What is a "Fully Funded" Doctoral Program?

Member: Kristen S. Slack (University of Wisconsin - Madison)

I hear people using the term “fully funded” in relation to doctoral programs. As in, “I was accepted into a PhD program with full funding!” What this means in practice, though, varies widely. It could mean as little as having one’s tuition covered by the program or it could mean a stipend of varying amounts on top of other benefits and tuition remission. Doctoral and PhD programs that do provide a stipend or salary often tie it to a research or teaching assistantship. Such positions usually assume part-time work. The presumption is that the student will be engaged in coursework or dissertation research for the balance of their time. However, the salary for part-time work is rarely enough to live on. Therefore, most students rely on some combination of loans, savings, assistance from family, or outside work in order to afford their living expenses.

As a former chair of a PhD program in the social sciences, I’ve learned quite a bit about the various ways doctoral programs package support for their students. Here are a few things to keep in mind when comparing program offers:

· Is full tuition covered? Is it guaranteed? For how many years?

  • Are student fees covered? If not, how much are they per year?
  • Is there a stipend? Is it gauranteed? For how long? How much is it? Is it tied to a teaching assistant or research assistant position? If so, on how many hours per week is it based? Is it available in summers or just the academic year? Are there opportunities to increase one’s weekly hours? Is there a limit on the hours one can work?

· Are there scholarships or fellowships available?

· Is conference travel supported?

· Is there funding for research costs?

· Does the program have an emergency assistance fund?

· Is there student housing available? How much is it?

· How does the cost of living compare to the amount of support you are offered?

· What are the transportation and parking options and costs at the institution?

· Does the program offer moving expenses?

· Does the program provide office space? A computer?

· Is there affordable childcare at the university? How difficult is it to access?

· Do you get health insurance coverage? What out-of-pocket costs are associated with using it?

· What is the program’s track record with respect to graduates obtaining employment? In what types of positions are graduates landing? What salary range can be expected upon graduation?

I’m aware of no program that offers everything listed above, so figuring out how to compare apples to oranges can be tricky. Once you have answers to these questions, it is up to you to determine if the return on investment is sufficient, factoring in your current or anticipated debt and the opportunity costs of attending graduate school. Hopefully it’s fabulous! Ask questions, talk to current students, and consider other aspects of the program of greatest importance to you to find your best program fit.

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