How We Got Paid to Get Our PhDs While Raising 3 Kids

Graduate school is expensive, but believe it or not, there’s a way to not only afford it but also get paid for it

Mark Chu
Mark Chu
Mar 28 · 9 min read
(Photo credit: Vasily Koloda on Unsplash)

First, let me briefly tell you about my personal journey to my Ph.D. Hopefully, it gives you an idea about what it takes, and what you might be able to do if you want a Ph.D. with a limited budget too.

When I arrived in Hawaii for college, I had a small bank account and barely knew enough English to communicate. Before coming to America, one of my best friends questioned me on the phone: “Do you have enough money? Do you have enough language skills?”

“No, no.”

“That’s stupid. I predict, no, guarantee, you’ll come back in a year, top.”

“Well, I want to try,” I argued.

“Yeah, good luck. You’ll need it. A lot.”

Four and a half years later, I graduated with honor, and brought home a wife and 2 little babies. This crazy college business had a surprisingly good ending, and everyone thought that should be the end of it.

However, after staying in a job I hated for one plus year — I started fantasizing about smashing into the car in front of me— and also due to the nagging thought of “what if we could have a Master’s?” we both again applied to a small Master’s program in counseling in Kansas. On top of that, my wife gave birth to our 3rd child.

Again, our decision sparked many pieces of advice like fire shooting at us: “Are you crazy!? You want to go back to America again with 3 little kids??” “And both of you going to school full time?!” “How much money do you have? What? $2,000!? I didn’t know your kids feed on dirt.”

“The school offers both of us Teaching Assistantships, which means we don’t have to pay a dime for tuition, and we get paid,” I said. Till today, I’m still surprised that so many students have no clue about this. But more about that later.

“That’s amazing! How did you know about this opportunity?” at least one asked, then added: “But you guys are still crazy. Who will take care of your kids when you both are going to school or working?”

“We’ll manage. You just watch,” I raised my head high.

Well, this time, we learned our lesson.

Because we were so damn poor, all we could afford was a run-down apartment. Whenever I put a pan on the stove, some roaches the size of a Nickle would drop into it. Pretty soon they were everywhere, crawling on the floor and tables teasing us “you can’t catch me.” A month later, every single one of us started visiting the ER — more than once — for different reasons, from pneumonia to scarlet fever. Luckily, the hospital had a financial assistance program for people under the poverty line.

We struggled hard to balance everything: work, school, kids. Many times we had to beg our professors to bring at least one baby to the class. When it was time for our practicum, we found it was impossible to arrange, unless we locked our kids in a cage.

And then, another blow struck: I was kicked out of the funding because I didn’t look right in one professor’s eye. Now, without my part of income and my wife’s start of her practicum, the food stamp and tax return became our only lifeline. And when I questioned my possibility of pursuing my counseling goal, that professor was straightforward: “Not possible.”

That dream was not totally dead, I could go to another school. But if I needed to go to another school, I wanted a way more ambitious goal: a doctoral degree. I’ve proved many doubters wrong, now I needed to prove her wrong.

It was a very long shot. I’ve always been a cautious and fearful person, but for some reason, when it came to education, I became the biggest gambler.

We borrowed $6,500 from my wife’s friend (who was a saint with a heart of gold) for me to pay my last semester’s tuition to get a “General Psychology” Master’s degree — a useless degree. Then I carefully selected the programs I’d like to apply to. Long story short, I was accepted by Kansas State University Social Psychology program.

But here came the problem: my wife was still in her practicum. If we moved now, she wouldn’t have her counseling degree. When I asked K-State if they could keep my position for next year, the answer was no. I’d have to apply again, and no guarantee of acceptance.

When you have a family, any of your life decision must be for the benefit of the whole family; it’s NOT about you anymore. My family would be more secured if my wife got her degree. Therefore, I gave up my position and stayed home to care for the kids for a year.

A tough year went by. I applied again — and was accepted. But not only that, this time, I got the Teaching Assistant funding — which, again, meant a full tuition waiver and a yearly stipend — but because K-State was a way bigger school, the stipend was twice as much. The wait turned out to be the better outcome.

We moved to Manhattan, Kansas, a small and friendly town full of hope. I knew perfectly I wasn’t equipped to be a Ph.D. student but figured maybe I could fool the whole program even just a semester. A “partial completion of a doctoral degree” still sounded better than a master’s degree.

With our budget, we couldn’t find a place to rent for a family of 5. Finally we got a very small basement; a regular McDonald’s dining space would be at least three times as big. It was depressing to squeeze two adults and three children into that dungeon; we just had to fight to survive.

Then it was my wife’s turn to receive a blow from life: she couldn’t find a job. After 3 months, she fell into depression. She wouldn’t talk to me, wouldn’t engage in any activity, lied on the sofa and cried all night.

This couldn’t go on, I thought; she had to do something. Anything. “How about applying for a Ph.D. program here?” I suggested.

She did, and was accepted to the Family Study program. She also found a Research Assistant job. With both our incomes and the yearly tax return, we paid off our debt to my wife’s saint friend. Then we moved out of that dungeon to a townhouse. Both of us worked 20 hours per week, completed our assignments/research, and raised 3 kids. I got another Master’s and then a Ph.D. after 7 years, my wife got her Ph.D. one year after me. I sent out 60 applications for tenure-track faculty positions and got 3 offers — which was considered very lucky. We ended up in a small university in New Mexico. Right now we both are tenured professors.

That is our story.

