Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog

Adventures in Science and Ethics raised an interesting question today: How are graduate student getting their education funded? When I was first interviewing at graduate programs, I was astounded at the variability in their offered “recruitment package.” It often had very little to do with prestige of the university, cost of living in the city, etc. But all of them offered something on which to live, tuition paid for, and health insurance. I feel quite comfortable on the stipend that Univ. of Michigan gives me (~$25k) and cost of living in Ann Arbor isn’t so bad. My only complaint is no dental insurance, but hey, I’ll let that slide. 🙂

So how, you may ask, are universities able to afford giving away free PhD? Or really, PAYING you to get one?? Well, one answer is training grants. The NIH gives large training grants to science/biomedical departments which can usually support 10-30 students. These are highly competitive of course. There also exist individual training grants called NRSAs (I’m in the middle of revising one right now), which a student can apply for directly. Federal money can only go to US citizens (in most cases), so international students will usually end up paying for their graduate education. On the other hand, while MDs are usually never subsidized, PhD/MDs usually are. So there’s a nice way to get your medical education paid for. NSF (National Science Foundation) and DoD (Dept of Defense) grants are also a good way to get funding, although anything related to the military sometimes has string attached.

Therefore if you are a US citizen, and you are PAYING to get a PhD, well stop. You shouldn’t have to. Either the school you’re at didn’t have the clout to get a training grant (which is worrisome) or you didn’t do your homework. Either way, there’s a better way, and you’ll end up with very little student debt in the end of it.


  1. #1 darkman
    July 27, 2006

    this really only applies to science related PhD’s. many other graduate programs in engineering, computer science, and other fields don’t get the same level of govermnent based institution-wide grant support and therefore can’t offer the packages of stipend that science programs can. Many graduate programs, if they can’t offer a paid stipend package will offer fellowship packages (stipend-like funding from privately set-up fellwships) or TA packages where stipend is payed as long as the grad students teach every semester, which is good cheap teaching labor for the university and still a decent deal for the student.

  2. #2 Shelley Batts
    July 27, 2006

    Yes, very true Darkman. Social sciences etc will have a much harder time. Too bad there isn’t an “NIH-like entity” to help fund them along their way.

  3. #3 Barry
    July 27, 2006

    Something which applies for most Ph.D. students is that the ‘real’, market-based price of Ph.D. classes is very, very low. I’d guess that 1% of Ph.D. students pay for their own studies, and perhaps 10% in the liberal arts bring in money (grants, scholarships, etc.) from outside of the university. If you charged students (by means of loans) for their Ph.D.’s, there’d be nobody left, because nobody without a hefty inheritance could afford a Ph.D.

    If you priced the teaching aspect of Ph.D. students out on the market, you should be able to get all teaching done (5/5 load. 2 spring courses) by people with Ph.D.’s for $30K/year or less. That’s less than $3K/course, vs (in theory, accepting university tuition) $7K/course on up for TA’s.

    So the universities are not using grad students because they’re cheaper. The way the system works for teaching is that the grad students teach the course which the professors don’t want to teach; the money is then diverted into the department, allowing the professors to teach more graduate courses.

    Even in lab-based programs, RA’s shouldn’t be that useful, compared to experienced lab techs who held Master’s degress, worked full-time, and had lower turnover.

  4. #4 HI
    July 27, 2006

    I am a foreigner, but I and many other foreigners in life sciences programs were getting paid at the graduate school in US that I went. But the flipside is that many schools I was considering to apply told me not to even bother to apply, because they cannot provide financial aids to foreign students. Also, I think some schools do accept applications from foreign students (and collect application fees), but in the end accept very few foreign students for this reason. Paying for a graduate school myself didn’t seem to be an option. If they couldn’t pay you, they wouldn’t accept you.

    Also, the number of entering foreign graduate students at my graduate school changed a lot depending on the funding available. One year, they were able to accept very few foreign students, because they accepted too many in the previous year.

    But I guess I shouldn’t complain. It was very generous to pay for the education of foreign students. Like darkman commented, students in many other fields are not getting paid even if they are American.

