The average yearly tuition for a PhD program is slightly above $16,000, which means students will invest about $80,000 in tuition fees alone for a five-year program. Add in fees, cost-of-living, travel expenses and the figure can easily surpass six figures. Yet, it is possible to fund a PhD program without breaking the bank and going into debt.
The value of a college education should not be understated, but neither should its actual cost. Earning a doctoral degree can be an expensive proposition. According to the latest data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the average tuition and fees for a graduate program of study was $16,435 in 2012-2013. The table below outlines the 2012-2013 graduate tuition and fees by academic institution.
A rough calculation of the number of years it takes to complete a doctoral program, multiplied by the average 2012-2013 tuition and fees from the NCES, reveals the following total cost figures by academic field of study.
|Academic Field||Median Years to Completion||Tuition|
A five- to six-figure education is something to take seriously as there are debt implications after leaving finishing a PhD program. Graduating doctoral students in 2013 left school with an average debt of just over $15,000, according to the National Science Foundation. By field, students in the Social Sciences, Education and Humanities graduate with the highest levels of student debt:
Conversely, the science and technology fields graduate students with the lowest debt figures:
Source: National Science Foundation, Survey of Earned Doctorates, 2013
While these figures may seem alarming, a deeper dive into survey data from the National Science Foundation actually paints a more positive picture. Overall, more than 62 percent of all doctoral recipients graduate from school without a single dollar of debt.
Prospective students can use the table below to get a better sense of the percentage of students who take on debt at incremental levels in each field of academic study. A majority of students graduate with $10,000 or less in debt after finishing their doctoral degree.
The total cost of earning a doctoral degree is variable because of the sheer number of different factors involved. Tuition is not the only cost to consider when thinking about applying to a PhD program.
Typically, students pay full tuition rates during their first three years of doctoral study and receive reduced tuition rates for the remainder of the program. However, the actual cost of tuition does vary and may be dependent on the student’s actual degree program.
Graduate students pay a range of fees, with the most common including:
Some programs estimate students should be prepared to pay between $3,000 and $4,500 per academic year in student fees and health insurance costs.
Students with a master’s degree or coursework in a similar graduate program may be able to transfer credits into their doctoral program. That can lower the total number of credits required to graduate, which can lower the total cost of the degree. However, some institutions do limit the amount of tuition credits that can be applied for graduate work done in a related field at other institutions.
Whether or not the student has an assistantship does not affect the cost of textbooks and other academic materials. Books are a revolving charge, one a student should plan upon each semester or quarter.
Housing, utilities and food are considered indirect expenses students incur during their education. PhD students should plan on anywhere from $12,000 to $25,000 and up for living expenses each year. Again, this figure is highly variable based on the location of the university and the cost-of-living in that area.
Owning a car means additional budgeting for insurance, car payments and gas. Additionally, students may need to travel for conferences and research. Without funding from a graduate student association or grant program, the student will have to cover these costs individually.
PhD students with children may have to account for childcare costs. Purchasing a new computer and other supplies may also be required. This type of budgeting will vary from individual to individual, program to program.
Most PhD programs allow students to progress at their own pace, requiring them to complete and defend their dissertation within a certain time period (e.g. six years). However, the time it takes to complete a dissertation depends on the student, area of study, research, etc. This can impact cost of attending a doctoral program.
A student’s budget should include the total cost of attendance—that is both direct (tuition and fees) and indirect costs (e.g. housing). This budget is the starting point for determining the student’s financial need, how much financial aid they require, and if they can afford to attend a doctoral program. Below is a sample five-year total cost of attendance chart based on an in-state tuition program, with a budget that assumes fixed costs for fees and indirect costs, such as housing. It also does not take into account assistantships and tuition waivers for assistants.
Based on a figure that’s slightly below the 2012-2013 average graduate tuition cost, the total cost of attendance can still produce sticker shock. An average student in a program that charges $12,000 per year in tuition could have to pay between $30,000 and $45,000 year in total costs.
|Costs||Year 1||Year 2||Year 3||Year 4||Year 5||Total Cost of Attendance|
|Tuition and Fees||$12,654||$12,654||$12,654||$3,658||$3,658||$45,278|
|Student Activity Fee||$34||$34||$34||$34||$34||$170|
|Graduate Student Services Fee||$15||$15||$15||$15||$15||$75|
|Student Recreation Fee||$26||$26||$26||$26||$26||$130|
|Books and Supplies||$1,300||$1,300||$1,300||$1,300||$1,300||$1,300|
|Housing and Utilities||$14,578||$14,578||$14,578||$14,578||$14,578||$72,890|
|Total Cost of Attendance||$43,305||$43,305||$43,305||$34,309||$34,309||$198,533|
Prospective PhD candidates have an abundance of financial aid options to help fund their graduate studies. Typically, students are fully funded by a combination of sources, including scholarships, fellowships, research assistantships, teaching assistantships, or student loans.
