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Wondering about the difference between a full-time vs part-time student? If you’re thinking about applying to grad school, don’t miss our analysis!
Applying to grad school is a big decision. You must determine the program, the schools you’re applying to, and whether scholarships and funding options are available. To figure out your work-life balance, you’ll eventually need to decide if you can handle full-time student credits.
There are many factors to consider when considering whether you should be a full-time vs. part-time student. It’s an incredibly overwhelming choice, so if you’re feeling stuck, this guide was designed to help you.
How Many Credit Hours Are Full-Time for Grad School?
Full-time grad school studies involve more credit hours or semester units than part-time studies.
For students seeking graduate degrees, most educational institutions require a minimum of nine (9) credit hours taken during each fall and spring semester for full-time. If you’re also planning to do a summer term, most schools require a minimum of six credit hours to be considered full-time.
Note: At most grad schools, one class equals three credit hours. Most full-time students should expect to take at least four classes each semester.
What Is a Part-Time Student in Grad School?
For most grad schools, you’ll be considered a part-time student if your credit load is below the minimum number of credit hours per semester. For the fall or spring semesters, part-time usually requires a minimum of 4.5 credit hours. For the summer term, three hours typically count as half-time.
If a student takes any less than the minimum credit hours required per term, they are often considered part-time. For example, if you take eight credit hours per semester for your Master’s in Science, you’re technically a part-time student.
Difference Between Being a Full-Time vs. Part-Time Student in Grad School
The main differences between full-time and part-time grad school programs are:
- Full-time students enroll in more credits per semester.
- Part-time students sometimes pay less tuition per semester.
- Part-time programs take longer to complete.
- Full-time students may have access to more financial aid options.
- Part-time students have more time to work while studying.
Let’s take a closer look at each difference between part-time and full-time student life.
Number of Credits
The most obvious difference between a part-time and full-time student is the number of credit hours in any given semester. So, how many classes are full-time? This depends on where you go to school, but it’s typically considered nine credit hours (or three classes per semester).
Part-time students take roughly half the number of classes. Furthermore, these students are still considered part-time – even if their credits are slightly below the minimum full-time quota.
Your tuition is based on the number of classes you’re enrolled in. Therefore, with fewer credits earned each semester, you’ll likely pay less tuition as a part-time student. Because you’ll need to complete a specific number of credits, you’ll likely pay approximately the same amount in tuition throughout your degree.
Some schools have a flat rate per semester for full-time students, regardless of whether they are enrolled in the minimum number of full-time credits or take extra classes. In this case, by taking more than nine credit hours (or whatever is considered full-time at your school), you might complete your program in fewer semesters and pay less overall.
Regardless of whether you study full-time or part-time, you’ll need to meet the exact graduation requirements to complete your degree. While part-time students take fewer classes each semester, their progress will be slower. In other words, another key difference between a full-time and a part-time student is that it will take the latter longer to complete their degree.
Say that you’ve chosen a master’s degree that can be completed within two years as a full-time student. As a part-time student, the same program may take three or four years to finish.
Financial Aid Opportunities
Full-time graduate students may be eligible for various financial aid opportunities, including grants, work-study programs, and low-interest loans.
Part-time students can also access financial aid but must be registered for at least six credit hours to qualify for the general eligibility criteria. Part-time students may also receive lower amounts of funding than their full-time classmates.
Both part-time and full-time graduate students can apply for state and federal aid by submitting the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Scholarships with individual requirements are also available. For most scholarship eligibility, you’ll need to be enrolled in a minimum number of credit hours to apply, and you may also need to be enrolled full-time.
Are There Opportunities Other Than Financial Aid?
Part-time students have more time to work while studying (and their employer may even help out with tuition fees).
Many graduate programs offer full-time students total or partial funding in exchange for working in roles (e.g., teaching assistants, research students). You will likely need to be a full-time student to qualify for this funding.
Graduate students can often apply for scholarships, fellowships, and grants, depending on the institution and field of study.
|Better study immersion
||Higher ongoing tuition
|Shorter program length
|Plenty of networking opportunities
||Less earning potential
|Strike a work-study-life balance
||Increased program length
|Transfer your learnings to your work
||Fewer networking opportunities
|Lower ongoing investment
||More difficult to connect with professors
Benefits of Being a Full-Time Graduate Student
Note: For this comparison, we’re referring to full-time students with a full credit hour load (without a full-time job).
You’ll Be More Immersed in Your Degree Program
Full-time graduate students have a greater ability to devote more time and energy to their studies. Since a degree can be earned faster, you may find it easier to put other parts of your life on hold (like pressing pause on starting a career or family). This often means you’ll be able to immerse yourself more deeply into your studies and the grad school experience.
You’ll Likely Finish Your Degree Sooner
Taking on a full credit load means it’ll take you less time overall to complete your program or degree requirements. If you add summer terms, you might be able to finish your studies in record time.
Related: How Long It Takes to Earn a Master’s Degree
Increased Opportunities to Network and Build Relationships
Full-time studies allow you to build better relationships with fellow students, mentors, and professors. Since you’ll spend more time on campus, it increases the chances of running into your peers and professors. This also allows you to take advantage of social or community opportunities that may present themselves.
Better Access to Financial Aid
You may be eligible for more financial aid opportunities when you’re enrolled full-time. Many financial aid providers offer aid packages that require full-time enrollment status. Based on their higher credit load (and increased cost of attendance), full-time students are typically eligible for more federal and state financial aid than their part-time counterparts. Additionally, many grants and scholarships are only offered to full-time students.
Challenges of Being a Full-Time Graduate Student
Increased Upfront Costs
More credit hours results in higher tuition costs. For graduate courses, schools usually charge tuition based on the number of credit hours. Because of this, enrolling in more credit hours usually (though not always) means you’ll pay more per semester.
