Internal university awards
Internal awards often have little competition, as they come from your department or university. They tend to fund people rather than projects. These awards are usually for:
an entrance scholarship before you start the degree,
when you are rejected from other funding, or
when your other funding runs out at the end of your degree.
Departmental funding is the least competitive. It varies wildly across universities; some departments guarantee stipends for all students while others provide none. This is good information to find out before you apply and certainly before you accept any offer.
Ask for an entrance scholarship
The best time to negotiate departmental funding is before accepting your initial graduate school offer, especially when you have multiple offers from different universities or departments.
Example: negotiating competing offers
Here’s an email I sent after being accepted into the Master’s program:
Thank you for recommending me to McGill’s GPS [Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies]. I am excited about the possibility of joining the [faculty] graduate program!
I am currently deciding between McGill and [another university]. While I was hoping to complete an MSc and eventually a PhD with [McGill supervisor], [other university] has offered […] in their admissions package.
I was wondering if there would be a possibility of increasing the entrance award or providing a similar tuition waiver. McGill is my first choice but I also have to consider the finances between the two schools.
This email earned me a $3,000 entrance award. They could not match anything near the other university’s offer, but $3,000 is not bad for a three-paragraph email.
Beyond entrance awards, departments and labs can offer various types of benefits such as:
tuition waivers (i.e., pay less tuition), and
differential fee waivers (i.e., pay the in-province tuition rate rather than the international rate).
When you have competing offers, asking about matching offers is acceptable only if: (1) you ask exactly once, and (2) you will accept the offer if matched. As one administrator worded it: “You’re not buying a used car.” This is not a time to haggle.
When I give funding workshops, someone will inevitably ask whether you can bluff and pretend to have an offer from another university. I wouldn’t recommend it; shamelessly ask for funding, but there is no need to lie about it.
Example: negotiating a single offer
If you don’t have competing offers, the frame changes a bit. Here’s an email from a friend who got an offer to attend a school she would have had trouble paying for:
Dear Professor […],
I am delighted to be accepted to [program] at [university]. I believe the material taught in the […] class will be a perfect fit for my background in [topic].
I am writing to ask about the possibility of obtaining need-based bursaries or a teaching assistantship to help offset the cost of tuition. I have previously worked with three professors on different research projects and won a student poster award when presenting one of them. I will be graduating with distinction on the Dean’s list and have spent much of my degree helping mentor other students.
I would like to please request any information about bursaries, scholarships, or teaching assistantship roles to cover the cost of tuition. Without this assistance, I may not be able to begin the degree.
This email got her $16,000 — enough to complete her Master’s degree with zero debt. Although she was initially hesitant to send the email due to shame or the possibility that the university would rescind their offer, she was ultimately happy that she could complete her degree without debt.
It is almost inconceivable that a university would rescind an offer after receiving such an email. Presumably the email would have to be horrifyingly offensive to warrant such a response. I’ve never heard of this happening, and it would be a large red flag suggesting that perhaps you’ve chosen the wrong program or university. Have a colleague or professor review the email, then ask once — modestly and truthfully — and you’ll be fine. If you want to trade negotiating power for comfort, you can also ask about this after accepting your offer, but the earlier the better. Of course, whenever negotiating, discuss with your supervisor first.
When I present these departmental emails at workshops, a couple of people always mention that “they could never write that” or that they “aren’t shameless enough”. Sending these emails is indeed shameless but is common in many industries; the shame says more about the culture of academia than the personality of the student. The unfortunate reality about negotiation is that there is a distinct salary gap between those who ask for more and those who do not. For some perspective, remember that these emails often amount to asking to be paid at least minimum wage or breaking even after paying tuition.
Check internal awards after accepting your offer
After you’ve accepted your offer, search for any other entrance awards. I missed out on some low-hanging fruit that needed to be applied for the summer before starting grad school. This is especially important when moving countries or provinces for grad school; your mind will be on many other things while entrance award deadlines are passing by.
Once your degree begins, you would typically only ask the department for money when you are at the end of your degree, all of your funding has run out, there is no money from your supervisor, and you still need an extra year or so to complete your degree. Departments also sometimes offer yearly scholarships for career-building activities, training, conference travel, or just additional stipend. Apply to these when you are eligible. Finally, you can sometimes ask your department for funding when doing an activity that benefits them, such as requesting travel funding when representing your university at a national competition (if your supervisor is not paying for it).
Beyond the department, sometimes universities offer internal funding such as when a donor gives money for student scholarships. These awards can be found on university websites or mailing lists and are often worth applying for.
Make sure you check the eligibility requirements before you apply for or accept an award. One of my colleagues, “Taylor”, received a scholarship given based on GPA from the university’s women’s alumni association. The only issue: Taylor is a man. He checked the documentation and, as it turns out, the organisation technically had no rules saying they only award women. After consideration, he decided to accept the award — though he graciously declined showing up at their presumably all-women awards dinner to give an acceptance speech. A year later, another women’s organisation offered him another award, which he also sheepishly accepted. He’s been haunted by these decisions ever since.
On occasion, it may be appropriate to ask your supervisor for more funding. Perhaps you ran out of other funding or you want to work as a research assistant on a different project in your lab. Many students will find broaching this topic difficult. Asking gently is usually okay, but tread lightly: a few extra hundred or thousand bucks isn’t worth tainting your relationship with your supervisor, who may be weird about money. To avoid such negotiations, apply for enough other awards that supervisor funding becomes irrelevant. It goes without saying that choosing a supervisor with whom you can have frank discussions is helpful, though this can be difficult to assess during the grad school interview process. If you happen to meet with other grad students during your initial interviews, ask them what the funding situation is like to get candid information.