PhD Funding in the USA – A Guide for 2024 | FindAPhD.com
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PhD Funding in the USA

Written by Ben Taylor

Many of the world’s top research universities are based in the USA, so it’s no surprise that it’s an extremely popular destination for PhD students.

Although the USA has a reputation for being an expensive place to study, there are also some fantastic opportunities for PhD funding (including many fully-funded PhD programmes for international students).

This page will give you an introduction to the cost of a typical doctorate in the USA, as well as a guide to some of the most generous forms of PhD funding available at American universities.

American PhD funding – what you need to know first

As we’ve already mentioned, the USA has an expensive reputation – but you shouldn’t let that put you off.

There’s a reason why such a large number of American universities can be found among the top-ranked in the world: many institutions have huge budgets and endowments, allowing them to offer generous fully-funded PhD scholarships to graduate students (regardless of nationality).

These are a few key points to bear in mind when beginning your search for PhD funding in the USA:

  • Public universities in the United States differentiate between in-state and out-of-state when it comes to fees, so you won’t necessarily be charged more than an out-of-state domestic student if you’re an international student
  • Private universities don’t distinguish between domestic and international students
  • It’s common for universities to offer ‘full-ride’ PhD scholarships to talented grad students
  • The Fulbright Commission administers several funding schemes for international students to complete their research in the USA
  • Federal student loans are available to US nationals

The cost of a PhD in the USA

With a huge range of universities offering PhD programmes in the USA it’s no surprise that American PhD fees vary a lot. They also tend to be exaggerated or otherwise misreported based on very high figures for prestigious Ivy League universities. These aren’t typical.

Actual fees vary between public and private institutions and sometimes depend on a students’ residency status:

  • Public institutions charge an average of $12,394 per year for in-state students on graduate programmes. Be aware that fees for out-of-state students (including international students) are higher than this.
  • Private institutions charge an average of $26,621 per year for all students on graduate programmes.

These figures are based on data published by the US National Center for Education Statistics. As a general rule, public institutions will be cheaper than private institutions, but will charge a higher out-of-state fee to international students. This can mean that the actual difference in fees is smaller than it seems above. Private institutions, on the other hand, may have more funding available.

The best way to get a sense of the tuition fees you will actually pay for a US PhD is to look up a few programmes in your subject and compare their prices. Just make sure you’re comparing the same thing: some universities will list fees per year, whereas others may list fees per semester or per credit.

In-state vs out-of-state

US universities don’t distinguish between international students and domestic fees in the same way as the UK. But public universities do differentiate between students from inside or outside their state. This is because ‘in-state’ students have their education partly subsidised by their state government. As an international student you’ll pay the same fee as a US student from ‘out-of-state’.

Living costs

The sheer size of the USA makes it almost impossible to offer accurate figures for student living costs across all 50 states. So we haven’t. You should definitely include this in your research and preparation though. Some parts of the USA are much more affordable than others. Your university’s international office may be able to help provide a sense of typical graduate student expenses for rent, groceries and travel.

See our guide to living in the USA during a PhD for more advice.

Other expenses

American universities will usually charge additional fees for processing graduate school applications. You’ll also need to budget for admissions tests, language tests and your visa.

Fulbright Postgraduate Scholarships

The US-UK Fulbright Commission is an organisation dedicated to fostering research connections between the United States and the United Kingdom.

Every year they offer postgraduate scholarships to talented British students to help them study at an American university (and vice versa).

A Fulbright Postgraduate Award offers the following benefits:

  • A contribution towards your tuition fees (this could cover the first year of fees or fully-fund the entire degree, depending on the award and institution)
  • Health insurance cover
  • Visa sponsorship

Fulbright Scholars will also gain valuable networking opportunities through a global alumni organisation, as well as support during their studies from the Institute of International Education (IIE).

There are a range of Fulbright Postgraduate Awards available, with some providing a fully-funded PhD degree and others only offering a one-year tuition fee waiver. You can check out the Fulbright Postgraduate Scholarships on their website.

Eligibility for Fulbright Postgraduate Awards

The main eligibility requirement for a US-UK Fulbright Award is, unsurprisingly, that you must be a British citizen. However, if you’re a foreign national settled in the UK you may also be able to apply.

You’ll also need an undergraduate result of at least a 2.1 (although a 2.2 may be accepted on a case-by-case basis).

As the primary goal of the US-UK Fulbright Commission is to foster new connections between the countries, the ideal candidate won’t have spent more than six months in the United States already.

Applying for a Fulbright Postgraduate Award

The application process for a Fulbright Award usually opens in August, with a deadline in early November.