It is important for students to note that most sources of aid are awarded by individual academic programs, so they should follow-up with their department for up-to-date information.
Below is a high-level overview of the common types of graduate financial aid.
Prospective PhD candidates can turn to a variety of funding sources, including scholarships, grants, and fellowships to support their education financially. As discussed, most students use a combination of one or more of these funding sources to finance their degree program and research.
PhD students can apply for a variety of scholarships that award students with funds that can be used to help cover the cost of tuition, books and other fees.
Grants are similar to scholarships and are academic-based awards that can be used to augment other sources of financial aid.
Fellowships are a different type of funding that may encompass a scholarship or grant and can be used to fund research, study and teaching in the US and internationally. Many fellowships provide full tuition and a yearly stipend to students.
A PhD should never be an end in itself but rather a means to an end. The path to a PhD is an arduous one and should never be undertaken without serious thought to what it will bring the student. That said, there is money available for graduate study in most fields, and a student in the humanities should be very careful to apply to appropriate programs which fund their grad students.Lawrence Burns, PhD
The SMART program is designed to support graduate students studying in STEM disciplines and offers a range of other benefits, including supplies and health insurance allowances and employment placement services with the DoD after graduation.
The National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship is a three-year graduate fellowship that is designed to support doctoral students across fifteen engineering disciplines.
This three-year fellowship program supports the research efforts of doctoral students in STEM-related fields of study and allows them to pursue their work at any accredited graduate program in the country.
Renewable award for graduate students enrolled in a full-time APA-accredited doctoral program of study in psychology. Underrepresented, minority students are encouraged to apply.
This fellowship is open to female scholars and is designed to help offset the doctoral student’s living expenses during her final year of working on a dissertation.
This fellowship is a single-year of funding that is designed to support the doctoral research of a student working in child psychology.
The Javits Fellowship is provided on a needs- and competitive-basis to graduate students pursing graduate degrees in the humanities, social sciences, and the arts.
Two fellowships are awarded to support doctoral students who plan to study at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, Greece for a year.
The Richard M. Weaver Scholarship is open to graduate student members of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and supports the academic work of scholars pursuing teaching careers at the college level.
The AICPA fellowship is designed for minority students pursuing or planning to pursue a doctorate in accounting.
Five scholarships are available to provide financial assistance to graduate students pursuing studies in accounting and plan on earning CPA licensure.
This fellowship provides financial support to female scholars conducting research and economic analysis into natural resource, food, or agricultural issues.
This renewable, four-year fellowship is designed to support a scholar’s work in the field of stewardship science: nuclear science, high density physics, and materials under extreme conditions and hydrodynamics.
This multi-year fellowship supports doctoral research in several fields, ranging from chemistry to geology, materials science to physics and connects fellows with NPSC employer partners.
The NWRI fellowship program is open to full-time doctoral students conducting water-based research in areas such as water quality, water treatment and technologies, water supplies and water resources.
Really think about your reasons for getting a PhD. Critically exam the support systems you have in place to get you through the journey: 50 percent of doctoral students suffer from depression. Utilize services like the counseling center on your college/university campuses to help you respond to the stressors that may occur with the transition.Lawrence Burns, PhD
Graduate assistantships are a form of academic appointment and are provided by individual departments. Competitive in nature, they are typically awarded on the basis of the student’s academic accomplishments and potential in the graduate program of study. Most programs provide appointments for one year at time and students receive a tuition credit or waiver and monthly stipend. There are three types of assistantships: Teaching Assistantships, Assistant Lecturers, and Research Assistants.
Teaching assistants perform a range of support duties for faculty members at a university, including grading papers and teaching classes.
Lecturers may serve as instructors in the academic department where they are studying.
Research assistants conduct and assist faculty members with research projects in the student’s area of interest.
Fellowships are short-term funding opportunities (typically 9- to 12 months) provided to students in the form of tuition credits and/or stipends. They support a student’s graduate study in their field of choice, may assist them in their research, or gain professional training in an area of interest. Fellowships are competitive and are available in two types: University-based and External.