Less Earning Potential
Balancing a full-time course load with a part-time job may be difficult. It will likely be even more difficult if you want to attempt working full-time. If you choose to keep working, your academic results may suffer as a result. You may want to focus on finding scholarships or other financial aid opportunities that can help you finance grad school.
Greater Risk of Burnout
Balancing your studies, career, and personal life may add to stress and eventually lead to burnout. To help prevent this issue, remember to take time for yourself and practice self-care.
You May Need to Put Your Career on Hold
If you already have an established career, it may be detrimental to take a break from it so you can focus on your studies. This can slow down or halt your momentum.
Benefits of Being a Part-Time Student
It’s Easier to Achieve a Balance
Work-study-life balance may be easier with a part-time course load. It’ll be less stressful to juggle priorities with fewer credit hours each term. Realistically consider what you’re able to handle as you study.
Part-time students may be more able to use their learnings and experience in real-time. As you go through your program, you’ll pick up knowledge and experience to apply to your real job (and vice versa). This can prove beneficial in the long run, especially if you have a career in academic research or another field related to your studies.
Lower Annual Costs
With a part-time course load, you may have fewer costs to worry about with a part-time load. Fewer credit hours mean fewer fees and lower study costs may make it easier for you to pay for your graduate studies. In some cases, your employer might even pick up the tab!
Challenges of Being a Part-Time Student for Graduate Study
It Will Likely Take Longer
With a part-time course load, you’ll usually need to study longer. You may require an additional year or two to finish a graduate degree.
It Can Be Harder to Connect with Faculty
Part-time students may struggle with setting meetings if they need help with their thesis or dissertation – or want to meet with their professors for advice. This struggle is especially true if classes are taken in the evening (when most advisors and professors are unavailable).
Fewer Networking Opportunities
Part-time studies limit your opportunities to build relationships with peers and mentors. With less time spent on campus – and an increased chance of missing out on extra-curricular activities – you might struggle to find networking opportunities to help you build relationships.
How Enrollment Status Impacts College Tuition
In almost all grad schools, the tuition paid each semester is based on the number of classes or credits taken. As a full-time graduate student, you’ll pay higher tuition fees (after all, you’re taking more classes). As a part-time student, a lower course load means less tuition each semester.
Of course, you’ll end up paying the same amount – or even more – in tuition fees to complete the same number of credits for your degree. However, these costs will be spread across more semesters, reducing your upfront costs.
Although you’ll pay the same tuition, a part-time degree may cost you more once you add up certain fees other than tuition (like annual).
Studying part-time will give you more opportunities to work simultaneously and earn income that you can use to fund your studies. Paying a significant portion of your grad school will help reduce the number of loans you take, saving you significantly on loan interest.
Can You Be Both a Part-Time and a Full-Time Student?
No. You’ll be a full-time or part-time student based on the number of credit hours you enroll in during a semester. Full-time designation depends on the institution, but it’s usually considered nine credits (or three classes) for grad students.
However, just because you start out as a full-time student doesn’t mean you can’t switch to being a part-time student (and vice versa).
Depending on your work or personal commitments, stress levels, financial situation, and various other factors, you can decide the number of courses to enroll in each semester. Just be aware that reducing your enrollment may affect your eligibility for financial aid and other assistance (such as housing grants).
3 Tips to Choose Between Full-Time and Part-Time Grad School
If the pros and cons listed above weren’t enough, here are a few tips to help you choose between being a full-time vs. part-time student.
1. Don’t Rush the Decision
Don’t rush this process. It may be a good idea to take some time for yourself before you decide. Consider taking a vacation or just a few days off work to relax. This time might help you gain the necessary perspective to make the best decision.
2. Talk to Your Employer
It can be tough to decide when you don’t quite know whether your employer will be understanding. Before you decide between part-time or full-time programs, speak to your boss or employer about your academic goals. Will your boss be able to accommodate your changing schedule? Will your graduate qualifications help you land a higher-paid Ph.D. position in the future?
3. Get Your Family On Board
Taking even more time away from your family to simultaneously balance studies and work is challenging for anyone. Before you decide, talk to your family and get them on board first. At the very least, explain how things at home may change until you graduate.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is It Cheaper to Be a Part-Time Student?
Generally speaking, as a part-time graduate student, you’ll pay less each semester than studying full-time, but you’ll probably pay more over the length of your degree. While tuition fees are lower, there are certain costs you will need to pay each semester (such as mandatory fees), which add up.
Can You Work and Be a Full-Time Student?
Many students work while pursuing a degree, including those juggling full credit loads. In fact, around 27% of full-time students work at least 20 hours a week.
However, the more hours you work outside your studies, the likelier your academic success will be impacted. Consult with your academic advisor. They’ll be able to guide you on a realistic work commitment that won’t adversely affect your studies.
How Long Does Graduate School Take for Part-Time Students?
This will depend on how many credit hours you enroll in each semester, but most part-time graduate students complete the program in between three and six years. Some schools require you to complete your degree within a certain timeframe, most commonly between five and seven years.
Do You Need to Be a Full-Time Student for FAFSA?
No. Students enrolled for at least six credit hours per semester are eligible for federal financial aid through the FAFSA. The amount of aid received depends on your credit load and your assessed financial need.
Full-Time or Part-Time Grad School: What’s Best for You?
Deciding between becoming a full-time vs. part-time student is a massive life step – and it’s only something that only you can do. You’ll need to consider several factors like budget, current commitments, and whether your employer will support your academic career.
Regardless of your choice, get all your ducks in a row before enrolling — and seek financial aid to ease the burden!