There are a lot of factors that make getting a PhD expensive.

Let’s break down the costs of getting a PhD into clear chunks – and let’s see how you can cover these costs with as little student loans as possible. Getting PhD funding is a bit different than getting a scholarship in college, and the process can be drawn out and difficult – but definitely worth it.

Grad students who are getting a PhD have a lot of financial responsibility on their hands. This isn’t simply going to classes and passing tests – you’re responsible for creating your own schedule, conducting research, and keeping your head above water while you’re at it.

This is hard, especially since a lot of PhD students have outside lives – they manage complicated family situations as well as professional goals while doing their research, get their funding in order and keeping on top of their deadlines.

Why are Ph.D.s expensive?

Opportunity Costs of a PhD

A doctoral degree can have high opportunity costs – in economic terms, this doesn’t mean that you’re actually taking money out of your pocket and spending it on tuition. Rather, it means that you might be giving up a lot of other earning opportunities while pursuing your doctoral degree. After all, research and writing take a lot of time – sometimes it will seem that’s all you’re doing! If you think of all the other things you could be doing at the same time when it comes to earning money, the cost is huge. But in the long run, the idea is that this isn’t money lost – because of the new high paying opportunities that a PhD will afford you in the job market, even great opportunity costs will be paid back. Most people think of opportunity costs as an investment in their future earnings.

Tuition and Research Costs

Universities charge tuition fees for all PhD programs – even if there aren’t formal classes involved. The tuition fee is based on the fact that doctoral students need expert supervision, advice and mentorship.

When you choose a PhD program and the right institution, you are not shopping for the biggest deal – but for the biggest expertise. Where can you get the best guidance and research opportunities? Which institution has the best environment for conducting the type of research you want?

This is what you are paying for as a PhD student. Thankfully, a lot of schools will cover these costs when you apply for grants at your institution.

Tuition Fees Vary by Semester – Why?

Often, tuition fees will be more expensive for a first or second-year PhD student than for third and fourth-year students. Why is that?

First, second and third-year students are the ones that require the most guidance. When students stick around for their fourth year (or fifth or sixth!) it’s to finish up their research with minimal guidance and hand-holding. This is why the final years of a degree are usually less expensive and have fewer tuition costs involved.

Of course, the costs of food, housing and transportation remain the same, and in most expense calculators the numbers for these ‘necessities’ will remain the same throughout your whole post-grad experience.

Graduate school stats chart

Who Pays for Your PhD?

There are many ways to fund your PhD – and all doctoral program students agree that there is no “right way” of doing it – it’s all about having a diverse portfolio of funding sources.

Self-Funded

Self-funding is often done through work. You can either work at your institution or hold a completely separate job. A lot of post-graduates work in a related field and manage to create a schedule that allows them to do research in their off-work hours. Of course, in an ideal world, you will get paid for the research work you do – but that’s not always the case.

Another way to self-fund is through student loans. Student loans are available through your institution, through banks and through the government.

Institution-Funded

A STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) are known for funding their PhD students – they will often advertise a PhD as a funded project – which means that there is money to back up the research because it’s valuable and most often simply profitable for the institution.

The easiest way to get a school-funded PhD is to find a funded project. This might mean that you won’t do research on a project that is entirely designed by you but involves something that you’re passionate about and truly interested in.

Here is a video by RiverTechJess about how to write a PhD grant proposal – it’s a tough situation of proposing a PhD project from scratch – this involves the difficult task of asking for money, which can be difficult for a lot of people.

Jess created an engineering PhD project, got funding for it and helps other aspiring researchers in the difficult journey of applying for grants, doing research and sticking with their often difficult projects. Take a look at the application process here:

Outside-Funded

This includes finding external grants that don’t come from your institution and aren’t self-funded. There are thousands of different resources available depending on what country you want to do research in, and what subject you’re pursuing.

Here is a sample list of services and support from Brown University, that lists a lot of resources for outside PhD funding. This link includes Grants in databases maintained by universities like Duke, University of Chicago, UCLA, University of Illinois and the Rutgers Funding Database. The opportunities for outside funding are enormous and virtually endless.

As a rule, establish close contact with your institution of choice and use them as a resource for finding any funding sources that could be available to you, even if they aren’t provided by the school. Universities will often help with funding research and maintain a library of sources, just like this one.

Student-to-Student Advice

Sometimes, the best advice you can get is from people who have been there themselves. Sherif R. Fahmy, PhD, is an interdisciplinary researcher in science and engineering and he says: “Just apply to a PhD program, and don’t worry about applying for PhD funding. Many of the programs will only accept you if they have a professor that has funding for you… or there are enough professors in the department who have grant money to support these students.”

Most veterans say that you will be considered for funding only after you apply for the program. The biggest issues with PhD funding start with the day-to-day living costs.

It will be up to you to maintain the standard of living that you want – it’s all the same to a university if you do their research and live in an apartment or in a tent!

Tuition Costs Depend on the Institution

Tuition can greatly vary depending on which institution you choose for pursuing your PhD. Here are some statistics from the 2020/2021 school years from a variety of different schools – we gathered this information from the official institution websites.

These numbers vary depending on the tuition costs, costs of living, and a variety of factors that different universities take into account. What should you take into account when calculating your graduate tuition costs?

Tuition fees – Tuition fees tend to vary depending on your institution and the field of study.

Costs of living – The cost of living depends on where you live – not only geographically, but if you decide to rent a whole apartment as opposed to a room and if you’re supporting a family (as many PhD students are), if you have a car and what part of town you live in. It’s all calculated into the equation.

