Million Dollar PhD

Success stories

Many students have obtained success by following the above guidelines. Depending on your situation and how often you apply, you can expect your total additional funding to range from a few extra grand to hundreds of thousands of dollars. I’ve included two stories here of students who used different methods to obtain effective funding.

Social work PhD

The first comes from a student in Social Work studying social aspects of health. Applying to a broad set of awards and using diverse types of income (person-based scholarships, travel awards, and research assistantships) helped this student live a more comfortable graduate life.

Until starting the PhD program in social work last fall, my grad school experience was limited to practice-based programs which are notoriously poorly funded relative to research-based programs. I had no experience applying for grants/scholarships and had been rejected from four funding agencies when I applied in the fall of 2018 and spring 2019. I had some funding provided through the school of social work, but it was hard to justify staying in the program receiving only $20,000 per year. I also didn’t want to find myself in the position of paying for the degree myself after the third year, when the school-based sponsorship would expire.

Things for me were pretty tight financially last fall. I had just finished up a second master’s degree, which meant I had used up a significant portion of my savings and had no income for about two years. I was really on the fence as to whether I should stay in the program or just go back to work. I like learning, but at 35 I was getting tired of the “poor student life”.

… Inspired by your suggestions, I immediately wrote to my supervisor. I had worked for her in the summer, but we agreed that this work would then become part of my thesis-related project once the PhD program started. I just asked if I could continue to submit timesheets for the work I was doing. She agreed. Just with that I earned a couple of thousand dollars on what would have otherwise been volunteer work. I also let her know that I was on the fence about staying in the program. We worked together to try to apply for Mitacs internships, but two separate efforts flopped (finding not-for-profits in the social service sector that are not partially government funded is basically impossible). My supervisor was, however, able to find two stackable $15,000 training stipends for me through two of her research grants.

I also took to heart your suggestion of getting as much feedback as possible on scholarship applications and to apply widely. I made a plan and decided I would apply for scholarships from SSHRC, FRQSC, FRQS, and [two topical awards]. I had each of my applications reviewed by at least five people. It was a ton of work.

In the end, it paid off. In the past week I’ve been offered funding from SSHRC, FRQS, and FRQSC. Here’s a summary of funding offers I received:

Fund Amount
Research Assistant wages ~$2,500
Departmental travel award $1,000
[Research stipend award] (1 year) $10,000
[Research award] (1 year) $15,000
SSHRC [federal award] (× 3 years) $35,000
FRQSC [provincial award] (× 3 years) $21,000
FRQS [provincial award] (× 4 years) $39,323
[Research award] (1 year) $21,000
Departmental fellowship (× 3 years) $20,000
Total awarded (4 years) $434,792
Total received (since some don’t stack) $205,792

A year later, the student contacted me again:

I feel guilty saying it, but I’ve made much more as a student that I have in the past as a full-time healthcare worker. With the scholarships, RA work, and private practice (one day/week) I’m approaching the $100,000 mark for the year — all from the comfort of my home. I’ve gone from a poor student living in a shared apartment with paper-thin walls to owning a chalet in the mountains where I’ll spend the next few years writing my thesis.

Psychiatry Master’s and PhD

The next comes from a student who used project-based industry partnerships to pay off student loans.

… When I started my Master’s, I had $40,000 in student loan debt which had accumulated over the course of my four-year undergraduate degree. Unlike many of my peers, I had little financial support from my parents, and like many aspiring researchers, I spent most of my summers volunteering at labs in exchange for “experience” rather than pay. To make matters worse, I started graduate school with good but not exceptional grades, which significantly limited my provincial and federal scholarship prospects.

Thankfully, soon after starting my Master’s, I learned about Mitacs, a non-profit organization that offers grants to students for research projects with industry partners. Given the meager salary support offered by my supervisor at the time, I was highly motivated to take advantage of every opportunity to avoid accumulating more debt. So, when my lab was looking to purchase some new equipment, I learned everything I could about the local company in question so that I could come up with project ideas that might captivate their interests. After doing my homework, and sending a carefully-crafted email to the company’s CEO (the contact information for whom I found on slides from a conference presentation he gave years before), I was soon in their offices presenting my ideas for a Mitacs application. Soon after, I was awarded my first four-month Mitacs Accelerate grant, worth $15,000.

This experience opened my eyes to the exciting possibility of making money during my graduate training and emboldened me to seek out similar opportunities. When my relief subsided after being awarded a three-year PhD scholarship and remembering the looming student loan debt waiting for me at the end, I found another company for a Mitacs partnership. As a result, in the first year of my PhD, I was able to pay off a large chunk of my loans.

As it turns out, this was only the beginning. The following year, I found another local start-up to work with. After a few meetings (including one that I missed due to a late night of partying), we signed a six-figure agreement. Between my PhD scholarship and the Mitacs, I made nearly $58,000 per year — more than a Vanier scholar.

These extra-curricular research activities allowed me to pay down a substantial portion of my student loans (and even go on some wicked vacations). Like many people, I went into graduate school knowing very little about attainable funding opportunities for students, as distinct from those for students with a 4.0 GPA and a heavily padded CV. I’m glad I stumbled upon Mitacs, not only because of the significant financial benefits, but also because it exposed me to ways of using my education outside of the limited options that we’re presented with in graduate school. Graduate students deserve a decent living wage and freedom from debt, just like everybody else.