Thinking about graduate school? As if figuring out what to do isn't tough enough, it's even tougher to figure out how to pay for it. Depending on the program, a graduate school education can cost close to six figures. Even with scholarships and grants, grad students often rely on student loans to get by. Unfortunately, after graduation, student loans can be tough to manage, and grads realize that they might have been better off avoiding them altogether.

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But believe it or not, it's possible to get a graduate school education without debt. Here are seven steps that can help you get through grad school debt-free.

1. Find Programs With Research or Teaching Assistantships
Sometimes, these programs aren't very well advertised, but many private and public schools offer them. Basically, students teach a class or conduct research in exchange for full tuition reimbursement and a living stipend. At the University of California schools, this compensation is close to $4,000 per quarter for tuition in addition to a monthly stipend of $1,800. These programs are available for both masters' and Ph.D candidates in a number of disciplines.

2. Merit Scholarships
Schools have a strong business interest in attracting and retaining high-achieving students. When you're researching programs, keep an eye out for whether merit scholarships are available. If you can't find anything on a school's website, call or email the admissions office to ask. Even if you're already accepted to a program, you can call and ask whether merit scholarships are available. Be sure to find out whether these scholarships are renewable.

3. Look for a One-Year Program
It's basic math. For a master's degree, one-year programs cost half as much as two-year programs, and in the end, you still get the degree. Many one-year programs are excellent bargains that can help you save substantial money.

4. Get a Part-Time Job
It's a well-known fact that the word "internship" tends to be synonymous with "low pay." You already have your bachelor's degree, so use it to your advantage by looking for part-time jobs. Only consider internships if they offer you enough compensation or strong networking opportunities that you don't already have.

5. Consider Attending a Public School
Don't be fooled - a public school education isn't cheap, but they are still considerably less expensive than private schools.

6. Find a Niche Program
Programs like law and business are extremely competitive; as a result, funding is competitive too. If you are thinking about graduate school and are researching programs, look into niche programs that specialize in your area of interest. A number of big-name schools feature specialized degrees that are relevant to general professional programs. Remember that in the end, the worth of your degree depends on your ability to leverage it. Depending on your professional goals, a niche degree can be extremely marketable and can even distinguish you from your competition.

7. Work First, Learn Later
When you first come out of school, your salary will be at its lowest. For a year or two, focus on saving for graduate school. Live as economically as you can, and put away whatever money you can. In a year or two, these savings will add up. In the end, if you get a scholarship, work while in school, or get a teaching assistant position, you may end up leaving your graduate school fund alone. Then, voila - you have a down payment for a new house or a new car.

The Bottom Line
If you're headed to grad school, chances are you have a good head on your shoulders. Learn to apply your smarts to getting through college debt free. Although this path isn't easy, it's a real benefit to come out of school free and ready to embark on a great career path - or even a post-graduate degree - without being saddled with debt.

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