Books and supplies – although in most institutions books and supplies are thrown into the calculation at an average of $1,300, this cost usually adds up to more than that. Supplies include any electronics, textbooks and research materials. These costs often add up to much more than in the average sample budget!

Insurance costs – health insurance can run a lot, even if you’re a student. In the US, it’s usually up to $300 dollars a month or more.

Transportation costs – whether you take the bus or drive, this is a necessary cost to factor into your budget. Don’t forget to include maintenance and insurance costs if you drive a car.

Research costs – This all depends on what kind of research you do – often, this will include travel and even paying for assistants and interns.

PhD. Financial Aid by Year

Let’s take a look at a very average doctoral timeline – one that lasts 5 years. We have broken it down year by year using data collected by gograd.org.

Years 1, 2 and 3
How much you pay:

Average Tuition and Fees $12,654
Average Total Costs $43,305

What you do:

Preparing for writing – the first year involves a lot of preparation and research. Getting sources, drafting outlines, creating a schedule, designing research tools, and a lot of meetings with your supervisor. The first year sets the stage for the rest of your PhD adventure.

These fees include Insurance, books, supplies, student activity fees, housing, food, transportation.

Year 4 onward – the tuition fees drop off after year 4, to an average of $3,000. This is a relief, but your thesis still needs to get finished and your living expenses paid.

Sources of Financial Aid for PhD Students

Scholarships for PhD Students
There are scholarships for doctoral students that are both need-based and merit-based. Your institution will have a list of available scholarships – talking to your advisor is invaluable for getting information about them.

Student Loans – Student loans are one of the most common ways of supplementing your PhD – they are available through the government, private banks and can be managed through your institution.

Fellowship – A fellowship can mean full funding, a stipend, a grant and can be used to fund research as well as teaching and paying for a PhD student’s work.

Research Grants – Research grants are funded by universities, state and federal governments as well as companies that are interested in research in a particular field. These will be given to you through outside sources as well as through your University.

Crowdfunding – we all know what crowdfunding is, and we also know that it’s been used for some pretty wild things. Why not your PhD project? If you are researching something that society as a large (or a few people with money) care about, don’t hesitate to turn to crowdfunding platforms!

Here is an amazing video by Marcela Uliano da Silva, a researcher who did just that. It’s a perfect example of how to grab people’s attention and make them care about the project. Not to mention the amazing rewards they offered people – like having their names forever associated with this valuable project. It’s a sure way to immortality.

Stipend – what’s a stipend? Technically, a stipend is a form of paying someone for their work – or rather, it allows someone to work on an unsalaried project. A stipend is designed to pay for living expenses and is given to PhD students by their institutions. Here are some sample stipends received in the academic year 2020-2021 as surveyed by phdstripends.com: You can see which universities and departments give out specific funding to their graduate students here. They have collected thousands of entries in this PhD Stipend survey.

Here is a chart that shows where scholars have historically gotten their funding in the Humanities. Studying humanities tends to call for scholars to be more self-sufficient than those who do their research in medicine, science or technology because it’s a less funded area of research.

Primary source of financial support for humanities dotorate recipients

International PhD Students in the US

There is a lot of available funding to students coming from other countries – in fact, the top 4 countries that have the most PhD recipients in the United States are:

  1. China – 6,182 recipients
  2. India – 2,040 recipients
  3. South Korea – 1,035 recipients
  4. Iran – 935 recipients

Where to Apply for PhD Funding Now?

It’s hard to find all the information in one place – when finding a list of PhD scholarships and grants, it’s easy to get lost. Here is our comprehensive list of the best resources out there:

List of PhD Scholarships, Grants, and Fellowships
This list can be filtered by country, the field of study and school. It’s great for those PhD students who want to compare their options and aren’t tied down to one place or want to look into scholarships in one country in particular.

List of PhD Scholarships for Students from Developing Countries
If you live in a developing country and are looking for financial aid in some of the world’s top institutions, this list will provide you with the scholarships and grants that are aimed at students and scholars just like you.

US News List of 25 Fully Funded PhD Programs
This list gives you a chance to browse a list of US-based PhD programs in some of the country’s top universities that are fully funded.

Research and Doctoral Funding in the EU
The Horizon 2020 Program is a great opportunity to fund your PhD in any institution that is involved with MSCA (Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions) projects. They focus on helping researchers develop new technologies and encompass individual researchers as well as research teams and projects.

Coronavirus Related Project and Research Funding
Here is the latest information at Europa.eu about funding for research that is COVID related. It contains a comprehensive list of projects already funded and resources to get access to funding any COVID-related PhD efforts.

Easy PhD Funding Links

Scholarships for Women
Here is a great list of American scholarships for women who are pursuing their post graduate degree in the US. It includes Studies aimed at older students and women as well.

American Economic Association
Here is a list of PhD funding prepared by the American Economic Association – it includes funding sources like the Ford Foundation’s Fellowship Program, individual universities and other foundations you can qualify for.

Complete Guide for Scholarships for Indian Students in the USA
This is a complete guide to scholarships that are meant for students who come into the US from India – including the SEED Foundation Scholarship, Asian Women in Business Scholarship Fund and many more. Indian students are one of the main international contributors to the overall student body as well as the postgraduate community.

AAAS – Guide for Science Funding
Here is a great list of opportunities for those doctoral students who want to do their research in the sciences. It includes some obvious choices like grants.gov, but also more niche and less heard of scientific funding resources.

Scholarship Positions
This website gives you an option of searchable requirements and research niches, depending on where you want to study and what your goals are.

ThePhD Project
The PhD Project provides an extensive list of all types of scholarship opportunities – and is probably one of the most comprehensive ones we came across.