Can you explain what it means exactly to be "fully funded" in a Ph.D. program?
February 27, 2011 3:39 AM   Subscribe

Can you explain what it means exactly to be "fully funded" in a Ph.D. program?

I'm thinking about applying to graduate school in the fall, but no one else in my family has ever even contemplated trying to get a Ph.D. There are all of these logistics--with regards to the application process--that I feel like I'm supposed to know but don't, and I am a bit embarrassed to ask real-life people because they're all such basic questions. I think I'm vaguely worried that if I do, someone will say to me, "How can you be thinking about trying to get a Ph.D. if you don't even know how to file the application paperwork properly?" They're also weirdly difficult questions to google because they turn up so many results like: "FAQ: Are all Ph.D students in the University of Mars - Humanoid Biology program fully funded? Yes, they are."

So can you explain to me what it means to be a fully funded graduate student? Is that a full scholarship from the school? An independent grant? If it's a grant, who does it come from? Is it a fellowship? What the heck is a fellowship? Does getting full funding mean you don't take on any of that as debt?

In order to get any funding, do you have to file separate paperwork along with the normal application materials? Or do all programs just assume that you need funding, because you're applying to the Ph.D. program? Is funding at all need-based, or is it always only related to a program's interest in you? Is the stipend grad students often talk about a piece of being fully funded, or is that a part of another process?

Thanks for your help and sorry about the dumb questions. If it matters, I'm looking at history programs in the U.S.
posted by colfax to Education (15 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
It means that your tuition fees are paid, and that they give you a stipend, which should cover your basic living expenses.

What you have to do in return will depend on the college in question. It's quite likely that you will need to be a Teaching Assistant for some or all years.

Some stipends are more generous than others. And the number of years which you will be funded can vary (and can be less than the average time people actually take to complete their degrees).

The money for the stipend might come from a University-wide pot, or from an external grant. Otherwise, I think it's from the department's budget.

Whether you need to file separate paperwork depends on the college.

I believe humanities PhDs are less likely to be funded. I was only ever considering a math PhD, where if you weren't fully funded by your department it was essentially a statement that they didn't think you were likely to complete.
posted by plonkee at 3:59 AM on February 27, 2011

In addition to what plonkee said above,

Noone will think any less of you at all if you ask basic questions about how the PhD program and its bureaucracy works. It's fully expected, especially since there's some much variation between departments and universities, and virtually all new PhD students are doing it for the first time.

In some semesters you may get a Research Assistantship or perhaps most commonly, a half-load RA and a half-load TA.

A fellowship means typically that for a certain period (could be one year or multiple years. Or maybe just for a semester!), your tuition and stipend are covered without any TA/RA work requirement. Occasionally, a department may blur the definition and offer e.g. a "teaching fellowship" which actually is not a fellowship but a TA-based funded place.

PhD funding typically NOT need-based. Departments will always discuss tuition and stipend funding in one package. The generosity of departmental stipends partly depends on living expenses in the local area and partly on the department's own wealth (not the university's) and the expectations of its field (e.g. business school PhDs are amongst the highest funded). The most generous stipend packages may come from federal grants to strategically important specializations.

Remember to ask them about funding for the summers. Some programs help you out with this, others not so much.

Other sources of funding for tuition and stipends may be from external foundations and government agencies. Typically these require separate application processes on the student's own initiative. Some foundation funding schemes may be need-based.

Some departments are more dependent on external grants than others. In these cases, you may make it to the top of the shortlist in the selection process but be turned down because your specific research interests and/or skills aren't most practically useful for any specific grant. (They won't give this specific reason though for turning you down)
posted by Bwithh at 4:15 AM on February 27, 2011

Fully funded, in the US, means that you are being given enough money over enough years to complete the degree in a reasonable time. That usually means four to six years of funding; it may involve teaching, being a research assistant, or no work at all; summer funding is sometimes but not always included; and supplemental research funding (eg for your year living with a tribe in the Amazon) may or may not be included in the basic package.

The money may be departmental (ie a department is allocated X amount of funding, to support Y students); it may be from a major grant that a professor wrote (some of which can then be spent supporting some students); it may be directly or indirectly from a foundation or government source of funding (eg NSF fellowships), some of which the school can allocate and some of which you have to apply for separately*; or it may be funding tied to minority, first-generation degree earning, or other sort-of need-based applicants. (There are other funding streams, too, but those are the major ones that I've seen people get funded through. And of course there's the "my daddy is an oligarch" funding option, but if that was your situation you wouldn't be asking this question.)

