Do all PhD students get a stipend in the US?


Short Answer

No, not all PhD students get the stipend in the US. In fact, PhD students in the US vary from “getting full tuition waived and a generous stipend” to “no tuition waived and no stipend”.

Fellowships are the best form of funding and provide a generous stipend to PhD students in the US. Assistantships are the part-time duties on campus for which students are compensated.

The amount of stipend, tuition waiver, and other allowances mostly depend on your field of study and school.

A PhD is a full-time work commitment. As an academic/scientific worker, you should consider the PhD offer letter as an employment contract. Therefore, it is your responsibility to inquire about every financial detail from your employer (the department/advisor).

Your PhD stipend might look generous on paper, however, you should look out for

  • Funding criteria throughout your period of study
  • Funding availability for 8 or 12 months
  • Local-living cost (single person or family)
  • Full tuition coverage by the stipend
  • Tax deduction on your PhD stipend
  • Student union fee
  • One-time semester fee
  • Health insurance coverage
  • Other facilities e.g., childcare
  • Other academic expenses e.g., the conference and publication support
  • Research expenses e.g., travel allowance for the data collection

Note that the nature and amount of financial support are directly related to your research area and the department’s resources.

  • STEM subjects usually get a steady PhD stipend in the US
  • Humanities and social science PhD students often struggle in acquiring and even sustaining funding opportunities

This stipend comes under various names. I will explain the inscrutable funding information and conditions below.

Here are the percentages of students who received some kind of stipend during their PhD, categorized by their field of study.

Percentages for some kind of PhD stipend in the US. NSF-2019 survey of Doctorate Recipients

Detailed report of the NSF-2019 survey of Doctorate Recipients can be checked here

Why am I writing this post?

As an international PhD aspirant, I had similar questions regarding PhD stipend/salary in the US.

However, I was unable to find any single resource that can explain PhD stipend in the US.

Being a middle-class international applicant and the first person in my family who was aspiring to go abroad at this level of study, I had no idea about these esoteric questions related to PhD funding. Most of the material written on the internet was only marketing the positives of a fully-funded PhD.

So, I am writing this article to explain all those “need to know” initial details about PhD stipend in the US, its nature, types, and conditions. I hope that this resource will help you.

Before we go further,

  • The research work of a PhD student is a full-time endeavor, thus, considering it as a job and its salary (PhD stipend) are valid.
  • PhD is about uncertainty, and in the case of PhD stipend, this is also true. Expect to see the words like usually, likely, or maybe down the road. This is because the PhD process from funding to research to results is all about uncertainty.

Is a PhD in the US completely funded?

No, not all PhDs are “fully-funded” in the US.

Considered overall,

  • some PhD students are fully funded (especially without any work or other conditions),
  • some get their funding due to certain assistant-level work positions on campus,
  • and some may pay for PhD from their own pockets.

The fully-funded PhD students are often privileged by their field of study or department.

Read this article by Rebecca Lippman on the Accepted.com website to find out about the conditions involved in a fully-funded PhD. She also delicately discussed how academic culture undermines the financial aspects and problems of the scientific workforce.

If PhD is not fully funded then what?

The funding opportunities even differ between different departments and programs in the same university.

Some departments and programs offer lower funding options than others.

Usually, this financial support (e.g., PhD fee waiver, living stipend, health insurance, etc.) comes with certain conditions (e.g., teaching assistantship).

The PhD students may spend a certain amount from their own pockets to meet

  • the actual tuition fee– if tuition fee is not waived fully
  • the actual living cost (for a single person, couple, family) – if PhD stipend cannot fully support the living expenses in the area

This means that the advertised “full-funding” might not be offered in its true sense.

  Why PhD students are paid poorly?

For this reason, if you are offered admission by a PhD program, you should inquire about

  • amount of PhD stipend
  • amount of tuition fee waived
  • amount and nature of work you are expected to do in an assistantship or any other role at the campus
  • any income opportunities during the summer months

Read this article at insidehighered.com for more insight regarding PhD funding awareness for international graduate students.


Who fund PhD students stipend in the US?

Funding sources for PhD stipends in the US usually are

  • Department funds allocated for PhD students
  • Professor’s grants
  • Government grants
  • Other organizations and foundations grants

What are different type of stipends PhD students get in the US?

Like industry, where compensation differs due to the employer resources, the academic institutions also vary in compensating their labor.

There are several kinds of funding opportunities for PhD students from

  • attractive fellowships to
  • arduous assistantships to
  • doctoral loans.

Mainly the PhD Stipends in the US are

  • Fellowships (also advertised as scholarships)
  • Research Assistantships (RA)
  • Teaching Assistantships (TA)
  • Other (employer reimbursement, foreign support etc.)

Below are the details for primary sources of PhD stipend by the field of study.

