How do I finance my PhD?

There are many ways to finance your PhD program, including fellowships, assistantships, awards and student loans.


Fellowships are a type of scholarship that is usually only available to graduate students in masters and PhD programs. Students who receive fellowships are known as fellows. Fellows are typically awarded financial resources to pursue research in a particular field of knowledge.

Most fellowships are based on a student's academic merit and their research interests. These funding opportunities are highly competitive and very prestigious. Fellowships are most often associated with your university, your department or an independent scholarly organization. Every fellowship has different application criteria as well as a different way of providing funding. For example, some fellowships give students monthly funding for several years while others provide a 1-time award in a lump sum.

Applying for fellowships is similar to applying for PhD programs. You should give yourself at least 6 months to gather the application materials, which often include personal statements and letters of recommendation. Because fellowships are so competitive, you should apply to as many as possible rather than just 1 or 2.

Although it is possible to win a fellowship for your study in an online PhD program, it is highly unlikely. Fellowships look for students who have outstanding academic records and online PhD program are usually not viewed as favorably as PhD programs at a traditional schools.


The 2 most common types of assistantships available to PhD candidates are research assistantships and teaching assistantships. Research assistants work on research projects with faculty members in their department, and they are not usually required to teach. Teaching assistants work with students in classrooms, labs or discussion sections. They might also help professors grade tests and term papers or prepare their lecture materials for undergraduate students.

Research and teaching assistants are almost always offered through the department in which you study. In some cases, you may be qualified to teach or research in an interdisciplinary department. In exchange for your work, you may receive a direct salary or simply a tuition waiver. If you plan to become a university researcher or professor, these assistantships will also provide you with valuable experience.

Because research and teaching assistantships almost always require you to work on campus, these types of opportunities are not usually available to online PhD students. If you plan to work as a university researcher or lecturer after you finish your PhD, you should strongly consider attending a traditional brick-and-mortar PhD program.

Awards and Prizes

Awards and prizes also provide financial support for graduate students who demonstrate strong academic abilities. However, unlike scholarships or fellowships, there is usually no application for an award or prize. Rather, they are awarded to students who have completed outstanding projects or scholarly articles.

Since there is no application for awards and prizes, a professor must usually recommend your article or project to committee. Academic awards and prizes are a great way to strengthen your resume. However, they are usually relatively small amounts of money, and you should not rely on them to be a significant source of funding for your PhD program.

Student Loans

Although it is best to find funding for your PhD that you do not have to repay, you may need to use student loans to help cover the cost of your doctorate degree. Student loans are available from the federal government or from private lending institutions.

Federal Education Loans

In order to qualify for federal education loans, you must be enrolled in a PhD program that is offered by an accredited institution. Only accredited schools are allowed to distribute federal financial aid to their students. Many online programs are also accredited, especially if online programs that are offered by traditional universities. If you are enrolled in 1 of their PhD programs, you can take out student loans from the federal government. There are several types of federal student loans available to PhD candidates:

Stafford Loans
These loans are available to graduate students and are not need-based. Additionally, Stafford loans do not require you to undergo a credit check. Until recently, there were both subsidized and unsubsidized Stafford loans. Subsidized Stafford loans do not accrue interest until after you complete your studies. However, beginning in July 2012, all Stafford loans will be unsubsidized.

PLUS Loans
As a PhD candidate, you are eligible for PLUS loans. Like Stafford loans, PLUS loans are backed by the federal government. However, PLUS loans are usually only available to the parents of students and are therefore not directly disbursed to you. PLUS loans have a fixed interest rate of 7.9%. In order to be eligible, both you and your parents may have to undergo a credit check.

Most students prefer federal education loans they usually have caps on their interest rates and offer more flexible options for repayment periods, graduated repayment and income based repayment plans. For detailed information about federal education loans, visit the U.S. Department of Education’s federal student aid website.

Private Education Loans

You can also take out education loans from private lending institutions like banks or credit unions. However, private loans require you to undergo a credit check and often have fluctuating interest rates during your repayment period. You should think carefully before you take out private education loans to fund your PhD.