Do PhD students make a lot of Money?


NO, PhD students actually make much less than their counterparts in the industry.

  • There are several reasons for lower compensation of PHD students. However, most common reasons are intense competition for PhD positions and no incentive for employer (university/ department) in increasing the PhD stipend.
  • PhD stipend may feel handsome on paper to most international PhD aspirants, mainly because of exchange rate differences in currency. However, their real worth is revealed after considering the (a) living cost in the host city/country, (b) taxes (if applicable) and (c) other academic expenses.
  • Overall, international PhD students can survive on a PhD stipend if it is able to cover the personal and academic expenses. You can estimate these costs beforehand.

Feeling awkward by asking funding questions for the holy journey of PhD?

Don’t worry you and I are not alone. PhD aspirants/ students are expected to work for their advisor/ department, so it is perfectly okay to talk about the compensation you get against your work during PhD years.

In fact, an overwhelming majority of the PhD aspirants reported funding as a crucial element in their decision-making process to pursue a PhD. You can check the graph below.

PhD aspirants'/ students' information priorities
Around 90% of the PhD aspirants consider PhD funding information and around 60% reported the cost of living very important

Still, I wonder why a large number of PhD aspirants report difficulties in finding information regarding available funding and cost of living.

Availability of information to PhD students
More than 50% of PhD aspirants and more than 40% face difficulties in finding information regarding available funding and cost of living.

Here you can check the details of this survey.

I believe that individual needs and aspirations should not be ignored for the greater good of scientific progress. In my opinion PhD students are academic worker (in fact the most vulnerable workers in academia), and the concerns about compensation for their labor are pretty legitimate.

Let’s dive a little deeper and observe how much money PhD students make and why they make less than the minimum living wage.

PhD stipend barely enough to survive in the US

If we consider the US, data from various sources tell us that PhD students are compensated much less than their counterparts in the industry are.

In fact, PhD stipend for many fields of study (mostly outside STEM) is much lower than a living wage.

My concern is that this is also the case even at well-known and respected universities.

Read this post If you are interested in checking the range of PhD stipends in the US for different fields of studies. In hurry? Take a quick look at the infographics provided in the post.

Yet the workload of PhD student is sometimes much more than a full-time job.

Here is a statement well put by a student who is pursuing PhD at a renowned university.

“Grad workers, like all workers, deserve to earn enough to live decently in exchange for the research and teaching labor they provide universities, many of which depend on the work of grad students and adjunct professors to function, maintain prestige, secure key grants and attract tuition-paying undergraduates.”

Grad Students’ ‘Fight for $15’

I compared workload at job and PhD in detail here. You may find the statistics and graphs presented in this post insightful.

In the US,

  • there is a large number of students who are not fully funded and the stipend may not be able to make ends meet even for a single person.
  • sometimes you get the stipend for 8 or 9 months only. Universities usually expect students to earn from other sources e.g., internships during these months.

However, there are two major problems with it.

  • Your research work and progress suffer if you go for an internship.
  • Some field of studies (usually not STEM) may struggle to find any useful/ relevant/ well paying internship.

Here I explained how and why all PhD students are not fully funded in the US and how much and to what degree they can be funded. Make sure to skim through the infographics provided in this post for a better understanding of the US PhD stipend for international students.

  Range of PhD stipends in the US by field of study

Most of the time a PhD stipend is enough for you to live frugally in the right settings.

You mainly have to consider

  • what is not covered by your stipend.
  • what kind of lifestyle will you be able to afford with your stipend.

Here I have explained how you can afford to live on a PhD stipend in the US without any other support. If in hurry, you can read the short answer provided above this post.

PhD stipend in other countries is low too

Apparently, the PhD stipend in other countries is also much lower than one can make with a bachelor’s or master’s degree.

This is true even in those countries where the PhD stipend is officially considered as a salary for PhD students.

Despite working more than 47 hours per week on average the PhD stipend may not cover the actual living costs of a single person in that area. No wonder around 40% of them seek help for anxiety and depression. Check the details here.

The concern here is that if 40% seek help, the original amount of PhD students with mental health issues is much higher.

Below I collected and analyzed the PhD stipend and living cost data from various countries around the world.

The graph showing Which country pays PhD students best?
The countries are arranged in descending order based on PhD stipend to living cost ratio. The PhD stipend to living cost ratio line in the graph is showing the actual worth of a PhD stipend offered in that area.

Here I compared average stipends offered in various countries and their actual worth in terms of living costs.

There was one limitation to the above graph and post that these PhD stipends were not segmented according to the field of study. I will try to cover that in another post.

However, despite limitations, this data can give us a good insight regarding PhD stipends and their actual worth around the world.

Why do PhD students make less money?

There are several reasons why PhD students are paid poorly such as

  • the increasing number of PhD aspirants against a limited number of available PhD positions. A greater supply is decreasing the incentive for universities to increase the compensations parallel to economic inflation.
  • The PhD acceptance rate vary depending on the field of study and region.
  • The acceptance rates for many research areas can be as low as 2%. This shows the insane amount of competition for limited PhD positions.

Reasons why PhD students are paid poorly? I discussed this issue in detail here. In hurry? Read the short answer provided at the start of this post.

PhD students do provide high-intensity cognitive labor e.g., research assistantships, etc. The PhD work is more than a full-time job and students often report a lack of work-life balance and long work hours.

However, they are not compensated adequately compared to their efforts. In fact, the PhD student stipend is observed to be lower than the living wage in many countries.

You can read about miserably low PhD stipends in Canada and Ireland for example, and the US is not far behind.