  5. #5 Elia Diodati
    July 27, 2006

    It’s really exciting that you are addressing this topic, because people over on my blog are debating this issue of graduate school funding, like whether or not they should take up state-funded scholarships back home in Singapore. Unlike many scholarships here in the US, state scholarships come with strings attached, the most prominent of which is a work period of 6 years immediately after graduation. Would you accept such an offer?

  6. #6 Andre
    July 27, 2006

    “So how, you may ask, are universities able to afford giving away free PhD?”

    I think that’s the wrong approach (echoed at the end of the previous comment about feeling lucky that they payed for the education of a foreign graduate student). Especially once you’ve finished your courses, you are a lab employee. It’s not a question of universities giving away PhD’s, they are paying for a service that is essential to their mission. If the situation was reversed and the norm was to pay for a PhD, I would ask why all these graduate students were giving away their valuable labor.

  7. #7 Jeebus
    July 27, 2006

    Andre –

    I think the graduate students are “forced” to work in the lab, because they have to get data for their thesis project, so that they can earn the PhD.

  8. #8 Abel Pharmboy
    July 27, 2006

    ShelleBa, $25K? For a graduate stipend? Heck, I got $6,600 my first year that escalated to $8,900 by my last year – of course, that was in Confederate dollars in the 1860s.

    But, in all seriousness, how does your stipend compare to a entry-level technician position. In my day (*grabs hip from gout*), techs would make about $20-25K and postdocs about $18K such that they could get two or three of us grad students for one tech. I suspect that your stipend is pretty close to a starting tech salary today, even in Ann Arbor. Do you find that some profs are not accepting new grad students as they’ve become more “expensive” and focus on a combo of techs and postdocs who aren’t distracted by classes or quals?

  9. #9 CK
    July 28, 2006

    Funding is something that I think that US schools do better than schools in other countries. One of the reasons that I decided on a American program (rather than to stay in Canada) is that American schools provide far more support for their students (and not just financial support).

    It ended being the case that my friends from my undergraduate and my MA days dispersed across a number of countries and with only one exception (I guess CUNY doesn’t fund as well as some schools) those of us who are going (or went) to the States got by far the most funding.

    I didn’t get quite as large a living stipend as you (I guess us humanists aren’t as high priority as science kids for funding) but I’m still (with consideration of my tuition waiver, something which most of my friends who decided to go to Canadian or European schools didn’t get) getting more than twice as much funding as the people I know who decided to remain in Canada.

    It strikes me though that it’s actually a good idea for US schools to fund so well. It allows American schools to outcompete universities in other countries for attracting talent.

  10. #10 Shelley Batts
    July 28, 2006

    Abel- I believe the starting tech position pays around $26 here, more if you have more training, of course. So, yeah, not much higher than us grad students. My lab is unusually well funded (and I’m the only grad student he’s got) but I’m on a training grant anyway so he doesn’t pay for me except meetings, etc. The Neuroscience program pays for the first 2-3 years for all incoming PhDs, and then the rest is up to the mentor. But, the Program also promised to help us find funding if our mentor was broke/something wild happened. Which, they have followed though on with a couple of my friends. This makes the choice of labs easier, but money is ALWAYS an issue. But UM gets on its faculty if they don’t accept students in to their lab. I have no idea, but I might guess its leverage for tenure.

    Elia- I’d have to know more about the details of the “deal” but unless they were paying a 6-figure salary after graduation, I’d say hell no! Six years? Thats awful. Even the US military only requires 3-4 years of well-paid service for funding your entire education (and generous stipends). I sympathize!

  11. #11 Sandra Porter
    July 28, 2006

    There was an implication above that only DoD funding has strings attached.

    This isn’t correct. NIH training grants also have strings attached.

    I had an NIH training grant as a graduate student and I was required to commit to “paying back” one year of working in science for every year that the NIH funded my education. (pretty reasonable, really) This was true for the post-docs on NIH training grants also.

