What is a fully funded PhD program?

A fully funded PhD program is 1 that offers admitted students financial aid in an amount equal to the tuition, fees and living expenses associated with completing the program within the expected timeframe. PhD funding typically includes scholarships, fellowships and grants, as well as teaching and research assistantships. Many PhD programs at leading public and private universities are fully funded.

In general, the financial aid received while studying in a fully funded PhD program does not have to be repaid. However, in order to maintain the financial aid from year to year, students must make reasonable progress toward completion of the degree. Additionally, assistantships and some other aid programs are granted only if the student agrees to work on campus during the funding period, usually as a graduate teacher or research assistant.

Note that online PhD programs are rarely fully funded. Students in accredited online PhD programs are usually eligible for federal financial aid, but these funds take the form of loans and must be repaid.

Scholarships and Fellowships

Many PhD programs offer substantial fellowship and scholarship packages to newly admitted students. In such cases, the funds usually come from funding sources within the school. Whether your school offers these opportunities or not, you would do well to search for scholarship and fellowship opportunities outside your school. For help tracking down opportunities, visit your school’s financial aid office. The more funding opportunities you pursue, the better off you will be.

Full fellowship programs typically offer enough funds to cover tuition and university health care benefits in addition to a monthly stipend to cover basic living expenses. Some fellowships offer funding amounts that do not cover all of these costs. In such cases, a student may pursue a second fellowship, a scholarship, an assistantship or another suitable funding program. The term of a fellowship can range from 1 semester to 5 or more years.

Most fellowships are granted with the simple expectation that you remain in good academic standing through the course of the funding. Unlike students with PhD assistantships, full fellowship awardees are not usually required to work as teachers or research assistants during the funding period. Rather, they are free to pursue their coursework and personal research priorities uninterrupted. Understandably, full fellowships are in high demand by PhD students.

Scholarships may be offered in virtually any amount. Generally speaking, there are relatively few doctoral scholarships available, as most funding opportunities at the PhD level are designed as fellowships. However, most graduate schools do offer a selection of scholarship opportunities ranging in size from $1,000 to $15,000 or more. Most scholarships are awarded without work or service requirements attached.


Grant programs award money for very specific purposes. PhD students are usually interested in grants for research and for academic travel costs. Grants are offered by graduate schools, government institutions, nonprofits and other private organizations.

Research grants are the most common type of grant in the physical and social sciences. Grant money helps cover the costs of carrying out research projects, whether in a laboratory or out in the field. A great example is offered by the Geological Society of America (GSA), which provides grants for masters and PhD thesis research. In 2012, the GSA gave more than $550,000 in research grants to 303 graduate students in geology.

To obtain a research grant, a student must first locate a grant program in the appropriate subject area. Then, a research proposal must be submitted, including detailed descriptions of the research procedures and goals, as well as a detailed budget. Funding decisions are made based on guidelines determined by the granting organization.

Travel grants are another common type of grant for PhD students. Travel grants provide money for travel costs directly associated with research. For example, a student who needs to visit a specialized library collection across the country for research purposes may be able to obtain a grant for airfare and other travel costs. Travel grants may also be available for students who have been invited to present research papers at professional conferences.

Teaching and Research Assistantships

To meet the cost of PhD programs, many students take advantage of graduate assistantship programs through their graduate school. Most admitted students are eligible for both teaching and research assistantships, though not at the same time. Some PhD programs may require participation in assistantships for all admitted students.

While details can vary, most assistantship assignments last 1 year, during which the student receives a tuition waiver and a stipend for living expenses. Full tuition waivers and stipends usually require 12 to 20 work hours per week during the contracted period. Full stipend amounts are based on the cost of living in the area of the university.

The duties of an assistantship vary from program to program. Students in assistantships are generally assigned to a professor in the PhD department. Teaching assistants may be required to lead review sessions and hold office hours or even to teach full courses themselves. Research assistants typically assist a current faculty member in his or her research.