Teaching opportunities for grads in short supply

Like many graduate students, Andrea Deeken started off her program owing almost $30,000 from her undergraduate studies. Hoping to cost-consciously continue her education, she planned to apply for a coveted teaching assistantship a year after she was accepted into the master’s program in professional writing.

“I’m so broke from school,” she said.

But Deeken, like many others, found she had missed her opportunity. She learned that the Department of English only accepts applications for teaching assistant positions when a student first enrolls in a graduate program, leaving her with few options to fund her education aside from loans.

Many seniors and recent graduates said they are dismayed to find that once they move from undergraduate to graduate studies, the well of money for school has virtually dried up. With grants from the federal and state levels not available to graduate students, many students turn to alternative sources of funding such as scholarships, graduate and research assistantships or becoming a peer mentor.

Graduate students at Portland State University are eligible for a maximum of $18,500 a year in loans, according to financial aid counselor Regan Moore. Students demonstrating more need may qualify for an additional Perkins loan, but the amount that can be borrowed varies depending what is available from the federal pool of dollars. Expenses for graduate students are currently estimated to be $22,872 per year including living, travel and book expenses.

Moore said, however, that funds are available to students willing to do a little searching.

“It’s up to the student to do the legwork,” she said.

She often suggests that potential graduate students do a search for scholarship funds on Portland State’s financial aid website. A quick search of all graduate scholarships returns over a hundred scholarships, some of which are department specific or have very narrow criteria for applicants. Of the scholarships available with more general requirements, several are open to undergraduates as well.

The Oregon Laurels Graduate Tuition Remission Program is an extremely competitive program that grants remissions of instructional fees for graduate study. The mean cumulative GPA for graduates awarded the scholarships is 3.90. According to Courtney Ann Hanson, assistant coordinator of graduate studies, about 50 new students are awarded the coveted Oregon Laurels per year, and another 50 are granted a renewal.

Another option that Moore and other financial aid counselors frequently mention to students is that of graduate assistantships. “I tell them to inquire with individual departments,” Moore said. “What they tell me is that it’s really competitive.”

Graduate assistants are appointed through individual departments and each has its own method of selection. Different departments also have different responsibilities for their graduate assistants.

The Department of Computer Science employs about 12 teaching assistants, said graduate coordinator Salinda Calder. These students receive tuition remission as well as a small stipend that is funded entirely by the university. These students assist professors in the classroom with everything from preparation to grading papers.

Other graduate students in the computer science department are offered Graduate Research Positions. These students are working on specific research projects and the amount of funding varies. According to administrative coordinator Rene Remillard, there are approximately 35 students in the computer science department that are currently receiving some type of funding through graduate research positions. Funding could be as much as full tuition remission plus a small stipend. Money for these graduate research assistants comes from private grants.

“I don’t want to put out there that we fund our graduate students 100 percent, nine months out of the year. That certainly is not the case,” Remillard said. Each graduate research assistant is funded on a case-by-case basis depending on course load and type of grant money available. Two computer science research assistants are currently working under grants that specifically requested that funds not be used to cover a student’s tuition. Those students received their tuition remission from university dollars.

The Department of English at Portland State has two tiers of opportunity for graduate assistantships. The first tier is the actual graduate assistantships. Approximately 17 students are offered grad assistantship positions through the department, and appointments are for a two-year period. Students must apply for these positions at the time they apply to graduate school and if selected they will be assigned a position either in the Writing Center, teaching a freshman class or as a writing intensive course assistant. These positions offer tuition remission and a small stipend.

Other students in English may receive a second tier opportunity as a writing intensive course assistant. These opportunities may be for as little as one term. “There are a number of opportunities in this tier, approximately 30 or so by term,” writing director Hildy Miller said.

With over 2,000 full-time graduate students enrolled at PSU, these alternative sources of funding are clearly hard to come by. According to Miller, students should look at all aspects of a school when deciding what graduate programs to apply to.

“Look at how many fellowships they offer and how much money the department has,” Miller advised.