Don’t let finances stand in the way of getting your doctorate. Learn how to fund your PhD or doctoral degree.
Dec 24, 2020
Pursuing a doctoral degree is a serious financial commitment, but don’t let the sticker shock of a doctoral program discourage you from exploring your options and applying to a program. The prices advertised for doctoral programs are often a general starting point and not necessarily what you’ll pay out-of-pocket.
There are many ways to bring those tuition prices down for graduate students today. Between fellowships, scholarships, graduate assistantships, grants, and loans, you can carefully piece together a financial aid package that will make your doctoral degree more attainable than you might think. Unfortunately, many prospective doctoral students don’t know about all of the financial aid options available to them.
This guide breaks down the costs of doctorate programs and provides you with concrete, actionable advice on how to financially prepare for the doctoral program of your choice. Let’s take a look at the main components of a doctoral degree and what you can expect in terms of a financial commitment.
Doctorate Cost Factors
The cost of your doctoral degree consists of several different factors and includes expenses beyond tuition alone. As you’re looking into programs, it’s a good idea to understand how your hard-earned dollars will spread out to ultimately fund your graduate education. Here’s a breakdown of costs you can expect to encounter.
The priciest component of your degree will be tuition. The cost per credit or course varies among graduate programs and disciplines. You’ll also find that tuition rates for online courses and traditional on-campus courses will often differ. Whether you plan to be an online or on-campus student, be sure to check with your department or the graduate school to ensure that you’re getting the correct tuition rate information for your delivery format. Tuition rates may be different for in-state and out-of-state learners, so be sure to check out residency requirements when looking into doctoral programs that are outside of your current state.
Dissertation Fees and Related Expenses
Many schools require doctoral students to pay fees for the processing and filing of their dissertation or final project. A lot of programs will use a third party publishing company, such as ProQuest, to host your documents online. You can expect to spend about $135 in dissertation filing fees if you submit your work on time. Some schools charge late fees if students fail to submit the final master copies of their work within the allotted time frame, usually based on when you pass your final exams or dissertation defense.
Most doctoral programs require you to complete a traditional dissertation or final project to demonstrate your expertise in a particular area of your field. With these significant endeavors can come notable expenses, some of which might be unpredictable depending on the nature of your work. In addition to filing fees, you might need to pay for dissertation research credits, sometimes referred to as place-holder credits, while you conduct research and write your dissertation. Some schools will offer you a discount on research credits for a short period of time, eventually requiring you to pay full tuition rates after a short grace period.
Books and Supplies
As a doctoral student, you’ll still be purchasing books and some materials that you needed during your undergraduate program. Unlike your undergraduate coursework, you’ll probably be buying five to 10 books per class as opposed to one large textbook for the whole semester. As an advanced graduate student working in a specialized area, you might also need to purchase computer software or specialized equipment. With this in mind, the cost of books and supplies for each class will vary depending on the syllabus, the nature of the course, and what is commonplace for doctoral-level students in your field.
Depending on your field, the nature of your research, and your proximity to campus, transportation costs are something to take into account. Even if you’re an online student, doctoral programs often have some kind of in-person or on-campus requirements that will require you to travel. For doctoral students, transportation costs can also crop up during your research, depending on what you need for your dissertation. From public transportation costs, gas, or plane tickets, you’ll need to keep transportation expenses in mind as you look into doctoral programs.
Many full- and part-time doctoral students purchase health insurance through their institution. It is often mandatory for graduate students to have health insurance. While it may come at a significantly cheaper price than through private insurance or the healthcare marketplace, it is still a cost you should factor into your doctoral degree expenses. The University of Nevada-Reno, for example, reports their graduate students’ healthcare costs to be $3,800 annually.
Online Doctorate and PhD Program Costs
Once you decide in which field you’d like to pursue a doctorate, it’s easier to determine how much you’ll end up spending on tuition. While the average tuition costs per program can vary greatly among schools, here’s a list of common doctoral degree programs and their average tuition ranges so you can get a better idea of what to expect.
Doctor of Education (EdD)
$21,000 to $86,000
EdD programs often require students to complete 60–70 credits, which can range from $350 to $2,025 per credit. Depending on the school, you may encounter additional costs including dissertation fees and the cost of “dissertation research” placeholder credits. You may also be expected to attend and participate in conferences or seminars. Getting an EdD at a private school such as the University of Southern California may look more expensive because of the sticker price, but grants, fellowships, and other forms of financial aid can bring the price down.
