Cost and funding

The topic of funding is an incredibly thorny one. I’ll do my best to do it justice, but you should soon see why it can be so difficult to advise on…

How much will a graduate degree cost?

Masters

If you’re a student in a country where separate Masters degrees are required before you can apply/attend a PhD program, then the Masters degree may be folded/combined with an undergraduate degree (e.g. as an optional 4th/5th year). The fees for Masters degrees may be similar to what you pay in an undergraduate degree, or slightly higher. If you are an international student and/or applying to Masters degrees in countries where they are not required for PhD entry, things can be much more expensive. Separate scholarships and research grants can be uncommon for Masters degrees, unlike PhDs, and so the exorbitant sticker price you find online really could be the amount you’re expected to pay!

PhD

PhDs are… complicated.

In some countries, PhD candidates are employees complete with a standard wage and generous benefits in healthcare and leave. They are not treated “like” employees, they are employees. The PhD costs nothing except time, effort, and the usual upfront costs associated with moving.

In the other extreme, in some countries PhD candidates are treated as students, even if they do not take any classes. They are charged a tuition every year, even when working largely independently as researchers. There may be pay available contigent on extra work beyond their PhD, often tutoring, marking, or general teaching assistance (TA). In the US, this extra work may be required in exchange for the stipend and any benefits, and students who do not work as TAs must find outside grants and continue to pay tuition for nonexistent classes.

In many cases, PhDs will fall somewhere in the middle, and there can be huge variation even within a single year group. Some students may have secured scholarships for 5+ years that do not require any form of teaching. Others will have no source of funding, and are living off of loans and savings. I think most people will have some combination of different funds, whether that means different scholarships/grants in different years, or a combination of smaller funding sources at any given time.

Tuition for PhD candidates is a somewhat ridiculous idea so the price can be a little arbitrary. In the US for STEM PhDs, your institution may offer to “waive” or “cover” your tuition (at e.g. USD $55,000 p.a.) on top of giving you some minimal stipend (e.g. USD $25,000). But remember: you are not being paid USD $80,000. You are being paid USD $25,000. No money has changed hands on the other $55,000.

In terms of specific funding sources, I cover Australia and the UK at the bottom of this page (based on my own experiences/knowledge).

What are the main kinds of funding?

  • Scholarships: can be awarded based on any number of personal qualities weighted in any fashion, including academic achievement, country of origin, field, age, minority status (e.g. race, gender, socioeconomic status, religion, region), and involvement in extracurricular activities like sports or music. They may be awarded by your university, your government, a company, a charity/trust, or an individual. They may be awarded per annum for a set number of years, or may be a single lump payment.

  • Grants and fellowships: awarded based on research, whether real or supposed. Some, like the NSF GRFP (US), require a research proposal.

  • Your supervisor’s money: if your supervisor has been awarded a large grant, it may include enough to pay for PhD students and postdoctoral researchers.

  • Pay in exchange for work: this would include teaching assistantships (TA-ships) and research assistantships (RA-ships) as found in the US. You must perform some duties for the university, either helping to teach undergraduates or helping another researcher in their work, in exchange for a stipend. In other countries, this work is paid more in line with casual rates and is not required, rather it is something you can opt into if you’d like a bit more pocket money.

Anything else I need to bear in mind?

In some cases, consideration for funding is automatic with your application to the university. In others, particularly where scholarships or large, external grants/fellowships are concerned, you must seek these out and apply independently. The deadlines for these funding applications vary by a huge amount, and in the case of the Rhodes scholarship for US applicants, the scholarship application is due in mid October while the Oxford university application isn’t due until January or later. If you start looking for these scholarships only a few months before PhD applications are due, you may miss deadlines.

Australia

Many PhD students in Australia (both citizens and overseas) are funded by the government under the Research Training Program (RTP), formerly known as the Australian Postgraduate Award (APA). These come in the form of large blocks of funds that are given to individual universities to allocate as they see fit, and so the application for the RTP varies by university. In many cases it will be an automatic process and you won’t have to put in a separate application, but this is something you should check for each university just in case.

Anecdotally, if you graduated with first class honours(A+/HD average) then you stand a strong chance of being awarded the RTP. It may also be more or less common for those with upper-second class honours (A/DN average), but since awards are given within a university, it does vary. There can also be multiple award periods, with most awards being given for the start of the academic year in ~February, and a series of much smaller rounds in later months for any amounts remaining.

United Kingdom (UK)

UK students can be funded through the various UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) councils, which include the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) (studentship details are kept under the “Skills” tab, not “Research” or “Funding”). These funds cover tuition at the home (UK) rate and provide a standard stipend for living costs. There are a few different kinds of award under this umbrella with different requirements and benefits. Beginning in 2021, international (including EU) students can also apply for UKRI funds, however they will only cover the home rate and the living stipend. As international tuition is higher than UK tuition, you do still have to find another source of funding in conjunction with a UKRI award.

Some PhD students are paid through a supervisor’s grant. In this case the student will have applied to a pre-defined project (e.g. through FindAPhD.com). The grants researchers use to pay students can come with their own strings attached, and so many will be limited to UK or EU students as the funding has come from UK or EU grant agencies.

There may also be university scholarships available. These are major sources of funding for students at Cambridge and Oxford as the 31-39 colleges within the universities all offer their own funding, albeit limited, exceptionally competitive, and notoriously hard to find. As they are offered by individual colleges (who you should think of as legally separate entities to Cam/Ox) the application processes and timelines can vary and you do need to do your due diligence in researching them.

Previous