So, a critical question to ask when looking at the offer is "is this funding guaranteed for all X years, or is it competitive?" Trust me, you don't want to have to be scrambling around after money in your second year while preparing for your qualifying exams.

And I'm sure you've read it a million times, but I will repeat: do not attend unless you are fully funded. Particularly in a field like history, where the job market has been in the shitter for some years now and they are still graduating far more PhDs than there are tenure track jobs available, it would be pure irresponsibility to yourself and your family to start a program that would require you to take out loans or be on the hook for big tuition bills. Like plonkee says, the department funding you is a clear statement of their belief in your ability to finish; don't go otherwise.

These are not dumb questions. Make sure you get from the library a couple of those guidebooks to graduate life (eg Getting What You Came For). Graduate school has a huge amount of "hidden transcript" -- stuff you are expected to know, and everyone whose parents are highly educated and grew up in that kind of environment might already know, but that no one will tell you. So non-traditional students, and students from other kinds of backgrounds (eg working class) can be at a huge disadvantage until they learn all those unspoken and secret rules and norms.

* A really important step in graduate applications is asking the department directly about additional funding. Getting a named fellowship is more prestigious and looks a lot better on your CV, even if the dollar amount is the same as the regular funding, and the fellowships usually get you out of TAing, which frees up a lot of time. A lot of this funding gets allocated in a hurry, and the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Ask the department, and ask (if the school has one) the office that helps out with graduate fellowships. You may be eligible to apply for need-, demographic-, or merit-based funding over and above whatever the department might be able to offer.
posted by Forktine at 4:16 AM on February 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

p.s. it is rare, but if you are a highly sought after candidate with more than one acceptance from different schools, and are at the stage of talking with the departments competing for you about which way to go, it may be possible for your stipend package offers to be sweetened in some way (e.g. a bit more money or something, but nothing to be sneezed at) through the negotiation process. (I know of this actually happening in one instance at least (not to me!), and this was not in a moneyed field like business studies)
posted by Bwithh at 4:24 AM on February 27, 2011

It's a commitment from the department that you'll get a assistantship or fellowship with a tuition waver and benefits (i.e. health insurance) for 4-5 years. The commitment is usually to provide at least a 1/3 time appointment, which may pay as little as $8,000/year, but take that as a bare minimum; some grad programs pay their assistants $20,000/year and up. The work required to get this money could range from doing nothing to teaching 2 classes (very high). The commitment is usually contingent on being in good standing, meaning you're passing prelim exams, making progress towards your dissertation, etc. Where the money comes from is up to the department; they're just saying they'll find it somehow, and it's very rare that a department would break a commitment to a grad student because they ran out of money.

A good question to be asking is what the median grad student has to do in exchange for this funding. If it's teaching 2 classes, this is a sign the department is not serious about research, and you should go elsewhere if you can.
posted by deadweightloss at 5:52 AM on February 27, 2011

I was accepted and fully-funded for a history program in the US. As said above, fully funded does mean that you will be able to live without loans or personal contributions. You'll probably have to live frugally -- I was in a very generously funded program, but people still ran into problems because they didn't know how to budget. You will want to compare any offers to the local living costs -- sometimes universities in places like NYC will claim that their students are "fully funded", but what would be fine elsewhere is not enough to get by.

If a university is not giving you a specific amount when you call, it's probably because different students are offered different amounts. You can ask if there is a minimum (there was at my university -- all history students received the minimum, my scientist friends had 3-5000 more).

When you are accepted to a PhD program in the US, your acceptance letter should state your funding offer, so that you can decide between universities.

Funding will come from a variety of sources: most science students I knew were funded by their advisor's grants in the upper years, humanities (including history) were funded by the university by fellowships (no obligation) and teaching work (well-paid). Some people in all fields brought or acquired personal funding by applying for it -- Javitz, etc -- which often meant more money and more prestige because they were competitive grants. I don't know the grants for US citizens well, but you should ask around with the professors and grad students at your undegraduate university -- also, those professors will be able to guide you in your applications, and of course you need to ask them for reccomendations. They've all applied for PhD programs in history.