Individual schools, colleges, and departments at a university (e.g. College of Science, Department of English) may have endowed fellowships. Students are either nominated for an award by their department or may be open to an application process.
External fellowships are funded by foundations, government agencies and other groups and provide opportunities to study both in the US and abroad. For example, the Department of Defense offers the National Defense Science & Engineering Graduate Fellowship to engineering students studying in one of sixteen engineering specialties.
Many companies and businesses have created scholarship, fellowship, and tuition reimbursement programs for their employees. Depending on the company, there may be a possibility it supports the graduate school efforts of its employees. Speak to the Human Resources department to learn more about the potential funding avenues available.
Graduate students may borrow funds from the federal government under two loan programs: William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan Program and the Federal Perkins Loan Program.
|Direct Unsubsidized Loan||Federal Perkins Loan|
|Loan eligibility||Available to PhD student who are enrolled at least half-time. No need to demonstrate financial need.||Doctoral students who are enrolled either part- or full-time, demonstrate financial need, and attend an approved institution that participates in the Federal Perkins Loan Program.|
|Interest rate||Loans issued between July 1, 2015 and before July 1, 2016 will have a 5.84% interest rate for graduate students.||5%|
|Loan fees||Loans issued between October 1, 2015 and before October 1, 2016 will have a 1.068% loan fee.||None|
|Yearly borrowing limit||$20,500 per year||$8,000|
|Loan limit||$138,500 and no more than $65,500 may be taken out in subsidized loans. This total also includes any loans secured during undergraduate study.||$60,000, which includes loans secured as an undergraduate student.|
Private financial institutions, including banks and credit unions, offer unsecured educational loans to graduate students. These loans must be repaid with interest. The interest rates, loan amount, and repayment terms are based on the credit worthiness of the borrower.
Federal work study provides students with demonstrated financial need part-time job opportunities that allow them to earn income while they are in graduate school. The program focuses on placing students in community service situations related to the student’s academic course of study. A majority of jobs are on-campus, but some schools may have some off-campus jobs with nonprofit agencies and other groups. It is important to note that some universities may not allow students to use their federal work study for tuition, but other related expenses (e.g. books, fees).
Speaking in the humanities, a student is best advised, I think, to select the faculty member with whom he or she wishes to study rather than simply a program. This faculty member becomes the student’s mentor, a relationship that lasts well beyond graduate school years. Because the mentor becomes the student’s primary reference, his or her standing in the field can and does have an impact on pre- and post-doctoral grants a student might win as well as on the student’s success on the academic job market.
It is a delicate balance though, because one must also look at programs that have standing in a particular field and at institutions that can afford to fund their PhD students throughout their graduate years.
Yes, of course. Again, a PhD is not something that comes easily, and it should not be pursued without a reason for it. On the other hand, for students who are committed to their fields, and for whom that field is a career choice, the PhD is still the only way into the university job market.
There is a catch-22 in the world of post-graduate education. Research universities need to turn out research, and researchers often depend on their grad students to assist them–in all fields–and departments on their PhD candidates to teach many undergraduate courses. PhD students are thus recruited regardless of the job market for the PhD holders.
The challenges in funding the PhD for me were less about how am I going to pay for this degree, but making the adjustment from being a full-time salaried employee to now, taking a significant pay cut to serve as a graduate assistant.Darren Pierre, PhD
Potential career earnings should be a significant part of the discussion when considering whether or not to pursue a doctoral degree. Completing an advanced program of study could increase an individual’s earning potential with their current or future employers.
Research from the Bureau of Labor Statistics reveals a direct correlation between educational attainment and career success—both in employment opportunities and annual salaries. Doctoral degree holders are some of the highest paid professionals in the country. The table below outlines the difference in earnings by degree level in 2014.
|Educational Attainment||Avg. Weekly Earnings||Avg. Yearly Salary||Unemployment Rate|
|Some College, No Degree||$741||$38,532||6.0%|
|High School Diploma||$668||$34,736||6.0%|
|Less Than a High School Diploma||$488||$25,376||9.0%|
Source: National Science Foundation, Survey of Earned Doctorates
In turn, prospective students should consider how their sacrifice of time and money will pay off when they embark in their careers. Some professional fields have a higher return on investment than others. A majority of PhD candidates endeavor to become tenured-track faculty members, but they should realize that academia is one of the lowest paying sectors for individuals with a doctoral degree.
A review of National Science Foundation survey information shows that the best paying professional areas for PhD graduates include Industry and Business—with an average salary of $97,700. At the bottom of the list? Academia.
So, which PhD degrees pay the best?
