Assistantships for professional master's degrees
April 9, 2012 5:13 PM   Subscribe

How unusual is it to choose a professional Master's program without having an assistantship secured for the fall?

I'm trying to figure out how typical my situation is.

I've applied and been accepted to a number of professional Master's programs for Fall 2012. I need to make a decision (send a deposit) within the week.

One of the programs - let's call it Orange University - has shown a lot of interest in bringing me into a 20-hour research assistantship position, but can't guarantee it right now. It's a new position and a bit up in the air, depending on their funding stream. They "hypothetically" asked if I'd be open to doing a 10-hour assistantship for the fall of this year, with the possibility of having a 20-hour assistantship in my second year (I said yes). Any assistantship would come with a reduction in tuition rates (I'd pay an in-state rate instead of out-of-state) as well as some level of a tuition waiver and stipend. There are also other assistantships at the University, although few others specific to my department. If I had to pay the out-of-state rate, without any funding, my rough estimate including cost of living is $83K for 2 years.

The other program - let's call it Blue College hasn't offered me any funding yet. They do offer both assistantships and merit scholarships. They say that no assistantships are offered as part of the admission process, and that openings become available closer to the fall. I applied to this program a few years ago when I had less work experience (didn't end up enrolling), and was awarded a $10K merit scholarship - optimistically, I might receive something equivalent or greater than this given additional work in the field. This program is expensive... the most costly so far (rough estimate, including cost of living, is $96K for 2 years).

Some background, if it matters:
  • These are both MPH programs in an location with some of the highest cost of living expenses in the country
  • Both programs have some wonderful strengths that make it clear these are excellent fits for where I'm headed in my career
  • I currently work in the public health field and it's clear I need this degree to advance
  • I feel strongly that my work experience and references make me a competitive assistantship candidate
  • I currently make about $60K a year in salary (which I believe is high for someone without a Masters) and, if my current employer's positions are an indicator, I might be able to return to work here with a Masters and expect to earn in the $80K range
  • I have about $20K in debt from undergrad loans
  • Without an assistantship, it's likely I would continue to work at my current position 50% time and earn about $30K to pay towards living expenses etc. With an assistantship (particularly one that's 20 hours/week), I'd probably quit my job (my employers are very supportive of getting this degree, so they won't be surprised if I do)
  • There's also a local, crappy program that I've been accepted to. It's a program that's really a bad fit for my skills / interests / career goals, but it would be very affordable to attend and I'd get the right credential at the end of 2 years.
It seems likely that I could find an assistantship at Orange U., but I'm wondering if this is too risky. The more I talk to people, though, the more I get the feeling that it's not unusual for people (in this field, at least) to accept a MPH offer in the spring and then work out an assistantship for the fall at some point in the months in between. Is this crazy? Would I be crazy to do this at Blue College? What if Blue C. offers me a scholarship (lets say of $40K)?

How common is it to accept an offer to a professional master's program without a firm assistantship offer, and then obtain one at some point between acceptance and enrollment?

Thank you in advance.
posted by anonymous to Education (5 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Worst case scenario you will have over $100,000 in loans for a degree that only gives you an extra $20,000 a year. Are you sure the local programme won't be suitable? It sounds like you have a job you plan to specifically go to, do they just want the piece of paper or do they want a Masters only from one of two schools? If you are in the US grad school enrolmentd have increased in the past few years so past years experience with assistantships and scholarships may no longer hold true.
posted by saucysault at 5:58 PM on April 9, 2012

Why not do the work part-time option? Seems like a decent compromise.
posted by mlle valentine at 6:03 PM on April 9, 2012

Have you talked to Blue school about funding offers? I'm starting an MPH in the fall and the program told me about my (merit-based) fellowship over a month ago. I'd be surprised if they make you any financial offers this close to the April 15th deadline.

At the university I'll be attending it's really up to the student to find TA/RAships and usually after the fall semester at that. The professors gave us some potential classes that their MPH students usually TA for but they would not guarantee anything. Quite a few of my future classmates are in this position so I would imagine you'd have to be proactive to get something secured before the fall. The professors and program staff made it sound really common for people to find something. The students we talked to also made it sound common. Have you talked with any MPH students at the programs to see if other people have gone in without a TAship and secured one?
posted by wilky at 8:54 PM on April 9, 2012


Most folks i know in UNC's School of Library and Information Science right now enrolled without an assistantship, but we got them once we arrived because the librarian/info-scientist market in Chapel Hill/Durham/Raleigh, NC is huge.

The trend here (though not the rule) is that students must find their own TA/RAships. You should contact Orange and Blue and ask how likely it is that you can get an assistantship once you arrive. If they can't help you, ask for access to specific current students or to a general student listerv where you can ask. The administration in my grad program was indispensable in helping me (and others here) get our assistantships.
posted by cmchap at 10:29 AM on April 10, 2012

I think you should talk to the school, and more specifically, to the department you'd be attending. They should have an academic coordinator or someone like that who can answer your questions about this; I'm sure you're not the only one asking. You could try to play them off each other a bit by telling Blue that Orange has offered you a RA position, and can they match it, since you'd really like to attend Blue, but will have to pick Orange if they can't (if this is true, of course!).

When I got my MPH, a few exceptional people that the school really wanted got RA/TAships when they were accepted or over the summer, but the rest of us average Janes got positions at the beginning of the school year, so I would say it's not unheard of to accept without a position. In my (admittedly small) program, everyone who wanted one had a position by the spring semester of our first year.

I would not go to the local, crappy program. In public health, where you go matters, since it's a small field, and an MPH is a very key degree--you're right that you need it to advance past a certain point. The connections you make at a better program will be important later in your career. Also, think long-term--yes, you may make $80k when you're done in a couple of years, but you can also assume a better school will pay off in the longer run--if you came out and made $80k, it's not unreasonable to think you could be making $95k one or two jobs later.

In your shoes, I would pick the program I thought best suited my needs (and this would of course include financial issues), my career path, and my interests, and work really hard on securing something over the summer or first thing in the fall.
posted by min at 2:33 PM on April 10, 2012

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