What is a fully-funded Ph.D. Program? There was once a golden era when a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) was a sure ticket to success. Money and job longevity were taken for granted by those with the gumption to complete the rigorous course work and the original research expected of this terminal degree. As academic markets constrict, however, many doors in teaching and scholarship close, leaving newly-minted Ph.D. s to fend for themselves in business and non-profit employment. The last thing they need is student debt, a grim reality that makes a fully-funded Ph.D. all the more attractive.
Tuition and Fees
The first primary component of what constitutes a fully funded Ph.D. program is the remission of tuition and fees. Tuitions are formulated by universities according to credit hour. The amount of tuition money per hour is an index of enrollment; human resources and infrastructure; and support from the state (for public colleges). Fees, on the other hand, are charged according to administrative costs incurred by the institution and passed on to the student. A fully funded Ph.D. program requires no payment from the student because costs are covered by a benefactor or endowment.
The principal idea behind a fully-funded Ph.D. program is to focus the graduate student entirely on his or her academic work. Unless room and board are accounted for—or the student is independently wealthy—the cost of living might have to be covered by outside employment, thus dividing both available time and attention. This is why housing, meals, necessities and transportation are factored in when the doctoral program is fully funded. Hence most programs pay a stipend to cover the basic expenses of living. While the stipend usually provides adequately, it will in no way support a luxurious lifestyle.
In many ways, a fully funded Ph.D. program is a full-time job, with the student often working overtime at night and on weekends. Accordingly, the college or university of matriculation will treat the student as an investment, making sure neither illness nor injury thwarts the attainment of the coveted terminal degree. A doctoral student may receive the benefit of student health insurance (at no expense) or—if holding a teaching or research assistantship—may qualify for more generous employee health benefits. Either way, doctoral candidates are reasonably assured that their continued matriculation will not be threatened by burdensome medical bills.
When Does Funding Run Out?
Surveying fully funded Ph.D. programs online reveals that most expect their students to complete the doctorate—particularly in the liberal fine arts—in about five years. As often as institutions of higher education praise knowledge for its own sake, few have the space or the patience for eternal students. As long as graduate students maintain good academic and behavioral standing at their institutions, they can enjoy full funding for those years, provided matriculation remains uninterrupted. Of course, legitimate exceptions happen and many universities will negotiate additional time if need be.
Full funding can be, alas, a matter of opinion. Graduate fellowships and other comprehensive financial support vehicles do not always estimate accurately the cost of studying full-time. When this happens, many pre-doctoral students borrow, incurring sometimes crushing debt. It begs the question: What is a fully funded Ph.D. program?