A note about summer funding: even if you are not funded through the summer (meaning you will receive money for only 9 months), some careful budgetting can stretch your funding to 12 months (I did). Just always treat your funding like a yearly award, and divide your net yearly amount (post taxes) into 12 for budgetting.

Also, if you are an American citizen, US universities may not remove any taxes from your scholarship/teaching wage, though you are still obliged to pay them Use your yearly total to estimate your federal and state obligations, and save them out of your budget -- perhaps have a monthly portion automatically moved to a special savings account, from your monthly or biweekly fellowship payments.
posted by jb at 6:45 AM on February 27, 2011

One more detail about funding that's important is how it meshes with the schedule of coursework and exams that you'll have to complete. A package that gives you a fellowship (no TA or RA duties) during the first couple of years while you prepare for the qualifying exams is to be preferred to a package that has you teaching right away and taking courses and doing exam prep all at the same time. (I.e., in my program I was on fellowship for the first two years, then I was guaranteed as much teaching as I wanted.)

Some schools supply research funding for one or more summers, or have summer funding you can compete for -- this too should be inquired about.

And finally, ask about dissertation fellowships. It is SO much easier to write the thing if you don't also have to teach at the same time. Some places promise these at the beginning, at others you have to compete for them.
posted by philokalia at 7:25 AM on February 27, 2011

another question to ask is how the stipend/funding is doled out. at my school, we received our stipend in 26 parts, every two weeks just like a regular paycheck, with all taxes withheld,etc. the school down the street however, paid out the stipend quarterly, with no taxes withheld. so jb's advice about understanding the tax situation is key. you owe federal, state and local taxes as usual. sometimes fica and medicare are not applicable. and the first quarter for students down the street is evidently a little tight.
posted by Tandem Affinity at 7:26 AM on February 27, 2011

I am a first-year fully-funded MS/PhD student in engineering. Judging from the responses above (and the unhelpful information that Google spits out), it looks like funding is on a case-by-case basis. In fact, I've come to learn that most of graduate school admissions is school- or department-specific – as opposed to undergraduate admissions, where things were very coordinated and somewhat homogeneous (similar deadlines, Common App, etc.)

In my case, I was accepted with the understanding that I'd be doing research for a professor, which took care of my tuition and health insurance and also gave me a small stipend. In addition, I was a TA for my first semester and received a nice one-time stipend on top of what I was getting for research. I am by no means rolling in it, but it's enough for me to not have to worry too much about what I'm going to eat every day. Unfortunately I wasn't able to secure a TA position this semester, but the extra money last semester mostly went towards furnishing my apartment and getting settled so it's not a huge problem this semester.

I've heard that it's a lot harder to get funding for PhD programs in the humanities, but I'm sure you can get financial assistance if you get some sort of teaching position.

As for taxes, I'm actually a bit worried about that... it would have been nice to be in Tandem Affinity's situation where the stipend was distributed like a paycheck with taxes already withheld. I have yet to figure out how much I owe from my stipend last year. Ah.
posted by Rickalicioso at 9:38 AM on February 27, 2011

So can you explain to me what it means to be a fully funded graduate student?

You don't pay any tuition* and the school pays you a stipend to live on.

Is that a full scholarship from the school? An independent grant?

If the department says all students are fully funded, that means it's from the school or department. They're committing to finding the money.

There are of course a variety of sources of outside money that vary strongly by field. Some of your fellow students would likely be on outside money, and your department may expect or even require you to apply for outside money to help them stretch their dollars.

If it's a grant, who does it come from?

Varies by field.

Is it a fellowship? What the heck is a fellowship?

A fellowship normally means that you don't pay tuition, you receive a stipend, and you don't have any formal responsibilities as a teaching or research assistant. But plenty of schools play fast and loose with the term, and some fellowships will require teaching or other formal work.

Does getting full funding mean you don't take on any of that as debt?

Yes. Except that the stipend may not be enough to live on, so you might still take on some debt to help bridge the gap. It shouldn't be necessary though as long as you're willing to live the standard crappy lifestyle.

In order to get any funding, do you have to file separate paperwork along with the normal application materials?

Not normally.

