You Can Work Your Way Through 11 Grad Degrees

Benjamin Bolger slept little, ate cheap, cold-called for TA jobs.

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You don't need scholarships or family savings to afford a graduate degree at even the most expensive university, says Benjamin Bolger. He should know. The 34-year-old lousy speller has earned—no kidding—11 graduate degrees from some of the world's most expensive and elite universities.

Bolger didn't receive many grants, and he figures he borrowed only about 25 percent of his costs over the 13 years he spent earning a doctorate from Harvard and a total of 10 master's degrees from Brandeis, Brown, Cambridge, Columbia, Dartmouth, Harvard, Oxford, Skidmore, and Stanford.

[Check out the Paying for Graduate School Guide.]

Instead, he says, hard work, discipline, and sacrifice are the keys to funding graduate school. Bolger, who suffers from dyslexia that makes it difficult for him to read and write, worked about 50 hours a week, lived extremely frugally, and made sacrifices that eliminated many opportunities for extracurricular activities such as exercise or romance. "Go in with a mind-set that while some of your friends may be relaxing Friday or Saturday night, you are going to have to work a second or third shift," Bolger says. He adds, "You are not going to sleep much. You will not live an extravagant or materialistic life. If you have to wear Gucci loafers, grad school is not the place for you."

He knows that working such long hours to earn so many graduate degrees may seem a little over the top. But he loves school. In fact, he made sure that almost all the jobs he took to earn tuition were classroom jobs. Sure, he would have earned more in fewer hours with a good bartending gig, but "I don't drink alcohol. I really thought, 'If I am going to take a job, I would like it to be an educational experience.' I just enjoy learning."

He must. Bolger has master's degrees in liberal studies from Skidmore and Dartmouth, sociology from Oxford and Cambridge, real estate from Columbia and Harvard, the politics of education from Columbia's Teachers College, social sciences of education from Stanford, coexistence and conflict from Brandeis, and development from Brown. In 2007, he received a doctorate from Harvard's Graduate School of Design.

A wunderkind who graduated from the University of Michigan at 19, Bolger quit his first attempt at graduate study. He left Yale Law School because, he says now, he wasn't mature enough to buckle down to do the kind of grinding study that graduate school requires and his dyslexia proved to be too much of a handicap.

Finding funds. Bolger got help to improve his reading. But as he restarted his graduate career, he confronted another barrier: money. Most graduate aid is reserved for Ph.D. students who are doing research. The number of scholarships available for master's students, especially in the humanities, is very small, and competition is fierce. Even the doctoral program he chose, at Harvard's design school, didn't offer much aid. He didn't want to bury himself in debt or waste a lot of time competing for the few scholarships available. He decided that he'd have no choice but to try to work his way through. "If you apply for a grant, it might take you 20 hours" to write essays and line up recommendations, "and you might not end up with anything," Bolger says. But spending that 20 hours working, especially at a teaching job, "is a sure thing," he says, because you are learning and earning.

Bolger would study for his own courses—sometimes having his mother or others read him his assignments and take his dictation—at night and on weekends. He says he generally slept only four or five hours a night.

To pay his tuition, Bolger tried to land assistantships or teaching jobs. Each semester, he cold-called or E-mailed dozens of professors in hopes of finding a campus job that would get him a tuition waiver or a stipend (preferably both). Teaching assistants typically attend a course's lectures, grade some assignments, and lead small groups of undergraduates in discussions. Bolger likes those jobs because TAs get to know a professor, learn the course free of charge, and get experience teaching and grading. Some semesters, he was a TA for as many as five courses, he says. Although budget cuts are forcing many colleges to reduce the number of assistantships, Bolger says grad students can often find unadvertised TA jobs. "I would look through the course catalog and look for courses that sounded interesting" and for which he had qualifications. By following the adage that "90 percent of life is showing up," Bolger sometimes got hired simply because he was there for the first class, while others weren't. "I was the one who showed up. And I dressed the part. I wore a blazer. I didn't walk in in Birkenstocks and torn bluejeans."