    I always wondered what would happen if I didn’t “do my time” working in my field. The paperwork I signed makes me I think I would have been legally obligated to pay the funds back to the government. But in practice, it was never an issue.

  12. #12 Shelley Batts
    July 28, 2006

    Interesting. I’ve never heard of a “payback” NIH grant, thanks for letting me know. The training grant I’m on doesn’t require that.

  13. #13 Alon Levy
    July 28, 2006

    I think another thing that helps grad schools pay stipends is M.A. programs, where students have to pay to get in. I don’t have a link, but I think Columbia once mentioned that a substantial portion of its programs’ stipend money came from milking master’s students.

    The stipend I’m going to get is about $19,500/year (in math, at Columbia). How did you get $25k? Michigan offered me about 14, if I remember correctly. None of the schools I applied to had a problem with my being an international student, though some evidently had other problems with my applications…

  14. #14 viji
    July 29, 2006

    Hmmmm interesting…. I accidentally got ported here with a mis-click of the mouse

    Anyway, the scholarships and stipends seems standard

    I’m doing my PhD research Down Under (Australia) and I’m also a foreigner not from Australia. The scholarships are quite generous and oppurtunities are abound for foreigners here, that is you must at least be within the top 5% of their ranking process of course and in part the success of securing a scholarship will factor upon an individual’s hard efforts and ability to fish out projects with potential/preference by the granting body AND good support from an influential supervisor if you find one

    But that said, because scholarships are kept separate for the locals (Australians) and for foreign applicants, and the strong Australian spirit of giving everyone a fair go, if a candidate is qualified, the candidate will be awarded a scholarship and perhaps even permanent residency if you make the cut. And if we try hard enough, its not impossible, as I’ve secured 3 scholarship offers and selected one that i think is most promising.

    And surprisingly, I’m receiving a fee waiver that is worth AUD$22K and also a stipend of AUD$22K per annum. On top of that, the scholarship covers health insurance, dental, optical etc. and university amenity fees. So its a fairly good deal. And if you manage your time well for your PhD project, you are allowed to take on tutorials, grade exam papers, or tackle lab classes, which invariably pays you between AUD$25-33 by the hour. Its actually very generous for a foreign students whose intentions are to concentrate on his/her studies, live-comfortably and save up for a rainy day, especially when the cost of living in Melbourne is cheap.

    And I think I am a few of the lucky ones as my lab group can afford to send me to the States for work with collaborators, and also present at international conferences, expensive ones being in the US like the upcoming ICAAC (US conference fees and air fare are exorbitant, and the the granting of visas are painfully medieval). On the other hand, most institutions, departments, and even local/federal government science initiatives offer travel grants that are up for grabs.

    drop me a email for foreign students seeking an alternative to the States. I’ve been through the process and probably could drop a few pointers.

    P.S. I hold a PhD (Pharmacy) candidature and my work focuses on drug development vs. MDR bacteria and viruses, but I have connections before with infectious diseases, cancer, heart disease, and neuroscience research groups from my network and previous PhD project fishing.

    All the best for potential PhD candidates. I know it can be a despair at times, but never never give up trying.


  15. #15 wamba
    July 31, 2006

    I suspect not all students have the same financial needs.
    Graduate student buys New York Observer

  16. #16 Ziad Alshai
    April 4, 2009

    seeking a PHD in MIS

  17. #17 tazzy18
    August 18, 2009

    Not all students have all these beneficial, and most especially not every school gave this chance to all of their graduates.

  18. #18 Wireless Speaker
    May 29, 2010

    This captures my interest. I am interested to pursuit my PhD but I just don’t know how to do it without spending much money on it.

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    December 7, 2010

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  20. #20 Kadi
    December 30, 2011

    Shelley – I googled ‘How to get your PhD paid for’ and your site was the first that popped up. It seems this discussion was some time ago and I am most likely pursuing an administrative and policy studies doctorate (, but thought of all people you would have some great input after reading your blog.

    Any advice would be much appreciated.

    My email address is

    Thank you –

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