Most PhD students receive a tuition waiver and funding for living expenses, regardless of financial need.
The type of funding offered varies widely between PhD programs.
If you were holding off on getting a PhD because you couldn’t bear the thought of the dramatic debt that would be required to fund your education, think again.
Have you ever wished that you could go back to university for an advanced degree but dismissed the idea because of the prohibitive price tag? If you attended an undergraduate program in the U.S., you’re likely aware that annual cost of tuition can exceed what graduating students expect to earn in their first year or two out of college. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the 2019-2020 average cost of a non-profit 4-year undergraduate program, including tuition, fees, and room and board, was $21,035.
Note that some top-fee private universities charge double, or more, this amount. These average fees are presumably higher now, with an increase in costs recorded every year since 1985. According to Forbes, total U.S. student loan debt in 2023 is $1.75 trillion, and average student debt is $28,950. Master’s and PhD programs often advertise similar fees, so costs and potential debt are a very reasonable fear. These numbers, however, leave out the important fact that most PhD students do not pay a dime for their tuition and, in fact, get paid for their time.
How much does a PhD cost?
Similar to undergraduate degrees, many students do not pay full tuition because they qualify for reduced tuition based on financial need or merit.
According to the Urban Institute, 27% of American undergraduate students receive free tuition and many more receive limited tuition breaks. Only 37% of University of Chicago students, for example, paid full tuition, a.k.a. “sticker price”, in the 2016-2017 academic year. But while tuition breaks are great if you can get them, that’s not the idea here.
Most PhD programs seek to give 100% of their students the means for a tuition waiver and living expenses, regardless of financial need. Graduate programs do not explicitly advertise tuition breaks, so many potential graduate students are unaware that tuition waivers and financial support are so commonplace.
The kind of stipend offered varies widely depending on the PhD program. Research psychology PhD programs usually include a 100% tuition waiver with stipends higher than $10,000/year, often with extra income for teaching or research contributions. This is in stark contrast to the notoriously high undergraduate admissions prices. It is also something I didn’t know until I had already made plans for my own PhD and began contacting programs about conditions for tuition waivers and stipends.
Why do PhD students get paid?
PhD programs are in many ways more in line with the apprentice model of education, unlike undergraduate programs. PhD students help university departments and their faculty succeed, add value to undergraduate students, and often provide significantly more net income to the universities than the cost of providing fellowships.
1. Most student-specific PhD stipends are merit based
This is also true for undergraduate programs, but performance expectations for graduate programs tend to be more rigorous. You need to have been an outstanding student, or have demonstrated promise to be an outstanding student at the graduate level to be considered for a PhD program. Like undergraduate tuition waivers, they’re paying you because you are something special to them.
2. Qualified applicants are a treasured commodity that schools compete for
In business, when supply is higher than demand, service providers compete for clients; but when demand is higher than supply, clients need to compete for service providers. Universities are not so different: there is a shortage of great graduate student candidates, particularly relative to undergraduate candidates. Tuition waivers and stipends are one way for schools to compete for qualified applicants.
3. PhD students are usually engaged in research
Usually, this research is supported by large scientific grants, given to their advisors, which includes money to pay graduate students for their research. University departments take a significant portion of every grant their faculty members receive. Some of this money supports graduate students who will eventually help conduct research for the department. Since faculty members working on particular research often have a powerful say in which PhD applicants are accepted, and those students are often accepted specifically to work with those faculty members, new students may already have specific support directly from the faculty member’s grant.
4. Graduate students give value back to the department in a way that is qualitatively different from undergraduates
They help their advisors with research and co-publish articles central to the advisors’ own scholarly success even when it is not supported by grants. This, in turn, is pivotal to the department’s reputation and, therefore, success. Students apply for and receive research grants that add prestige and money to the faculty member they work with, and to the department. At most universities, they also work as teaching assistants and as head teachers, a central part of what undergraduate tuitions are paying universities for. This in turn allows the tenured faculty members to teach less and spend more time on their own research.
How are PhD programs funded?
The following are some of the main sources of funding for PhD programs.
Standard tuition waivers and stipends
Many programs have a standard tuition waiver and stipend promised to all incoming students. Often, tuition waivers and stipends come with additional work requirements, such as lab research assistantships or – more often –minimum teaching requirements.
Sometimes there are no strings attached other than minimum course requirements and performance. Occasionally, there are fixed amounts for all students, but more often they are merit based, with the most outstanding applicants offered more, and the applicants who were barely accepted offered very little or nothing at all. Most programs come with a complete tuition waiver and some kind of stipend, though usually there are also performance and work requirements attached.
Most graduate programs have a teaching requirement. While this is important training for being a scholar and future university professor, it also provides a meaningful service to the university and comes with a salary. As mentioned above, often there is a standard minimum teaching requirement that comes with a set annual stipend and tuition waiver, but sometimes teaching is just an option for those who opt in or need the tuition waiver and salary. Even when there is a minimum teaching requirement, many students will teach extra courses for additional income and experience. Salary will depend on whether it is an assistantship or as the main teacher.
Psychology PhD programs are research based. Faculty members do their own research with labs that students join as part of their graduate training and degree. Often students are accepted directly into a particular lab and are expected to stay unless there are compatibility problems. Even when students are accepted into a lab, however, they are usually expected to spend time working in other labs during their first couple of years to broaden their experience in the department. While lab research is a requirement, as with teaching, it often comes with a tuition waiver and stipend. And as with teaching, students are frequently given the opportunity to do additional paid research to support their income, even when research is not a standard departmental requirement.
