PhD programs and funding
September 1, 2008 10:31 PM   Subscribe

If you are a student receiving funding for a PhD program and you withdraw at the end of the year, does the department/school ever ask for the money back?

My thinking might be a bit premature, but...

I entered a PhD program, thinking I wanted to get a PhD. Because I received funding (tuition, fees, stipend), am I stuck here for 5 years? What if I drop out after a year or two with a master's degree? Do they ask for all the money back?

My position right now is that I don't know if I want the PhD, but after settling into the program, I very well might. It's a bit of cold feet on my part, I suppose. So I've been weighing my options. I want to give the PhD a chance, but I also don't want to be faced with tremendous debt if I want to leave the program partway through.

Does anyone have any experience with this kind of situation? What are your thoughts?
posted by limegreenpopsicle to Education (15 answers total)
It will depend on the nature of your funding, but in the physical sciences, the answer is typically no. You'll get to keep what you've been paid up to that point.
posted by chrisamiller at 10:33 PM on September 1, 2008

In my department, in a word: No.

My department makes it really easy (even encourages) students to drop out after a year and get a masters rather than waste everyone's time and attention. It is the "dirty little secret" in my department that if you drop out after a year, you basically get a FREE masters. It is common for many first years to realize they don't want to get a PhD, but still stick it out through the first year in order to get the free masters.
posted by Spurious at 10:36 PM on September 1, 2008

Here in Oz you won't be paying anything back. You just won't be getting any more.
posted by Wolof at 11:58 PM on September 1, 2008

It depends where you're studing. Here in Amsterdam, the uni will just cut their losses. They won't ask for anything back.
posted by mateuslee at 12:51 AM on September 2, 2008

As above, typically no. It's just not worth the department or funding authorities time to chase up such a small amount of money.
posted by outlier at 1:08 AM on September 2, 2008

In the UK you might well be asked for any fraction of funds back if you withdraw, depending on how your funding works, probably you just wouldn't have to pay anything back if paid monthly, perhaps some if paid three monthly. Leave at the end of the year and they would call it quits.

Also in the UK, if your funding comes from one of the research councils, then if you drop out before one year is up then you don't count on the stats for having withdrawn. It can be a real problem for your supervisor to get more money for PhD work if you drop out after the first year is up. This is one reason why first years often have to have upgrade reports at the end of their first year to progress to their second year here.
posted by biffa at 1:35 AM on September 2, 2008

I dropped out of a PhD program having accepted and spent half of my fellowship. No one tried to get the money back. However, I feel terrible about it and intend to pay them back someday.

This was in the US, in the humanities.
posted by prefpara at 4:13 AM on September 2, 2008

I dropped out of a PhD program. I got funding from the department and from a provincial scholarship that I was awarded. No one ever asked for the money back. You get that money without any stipulations that you have to finish. No one will come after it. (Thank god.)
posted by Hildegarde at 5:37 AM on September 2, 2008

Thinking about the underlying situation... It is really really difficult to get a handle on what doing a PhD will be like until you actually start one. Many people do take the entirely sensible decision that this is not for them.

But is does take a while to find your feet as a PhD student. Give yourself some time. Talk to students who have been at it longer. Ask about what past members of the department are doing now. Invest a bit of effort in your social life too -- you cannot sustain a sprint from now to the finish, you need to "have a life".

About the specific question, I don't think repayment arises if you have been visibly working. If you receive money and are then not seen around the department for 3 months, it might quite reasonably be thought that you haven't been working on your PhD and that you do owe the money.
posted by Idcoytco at 5:45 AM on September 2, 2008

Just because they don't usually (which is the case) doesn't mean they can't. Please read any contracts you may have signed, and take extra care if your department runs an (unfunded) MA program in parallel with its PhD program. If people are regularly paying for MAs out of pocket or with loans, the department is going to have precautions to keep people from getting them for free by way of doing PhD coursework and dropping out.
posted by MattD at 6:22 AM on September 2, 2008

Just double checked my financial aid. It says that the student is responsible for repaying any received funds that cannot be attributed to educational expenses for the current year. So if I withdraw, it seems as though I wouldn't have to repay what I've already used to pay for books, fees, housing, etc....correct? Also, it says that if the student withdraws after receiving funding, they may be billed depending on when they withdrawed and what kind of aid they received. But I imagine that that is a safety net to make sure people don't enroll in school, get funding, and then high-tail it to the hills. Thoughts?
posted by limegreenpopsicle at 8:28 AM on September 2, 2008

If the semester just started and you already got money, but you're dropping out RIGHT NOW, they will want their money back for this semester, not previous semesters.
posted by k8t at 8:42 AM on September 2, 2008

I would try and find out what their definition of "Educational expenses" is.

Best of luck to you.
posted by Ponderance at 9:44 AM on September 2, 2008

I've never heard of anyone being asked for money back for previous semesters.

However, if you register for fall term, get your check for the term's financial aid, then withdraw, they may ask you to refund some pro-rated amount based on the percentage of the fall term you didn't complete.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:48 AM on September 2, 2008

In my department, the terms of the NIH training grant (which students are on for the first 2 years) state that if the student leaves mid-semester, they have to refund the stipend money they've been given for that term (full amount, not pro-rated), but not for past semesters. I'm assuming that all NIH training grants have this stipulation, but that some institutions will eat the cost and not pass it on to the student. And I'd guess about 1/4 of the entering students in my department leave within the first two years, after getting their Masters. So my general advice would be to make sure that your exit is planned, and make sure you can stick it out through the end of an academic year.

I'm sure previous students in your department have been in this situation - are there any more senior students whom you can talk to, and will be discrete about it?
posted by twoporedomain at 12:01 PM on September 2, 2008

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