In short, you can survive as an international PhD student without any additional support if you are offered full funding for your PhD studies in the US. Full- funding includes (a) Fully waived tuition and other academic fees, and (b) a PhD stipend close to living wage in the area.
You can manage to survive even with lower stipends and high accommodation costs with some good management.
In other words, on a lower PhD stipend you need to be extremely frugal to muddle through your PhD years.
Generally, to increase earnings and set of the financial hardships you can work
- on-campus part-time (e.g., teaching assistantship).
- in some cases, off-campus (e.g., internship).
However, working during your PhD has its limitations because
- many PhD programs place restrictions on per semester course load for those working in assistantship roles. This can slow the coursework as well as research progress.
- even if you are not restricted for per semester course load, the workload still hinders your coursework and research progress.
Bringing your dependents (spouse, child) may increase your hardships as
Read More: 25 Highest PhD stipends in the US
Overall, to survive in the US as an international PhD student you should consider two things
- Tuition waiver
- The stipend
I am going to explain these two in detail.
PhD Fee Waiver
A tuition waiver might or not cover your whole academic fees. In short, you should be concerned about is what your tuition waiver does not cover?
In other words, what are the academic expenses that the school expects you to pay from your own pocket?
The PhD student fee in the US is primarily
- your tuition fee
- one-time semester fee
- any other fee
A tuition fee waiver can usually cover your academic fee if
- You acquired a generous fellowship grant
- Your advisor is successful in acquiring good grants
- Your research area is attractive to any funding body
- Your department has ample resources
A tuition fee waiver may not cover all your academic fees if
- It covers only a portion of the tuition fee
- It covers only an in-state fee. This leaves a gap between in-state fees and international student fees. Thus, you may need to pay this gap amount.
- It only covers limited course credits per semester, while the PhD program may require you to take more courses per semester than the waived credits. Thus, you may need to pay this gap amount for the remaining course credits per semester.
- It does not cover other fees e.g., a one-time semester fee
The stipend for international PhD students may or may not be enough for all living expenses of a single person.
PhD students with comparatively higher stipends can live much more comfortably than others.
Some universities are more generous than others in providing a good PhD stipend package to students. This also varies from one department to another in the same university.
Departments have their own reservations. They want to hire more PhD students. This is because an increase in academic workers increases the research output of the department. So the departments want to have as many funded PhD students as they can. This usually leads to lower funding for each PhD student.
Read More: Do all PhD students get a stipend in the US?
A stipend can cover your expenses if
- the accommodation is very economical.
- you live within walking distance of campus or use public transport.
A stipend may not be able to cover your expenses if
- the accommodation is expensive. In the US, metropolitan areas are more expensive than other locations.
- you need a car or taxi to commute.
Good stipend + Expensive location
You can manage to survive with your PhD stipend in expensive areas if
- you are single.
- your department grants a higher stipend, enough to support the modest lifestyle of a single person.
- you can live in shared accommodation.
- cook yourself and manage to dine out rarely.
- prepare coffee in your room and lab and not buy it.
- you visit your home country once every two years.
- you can make some extra cash in the summer months. I am going to discuss this in the internship section below.
- you can commute via public transport.
- you try to lower other expenses, such as using lab resources to study and print materials.
You can use this website to estimate the living cost near your campus in the US. Make sure that the stipend (after tax deduction) offered by your department is enough to cover the living cost.
To get a glimpse of how much stipend you will get from your PhD program as well as the rough estimate of what it will cover, check this data provided here. You can search and filter the results for your relevant field of study.
Low stipend + Economical Location
The PhD students in some fields are indeed given a much lower stipend as compare to others. It is common in fields like social sciences and humanities.
PhD students who get meager stipends usually try other forms of financial support. This can be financial help from parents or a doctoral loan.
Yes, PhD students go into great debt too.
I discussed the PhD graduates’ debt issue in this article in detail. Feel free to go straight to the PhD student debt infographic which is showing data-based information.
You can also read this article at theatlantic.com for more detail on PhD students’ debt issues in the US.
However, some students still manage to survive their PhD studies with the good management of funds. This good management certainly involves frugality.
You can survive on a smaller PhD stipend if
- you have the skills to live frugally
- you manage to acquire accommodation on campus. Accommodation charges are typically lower on-campus.
- you rent a cheap space and share your room.
- you are using public transport or live within the walking distance of campus
- you use food pantries. Food banks and pantries on or near campus can help to reduce your food insecurity. Here is the link to find a food bank near your campus.
- you actively look out for yard sales. Yard sales provide the opportunity to buy used stuff at lower prices. Yard sales are common around graduation season.
- you do not have dependents e.g., wife and kids.
- you do not have an extended family to support.
- you do not have a car requiring maintenance frequently. In many areas of the US, public transport may not be available. You can buy a used car, however, car maintenance, parking can be expensive.
- you earn some extra from various other opportunities e.g., internships. Please note that you might or might not be allowed to do internships during your PhD studies.
- you use a credit card with a small limit (e.g., $300). This can help you in maintaining your credit effectively.
Read this article here at insidehighered.com to know more about the struggles of international PhD students with a low PhD stipend.