According to the NSF, business, economics, and engineering are consistently among the best earning academic fields regardless of industry. The following tables outline the highest paying academic fields by professional area of work after graduation.
At the occupational level, 2012 employment research from the Bureau of Labor Statistics revealed the best paying doctoral career was Physicist ($109,600), followed by Astronomers ($105,410), and Engineering Professors ($94,130).
Overall, the top 10 most lucrative PhD careers include the following:
|Field of Study||Academia||Industry or Business||Government||Nonprofit organization||Other|
|Agricultural sciences and natural resources||$56,000||$80,000||$70,000||$67,000||NA|
|Biological, biomedical sciences||$50,200||$80,000||$65,000||$60,000||$42,000|
|Business management and administration||$110,001||$135,000||$96,590||$105,000||NA|
|Mathematics and computer and information sciences||$60,000||$115,000||$95,300||$100,000||$52,000|
|Other non-science and engineering fields||$57,000||$78,000||$85,000||$70,500||$62,000|
|Physics and astronomy||$55,000||$95,500||$85,000||$90,000||NA|
Personally, the PhD was an incredibly introspective process. I believe for many, they go into the PhD thinking one thing, and come out transformed by the experience. I learned and grew personally in how I harness my self-worth, I grew professionally in my ability to humble myself and authentically listen to the feedback given about my work.
Professionally, I move with a greater level of confidence, I have more insight into my own potential in ways I could have never imagined, and all of that propelled me to write my book, The Invitation to Love.
The biggest mistake that perspective students make is doing the degree for the wrong reason. If you are doing the degree for any other reason that self-motivated factors, you will falter. Doing the PhD to cover areas of insecurity, or low self-worth; doing the PhD for the prestige or title sake, those reasons will have you floundering and faltering when the psychological stressors being to weigh heavy.
Absolutely, you have to have a plan and work that plan. Each Sunday, I would develop the week’s action plan, I would carve out everything from when I was doing assignments/research to when I would work out, everything was on a schedule so that even when the fog of the process set in, I had headlights (my schedule) that allowed me to drive consistently when the road ahead was hard to see.
Doctoral education in the U.S. is a varied and broad system, one that has been growing in popularity. In the 2013-2014 academic year, more than 178,000 doctoral degrees were conferred to students nationally, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
In its survey of earned doctorates, the National Science Foundation learned the number of doctoral recipients increased by nearly 30 percent between 2003 and 2013.
The most popular academic areas of study were Engineering and the Physical Sciences.
Within the engineering and physical sciences disciplines, multiple sub-fields have been experiencing explosive interest and enrollments, with some programs (e.g. physics, materials science engineering) growing by more than 70 percent between 2003 and 2013.
According to NSF, the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields are the most popular doctoral areas of study.
Interestingly, slightly more than 56 percent of graduate students continue into a doctoral program in the same field as their master’s degree. Rates are highest in the humanities, engineering, and social sciences fields.
It requires approximately 7.5 years of study for the average graduate student to complete a doctoral degree after enrolling in graduate school. Education takes the longest — more than 11 years, while the physical sciences and engineering fields only require 6.5 to 6.6 years of study to complete.
According to the NSF, the most common source of funding for doctoral students are teaching and research assistantships. The table below details the primary source of funding for students by academic area of study.
The following table includes a breakout of the primary funding source by major field of study, according the National Science Foundation.
The ultimate financial goal of any PhD student should be to complete their program successfully and move into a professional career with as little debt as possible. The resources below are available to help students locate scholarships and other funding sources that can help make that goal a reality.
Unigo offers a selection of financial assistance resources for graduate students, including a scholarship directory, a scholarship match tool, educational information on student loans and funding options, and more.
Scholarships.com is a website that provides a selection of financial aid information, including a searchable scholarship directory, insights into funding trends, financial aid calculators, and information about grants and fellowships.
Peterson’s is an educational resource site that includes a searchable scholarship database, articles and advice columns, and a catalog of graduate school profiles.
FinAid.org is an educational resource site that focuses on financial aid and offers information about student loans, federal financial aid, financing a doctoral education, and includes a scholarship search option.
An office of the U.S. Department of Education, Federal Student Aid is the country’s largest provider of financial aid. Graduate students can learn about and pally for loans, grants, and work-study funds to pay for their doctoral education.
FastWeb is a financial aid-focused website that offers a searchable scholarship directory that allows students to focus their search to their major area of study, work experience, and personal and professional activities.
Chegg is an online educational portal that not only offers used textbooks, but a scholarship database as well.