Doctor of Nursing (DNP)
$10,000 to $65,000
The cost of your DNP program will vary depending on location, if you’re fully online, and how many in-person clinicals are required. Traveling to and from your clinical site, whether by car or public transportation, should be factored into your overall financial equation for this degree. Incoming students who possess a master’s degree will need approximately 35–45 credits for graduation, depending on the program. Duke University, for example, requires only 35 credits for the DNP program, but it’s still on the higher end for cost at $1,838 per credit ($64,330 in total).
Doctor of Business Administration (DBA)
$12,000 to $140,000
The cost of a DBA program will vary depending on whether you choose an online or on-campus program, because many online programs charge the same tuition whether a student is in-state or out-of-state. Your cost may also be lower if you’re able to transfer some credits. The University of Maryland Global Campus charges $1,087 per credit for in-state and out-of-state DBA students but doesn’t accept transfer credits, for example. Most DBA programs take 40–50 credits to complete.
PhD in Computer Science
$9,975 to $75,000
You’ll need approximately 30–90 credits to complete a computer science doctorate program. The price for this program depends greatly on how long it takes to finish. While some candidates who already hold master’s degrees may be able to finish the doctorate in two years, others may take three years or longer. Like most PhD students, you’ll probably need to write a dissertation. The time you spend researching and writing your dissertation for a PhD in computer science can drastically affect how much you’ll spend on the degree. Programs recognize this and some charge accordingly. Harvard University’s computer science doctorate program, for example, costs $49,448 for the first two years of study. Beyond those two years, reduced tuition is charged at $12,858 per year.
Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT)
$45,000 to $106,000
The cost of DPT programs often vary greatly for residents versus non-residents. DPT students with resident status at the University of Nebraska, for example, will pay about $45,700 in tuition, while non-residents pay $88,500 in total. DPT students at Baylor University pay $17,098 per semester regardless of whether they are from in state or out of state. Programs must typically be completed in about three years.
PhD in Psychology
$33,000 to $90,000
The cost for a PhD in psychology hinges in how long you spend in the program and whether you attend in state or out of state. Since PhD in psychology programs prepare you for a variety of jobs including those working directly with patients, there’s a lot of training required in addition to a dissertation. After you write the dissertation, you’ll need to complete an internship or practicum. Depending on the program, ongoing tuition expenses, living expenses, and unpaid internship scenarios can affect the overall price of your education.
$20,000 to $150,000
Doctoral students in pharmacy can expect to pay $5,100–$50,000 per year in tuition. For students looking for a program that costs about the average amount, the University of California San Francisco offers a PharmD program at $11,442 per year, though additional fees can double this amount. Most programs require three–four years of work, depending on how well you’re prepared and which types of classes you completed as an undergraduate.
Doctor of Social Work (DSW)
$23,000 to $82,000
The range for DSW programs varies, with more affordable schools’ programs coming in at $23,000 in total, while others cost around $82,000 for the entire program. Barry University’s DSW program is one of the most affordable out there, which costs about $22,850 in total. Similar to other degree programs, the cost of your DSW program can be affected by your location. Rutgers University, for example, requires in-state DSW learners to pay $8,868 per semester, while out-of-state students pay $15,072.
Personal Finance for PhDs Podcast: This podcast offers regular episodes for students interested in learning about strategies for saving and paying for school and includes some non-traditional advice for the financially savvy out there.
One of the best ways to make sure you have considered all of your financial aid options and covered all your bases is to make a financial aid plan. Based on your research, financial and academic needs, and advice you’ve gathered from your prospective schools, build a step-by-step agenda that works for you. Here’s several essential steps you should include.
Narrow Down Your Programs of Interest
Your doctoral program will be a defining component of your career, both in terms of how you’re branded as a professional and what kind of jobs you’ll be able to pursue after graduation. Locate programs that serve your personal and academic needs with the understanding that you’ll need to be more professionally minded than you were when looking into undergraduate programs. Be efficient with your time by knowing exactly which field you’d like to pursue. This will help you make more accurate comparisons between curricula, expected costs, and what the school can offer you, as opposed to weighing the options of, say, a PhD in psychology vs. a doctor of social work program.
Fill out the FAFSA
All students, whether they think they qualify for government financial aid or not, should complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Many financial aid experts consider this to be one of the most important things you can do as a student. The FAFSA is not only good for aid consideration from the government. Most states and colleges use the information collected from student FAFSAs to figure out which students they’ll help fund and how much money they can offer them each year.
