Opinion: 5 tips to help finance your graduate education

By Stephanie Alt Lamm 29 October 2016

Applying for funding can be as involved and complex a process as applying for graduate school. Photo by: Steve Buissinne

For the last 17 years managing a master’s program in international development, I have seen bright, driven, passionate people put their graduate education on hold because of a lack of funding. These applicants were no less impressive than others who were winning scholarships and attending the programs of their choice.

So what was the difference? Often it came down to one thing: They had not done the necessary planning in advance. Applying for funding can be as involved and complex a process as applying for graduate school. Over the years, I have found that following these basic steps can make the difference between “congratulations” and “better luck next year.”

1. Start early.

Many students come to me late in the game looking for funding. By that time, many opportunities — even ones for which they are well-qualified — have already passed. You should start looking for funding opportunities at the same time that you start looking for graduate programs: at least one year in advance. Some scholarship deadlines even happen before graduate school deadlines!

2. Tap into your networks.

Online scholarship searches are necessary, but you already have a strong resource available to you — your network. Tapping into network-based scholarships, including alumni affiliations and service organizations, will strengthen your professional ties and increase the number of people invested in your success. For example, alumni scholarships are available from many organizations such as the U.S. Peace Corps, under the guise of the Paul D. Coverdell Fellows Program for returned volunteers.

Service clubs are another option. Rotary International, for example, provides generous support for those working in peace and conflict resolution through the Rotary Peace Fellowships. You don’t even need to be a member of the club to apply.

3. Do your research.

You’d be amazed at the variety of funding sources out there. In addition to the network-based scholarships described above, there are also country-specific, heritage-specific, gender-specific, faith-based, school-specific and general scholarships.

Start with your own country to see what country and region specific scholarships may be available. For example, the small country of Kosovo has country-specific scholarship programs: the Kosovo American Education Fund and the Kosovo Transformational Leadership Program. Colombia has COLFUTURO; Ghana, the Ghanaian Scholarship Secretariat; Kazakhstan, the Bolashak Scholars Program; and Japan, the Joint Japan World Bank Scholarship for Japanese nationals. The African Development Bank, the Aga Khan Foundation, the Organization of American States and the Inter-American Development Bank all offer scholarship programs for citizens of select countries.

Heritage specific scholarships are designed to aid a group of people who have been marginalized within a country or who are being assisted due to their ethnic status. For example, the United States has several heritage-specific scholarships for graduate study, such as the Donald Payne International Development Fellowship Program, Hispanic Scholarship Fund and United Negro College Fund. Many diaspora communities offer scholarship programs, including Iran, Armenia and Tibet. Ethnic scholarships are abundant and serve applicants from Polish to Cuban descent.

Gender-specific scholarship programs assist women throughout the world in furthering their education. Some that are focused on graduate study in international development are the World Bank’s Margaret McNamara Scholarship Program, the American Association of University Women (the Japan and Canada Associations too), and the PEO International Peace Scholarship.

Faith-based scholarships are also available for graduate study. For example, there’s the Islamic Scholarship Fund for Muslim applicants, the Mustard Seed Foundation’s Harvey Fellows Program for Christian applicants, and the FEREP Graduate Scholarship for Jewish applicants.

School and program-specific scholarships are offered by a particular school or program within a university. For example, the master of international development policy program at Duke University offers the Oliver Oldman Scholarship, a program-specific scholarship for those with professional experience in international taxation or public finance.

General scholarships for development study are also available. A few include the OPEC Fund for International Development and the Marshall Papworth Scholarships for development studies in the United Kingdom.

I suggest starting your own research by reviewing the financial aid pages of your top five universities or programs, and scholarships for development.

4. Know what scholarship programs are looking for.

Each scholarship program has its own specific criteria. Read the materials carefully and target your application to the program. For example, many scholarship programs for development studies require that students return home after they complete their degree. When this is the case, you should demonstrate strong ties to your country and explain how the scholarship will help not only you, but your home country or community. Some scholarships are sector specific.

For example, for a scholarship in peace and conflict studies, be sure that you have professional and/or volunteer experience that clearly demonstrates your commitment to this sector. And finally, choose your recommenders or referees carefully. Professors and supervisors who know you well, are familiar with the quality of your work, and can write thoughtful recommendations with specific examples are best.

5. Treat it like a job and commit time every day.

Spend at least one hour per day on your graduate school and funding application and search.  Use a spreadsheet to help you keep track of who you’ve contacted and where you’ve applied. I know it sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised at how many people don’t take these basic steps.

And one more bonus tip: Be patient! Over the years I have worked with many strong, committed and passionate applicants who applied several years in a row before landing their dream scholarship — one that allowed them to continue their important work of bettering the human condition. Keep looking, find mentors, build your networks and don’t give up!

You know you need a postgraduate degree to advance in a global development career, but deciding on a program, degree and specialization can be overwhelming. In partnership with the Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs, Duke Center for International Development, American University Kogod School of Business, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore and the MPA/ID Program at the Harvard Kennedy School, we are digging into all things graduate school and global development in a weeklong series called Grad School Week. Join online events and read more advice on pursuing a postgraduate education here. 

About the author

Oped stephaniealtlamm ed
Stephanie Alt Lamm

Stephanie Alt Lamm is the assistant director of the Master of International Development Policy Program at Duke University. She has more than two decades of experience in international education management, marketing and admissions, global career advising and helping students from around the world follow their passion.


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