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Free PhD programs versus fully funded PhD programs

What is a free PhD program? What does fully funded mean in the context of a PhD? Is a PhD program an education or a job? Do you get paid, or are you paying for it? The designs of PhD programs differ substantially between countries. What is important to know for your career?

What are free PhD programs?

Free PhD programs are doctoral programs that do not require tuition or fees from the student. However, there might be other costs to consider, such as housing, food, transportation, learning materials, and health insurance.

happy PhD students representing free PhD programs and fully funded PhD programs
@sven hendrix / midjourney

What are fully funded PhD programs?

Fully funded PhD programs are doctoral programs that provide financial assistance to students, for example, in the form of tuition remission, a stipend, and health insurance.

However, there are dramatic differences in the design of PhD programs worldwide, for example, between the US and Europe (see below)!

Is a PhD program an education or a job?

The structure and financing of PhD programs vary greatly between countries and even between different universities within the same country.

In Europe, PhD programs are considered positions of employment

Confident PhD student representing a PhD program as a job
@sven hendrix / midjourney

In many European countries, like Germany, Sweden, Norway, and Finland, PhD programs are indeed considered positions of employment. The education policy is different in Europe compared to the US.

The selection criteria are strict. It is not a phd for free. However, a phd requires dedication, time, and resources.

Thus, students do pursue a state-funded phd and do not pay tuition but receive a salary or stipend for their research work.

This model is based on the idea that PhD candidates are not just students but also contribute to the university’s research output and should therefore be compensated for their work.

In the US, PhD programs are considered a more advanced form of education

In many countries, including the United States, a PhD is typically considered a more advanced form of education rather than a job. As a result, students often have to pay tuition, although many funding opportunities are still available.

How much does a PhD program cost?

PhD graduation hat representing higher salary with a PhD degree
©sven hendrix/midjourney

The costs of Ph.D. programs in the US and Europe vary substantially depending on the country, the university, and the specific program.

In general, PhD programs in Europe are free or more affordable than PhD programs in the US. The costs also vary dramatically depending on how long it takes to finish the PhD.

Do tuition fees of PhD programs differ substantially between fields?

The prices for PhD programs in various areas can vary significantly. Here are some examples of tuition fee ranges from the US market:

  • Biological sciences: $30,000 to $70,000 per year
  • Life sciences: $20,000 to $60,000 per year.
  • Social sciences: $25,000 to $60,000 per year
  • Business administration: $15,000 to $50,000 per year
  • Public health: $10,000 to $40,000 per year
  • Educational leadership: $5,000 to $30,000 per year

Do tuition fees differ substantially between online and on-campus PhD programs?

Happy PhD student
@sven hendrix / midjourney

Yes, online PhD programs are typically less expensive than on-campus PhD programs because online doctorate programs do not need to pay for physical space or the salaries of faculty members who teach on-campus courses.

The lower costs might be a reason to consider an online doctoral degree instead of a traditional phd.

Here are two examples of the cost of online and on-campus PhD programs from the US market:

  • Life Sciences: Online $15,000 – $30,000 versus On-campus $30,000 – $60,000 per year
  • Business Administration: Online $15,000 versus On-campus $40,000 per year.

However, there is a surprisingly high number of free phd programs online or fully funded online phd programs. A completely free phd may seem too good to be true.

However, universities offer free online phd programs to attract top students who might not otherwise be able to afford a traditional PhD program. The programs focus on high performers. Thus, they are very competitive.

Online and on-campus programs vary substantially in their structures and requirements. Some students enjoy the flexibility of programs online, others prefer to pursue a phd in the immersive environment of on-campus programs.

Consider all costs of a PhD program – and the funding options!

critical PhD student considering all costs of a PhD program and the funding options
@sven hendrix / midjourney

If you are considering a PhD program, it is essential to carefully consider not only the phd fees but also the living costs, including housing, food, transportation, learning materials, and student health insurance.

It is important to note that several scholarships and fellowships are available to doctoral students in both Europe and the US.

Many countries or universities offer financial support to their doctoral candidates during their doctoral studies. These scholarships and fellowships allow students to offset the cost of tuition and living expenses.

A growing number of graduate programs are shifting to fully-funded ph.d. programs, where graduate students, especially those pursuing ph.d. degrees, receive a monthly stipend or annual stipend. This financial assistance can come in various forms, such as a research assistantship or graduate assistantship.

How much does a PhD program cost in Europe?

graduation hat on EU flag representing European PhD programs
@sven hendrix / midjourney

In Europe, Ph.D. programs are typically tuition-free for all students, regardless of nationality.

However, there may be additional costs, such as student union or registration fees. Living costs in Europe can vary, but they are generally lower than living costs in the US.

Here are some examples of the cost of PhD programs in Europe:

  • France: Tuition fees for PhD programs in France are €380 per year for all students. Living costs in France are around €1,000 per month.
  • Germany: Tuition fees for PhD programs in Germany are €250 per semester for all students. Living costs in Germany are around €800 per month.
  • Norway: Tuition fees for PhD programs in Norway are free for all students. Living costs in Norway are around €1,200 per month.

But be careful: These are rough estimates that may vary substantially between universities and programs!

How much does a PhD program cost in the United States?

graduation hat on US flag representing US American PhD programs
@sven hendrix / midjourney

In the US, PhD programs are typically not tuition-free. The cost of tuition for PhD programs in the US can vary depending on the university, but it generally is between $20,000 and $60,000 per year.

In addition to tuition, students in the US may also have to pay for living expenses, such as housing, food, and transportation.

Living costs in the US can vary depending on the location, but they are generally higher than those in Europe.