  5 Reasons a PhD without funding may not be possible

Here I analyzed the worth of PhD stipends in terms of a single person’s living costs. I hope the table provided in this post can give a glance at PhD stipends’ worth in different countries.

Even if a PhD is like a full-time job (or sometimes more) the PhD students are still considered trainees. The institutions and advisors consider every expense such as tuition waiver, lab charges, and stipend etc., a blind investment and not a compensation package for work. Thus, a small stipend is given to them so they can survive their PhD years.

This page is showing the prevalence of long work hours in PhD student work
PhD is like a full-time job. Yet, compensation (PhD stipend) is so low for this much work. Details of this survey can be accessed here.

Some PhD students may get a handsome stipend and some may not

PhD students in some areas of research receive handsome PhD stipends.

These may include

  • Computer science and Information Technology
  • Economics
  • Chemistry and Physics

Here you can check the range of PhD stipends segmented according to fields of study. This post will also guide you to estimate the average stipend for your own area of research.

However, many areas of research, most likely in humanities or social sciences are not well funded. The PhD stipend may be lower than the minimum living wage in the area.

These may include

  • Humanities
  • Social Sciences
  • Behavioral Sciences

What all of this means for an international PhD student

The number of PhD students native to developed countries is continuously declining due to the high workload, low compensation, and pessimistic career prospects in academia.

Doctoral Recipients by citizenship status : Selected years, 1994–2019

Field and citizenship status199419992004200920142019
U.S. citizen or permanent resident30,90430,31228,04032,32734,00335,274
Temporary visa holder9,4219,06011,62814,73615,83918,351
Unknown7091,7282,4542,4894,1442,078
You can check the details of the NSF survey here
PhD students from overseas double over the years while numbers of US citizens are not increasing despite demographic and market changes during last 25 years.

“… graduate programs have a financial incentive in attracting them: Demand from abroad is so high, administrators don’t see a need to offer as much tuition assistance.” The Disappearing American Grad Student

However, recruitment of international PhD students is on the rise due to several factors including their willingness to

  • work even on lower pay than a living wage
  • take the high workload and long work hours of PhD
  • spend their best years in a foreign country

Therefore, the international PhD students may not be bothered by some struggles that their native counterparts will.

And international PhD students may find the PhD stipend and PhD offer attractive due to the

  • exchange rate differences in currency. These differences make the PhD stipend look handsome on paper. This entice international students as they may not have exact understanding of the living cost in the host country. They perceive that modest stipend as high because they may not earn that amount even if they stay in their own country.
  • escapism factor. Students coming from developing countries are trying to escape from struggling economies and poor life conditions. The PhD is like a job for them, which can increase their chances to settle in the developed world.
  • perception of prestige of a PhD from abroad. A funded PhD from abroad always looks good on resume. Even if these international PhD students return to their home country they may have attractive opportunities there.

Yet, despite all this, can an international student survive the years of PhD without any other additional support?

  The Truth About Average Stipend For PhD Students In USA

The simple answer is YES but if you are fully funded.

What does a fully-funded PhD mean?

It simply means that your PhD stipend can cover your living cost and any other academic expenses during your stay in the host country.

Highly Recommended: Is A PhD Stipend In The USA Enough For International Students Without Any Other Financial Support? This post is US specific however, by skimming through this you may also get an idea of PhD student living standard and how to survive in other countries too.

You may struggle financially during your PhD years if the PhD stipend is lower than your living expenses.

The PhD students who do not get a full funding try to survive their PhD grind by

  • getting a job to earn some extra money. This is only possible if your PhD program/ department allow you to take on other work opportunities. Many departments/ advisors may not allow you to work if you are doing a full-time PhD.
  • look and apply for external research grants. This strategy works for many, however, you should note that applying process can be really tedious. Grants are competitive and you may not get every grant you apply for. Also, you should consider grant applications preparation time and effort.
  • get doctoral loans. These loans may or may not be available for international PhD students.
  • borrow money from family. many PhD students ask their parents/spouse to support them during their PhD years.

Here is a useful article on why a fully-funded PhD is uncommon and how you can find external funding resources during your studies. I hope you will find the headings and bullet points in this post useful.

Can an International PhD Student save from the PhD stipend

She is doing a PhD in Artificial intelligence. This means her stipend is likely to be substantially higher than yours if you are interested in a non-STEM PhD. However, the tips she shares are useful and may give insight on how to manage your expenses.

The potential to save is dependent on many factors. The factors such as

  • how much you live below means? This may turn out be sacrificing dining out or travelling to some interesting places on your own budget
  • how much the PhD stipend is greater than your particular living cost? If the PhD stipend is substantially higher than you living expenses the possibility to save is much higher.
  • do you have any dependents or not? If you have any dependents than you may not be able to save significant amount.

I also found this student’s advice useful. From necessary expenses to side hustles, she talks in detail about how she managed to live on a very low stipend. . You can read this post or watch the attached video of the interview

Final Word

  • Overall, PhD students do not make a lot of money during their PhD studies.
  • Most PhD stipends are lower than the living wage in the host country/ city.
  • However, few PhD stipends are very handsome e.g., Computer Science, Economics etc.
  • Many PhD students anticipate that their post-PhD earnings might compensate for their financial struggles during PhD. However, only few lucrative fields of study are able to fulfill this promise.
  • International students can survive during their PhD without any other financial report if they are granted a full funding.
  • International PhD students may or may not be able to save during their PhD depending on their PhD stipend amount and the living cost in the area.