The following information about financial aid and student loans pertains directly to physics graduate students although much of the information should also apply to graduate students in general, specifically graduate students in math, science, and engineering.
The intent of this article is to give a basic overview of the standard types of financial aid available to graduate physics students. In theory, the graduate school in which you attend should inform you of your financial aid options, but theory doesn't always agree with experiment so it is a good idea to conduct some independent research to explore the options available to you.
Usually when a physics graduate school accepts a student into their program they offer the student various types of financial aid. This financial aid typically comes in the form of tuition waivers, teaching assistantships, research assistantships, and fellowships.
For example when I was accepted to various universities they all offered me a tuition waiver as well as the opportunity to receive a salary as a teaching assistant (TA). Some of the schools that accepted me also offered me a fellowship for the first year. Fellowships are nice as they are just free money without having to work for it (although if I recall correctly I had to pay taxes on both the TA salary and fellowship awards). All of the fellowship offers I received were for one year only, but multi-year fellowships do exist. The size and duration of the fellowships you may be offered may depend on a number of variables such as the school's policies, your academic performance, your financial needs, whether you are considered a minority, your gender, etc.
Schools don't seem to provide details about how they calculate the fellowship awards, but they usually give a general overview of the types of financial aid they offer on their department website (i.e. visit the Graduate Physics Profiles Forum
to find links to department websites that offer graduate programs). When considering the financial aid offered by the various schools it is important to also factor in the cost of living. For example, one of my friends was getting about the same amount of financial aid as me, but because of his low cost of living, he was actually able to grow his savings account during graduate school while I slowly moved into debt (i.e. my rent was around $800 per month for graduate student housing and his was some ridiculously low $250 per month!). Although there are some lucky students who are able to stay out of debt while attending graduate school, the majority students go into debt in some form of another.
There are a number of options available for students to borrow money via student loans. The federal government adopts a number of policies to make borrowing for education attractive to both borrowers (i.e. federal government subsidizes some loans) and lenders (i.e. federal government guarantees some loans). If you want to see if you qualify for some of the most desirable student loans then you need to fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid
). Your graduate advisor should advise you to fill out a FAFSA, but if they don't then I strongly urge you to look into the matter yourself. I imagine there could be reasons why someone would not want to fill out a FAFSA, but I can't think of any. Initially I didn't want to bother with the whole "filling out the FAFSA" thing because I didn't consider myself a needy student, but my graduate advisor "made me" fill it out (i.e. she said it would be the most money I would ever earn per hour of my time). As it turns out my advisor was right and I was entitled to receive some very desirable student loans.
The best types of student loans are the "subsidized" student loans such as the Perkins and the subsidized version of the Stafford. With these subsidized loans the federal government actually pays your interest while you are going to school. Even if you don't qualify for the subsidized student loans there are still other benefits from the various other student loans such as low interest, tax deductions, deferring payment, consolidating payments, etc. Finaid.org has some excellent information available on their Financial Aid - Student Loans
Please share your knowledge, experiences, and/or questions regarding financial aid and student loans by posting in the forums.