What Is a Fully Funded PhD Program and How Do I Find One?

By Jacqueline DeMarco · January 25, 2024 · 7 minute read

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What Is a Fully Funded PhD Program and How Do I Find One?

If you are motivated, you may decide to pursue a PhD program in your given field of study. However, you are probably aware that doing so not only requires time and energy but can also be an expensive proposition. According the Education Data Initiative, the average cost of a doctorate degree (which typically takes four to eight years) is $150,835. The average student loan debt for this kind of degree is $112,080.

That can be a daunting sum, but a fully funded PhD program can offset part or all of these costs. In addition to financing tuition and fees, these programs usually provide a stipend to help cover living expenses. Some may also pay for any research and travel necessary for students to complete their graduate degrees.

Since this can make a huge difference in a prospective student’s financial outlook, here’s a closer look at fully funded PhD programs, how they work, and how they can help lower the cost of a degree.

Key Points

•   Fully funded PhD programs cover all tuition fees and often provide a stipend for living expenses.

•   These programs may also support research and travel necessary for students to complete their degrees.

•   Prospective students should explore various funding sources, including federal grants, state and local grants, and private scholarships.

•   Debt forgiveness programs, such as Public Service Loan Forgiveness, are available for qualifying graduates in specific sectors.

•   Applying for fully funded positions is competitive, and candidates are advised to thoroughly research and apply to programs that align with their academic and professional goals.

What is a PhD Program?

PhD programs, also known as doctoral programs, are often a next step after a master’s degree. They give students the opportunity to do graduate-level research in the field of their choice and earn the highest degree possible (sometimes referred to as a terminal degree). They span a variety of subjects, such as engineering, English, public health, and computer science.

The application process for a PhD program can be competitive, and the programs themselves can be very time-consuming, taking (as mentioned above) on average between four and eight years. Working while pursuing these specialized degrees can be challenging, which is why it can be so helpful when a program offers an annual stipend.

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What Does Fully Funded Mean?

In a fully funded PhD program, the student typically receives full tuition reimbursement and a stipend to help cover the cost of living while pursuing the degree. Programs have varying funding requirements.

In some cases, students may receive a “no-strings-attached” fellowship. This means they receive funding but don’t owe the university anything aside from their research.

In many cases, to receive funding, a student will need to work part-time for the university by providing teaching or administrative assistance. These experiences can give students an opportunity to build out their resume while helping them pay for graduate school.

More often than not, these graduate fellowship positions are the main way to receive full funding to attend a PhD program and are commonly offered in research-based degree programs. Some fellowships may be offered in the form of scholarships or stipends, which are not usually taxed as income by the IRS (Internal Revenue Service).

Schools may also offer assistantships, where students earn an income from the university. Generally, these positions are given to doctoral students who are doing research in order to complete their theses or dissertations. Assistantships can be taxed as income.

While all PhD programs have their own unique funding packages, many fully funded programs are designed to help students cover a variety of costs. Here are some common ones.

Tuition and Fees

Typically, fully funded PhD programs provide students with so-called “tuition waivers.” The waivers cover the cost of attending the university, including tuition and fees. In some cases, book stipends, reduced-fare transit passes, and other benefits are included to lessen the student’s financial burden.

Recommended: How to Pay for Grad School

Living Expenses

Whether through fellowship funding or a university job, students in a fully funded PhD program can receive a stipend to pay for food, rent, transportation, and other living expenses.

Depending on a student’s cost of living and lifestyle choices, these lump sums might not be enough to fully cover costs. This may be especially true during the summer, when stipends are less likely to be given out. If their program does not offer summer funding, students might choose to work part-time or take out loans to make ends meet.

Recommended: Using Student Loans for Living Expenses Off Campus

Health Insurance

While many doctoral programs include health insurance benefits, some do not. As you’re exploring graduate school programs, it’s a good idea to find out if it provides this important type of coverage.

Generally, student health insurance packages only cover care and services at on-campus facilities. Some programs automatically enroll their students in one type of healthcare plan, and others allow students to choose their plan during the annual open enrollment period.

If a student is married or has dependents, they may be able to add them to their student health insurance plan for an additional cost.

Research and Travel Funding

If necessary, some programs allow doctoral students to apply for funding to help them conduct their research or travel to conferences, archives, or summer programs. This is something students apply for on an as-needed basis and is not a guarantee.

In some cases, students will pay the costs up front and then be reimbursed. Grants and scholarships can also help cover research and travel expenses.

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How to Find a Fully Funded PhD Program

There are sites that allow you to search for various PhD programs around the world. But one of the best ways to discover which programs are fully funded can be by conducting your own research.

•   Before submitting an application to a PhD program, learn more about the university’s resources, faculty members, and requirements for graduation. Look into the specifics of the funding options available at each university you plan to apply to, as PhD programs may address funding differently. Often, schools will include information about these opportunities on their website.

•   While some universities automatically give grants or fellowships to their admitted students, others make their students complete a separate funding application. These applications can require submitting letters of recommendation or personal statements and can have deadlines that are different from the application deadline for the doctoral program.

Examples of Fully Funded PhD Programs

It’s possible to find fully funded PhD programs across a variety of subjects at many different schools. From a PhD in biological sciences at Harvard to education at Stanford to nursing at Duke, fully funded PhD programs cover an array of study areas.

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Paying Down Student Loan Debt

If you have student loan debt from an undergraduate or master’s degree that you want to pay down before or during a PhD program, you might consider exploring student loan refinancing. Refinancing could help you save money in interest over the life of the loan and pay down your debt faster.

Student loan refinancing involves taking out a new loan at a new interest rate and/or a new term that can be more favorable than the current rate or terms you currently have. It is possible to refinance both federal and private student loans.

But there are two important caveats:

•   When you refinance federal student loans with private loans, you forfeit access to federal benefits and protection, such as forbearance, forgiveness, and income-driven repayment plans.

•   Also, if you refinance for an extended term, while your monthly payments may decrease, you can pay more in interest over the life of the loan.

Think carefully about these points when deciding if refinancing could be the right option for you.

The Takeaway

Pursuing the highest possible graduate degree can be expensive, but a fully funded PhD program can offset all or part of the costs. Programs vary from school to school, but they typically cover the cost of tuition and may include a stipend to help finance living expenses and more. In some cases, PhD candidates will be required to do research or teach as part of the agreement to receive funding. Students can also explore other ways to cover the cost of school, including scholarships or grants.

In addition, PhD candidates who are paying off student loans from an undergraduate or master’s degree may want to consider student loan refinancing. Doing so with federal loans via a private loan means forfeiting federal benefits and protections. Also, refinancing for an extended term could mean paying more interest over the life of the loan.

Looking to lower your monthly student loan payment? Refinancing may be one way to do it — by extending your loan term, getting a lower interest rate than what you currently have, or both. (Please note that refinancing federal loans makes them ineligible for federal forgiveness and protections. Also, lengthening your loan term may mean paying more in interest over the life of the loan.) SoFi student loan refinancing offers flexible terms that fit your budget.

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If you are a federal student loan borrower, you should consider all of your repayment opportunities including the opportunity to refinance your student loan debt at a lower APR or to extend your term to achieve a lower monthly payment. Please note that once you refinance federal student loans you will no longer be eligible for current or future flexible payment options available to federal loan borrowers, including but not limited to income-based repayment plans or extended repayment plans.

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Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.

Tax Information: This article provides general background information only and is not intended to serve as legal or tax advice or as a substitute for legal counsel. You should consult your own attorney and/or tax advisor if you have a question requiring legal or tax advice.


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