The things you need to invest in. You can also buy these from yard sales at much lower prices
- Quality bed or mattress
- Study table
- A comfortable chair for study
- An external monitor screen, the better for your saving your sanity
Surviving in the USA as PhD student– Internships
If the department allows, you can do internships during the summer to make extra cash. This income can help you to survive for the remaining part of the year. Internships can really help those PhD students who get their PhD stipend only for 9 months.
Read this article at the US immigration services site about the type of internships and eligibility details.
However, you should check your department for internship permission. Many PhD programs may not allow internships.
Positives of Internship
- If you are from a field of study which is in high demand e.g., computer sciences, you are more likely to get good compensation for an internship.
- Internships can help you survive with low assistantship compensation.
- You may save some money for other expenses e.g., home country visits.
Negatives of Internship
- Due to the internship workload, you might have to slow down your research progress
- In the summer months, graduate students flood the US market for internship opportunities. This leads to the saturation of workers.
- For some fields e.g., humanities, it can be hard to secure an internship. Even if they grab any, the compensation might be lower than fields which market demands more.
- Some labs do not allow students to do internships.
Read this guide at gooverseas.com to understand the internships in the US. You can also check the availability of internship positions in your field in this guide.
Surviving in the USA as PhD student– Family
US PhD stipend is usually meager for even a single person. The addition of a dependent can put more strain.
In short, it is much more difficult to survive with a family on a PhD stipend.
Therefore, as an international PhD student, if you want to bring along your spouse. You might face certain difficulties.
Now take a look at these one by one
- Issues in bringing your spouse/ partner with you as a PhD student
- Benefits in bringing your spouse
- Tips to survive with dependents on a PhD stipend
1. Complexities in bringing your spouse with you as an international PhD student
If you are bringing your spouse to the US with you as an international PhD student you should take into account the following main points
- You are expected to pay for your dependent’s expenses during their stay in the US. You will have to assure the US immigration services that you have sufficient funds to support your spouse in the US. This is because a PhD stipend is expected to just support one person only.
- You are on F1-visa as an international PhD student. This means your spouse is usually granted the F-2 visa by the US immigration services. On an F-2 visa, your spouse is not allowed to work. Read this article at stilt.com for requirements and restrictions involved in F2 dependent visa.
- If you have a child, the burden increases further. Along with the assurance of sufficient funds for your child, you should also estimate the childcare expense too. Please note that childcare is not cheap in the US and you should estimate all costs before making such a decision.
- Some decent schools and departments are nice enough to give some kind of support to PhD students with family. However, these benefits usually are not monetary.
- The US immigration service does not require a health insurance program for spouses/children. However, your school might demand health insurance for your dependents.
2. Benefits of bringing your spouse
There are benefits in bringing your life partner with you while doing your PhD.
- cooking at home. We already discussed that it can largely decrease your food expenses.
- the tax return option. As your spouse is dependent on you, you might be able to apply for a tax return. Be sure to check the details in this regard.
- the support during your PhD journey. A PhD student is strained by the graduate coursework and research workload. However, the support of your spouse can help a lot during your studies.
3. Tips to survive with Spouse on a PhD stipend
Here is how you can survive with a partner on a PhD stipend in the US
- Save some money before bringing your spouse to the US. This way you are already settled in the US and help your spouse to adjust too.
- Some good schools offer support to the PhD students’ spouses and children. You should ask the international student center for this kind of support.
- Health insurance provided by the university can be expensive. You can instead manage low-priced short-term travel insurance for your spouse.
- Cook at home. If you have accommodation close to campus, try to do your lunch at home too. This will save you a lot of money. For dining out, search out cheap dining and only plan dining out once or two a month.
- Plan and track every dollar you are spending. There are good apps available to ease this task for you.
- Plan any huge expenditure close to your tax return. Make sure to apply for a tax return early.
- Your spouse can track and keep an eye on any free deals offered at campus or nearby.
With dependents, it is never going to be easy for you as an international PhD student. You will constantly struggle to make ends meet. Therefore, You should estimate all the major costs before bringing any dependent.
For detailed information on bringing your spouse/child, you should inquire
- University’s international student center
- US immigration office
The PhD stipend may or may not be sufficient to cover the cost of living for international students. In most cases, if you are offered full funding for your PhD, the PhD stipend is enough to compensate for the minimum living expenses of a single person.
Even if most international PhD students do not receive full funding, they are usually compensated with a modest stipend. Although the PhD stipend is too low to make ends meet, some international PhD students still survive with good fund management.
You mainly have to consider
- what part of the university fee the tuition waiver does not cover?
- what type of accommodation, food, and commute you can afford with your stipend?
In case you are bringing dependents with you for your PhD studies. You should be aware of the complexities and financial issues involved.
Before accepting PhD offer, you should ask your department about
- tuition fee waiver conditions and limit
- PhD stipend (after tax deduction)
- living expenses near your campus
- financial and legal requirements for bringing your dependents (spouse, child) with you
Making an informed decision can greatly ease your years of PhD study. Therefore, you should take into account all the costs and benefits.