Primary source of PhD stipend by field of study in the US (1)
Primary source of PhD stipend by field of study in the US (2)
Primary source of PhD stipend by field of study in the US (3)

Detailed report of the NSF-2019 survey of Doctorate Recipients can be checked here

Fellowships

A fellowship is a monetary award.

Usually, being a PhD fellow means your job is to just study and get your degree.

PhD fellowships in the US usually mean that

  • Your tuition fee is waived.
  • You receive a stipend, sufficient to cover a single person’s modest living.
  • You may not have any work responsibilities e.g., working as an assistant.

PhD fellowship in the US often offer

  • A stipend
  • Free housing
  • Health insurance
  • Family support allowance

Sometimes, the fellowships’ applications are separate from the PhD applications. This is because the fellowships are often offered by organizations other than the university.

Positives of a PhD fellowship

  • Generally, the PhD fellowship in the US is free from any assistantship work. Thus, a PhD fellowship might help you in completing your courses and dissertation faster.
  • Higher financial support than other kinds of stipend offered by the department e.g., teaching Assistantship.
  • Your department might be pleased if you acquire any external fellowship.
  • PhD fellowship also looks good on your academic CV.

Negatives of a PhD fellowship

  • PhD fellowships in the US are highly competitive.
  • PhD fellowships might not cover the full duration of your studies. Sometimes, they are offered for the first or second year only. Then the students compete for work positions in the department. The department then offers assistantships (teaching/ research) to fund the students who qualify.
  • As the fellowship amount goes through school, the school may deduct its share and then pay it to the student. Thus, reducing it to the amount of an assistantship package.
  • The funding organizations offer fellowships to advance their own goals. Therefore, sometimes the PhD student might be bounded by the support contract to pursue research in a specific domain.

Research Assistantships

A research assistant position (as the name indicates) requires you to assist faculty in research projects. Yes, you will be a research apprentice in this role.

You are also taking your classes and doing research work along with this.

Research assistants are considered the employee of the university. However, they usually assist the professor in his/her research. Therefore, their pay comes from the professor’s grant money.

Research Assistant Position in the US offer

  • Full (or a portion) of tuition is waived
  • You receive a taxable stipend. This stipend is usually sufficient to cover a single person’s modest living expenses

Positives of a PhD Research Assistantships

  • The research assistanthsip looks good own your cv and help you to pursue a research career in academia or industry.
  • If your research interests match the professor’s research work, it might help you in your own project.
  • Sometimes, you get the opportunity to be a co-author with the faculty in publications because of your contribution to the research work.
  • Compensation for your work improve as your skills improve.
  • Research assistants are usually also employed and paid in the summer months. However, this usually depends on the resources and grants available to the supervisor.

Negatives of a PhD Research Assistantships

  • The research assistance package might not cover all the academic and living expenses.
  • In many fields of studies (usually humanities and social sciences), the research assistance package may covers only a portion of the tuition fee.
  • You may or may not be employed in summer. If you are employed in summer the compensation may be lower than the usual academic months.
  • If the professor struggle problems with his grants, the PhD students might suffer as well.
  • Sometimes, you are restricted in number of courses you can take in a semsester. This is because department want you to perform your research duties better. This may delay your coursework progress and overall PhD progress as well.
  • The work hours for a research assistantship are usually not fixed. The department might state a 20-hour per week limit on assistatnship work. However, you may end up working more than 20 hours per week.
  • Professor’s work might not be relevant to your research interests.
  • Some fee may not be covered by the research assistantship package e.g., one-time semester fee, activity fee etc.
  How to fund a PhD as an international student In the UK?

Teaching assistantships

In the teaching assistant role, you are required to

  • teach one or more courses
  • assist the faculty in teaching activities

Your responsibilities might include

  • grading assignments
  • administrative tasks
  • consulting students

In contrast to research assistance, TAs are paid by the department. However, in most universities, the TAs and RAs are paid the same.

Teaching Assistant Positions in the US offer

  • full (or a portion) of tuition is waived
  • you receive a taxable stipend

Positives of a PhD Teaching Assistantship

  • TA role can rigorously train you for future teaching roles. However, the experience may not benefit you much if you are interested in non-teaching positions after your PhD.
  • Sometimes certain benefits offered to research assistantships are also common to teaching assistantships.

Negatives of a PhD Teaching Assistantship

  • Teaching assistant jobs are may only be available for academic months. Due to this, you might have to look for other income sources during the summer months.
  • You may or may not be employed in summer. If you are employed in summer the compensation may be lower than the usual academic months.
  • Some fee may not be covered by the research assistantship package e.g., one-time semester fee, activity fee etc.
  • The teaching assistantship workload might slow your own research progress.
  • In many fields of studies (usually not STEM subjects), the teaching assistance package may only cover a portion of the tuition fee.
 FellowshipsResearch AssistantsTeaching Assistant
Paid for summerYesYesNo
Time to complete PhDFasterSlowerSlower
WorkloadLessHighestMedium
One-time Semester fee paidYesNoNo
Comparison between fellowship, research, and teaching assistance

Graduate Assistantship

Graduate assistants are usually required to perform a mix of tasks for TAs and RAs.

