Graduate student life is typically quite cheap–most of us live close to campus and might not need a car; student gym memberships are cheap or altogether free; college towns (especially Bloomington) typically offer a lower overall cost of living than bigger cities where the jobs are at. Nevertheless, nothing in life is free, so it’s important to know the ins and outs of graduate student funding.
First things first: my general advice to prospective graduate students is not to start a PhD program unless they’re getting paid to do so. The last thing you want when you’re in your late twenties/early thirties is to graduate with a PhD in art history (read: low chance of finding a high-income job) and be stuck with 100K in loans. Therefore, it’s important to think about your post-PhD self before accepting any offer of admission. (Masters programs are of course another story: funding for masters studies is generally rare, and since most masters degrees are “professional” degrees rather than research degrees, the assumption is that they’ll lead to better employment (with a higher salary) once you’re done.) But how, and how much, do PhD students typically get paid? To answer this question, it’s important to know about the three basic types of funding that are generally available.
Fellowships: These can be local, funded by the department or university, or external, funded by government agencies or other institutions. Fellowships are the holy grail: they typically offer a 20-30K stipend in addition to a tuition waiver, and relieve you from the stresses of teaching. In an ideal world, every PhD student would get a fellowship, but since this world is far from ideal, you really want to make sure to do your research and apply to fellowships on time!
RAships typically involve assisting a professor in his/her personal research. This might involve running subjects in an experimental lab or compiling an index for a professor’s forthcoming monograph. RAships are not typically as generous as fellowships, and involve duties aside from your own classwork and research. Nevertheless, if you’re lucky you will be exposed to research that you can later use in your own work–i.e. you might end up doing research you might have been doing anyway.
TAships are probably the most common source of funding for graduate students. These require you to teach or assist a professor in a class in order to get paid, rather than assisting in their research. Again, the funding here is typically less generous than a fellowship, but usually comparable to an RAship. Also, although teaching can be very labor-intensive, it can also be the most rewarding type of funding: you learn not only to explain complex ideas to yourself, but also to others.