Short answer to a lot of this stuff: being funded as a grad student is Not The Same as the financial aid process for undergraduate education.

Is funding at all need-based

Not normally.

Is the stipend grad students often talk about a piece of being fully funded


*Some state systems require students to pay tuition; in such a case you should just receive a stipend increased by that amount.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:09 AM on February 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

OP, just a reassurance that no one understands this stuff when they're starting off in grad school. You aren't any more ignorant than your colleagues.

The grad secretaries at the schools you're applying to will be happy to give you the specifics on this stuff. Coming to them with a questions like "what does fully funded mean?" won't get you laughed it; it will get you a good answer to your question!
posted by auto-correct at 11:50 AM on February 27, 2011

My stipend for this year was a "recruitment fellowship"- my advisor that I intended to work with did the application for me on my behalf, asking the university to fund me as a promising new student out of this particular pool of money. They said yes, I just get handed a check every month, yay! They looked at my grad school application and the supplement my advisor did and that was it.

This is not the only way it can go. I will probably have to TA for a stipend next year. I may be an RA for my advisor which comes off of one of his grants. That money comes from outside government organizations like the National Institutes of Health instead of from the university. This varies by field alot.

You will probably get funded from various pools of money throughout your graduate career from years to year. The important things are 1) there are several pools you can dip into 2) your advisor and department will help you navigate this and 3) they are committed to minimum funding like being a TA, if no more attractive sources of money are available.

Absolutely find and befriend your grad secretaries in your intended departments. Mine is a great resource and the nicest person and I never feel dumb asking her these kinds of logistical questions because she gets them every day, that's her job. Don't pester though, respect their time and realize you are low on their to-do list some days because they're scurrying collecting signatures for Professor X's grant application.
posted by slow graffiti at 12:32 PM on February 27, 2011

As an aside, some schools have additional funding for PhD student who were the first in their family to go go college. Not sure if this applies to you - but I wanted to bring it up to reassure you that schools really are trying to reach out to people who don't necessarily know a lot about grad school. It might be in your best interest to ask these questions to the right people.
posted by lab.beetle at 6:15 PM on February 27, 2011

Thank you all very much. I am more grateful than I can properly express for both the helpful information and the reassurances.
posted by colfax at 9:03 PM on February 27, 2011

Everyone above is right, and you should especially internalize these two pieces of advice:
1. Most other new grad students don't know any/all of this stuff. It's not just you. Forktine is right that there is more of this academic culture stuff coming, too. Don't be intimidated, it's fine to ask. Do get a guidebook like Getting What You Came For, very useful - library may have a few you can flip through to see which seems best to you. You'll be better equipped than half you cohort just by reading up.
2. Do befriend dept office staff.

Two more points:
Most grad programs in the US voluntarily adhere to an April 15 action date for grad admissions, which means you should not be pressured to accept any offer before then - so that you have a chance to hear back from all the places you've applied before deciding. Ask your under grad advisors or snoop around on the internet for professional associations or academic blogs in your specialty to see if this is true in your field.

"I've heard that it's a lot harder to get funding for PhD programs in the humanities"
In my field, in top departments all places are funded, that is, they will admit 6 students and fully fund those students. There are a few very good departments where this isn't true, they'll admit maybe 10 students and fully fund 3, and then have a limited amount of funding that the other students compete for, and students can seek other funding on their own (ha - there is vanishingly little external funding - ie money from sources outside your school - available in the humanities). The advice I was given and what I give to others is: do not go to grad school in the humanities unless you are fully funded. (or unless you're in some really exceptional circumstance).

Ok. That said - you should get the details of your funding offer in writing. If you've gotten an email from a department saying you are offered a fully funded spot, but not details, it is totally fine to write back and say "Thank you so much for the offer of a spot. I am wondering if you can give me some more details about the funding" Then ask about anything that hasn't been laid out with complete explicitness for you.
Does the funding include tuition remission plus a living stipend?
What is the amount of the stipend?
How many years is the funding guaranteed for? Is there a possibility of additional years beyond that?
Would I be doing teaching, and what are the details of the teaching? How many semesters of teaching would this be, and how many semesters non-teaching? Would I be primary instructor, or a teaching assistant? For how many sections per semester?
Are there funding opportunities for summers?
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:47 PM on February 27, 2011

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