Special departmental awards for achievement or specialized research
Many departments have dedicated student fellowships, either from grants received by the department to support specific topics or research, or because the department set aside some of its endowment to support students. My own example, discussed below, was a “Culture and Mental Health Training Grant” which had capacity for about 1 new student per year and a 2-year commitment.
Faculty research grants
When faculty apply for federal or NGO grants to support their research, funding requests often include money for the salaries of graduate students needed to help with the research. This is a widespread source of funding for students.
Even when faculty research grants are not available, students themselves often apply for grants to support their research. This may be in collaboration with their advisors, but often it is stand-alone support for the student’s dissertation research.
Although this might sound rosy, there are several important limitations that one should keep in mind.
International students or those on a waiting list may not receive full tuition breaks
In my own experience in several graduate programs, international students were far less likely to receive full tuition breaks and stipends, although I can only speculate about the motivation behind this or how widespread the practice is. Additionally, if you are on a waiting list, particularly in less well-funded departments, you may not be offered an automatic tuition waiver or stipend. Even in these cases, there are usually teaching opportunities and departmental research that can provide the waiver and a salary. However, this requirement will put you at a disadvantage relative to the more sought-after students who receive the stipend and waiver without any work requirement in return.
You need to work for it
Most waivers and stipends in psychology departments come with a standard teaching, research, and academic performance requirement. Yes, you get paid to go to graduate school, and teaching and research are standard components of getting a PhD, but you will need to work hard and perform well.
There are time limits
While stipends and tuition waivers are usually guaranteed for the first few years of a PhD program, students often fend for themselves after that. There are usually options for research, teaching, or grants to give additional support after the first few years, but they’re not guaranteed, and they require additional time commitments not needed for the first few years.
Students who take longer than the expected number of years often lose funding completely. They also receive extensive tuition deductions because they are no longer engaged in coursework. These limitations are arguably in place as an incentive to get students to move on with their careers. This is true of most PhD programs, yet it does not transfer to all graduate education. Master’s-level terminal programs often rely on high student tuitions for funding and rarely give tuition waivers or stipends.
Fully funded PhD programs do not provide a living wage
Yes, you will likely get paid to do a PhD program, but not enough to live on. Many students need to work, at least part-time, to support themselves. Students who don’t work either live on a shoestring budget (think oatmeal for breakfast and rice and beans for lunch and dinner), or have savings, family support, or loans. It’s far better than the astronomical tuitions with no stipend at the undergraduate level, but it’s hardly what one might need to support a family.
My own story is likely somewhat representative of other students entering PhD programs in psychology. I had already decided that I wanted to go to graduate school, but I was seriously worried about costs and whether it would be worth it. There was a guest at the house where I was living at the time who happened to be a PhD student, and when I asked her about tuitions, she laughed.
“You know you get paid as a PhD student, right?”
“What do you mean? I can show you the tuitions at the schools I’m thinking about, and I promise you, I’d be paying them, not the other way around”.
“That’s just the official tuition. No one pays that.”
When I inquired at each of the 9 schools I was interested in, I received the same response: there would be some kind of tuition waiver and stipend opportunity if accepted, but the offers would depend on the terms of my acceptance. These were programs in biology, anthropology, neuroscience, and psychology.
In the end, the 2 programs I was accepted to each offered me a tuition waiver and an annual stipend – between $4000 and $8000 depending on the program – and promised that there would be other opportunities for additional income depending on performance and need.
To be clear, even in 1987 when I was applying, these fellowships were on the low end for psychology programs. While both programs were psychological, they were also on the anthropology side of psychology. One was in a straight-up anthropology department, albeit psychological anthropology. The other was in an interdisciplinary department affiliated directly with the psychology department but also with anthropology, sociology, and biology faculty members and a strong humanities component.
Anthropology and sociology departments do not generally receive as much research grant money for their faculty as psychology programs do; consequently, their graduate student fellowships tend to be lower. One traditional cognitive psychology program I visited and considered attending offered at minimum stipends of more than $13,000 per student. My colleague, who only applied to neuroscience PhD programs, was offered stipends between $15,000 and $20,000 per year guaranteed, with 100% tuition waivers and the opportunity to earn additional income for discipline-related departmental work.
The initial promised stipend was just a start. I did well in my first year and was offered an additional fellowship based on an existing departmental grant to support students working in cultural psychology. In my third year, when it was time to begin dissertation research, I applied for a couple of grants to support dissertation research, and received more than $30,000 a year for the final year of my dissertation research. Better than most, but not unheard of.
During the dissertation write-up period of my program, I entered a competition to teach my own course. Although I had to turn it down in the end, this came with both added value and experience for a job search and a paycheck. Unlike most graduate programs in psychology, graduate students did not teach courses and so there was not a mandatory teaching component, which tends to support tuition waivers.
If you were holding off on getting a PhD because you couldn’t bear the thought of university tuition or of the dramatic debt that would be required to fund your education, I hope this article made you think again.
About the author
About the author
Dr. Will Bennis, PhD, is a cultural and environmental psychologist focused on ways in which culture and built environments interact to influence cognitive processes. Will’s research explores cultural, environmental, and psychological influences on how people think and decide. He received his PhD from the University of Chicago in the Department of Psychology. Will worked as a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Adaptive Behavior and Cognition at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, and then in the Department of Psychology at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. His current interests concern the conflicting human needs for autonomy and community, and how that conflict is getting resolved among remote workers, freelancers, and other location-independent professionals.