their attractiveness; however, they are also often highly competitive.

I give a list of some below with links to each website. Fellowships have eligibility requirements which vary and typically require a project proposal which means you need to have research goals prior to applying. Applications also include a personal statement and letters of recommendation as well as other materials like short essays. Here is a list of some that I came up with but make sure you do your own search (for example, on university scholarship and financial aid websites) to see if you can find others that you may be eligible for.

American Association of University Women Fellowship

Department of Energy Computational Science Graduate Fellowship

National Defense Science & Engineering Graduate (NDSEG) Fellowship

National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF-GRFP)

National Research Council Research Associateship Programs

Ford Foundation Fellowship

Fulbright US Student Program

GEM Fellowship

Hertz Fellowship

Quad Fellowship

Smithsonian Institution Fellowship


In this post, Callan Bentley does a great job explaining assistantships. I’d recommend reading what he wrote, but to sum it up: there are two types, teaching assistantships (TAs) or research assistantships (RAs). With a TA, you’re obligated to teach or assist in teaching a course, typically at the undergraduate level. With an RA, you’re obligated to do research that is tied to a grant that has been awarded to your research advisor or a collaborator. That means the research project you work on has already been proposed and funded so it can be less flexible than a fellowship in terms of the type of research you end up doing.

Also, TAs can be offered through the department and the department might have limits on the number of years you can serve as a TA (my department has a two year limit but that’s sometimes negotiable). If you plan on staying in academia and focusing on teaching over research, you may want more TAs than RAs.

Lastly, my advisor is a strong believer in having each of his students serve at least one term as a TA to get some teaching experience prior to finishing graduate education. I think he has the right idea considering that as an academic (even if your focus is research), you’re almost certainly going to need to teach in some capacity.


Scholarships are great and that once they are awarded, there are few restrictions on what you can use them for and there is no service to exchange for them. However, more often than not they have lower dollar amounts than other sources of funding so they are best thought of as a way to supplement other funding sources. There are A LOT of scholarships out there, again with different eligibility requirements and varying levels of competitiveness. I list a few here to get you started but I recommend performing your own search as well. Make sure to check your university and department websites too.

AIPG William J. Siok Graduate Scholarship

Association for Women Geoscientists Scholarships

Harriet Evelyn Wallace Scholarship for Women Geoscience Graduate Students

RMAG Foundation Scholarships

Society of Exploration Geophysicists Scholarships

Forgivable Loans

If you can avoid loans, I recommend you do that that because they usually have to be repaid and it can be hard for a lot of people to get themselves out of student debt once they accumulate it. Forgivable loans are slightly different, however. Forgivable loans are loans that once you meet some set of criteria, can be forgiven (that is, they don’t have to be paid back). One example includes federal loans under the the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. There are others too, like my university’s Gastwirth Graduate Student Loan. That one is forgiven if you secure a job outside of industry following graduation. Make sure you check your university, college, and departmental funding source websites to look for these.

Graduate Research Grants

Many organizations offer small grants to graduate students to support costs associated with thesis or dissertation research. I provide some examples below but you also want to look at organizations that are specific to your school or program (like graduate student unions, for example). Travel grants to support students presenting research at a conferences are also usually available through these same organizations. Below are some geology-specific ones.

AAPG Foundation Grants-in-Aid

AEG Foundation Funds

AGeS(3) – Advancing Geochronology Science, Spaces, and Systems

American Geophysical Union Grants

Cave Research Foundation Grants

Evolving Earth Foundation Student Grant Program

GSA Graduate Student Research Grants

Mineralogical Society of America Grant

Sigma Xi Grants in Aid of Research

Hopefully this serves as a good starting point for you on your journey to funding your graduate education. Also, please realize this is not a complete list and you may have to do quite a bit of your own research to find ones that are best suited to you as an individual.

Good luck!

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