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How to Get PhD Funding

How to Get PhD Funding main image

Elke Schwarz

Professor Daniel Drezner of Tufts University recently 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 (about US$4,800) for domestic students and up to £16,000 ($25,500) 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 China, tuition fees range from about US$3,000 to £2,000 to £9,000. In Germany, on the other hand, PhD students face no tuition fees at all, aside from a nominal semester contribution of €250 to €500 (US$340-675).

PhD funding from national research councils

However, while fees in countries like the UK and the US might seem insurmountably high, it is well worth noting that at this level of academia, there is a wealth of PhD funding opportunities available. The UK has seven research councils, divided by academic sector, which provide funding opportunities for various research projects.

Europe-wide, 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 and PhD positions at universities

Furthermore, 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 funds for doctoral students toward the costs for field trips and conference attendance.

A further means to fund a PhD is through PhD positions, sometimes also called PhD studentships or assistantships. These are essentially jobs tied to the PhD program, involving work in teaching or research or both. This is an ideal way to support one’s own research, be involved in a larger, often team-based, funded research project and gain work experience.

Living costs and opportunity costs

Other costs to be considered when calculating PhD funding are living costs and opportunity costs. The former 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).

In addition, opportunity costs can be high. Unlike the master’s degree, which takes at most 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.

This means that during that 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 for most; some studies suggest that drop-out rates for part-time PhDs are as high as 66%.

Prospects of PhD careers

But while this might all sound daunting, there are considerable benefits and advantages to getting the prestigious degree. In other words: the prospects of PhD careers are good. While entry-level salaries may not be considerably higher in comparison to starting salaries for master’s graduates, the long-term prospects for faster career- and pay-scale advancements for PhDs are better. And a growing number of PhD students consider a post-doc life outside of academia.

Despite the doom and gloom of job market reports for PhD careers, 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 is adapted from the QS Top Grad School Guide.

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