Apply for School-Based Aid
Internal funding options for graduate students will vary among schools. It’s important that you have an open line of communication with your department and financial aid office to make sure that you’re aware of internal scholarships, merit- or need-based awards, fellowships, and other internal sources of funding that might be available to you.
In addition to internal scholarships, be sure to check with your prospective schools about graduate assistantships that may be available through your department or the graduate school. While you might be automatically considered for these positions, it’s best to find out if there’s any additional applications you need to submit to receive consideration.
Compare Programs and Financial Aid Options
Choose a school based on what it can offer you in your specialized area and how much it costs. Just because a school is considered “affordable” doesn’t mean you’ll be getting a sub-par education. On the contrary, there are many great programs out there with valuable educators at accredited programs across the country. With that in mind, pick a school that looks like you’ll be able to afford without taking on too much student debt.
Many doctoral programs today offer substantial funding for their students. If you have a strong academic record and show serious promise in your field, you might be able to locate more affordable programs at traditionally more expensive schools simply because of the amount of institutional support you can receive.
Apply for Outside Financial Aid
Apply for as many scholarships as you can, provided they’re eligible for graduate students, you’re a strong applicant, and you have the time to do so. Applying for scholarships should be free, so do not pay to have your application considered for any kind of financial aid. Additionally, as a doctoral-level student, you’ll likely find many fellowship opportunities out there that fit your area of interest. There are a large number of external fellowships that can come from non-university sponsored sources. For your financial aid plan and scheduling, bear in mind that these external fellowships require separate applications.
Determine if You’ll Need Loans
After considering your internal and external funding options, especially what your prospective schools might offer you in terms of an assistantship or scholarship, you can determine if you’ll need some extra cash to fund your education and cover your living expenses. This is where loans come in. Remember, you’ll need to repay loans plus interest. Be sure to not take out more loaned money than you actually need to cover expenses. Consider federal student loans first before looking into private lenders.
Determine Duration and Reliability of Financial Aid Offers
Determine the duration and reliability of any financial aid you receive. For example, you might be offered an assistantship but only be guaranteed funding for one year with the option to reapply for subsequent years. While this is still a good offer, you can really plan on having funding for only that single year. Departmental sources of funding can change from year to year, so this is a common situation. You might receive an offer that guarantees you funding for multiple years. In some cases, you’ll know for certain that you’ll have funding for the entire duration of your doctoral program. Whatever you encounter, be sure that you fully understand the terms and conditions of your financial aid offers.
PhD Project: The PhD Project is a network of professionals dedicated to helping Black, African-American, Latinx, and Indigenous students attain doctoral degrees in business, pursue careers as business professors, and become mentors of the next generation of business leaders. Their site connects students with a wide variety of funding sources.
SaveTheStudent.org: This guide offers a detailed look at loan options for doctoral students in 2020.
Where to Look for Financial Help
There are several good places to search for funding for your doctoral degree. You’ll need to be in close contact with your prospective schools to see what kind of internal funding could be coming your way. Some forms of financial aid for doctoral students may come into play much later in their education than they expect at first. Take a look at some of the common paths to getting good financial help in your doctoral program.
Many schools offer incoming PhD students some type of financial aid. This often depends on the size of your program and how much money there is to go around that year. This aid can be merit- or need-based. You may be required to complete a CSS Profile, which collects pertinent student information used by hundreds of colleges to award students with aid from sources beyond the government in addition to a FAFSA. Cornell University provides a video on their financial aid site that walks you through the steps of completing the CSS Profile.
Scholarships are essentially free money for school that you don’t need to pay back. They’re usually based on academic merit, but not always. Scholarships for PhD and doctoral students are typically harder to come by than those reserved for undergraduate and master’s students. This is, in part, because doctoral students are more likely to have some kind of institutional funding arrangement than those at lower levels.
Doctoral degrees are also highly personalized in terms of area of study or specialization and often take a significant career- or research-oriented shift toward the latter half of the program. At this point, doctoral students typically seek out funding to support those specific endeavors in the form of grants or fellowships.
Similar to scholarships, grants are also gift aid money that do not need to be repaid. Grants may be based on financial need, reserved for graduate students in specific demographics, or based on the field you’re studying. The federal government offers a handful of grant opportunities for graduate students, which you can examine in more detail here. Keep in mind that the popular federal Pell Grant is usually awarded to undergraduate students.