In some cases, the GAs are required to perform

  • Office activities
  • Lab maintenance

Some departments may also assign the research duties to GAs

Other benefits of assistantships

  • Benefits such as health insurance are usually the same for all the TAs/ GAs/RAs.
  • Sometimes, family benefits (such as spouse health insurance) are provided to students with families

Do all PhD students in the USA get assistantships?

No, not all students get assistantships.

Departments, depending on their resources, may or may not fund all the PhD students.

Usually, you have to compete with other PhD students to get an assistantship.

The greater the gap between available assistantship positions and the number of PhD students, the harder the competition.

Why PhD students get lower stipends?

Departments want to acquire and support as many research students as they can.

This is because more scientific workers can

  • accomplish more research work
  • generate more value for the department and university

This however can lead to a lower PhD stipend per head.

  25 Highest PhD stipends in the US

Why PhD students are paid so little? I discussed this issue in detail here. If in hurry, you can go through the short answer provided initially in this post.

Is the PhD stipend allocated by the advisor or the department ?

If you work as a research assistant for the professor, your PhD stipend comes from his/her grants.

In such cases, the funding may not be confirmed for the entire PhD duration.

What happens if you lose your funding during your studies? I discussed this problem here. I hope you will find “the risky funding situations” heading interesting.

You should seek the following information

  • written confirmation from the department regarding the type, nature, and conditions of any financial support.
  • duration as well as the source of the PhD stipend.

Knowing this information before accepting the PhD admission offer can save you many troubles later.

If the advisor runs out of funding. You can still survive the PhD by

  • being a teaching/graduate assistant
  • part-time work
  • acquiring any fellowship
  • help advisor acquiring any other grants

Is it possible to negotiate the PhD stipend ?

No, PhD stipend is usually non-negotiable.

However, you might be able to select a better offer between two PhD programs by inquiring about

  • any available fellowships you are eligible for.
  • nature and duration of the stipend per year.
  • some better paying campus work than other assistantships.

Are PhD stipends taxed in the US?

Fellowship funding is not taxed.

However, the assistantship work is considered labor, hence taxed in the US.

The amount indicated on the offer letter by the university is pre-tax.

This is why you should estimate the deduction of tax to calculate the take-home stipend.

PhD stipends are exempted from

  • social security tax
  • health insurance tax

However, PhD stipends are NOT exempted from

  • the state, federal and local taxes

PhD stipend tax is also dependent on many things such as

  • Your nationality. Some nationalities fall under the tax treaty. The students from these countries get tax refunds later.
  • Your dependents (spouse, child)

Does having a PhD stipend means no debt?

Yes, PhD stipend is offered by decent schools in the US to keep students away from financial worries and even debt.

However, NSF survey data showed a good percentage of PhD students who are in some kind of education-related debt.

An education-related debt of PhD students can give us some idea about the financial support and stipend.

A doctoral loan is usually needed if the PhD stipend is not enough for a student’s academic and living expenses. This mostly occurs in fields with lower funding.

Is A PhD Stipend In The USA Enough For International Students Without Any Other Financial Support? Here I discussed this in detail. I think you may find the single as well as with family survival information useful.

You may complete a PhD without debt if you are single and have the ability to live modestly.

Here is an interesting article at atlantic.com. I hope you will find the graphs in this post insightful.

Below you can see the percentages of PhD graduates who accumulated debt during their studies.

PhD Recipients accumulated debt in the US (1)
PhD Recipients accumulated debt in the US (2)
PhD Recipients accumulated debt in the US (3)

Detailed report of the NSF-2019 survey of Doctorate Recipients can be checked here

Summary

Not all PhD students get a stipend to survive during their studies.

If PhD students are offered a stipend, it usually is a basic income package. This may be enough for a single person to live modestly. This stipend is usually available for the full (expected) duration of their studies. 

There are different kinds of PhD stipends and funding in the US

  • Fellowships
  • Research assistantships
  • Teaching assistantships
  • Graduate assistantships

In many cases, the PhD studies take more time than the expected duration. This may occur due to other academic responsibilities (e.g., teaching assistantship). In such cases, you may need other funding resources too.

  • Some PhD stipends are without work and other conditions attached to them
  • Some PhD stipends are too low to compensate for student’s living expenses
  • Due to financial struggles during their PhD, some doctoral students also get into debt

PhD programs depending on their resources and field of study may offer

  • a full tuition wavier and full stipend
  • a half-tuition wavier and half stipend
  • no tuition waiver and no stipend