Here are some examples of the cost of PhD programs in the US:

  • Harvard University: Tuition fees for PhD programs at Harvard University are $52,630 per year. Living costs in Cambridge, Massachusetts, are around $2,000 per month.
  • Stanford University: Tuition fees for PhD programs at Stanford University are $51,350 per year. Living costs in Palo Alto, California, are around $2,500 per month.
  • University of California, Berkeley: Tuition fees for PhD programs at UC Berkeley are $47,440 per year. Living costs in Berkeley, California, are around $2,300 per month.

How are PhD programs funded in Europe?

PhD student and money representing funding for PhD programs
@sven hendrix / midjourney

PhD programs in Europe are typically funded by a combination of government grants, university scholarships, and research grants.

  • Government grants are awarded by national governments to universities and research institutions to support PhD research. These grants can provide full funding for PhD students, including tuition waivers, stipends, and health insurance coverage.
  • University scholarships are awarded to PhD students based on their academic achievement and research potential. These scholarships can provide partial funding for PhD students, typically through a stipend.
  • Research institutions, such as the European Research Council (ERC), award research grants to PhD students to support specific research projects. These grants can provide full PhD funding, including full tuition waivers, stipends, and travel expenses.

How are PhD programs funded in the US?

PhD programs in the US are typically funded by a combination of tuition waivers, stipends, and fellowships.

  • Tuition waivers are offered by universities to PhD students who are accepted into their programs. These waivers cover the cost of tuition, which can be a significant financial burden for students.
  • Stipends are paid to PhD students to help cover their living expenses, such as housing, food, and transportation. Stipends vary depending on the university and the specific program, but they are typically between $20,000 and $40,000 per year.
  • Fellowships are awarded to PhD students based on their academic achievement and research potential. Fellowships can provide full funding for PhD students, including tuition waivers, stipends, and medical insurance.

International students often have concerns about pursuing higher education abroad due to financial constraints. The good news is that many top universities provide fully-funded ph.d. programs that cater specifically to international student needs. Universities often provide ample financial assistance options for their admitted students. Many universities waive phd fees to any students, while some may specifically charge fees to international students.

Other financial resources to pay for a doctoral program in the US and Europe

In addition to the above-mentioned funding sources, PhD students may also be able to earn money by teaching or conducting research. However, it is important to note that these activities are typically not enough to cover all of the costs of a PhD program.

Here are some of the most common ways that PhD programs are funded in the US and Europe:

  • Assistantships are the most common way PhD students get funded in the US. Assistantships typically involve teaching or research duties in exchange for a tuition waiver and a stipend.
  • Fellowships are awarded to PhD students based on their academic achievement and research potential. Fellowships can provide full funding for PhD students, including tuition waivers, stipends, and health insurance.
  • Industry funding is becoming increasingly common for PhD students. Some companies offer funding to PhD students conducting research relevant to their interests.
  • Nonprofit organizations and certain public institutions often collaborate with universities, offering a fully funded phd
  • Self-funding is a possibility for PhD students who are unable to secure funding from other sources. However, it is essential to note that self-funding can be very expensive, and it may take longer to complete your PhD. Thus, if possible, you should avoid financial aid and student loans and do everything to get fellowships, stipends, or similar types of financial support.

How long does a PhD take?

PhD student and clockes representing the duration of a PhD program
@sven hendrix / midjourney

The duration of a PhD differs substantially between countries, universities, and institutions. In Europe, full-time PhD programs typically take three to four years to complete.

You might find the shortest doctoral programs in Europe. In Europe, it takes less time to get doctoral degrees than in the US because most PhD programs require applicants to possess a Master’s degree.

In contrast, many doctoral degree programs in the US and Canada accept applicants already with a Bachelor’s degree.

Read more about the multiple factors influencing how long it takes to finish a PhD.

How do I find a fully funded or free PhD program?

There are several ways to find free or fully funded doctoral programs. Here are a few tips:

Start your search early

The best free PhD programs are highly competitive, so starting your search early is important. This will give you time to research programs, contact potential supervisors, and apply for funding.

Use online databases

Several online databases list PhD programs, including funding information. Some good resources include:

Contact individual universities

If you’re interested in a specific university, contact the graduate school directly to inquire about funding opportunities. Many universities offer their own funding programs for PhD students.

Look for scholarships and fellowships

There are multiple scholarships and fellowships available to PhD students. These scholarships can provide full or partial funding for your studies. Some good resources for finding scholarships and fellowships include:

FAQ

Is a free PhD program right for me?

Whether or not a free PhD program is right for you depends on your individual circumstances and goals. If you are passionate about research and want to make a significant contribution to your field, then a free PhD program may be a good option for you. If you are a high performer, securing a fully funded phd might be a better option.

What are the requirements for a free PhD program?

The requirements for a free PhD program vary substantially depending on your career goals, the university and the specific program. However, some standard requirements in the US include:

  • A strong academic record, for example, a GPA of 3.0 or higher.
  • A GRE or other standardized test score.
  • Letters of recommendation from professors or other professionals.
  • A research proposal.
  • An interview.

Do I need a master’s degree to enter free or fully funded phd programs?

No, in many universities, e.g. in the US, you do not need a master’s degree to enter a fully funded ph.d. program and earn a phd. However, in many European universities, a master’s degree is required.

Should I go abroad for a phd program?

There are many arguments for a phd abroad, including a broadened horizon, new skills and experiences, and many international contacts. However, there are always unexpected challenges in going abroad, for which you should be prepared.

Acknowledgments

I have used AI systems, including Grammarly and ChatGPT, to enhance the English and comprehensiveness of this article. This post may contain affiliate links, meaning I get a small commission if you decide to purchase through my link. Thus, you support smartsciencecareer at no cost to you!

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