Grants can also come from the state, internal university programs, organizations or corporations, and more. They might also require recipients to participate in very specific academic and research activities in order to receive the grant money.
Fellowships for doctoral students can come from either internal or external sources. They are typically fully or partially merit-based and are often “full funding” packages. This includes the cost of tuition and usually an additional stipend to help learners cover living expenses. Depending on the source of the fellowship, there may be some guidelines or requirements that recipients need to follow in order to remain eligible for the financial support. Some obligations might include teaching responsibilities, similar to a teaching assistantship. In other cases, you might need to produce some kind of research or project that’s related to your field of study.
Fellowships might also be for shorter periods of time, such as one year of study during coursework or one year of dissertation writing or research. ProFellow offers some excellent details on doctoral fellowships and how to make sure all your bases are covered when you apply.
Assistantships are internal funding opportunities that come through your department or university’s graduate school. They are usually one year in duration and require you to carry out specific duties, such as being a professor’s teaching assistant or working in an administrative role in an office on campus. You should think of them as a part-time job that you manage while completing your work for class or research.
Assistantship requirements and what they offer you in terms of financial support will vary among programs. For the most part, they often require 15–25 hours of work per week, cover some or all of your tuition, and may come with an extra stipend to help you cover living expenses.
Federal Student Loans
Loans provide financial support for school, but you’ll need to pay them back with interest. There are four types of federal student loans: direct subsidized loans, direct unsubsidized loans, direct plus loans, and direct consolidation loans. Graduate students can pursue any of the four except for direct subsidized loans. As a graduate student, you can borrow up to $20,500 each year through direct unsubsidized loans. On top of that, you can get direct plus loans to cover the remainder of your college expenses should you need it, but your school will help you determine how much you can borrow in this case.
The details you’ll need for federal loans can be found on the government student aid website, but you’ll also want to be in touch with your school’s financial aid office to make sure you’re on the same page.
Private Students Loans
Private loans can provide you with substantial financial aid, but the money needs to be repaid with interest. In most cases, students will get better interest rates through federal student loan programs than private student loans. Private loans come from banks, state-affiliated organizations, credit unions, or individuals. The terms and conditions of these loans are set by the lender and will vary in each case.
Sometimes graduate students will take out a smaller private loan after they’ve maxed out their federal loan opportunities. Interest rates tend to be higher with private lenders, and they usually don’t offer any kind of income-based repayment plans or loan forgiveness opportunities.
Tuition Reimbursement: Employer
If you’re currently employed and seriously exploring going back to school for graduate training, there might be some funding opportunities right under your nose. About 60% of employers offer some kind of tuition assistance, but only about 5% or less of eligible employees take advantage of it. Your company may offer you up to $5,250 per year, which is the largest amount allowed by the IRS, to help defray the cost of tuition in your doctoral program. The Washington Post’s coverage on employer tuition reimbursement can help you explore the ins and outs of this potential financial aid option.
Military Student Aid
Through the GI Bill and other education benefits, The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs helps those who have served in a branch of the military help pay their tuition, choose an educational program, obtain career counseling, and more. These benefits may also extend to qualified family members of veterans. The VA website provides helpful information on the post-9/11 GI Bill, the GI Bills for active duty and selected reserve members, and other VA education benefits for advanced training, certification, and education assistance programs.
Expert Advice on PhD and Doctorate Financial Aid
Dr. Deniece Dortch is committed to getting students into and through college successfully. Hailed as a graduate school expert by NPR, she is the creator of the African American Doctoral Scholars Initiative and a visiting assistant professor at George Washington University. She holds degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Teachers College at Columbia University, SIT Graduate Institute, and Eastern Michigan University.
Q: What’s one the best resources a prospective PhD student can use to find funding opportunities?
Dr. Dortch: Funding opportunities are sometimes discipline specific. Talk to faculty within the department in which you are applying to ask about funding opportunities or the admissions team at the institution in which you are seeking funding. They are best equipped to discuss with you the types of opportunities available to you. A good place to start is the website of the university in which you’d like to apply.
Q: Are there any lesser known resources out there that graduate students often miss and are actually worth spending some time looking into?
Dr. Dortch: Yes, there are lesser known resources. Depending on the field of study and research interests, students should research their field specific association websites and look for scholarships and grants there. For example, for those interested in library sciences, try the American Library Association. Those interested in education should go to the American Education Research Association. If you are interested in the advancement of women and girls, try the American Association of University Women. I have mentioned only a few but there are plenty of associations that offer scholarships and grants to students at different stages of their academic journey.
