by Kim Clark

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

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.

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."

Intent on improving his teaching skills and building references, he tried to find assistantships with professors who made an effort to mentor their graduate helpers, he says.

Scrambling for jobs. Unfortunately, those jobs were usually not enough to cover all his costs, so Bolger had to scare up other work. He took a tutoring job at one of Harvard's residential houses because it offered free meals. He also often took part-time teaching jobs at other colleges. Since many budget-cutting colleges are replacing expensive full-time professors with cheap part-timers, there are plenty of opportunities to find adjunct teaching jobs, he says. But he warns anyone considering following his path that working as an adjunct, or temporary professor, typically pays only a few thousand dollars a course and takes a surprising amount of time. Considering the hours spent driving to campuses, preparing lectures, holding office hours, and grading, adjuncts often make a scant few dollars per hour.

Some of his professors warn that many students would have difficulty copying Bolger's academic success. Misagh Parsa, a Dartmouth sociology professor, remembers Bolger as "very bright and entertaining. Always wide awake in class," despite his sleep-deprived schedule. But more typical grad students may get burned out if they try to pursue their studies full time while working more than 20 hours a week, Parsa says. Working such long hours while studying tough graduate courses "can be exhausting," Bolger admits. Working fewer hours probably would have allowed him to finish his doctorate in fewer than five years. In addition, some of the students who have posted about Bolger on say that he was sometimes late to class and a fairly easy grader. Bolger, who considers that website unreliable, notes that he earned several certificates of distinction for teaching Harvard classes.

To reduce his need to work or borrow, Bolger lived cheaply. He generally paid a little extra in rent for an apartment close to campus so he didn't have to waste time commuting. All other extravagances were out. "I made a habit of getting by on macaroni and cheese. My furniture was always minimalist. When I first got into Harvard and I moved into my unfurnished place, the last resident had left a couch. I didn't have the money to buy furniture, so I slept on that for two years." He reduced textbook costs by "time-sharing" books with friends or using library copies. He kept entertainment costs low by taking advantage of free events on campus.

The sacrifices could be rough. Some girlfriends broke up with him because he didn't make time for vacations, he says. He took a pass on some iconic college experiences. "I missed some football games," he says. And the work hours left no time for healthful eating or exercise, so he put on too much weight, he says.

Now that he's gotten a doctorate and is working as a visiting professor at the College of William and Mary, he's making time for exercise and healthful eating while still indulging his passion for education: He's driving north regularly to take courses for new master's degrees from Georgetown and the University of Pennsylvania. "A lot of friends went into investment banking and are pulling down six-figure salaries but do not feel intellectually fulfilled," Bolger notes. Eventually, he hopes to leave the ivied walls of academe and put his education to use as a public servant. "I have spent a lot of time learning how to fix problems. I would like to apply some of these great ideas."

The math of a grad degree

Average net annual* costs of pursuing a master's

Humanities $19,217 $7,948
Social/behavioral sciences $20,224 $7,681
Life sciences $16,625 $6,246
Math/Engineering/ Computer science $17,082 $7,707
Education $14,518 $4,849
Business/Management $19,853 $8,815
Health $20,073 $8,455
Law $29,252 $12,515
Others $18,604 $7,792


*Data are for 2007-08, the last year for which figures are available.

Note: Net total cost means tuition, living, and miscellaneous expenses minus any grants or scholarships. Net tuition costs means tuition and fees minus any grants or scholarships.

Source: Council of Graduate Schools









Education: You Can Work Your Way Through 11 Grad Degrees | Zach Miners

© U.S. News & World Report