Look for Scholarships to Help With Graduate School

If you're planning to get an advanced degree, scholarships can help lessen your loan burden.

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With the job market for recent college grads not overly promising (though it's much worse for those who don't hold a college degree!), many of you may be considering graduate school as an alternative to entering the "real world" during this rocky economic time. It's not a bad idea; getting an advanced degree is an excellent way to concentrate on a specific area in your field, and will certainly make you more marketable to employers.

[Read about graduate-degree jobs with $100K salaries.]

But before writing out another tuition check, make sure you have a solid financial plan and some ideas about financial aid. If you don't, you might end up burdening yourself with double the amount of student loan debt that you already carry from your first four-plus years as an undergrad.

To prevent racking up too much debt, many grad students rely heavily on fellowships or assistantships—but they're not available to everyone. If you've already started your career, check with your employer to see what kind of financial assistance your company may offer for employees pursuing an advanced degree. There are a number of employers who will reimburse up to 100 percent of tuition.

[Learn more about employer assistance for school.]

Finally, while it's true that scholarships for grad school aren't overly common, there are several opportunities for which you may qualify:

Scholarships from your alma mater: Several colleges across the country offer tuition reimbursement for their alumni who want to go on to graduate school. Often, but not always, this means you have to attend grad school at the same university from which you've graduated. Check into what your undergrad school offers in terms of scholarships for advanced study; you may be pleasantly surprised.

[Get more tips from U.S. News's paying for graduate school guide.]

The NCAA Postgraduate Scholarship Program awards scholarships to 174 highly accomplished student-athletes in college who also excel academically. The Walter Byers Scholarship Program also recognizes outstanding undergraduate academic achievement by student athletes.

The Council of Independent Colleges awards American Graduate Fellowships to graduates of small and mid-sized liberal arts colleges. Each year, two students are awarded fellowships worth up to $50,000 each, and the fellowships are renewable for a second year. You must be enrolled in a doctoral program at one of 23 universities. Eligible fields of study include history, philosophy, literature and languages, and fine arts.

The American Foundation for the Blind awards 30 scholarships every year to college students who are also blind. Many of these apply to graduate students.

The U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science established a Graduate Fellowship Program to support graduate training in basic research areas of physics, biology, chemistry, mathematics, engineering, computational sciences, and environmental sciences. Outstanding students are encouraged to apply.

The U.S. Department of Education's Jacob K. Javits Fellowships Program provides fellowships to students who have demonstrated achievement, financial need, and exceptional promise. The fellows must undertake study at the doctoral or Master of Fine Arts level in selected fields of arts, humanities, and social sciences.

[Read about the best grad school loans.]

The Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans are specifically for those who hold green cards, a naturalized citizen born abroad, or children of naturalized citizens. If this is you, you could be eligible for the New American Fellowship, which awards up to $25,000 for two years of graduate school in any field and in any advanced degree-granting program in the United States. Thirty fellowships are awarded in February each year.

Michelle Showalter joined Scholarship America in 2007 and is an alumna of Luther College in Decorah, Iowa.