To understand how funding works for PhD programs, you first need to understand the different possible funding scenarios. Here is a breakdown of the different ways PhD candidates are funded by their universities.
Students are said to be “fully funded" if their tuition has been waived by the university and they receive a stipend to cover living expenses. Full funding can come with a variety of responsibilities, and often includes a certain number of semesters as a teaching assistant, a research assistant, or an instructor. Full funding is usually guaranteed for a period of four to six years. The amount of the stipend varies wildly from school to school and even from department to department within a school. Gradpay.org has done some useful work at collecting stipend data from a variety of schools and disciplines, and can give a good sense of the range of available stipends. It’s worth noting that more prestigious universities and STEM departments generally offer higher stipends.
Some departments only guarantee funding to their students for the first year or two of a doctoral program, after which the funding becomes competitive. In the case of competitive funding, students in a department compete against one another for a limited number of stipends. Students who fail to qualify for the funding are often encouraged to get a terminal Master’s degree (that is, to write a thesis, be awarded a Master’s, and leave the program) instead of completing their doctorate.
This simply refers to the period of time for which funding is guaranteed. After students run out of their guaranteed funding, they have to find independent sources of funding to cover expenses.
An unfunded student has not been promised any funding by the university and will, in most cases, be asked to pay tuition and fees to attend the school.
The world of PhD programs can be divided into two camps: those programs that fully fund all students they accept versus those that don’t. And the differences between the two groups are significant.
In a department where all the students are fully funded, it’s easier to create a collegial atmosphere between graduate students. While it’s possible that two of the attending students will be on the job market at the same time for the same specialty within their discipline, that competition will only affect a few of the students and it will be many years away from when they start the PhD process. As a result, departments with full funding for all students tend to be more collaborative, more supportive, and better socially for students.
In a department where not all students are fully funded, two significant problems are created.
First, it’s likely that some of the students will be fully funded, which will create something of a two-tiered system. The students who are fully funded are the ones the department has invested more resources in and whose success the department believes in most strongly. So the department is likely to provide more ongoing support and resources for those students, which can result in resentment between fully funded students and other students.
Secondly, the students who have to compete for funding will find it challenging to create a collegial, friendly atmosphere. There will be increased anxiety—as the students will be fighting for limited resources —combined with a poor social support system, all of which may make it harder to form close friendships with your fellow students.
If you are offered something short of full funding by a PhD program, this is an indication that the department has some doubts about your eventual success as a candidate. The department clearly views its fully funded candidates as more promising candidates and will devote resources accordingly. It’s not impossible to succeed as a non-fully funded candidate, but you should go into the program with your eyes wide open, understanding that you’ll be working at a substantial disadvantage.
The common bottom line advice is: if you’re not fully funded, don’t go. Improve your application and reapply next year. This advice—always reasonably sound—is particularly true when you’re dealing with degrees that have little use outside of academia, such as PhDs in History or English.
When applying to PhD programs, you ideally want to be fully funded and to be in a program where all the other students are fully funded. This will reduce stress for you, indicate that the department is committed to the success of all of its students, and facilitate a more collegial environment.
If you aren’t fully funded, you need to be aware of the disadvantage this puts you at relative to other students. Ask very direct questions about how many lines of funding are available, what percentage of students receive funding, and what you’ll need to do to secure funding. Ask how long the funding is guaranteed once you secure it. Do you only have to prove yourself once, or will you have to do it year after year?
Finally, it’s generally a poor idea to go into substantial debt while pursuing a PhD. While you may need to take out small loans to supplement your stipend or supplement research funding, your debt load should be minimal. Any program that is setting you up for a substantial debt load is a program you should avoid.