Q: If a student realizes that their program does not offer any assistantships, what can they do to make sure they can afford to enter school and earn their degree?
Dr. Dortch: In the instances where students do not receive assistantship, they will have to find external funding sources. A good place to search is by beginning with their local librarian. Librarians are aware of and have access to a host of databases that may cover the types of grants, scholarships, and other funding opportunities.
In addition, many employers offer tuition assistance programs. These programs may have parameters such as one needs to be employed full-time or be employed for a particular length of time to take advantage. I have seen many students secure employment at institutions and then take advantage of the tuition benefit to further their career. When I was a graduate student, my non-profit employer paid for one class per semester for me, so as a result, I acquired fewer loans.
Q: What advice would you give to PhD and other doctoral students who decide to take out loans for school? Are there more financially friendly paths than others? Where should they look to weigh their options?
Dr. Dortch: Remember that while taking out loans for your education is an investment in yourself, try not to take out more than you actually need. Create a budget to determine what your expenses might be and incorporate some of the hidden expenses that doctoral students do not account for such as the cost of membership fees for associations and conferences registrations, travel (in a post-COVID situation), technology, and other research associated costs.
Another possibility, if your particular program allows, is attending school part-time or selecting a program that would allow you to keep your full-time job. While utilizing this option may lengthen your time to degree, doing so will allow you to take out fewer loans and potentially provide you with more financial freedom in the end.
Q: If a student is not offered enough institutional aid or receive the scholarships they were hoping, should they try to defer and try again next year?
Dr. Dortch: This is a tough one. Students aren’t usually privy to all of the reasons that they were not offered enough aid. Sometimes it will depend on how the students fared against the other candidates and other times, the institution just is not as competitive when it comes to funding. In a COVID era, institutions are definitely tightening their belts where funding is concerned. Deferring a year may or may not change your status or the funding allotted to your application.
I would suggest that students interview with multiple schools and weigh your offers before making a decision. Honestly, sometimes this requires that a student attend an institution that needs you more than you need them. That means attending an institution that might have a strong reputation but located in a place that may not be in your top five places to live. Therefore, sometimes to get a quality education at an institution that provides the most funding, one may have to sacrifice the comforts of home. So, if you are able to, apply broadly.
Pay attention to the news. Who knows what Dr. Jill Biden may do with her platform. Fellowships and grants can come from unexpected places.
Q: Are there mistakes that you’ve seen students make in the past when it comes to applying for or using financial aid? If so, how can future doctorate students avoid making those same missteps?
Mistake #1: Waiting too long to apply for financial aid. Students will often miss priority deadlines because they have neglected to complete the FAFSA early.
Mistake #2: Not asking for enough money. Even if a student receives funding and sometimes that funding is not enough, pay attention to whether or not the funding is for nine or 12 months. If your funding package is for nine months, you may have to take out loans for the summer, so make sure that you get enough in loans to cover your summer expenses.
Mistake #3: using financial aid for expenses that are not school related. A friend of mine used their financial aid to purchase a washer and dryer for their parents and they did not live with their parents. While a washer and dryer is not the same as spending the money on a vacation, try to use the money for expenses that support your needs.
Q: Beyond tuition, what kinds of expenses out there should our readers plan to encounter when entering and completing a doctoral program?
Students can expect a host of expenses that may supplement a student’s education that university websites do not post. For example, doctoral students are required to conduct research and there are associated costs to conducting independent research such as travel costs, food costs, incentives for participants, technology costs, transcription service fees. Then once the data is collected and analyzed, there are costs associated with presenting that research to the masses such as conference registration fees, association membership fees, and transportation and lodging expenses. Most students submit their work locally, regionally, nationally or internationally and depending on what region of the world they intend on presenting their work dictates how expensive those particular expenditures may be. Students have to account for the cost of books, and course related fees.
One last thing to consider is that ultimately the students have some agency in how long it takes to graduate. Meaning, once students have completed their courses, passed their comprehensive exams and defended their dissertation proposal, the student determines how long the individual research process takes. During this time, students may have to take out loans in an effort to maintain student status. Be careful during this time because this is the moment where many of those costs that I mentioned earlier begin. It is easy to get off track, lose momentum, and stop your education altogether. Just remember to stay the course and remind yourself that you are almost done.