Professor Daniel Drezner of Tufts University once quipped: “Should you get a PhD? Only if you are crazy or crazy about your subject.” If you fit one of those two categories, you’ll no doubt be keen to find out how to finance your mad endeavor. Here’s a quick guide to getting PhD funding…
How much does a PhD cost?
In the first place, how much does a PhD cost? Here, the answer varies considerably by country. In the UK, being a self-funded PhD student can be an expensive undertaking, with an annual tuition bill of approximately £3,000 to £6,000 (about US$4,300-8,700) for domestic students and up to £18,000 ($26,000) for international students for the first three years.
In the US, the price tag for a PhD is even higher, ranging from US$28,000 to US$40,000 per year. In Germany, on the other hand, PhD students face no tuition fees at all, aside from a nominal semester contribution of €150 (~US$162) and €200 (US$217).
Before some of these high figures deter you, be reassured that there are many PhD funding opportunities available; few PhD students are self-funded.
PhD funding from national research councils
In the UK, PhD funding is provided via seven research councils, each covering a specific academic sector. Across Europe, such funding is offered by the European Research Council. Both the US and Canada have the equivalent in their National Research Councils, which give financial support to students either individually, via scholarships, or for funded research projects, via a research group or department.
PhD funding from universities
Most universities provide substantial scholarships, studentships and other PhD funding opportunities. These schemes typically cover the cost for a good proportion of the annual tuition fees, if not more. Universities often also provide some funding for doctoral students to cover the costs of field trips and conference attendance.
A further means to fund a PhD is by obtaining a PhD position, sometimes also called PhD studentships or assistantships. These are essentially jobs tied to the PhD program, involving work in teaching, research or both. This is an ideal way to support your research, while being involved in a larger, often team-based, funded research project and gaining work experience.
Living costs and opportunity costs
Other costs to be considered when calculating PhD funding are living costs and opportunity costs. Living expenses will of course vary significantly by country and city. Studying in Paris (France) or Oslo (Norway) will likely incur a substantially higher annual cost than completing a PhD in Bangkok (Thailand), for example.
In addition, opportunity costs can be high. Unlike a master’s degree, which usually takes just one or two years full-time, a PhD demands a markedly higher time investment – most programs require an absolute minimum of three years, and some require five to six, depending on the country.
During this time, full-time employment is possible only if it is in relation to the PhD program itself. Some may opt to continue working and attempt to complete a PhD part-time – but this has proven to be exceptionally challenging; some studies suggest that drop-out rates for part-time PhDs are as high as 66%.
Career prospects with a PhD
But while this might all sound daunting, there are considerable benefits and advantages to getting a PhD. In other words: the prospects for careers with a PhD are good. While entry-level salaries may not be considerably higher compared to those for master’s graduates, those with a PhD do have better long-term prospects for faster career- and pay-scale advancements. And a growing number of PhD students consider a post-doc life outside of academia.
There has been a clear trend in non-academic employers (such as consultancies, think tanks, media and others) increasingly valuing not only the specialist knowledge of PhD graduates but also their maturity and soft skills. Attributes valued by PhD employers across a wide range of industries include diligence, research abilities, focus, discipline, presentation skills and the demonstrated ability to work under pressure and to a deadline.
For all those aspiring doctoral students who aim to have a quick return on their investment, a word of caution: the benefits of a PhD are not to be had in the fast lane. The value of a PhD qualification is to be found in the long-term benefits it brings, financially, professionally and intellectually. It is a labor of love, and, as we know there is always some madness in love, but for those with realistic expectations and the discipline and tenacity to complete this highest of academic degrees, it is a tremendously rewarding experience, in more ways than one.
This article was originally published in November 2013. It was updated in February 2016.