So as you can see, throughout our time at K-State, we both got our Masters and PhDs without paying a dime — and got paid. Now you might think we lived like homeless people, or even eating grass and wearing rags. Not at all. Yes, we didn’t have furniture except for mattresses and a dining table. Our car was small without AC and with an overheating problem. But we ate normal food, wore normal clothes, managed to travel to other cities/states for entertainment every summer — and still saved some money. We didn’t live like a king, but comfortable enough.

If you’re dreaming about graduate schools, maybe even a doctoral degree, but worry about not being able to afford it, don’t be afraid. If I can do it, chances are SO CAN YOU. I’d like to share with you my knowledge and experience, hopefully they can be helpful to you.

Graduate school applications can be daunting and intimidating, and there’re many factors to consider. In this article, let’s simply focus on the financial part.

First, it’s my philosophy: try your best NOT to get into debt. I know student loans are popular, but before you’ve truly exhausted all the options, I strongly suggest don’t consider that. When I was applying for Ph.D. programs, my thought was: “If they don’t give me enough money, I simply won’t go.” Getting into debt is like having bubble gum in your hair. True, we borrowed $$ from my wife’s friend, but it was HER who sensed our critical problems and volunteered, and she told us: “Don’t worry about when to pay it back, and no interest.” We managed to pay her off in about 2 years, but we owed her almost our lives. I highly doubt your loans will be half forgiving and understanding like my wife’s friend.

Now, if no loans (at least for now), then what options do you have?

Before I tell you the secret, it goes without saying that you need to be a hard-working student (also, it’s a big plus if you have at least some research experience; I’ll elaborate on that maybe in another article), because that maximizes your chance of getting paid in graduate schools.

The secret: when you apply for graduate schools, you have to find out every detail about their TEACHING/RESEARCH assistantships.

Once you decide on the programs you want to apply to, ask them about the teaching/research assistantships. This is how we got paid for our PhDs and raised a family. Graduate schools, especially bigger research-oriented schools, have more money and therefore more positions to hire graduate students to work. The positions mainly have these two categories.

A teaching assistant position requires you to help a professor such as grading, proctoring exams, and other tasks the professor sees fit. Usually, these positions are available in the department you’re applying to, though there might be some positions available in other departments sometimes (it’s rare though, cause people like to hire students within their own departments for the teaching position). The great things about this position are: first, in many cases, it offers a full tuition waiver — you do NOT have to pay a dime. Even if it’s not a full waiver, you should only pay in-state tuition (that’s called a partial waiver), which is way, way cheaper than the full tuition. Second, it has a stipend (but usually only 9 months; no job for the summer). Also, you get to see how professors teach and handle a class. Some even let you teach a class. Many schools (like K-State) even have a training program for graduate students to be full-time instructors (which means more extra cash). If you’re interested in teaching, this is a great opportunity. When I got my Ph.D. and started looking for a job, I already had about 5 years of teaching experience under my belt, which was a big help. Though because this is a position with potential, it might not be available for every student, and only lasts about 3–5 years. But if this year you didn’t get it, wait for the next year and apply again, you might get lucky.

A research assistant position is usually available everywhere on campus. It’s called “research assistant,” but sometimes it doesn’t involve a lot of research. Basically, whenever a program or a department wants to hire some student workers, they post the position and all students around campus are eligible to apply; it doesn’t limit to within the department. The good things about this position are: first, it offers a partial tuition waiver, so you only have to pay in-state tuition. Second, the stipend sometimes can be up to 12 months, more than the teaching assistant. Finally, it’s more available than the teaching assistant position cause you can apply everywhere.

Now, let’s suppose you get either a TA or RA, congrats! Now you have to strive to keep this job. Work hard, kick ass, be helpful. This is not the time to fight with anyone unless you’re at the receiving end of prejudice/harassment. About 3 years into my TA, another more long-term teaching position was available, and because I was somewhat a popular instructor they thought of me. That was why I could support my family for 7 years at K-State. And here I can’t express my sincere appreciation to every professor in the department enough. They’d helped me whenever I needed it.

Indeed, from my story, you can see that we were extremely lucky. For a very long time, we were way, way below the poverty line, and we struggled hard. But at every turn, some good things happened and we prevailed. However, you don’t have to struggle like we did, especially if you don’t have little kids. Plus, chances are English is your native language, you don’t have to worry about fighting to understand what others say, having serious self-doubt whether you can teach in another language to the point of a panic attack. The first time I taught, it was an assignment from a professor, and his class had 150 students. I rehearsed the whole 50-minute lecture, every single word I’d say, at least 5 times. When I got on the stage, my mouth was dry like fire, my heart was pounding in my ears. But then I thought of all the exciting things I wanted to tell them, and I opened my mouth.

Now I’m a tenured professor.

My best wishes to you. Feel free to ask any questions, and I will write more about preparation for graduate school applications soon. Thanks and hope all is well with you.

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Mark Chu

Written by

Mark Chu

I’m an associate professor in psychology at a small university in southern New Mexico. I like playing musical instruments, basketball, and writing stories.

Flower Out of Rubble

When affliction or obstacles are in our way, we can find the courage and hope to be the flower out of the rubble.

Mark Chu

Written by

Mark Chu

I’m an associate professor in psychology at a small university in southern New Mexico. I like playing musical instruments, basketball, and writing stories.

Flower Out of Rubble

When affliction or obstacles are in our way, we can find the courage and hope to be the flower out of the rubble.

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