5 Common Questions Applicants ask about PhD stipend?


In short, you can manage to live off a PhD stipend if: (a) you are single-PhD stipend is for you only, (b) your research is appealing to grant lenders-external grants can top up your PhD stipend, (c) you share your room rent-may affect your privacy as well as productivity, (d) you dine out less-prepare your own meals, (e) you use public transport or share your commute

However, this applies only if you are being single and living at the standard of an undergraduate student. This usually means you cannot enjoy many luxuries if you are solely dependent on your PhD stipend, especially if you are an international PhD student.

“Have you ever heard the old joke about college: “Sleep, study, socialize: Pick two.”? Well, apply that to your finances in graduate school.“Basic living expenses, a splurge here and there, and saving/debt repayment: Pick 1-2.”

Stretch that Stipend

Read More: 3 Reasons PhD students are paid poorly and PhD aspirants should know

Here are the five most common questions PhD aspirants ask about PhD stipend

1. Can you survive on a PhD stipend if you are single ?

Yes, if you are getting a stipend for doing PhD, which many students around the world do then that stipend is often enough for you as an individual. This only applies if you are offered a full scholarship/ funding position from your department/ advisor.

Tip: Treat the PhD offer letter as a regular job offer document. Negotiating this job offer may also give you some extra perks.

The universities and grant lenders mostly set their PhD stipend rate concerning the average living cost of a person in the area. This means for a large number of cases, the PhD stipend is sufficient if you know how to live in an undergraduate student budget.

Read More: Which country pay PhD students the best?

Managing your budget includes

  1. Sharing room– to lower your rent and utility costs
  2. Strict food planning– by preparing your own meal and dining out less
  3. Looking for cheap subscriptions– by researching cheaper entertainment and community/clubs subscriptions
  4. Lowering commute expense– by using public transport or bike
  Do all PhD students get a stipend in the US?

Further Reading: How to Survive, Thrive, and Succeed with a Graduate Student Stipend

On the other hand, some efficient PhD students also increase their income by

  1. part-time on campus jobs– off campus jobs are not usually allowed to full-time PhD students.
  2. applying for external funding– keep in mind that application process can be tedious (PhD workload is likely to put a strain on you) and you may not get some of the grants you applied for.

Here is an article discussing why the PhD students should be allowed to take off-campus jobs. However, most departments/ advisors are still against the idea that a PhD student should engage in external employment.

Read More: Is a PhD stipend in the USA enough for international students without any other financial support?

2. Can you afford your own room with your PhD stipend?

Room rent is likely to be your biggest expense. Therefore, managing this right can ease your budget a lot. However, managing affordable housing with a modest PhD stipend is a challenge in itself. This might be the reason why many PhD students face housing issues.

Rent can be difficult to predict if you are an international student because

  1. you may or may not like accommodation options when you actually arrive at the situation
  2. you may not like to live in the cheapest places – it may depend on what kind of lifestyle you are coming from

Also, please note that

  1. if you are living in an expensive area, usually the city center, than affording a room with your meager PhD stipend might not be the option. In such cases, PhD students share apartments and rooms.
  2. if you are living outside city center where rents are lower than you might be able to afford full room or even apartment for yourself.

The issue of student housing is discussed in detail in this article. To summarize PhD students often feel these housing challenges due to

  1. higher rents burdening the meager PhD stipend which is already below the minimum living wage
  2. prohibition to pursue extra income from off-campus employment
  3. privacy and productivity challenges while sharing the room
  4. unexpected catastrophe e.g., COVID-19 pandemic
  25 Highest PhD stipends in the US

3. Can you survive with your family if you are on a PhD stipend?

If you are not single and have dependents then the PhD stipend may not cover all of your expenses.

This may be due to several factors including

  1. PhD stipend is most likely set at a minimum living cost of a single person (sometimes even lower) in the area.
  2. PhD stipend is expected to cover only your expenses. Thus, if you are bringing your dependents than you will be asked the proof of funds by the host government.

Read More: The The Truth About Average Stipend For PhD Students In USA

Here is an example from the UK government. The official website clearly states that you as an international student need to provide proof of funds for your dependents. This is because your dependents are not supported under your PhD stipend.

“If you have a student loan or financial sponsorship, you’ll need to provide evidence of this from your loan or sponsorship company. If your loan does not cover your partner or child, you’ll need to prove you have money to support them instead.”

UK government policy for bringing your dependents as an international student

In most countries, spouses of international students are allowed to work, this might ease the burden. Examples are UK and Australia where your spouse is allowed to work if you are studying.

However, in some countries such as the US, the spouses of international PhD students are not allowed to work.

“While international students might be able to find on-campus jobs or take on some work, the dependents of international students are not permitted to work under the F-2 visa regulations and will not be provided with a social security number.”

Bringing family with you on a US student visa

However, bringing your dependents as an international PhD student can be easier if

  1. Some organizations and institutions agree to provide support for your dependents. However, this support is less likely to be in monetary terms.
  2. Some attractive areas of research and institutions provide generous stipend which might let you bring and afford the expenses of your dependents. However, in most cases the situation gets challenging.
  What are the benefits of doing PhD in UK?

4. Can you dine out if you are on a PhD stipend?

Even if most PhD students are always looking out for free food opportunities and some campuses also facilitate your access to free food too.

Still, you can afford to dine out with your PhD stipend income.

It depends on several factors including

  1. the amount of stipend offered– make sure the PhD stipend amount is enough compared to minimum living wage in the area.
  2. the cost of food– the gap between dining out and purchasing food to prepare your own meal may vary from one area to another.
  3. the dependents– the cost of having dependents might increase your expenses and this tightening of your budget can be a hurdle in opportunities to dine out often.

5. Can you afford a car with your PhD stipend?

If your campus is in the town then affording a car might not be the best financial decision for you.

A car can be expensive on your stipend budget due to

  1. Gas expense
  2. Maintenance – don’t ever by an old car with lots of miles already
  3. Insurance – always estimate its monthly payments in your budget
  4. Parking charges

However, in some areas, you may have to arrange your vehicle due to the

  1. poor public transport
  2. traffic
  3. distance to commute

In such cases, you can try to

  1. car pool- share your ride with others
  2. car on rent- if your university has any partnership with a car rental company
  3. use commute support from your department/ university- if available

Wrap up

Overall, you need a balance sheet style budgeting if you are going to survive on a PhD stipend as an international student.

My two cents are before applying or accepting PhD offer

  1. estimate minimum living cost in the area
  2. don’t be deceived by that meager PhD stipend– it always looks huge when converted to your own currency
  3. estimate the workload of PhD – It might not allow you to pursue extra income opportunities

Read More: 5 Reasons why PhD students are paid (or why they should be)