You’ll need to make an online application with the following documents/details:

  • Academic transcripts
  • CV
  • Passport photo
  • Personal statement
  • References
  • Research objectives

You’ll also need to complete a separate application to the university you want to do your PhD at.

Shortlisted candidates will be invited to attend an interview in the following February.

Other Fulbright PhD scholarships

The above information focuses on the US-UK Fulbright Commission, which is part of a much larger network of organisations devoted to helping talented international students attend American universities.

Fulbright-Nehru Doctoral Fellowships, for example, offer Indian students the chance to complete a funded research placement (six to nine months) in the USA.

The Fulbright Foreign Student Program provides Nigerian doctoral students with the opportunity to conduct PhD research in the United States.

Fulbright Germany’s Doktorand:innenprogramm (PhD student programme) is a similar scheme to help German researchers complete work in the USA.

You can view Fulbright programmes by country on the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs website.

University PhD scholarships

It’s actually very common for US universities to provide fully-funded PhD programmes for international students, and relatively rare for successful candidates on graduate programmes to be entirely self-funding. The ‘sticker price’ for a US PhD may seem high, but it’s probably not the price you’ll end up paying.

Funding will take various forms. ‘Full-ride’ PhD scholarships will cover fees, living costs and other expenses. Other common options include partial fee discounts or full fee waivers.

In general, private universities will have more funding than public universities (though they will also have higher fees). You can search some of the PhD funding available using an official tool provided by Education USA. These results aren’t exhaustive though: make sure you also check with the university you are considering.

We’ve done some of the leg-work for you and produced a list of international PhD scholarships available at some of the top American universities, which you can check out below.


USA PhD funding
University Funding
Harvard University PhD scholarships
California Institute of Technology PhD scholarships
Stanford University PhD scholarships
Massachussetts Institute of Technology PhD scholarships
Princeton University PhD scholarships
University of California, Berkeley PhD scholarships
Yale University PhD scholarships
University of Chicago PhD scholarships
Columbia University PhD scholarships
Johns Hopkins University PhD scholarships
University of Pennsylvania PhD scholarships
University of California, Los Angeles PhD scholarships
Cornell University PhD scholarships
Duke University PhD scholarships
University of Michigan-Ann Arbor PhD scholarships
Northwestern University PhD scholarships
New York University PhD scholarships
Carnegie Mellon University PhD scholarships
University of Washington PhD scholarships
University of California, San Diego PhD scholarships

Assistantships

As well as awarding direct funding, it’s common for US universities to offer assistantship positions to their graduate students. These are effectively a form of employment with the university: you will fulfil a selection of responsibilities in exchange for a stipend or a fee waiver.

Common types of assistantship include:

  • Graduate teaching assistantships – These involve teaching and mentoring undergraduate students on courses related to your subject. Responsibilities may include leading discussion groups, supervising essays and helping with course admin. Graduate students doing this kind of work are sometimes referred to as ‘TAs’ (teaching assistants) or ‘adjunct faculty’. Find out more about graduate teaching assistantships.
  • Research assistantships – These involve helping faculty with their research. Responsibilities may include collecting and recording routine data, monitoring experiments or helping set up equipment.
  • Administrative assistantships – These involve clerical, administrative and secretarial work for the university or graduate programme. Responsibilities may include data entry and management, assisting with meetings and other activities or helping with other routine office tasks.
  • Fellowships – These don’t involve additional work but may be conditional on maintaining a certain standard for your academic work or pursuing particular directions with your research.

Graduate teaching assistantships and research assistantships are the most common types of assistantship, but it’s worth checking to see what different universities offer.

Federal grants and aid

National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP)

The National Science Foundation’s GRFP is a long-established federal grant scheme for talented STEM graduate students in the USA, providing the opportunity of a fully-funded PhD. Past fellows include over 40 Nobel laureates.

The GRFP offers the following financial benefits over a three-year period:

  • $37,000 annual stipend
  • Tuition fee allowance of $12,000 (paid directly to the university)

Applicants for the NSF GRFP must be:

  • American citizens, permanent residents or nationals
  • Graduate students beginning a research-based Masters or PhD degree in a STEM subject
  • Embarking on Masters or PhD study for the first time

As you might expect, competition for these prestigious fellowships is high, with around 12,000 applications for 2,000 places.

There are four main elements to an NSF GRFP application:

  • Personal statement
  • Graduate research plan statement
  • Academic transcripts
  • Two or three reference letters

The deadline for submitting these documents is usually mid to late October, with the results announced at the beginning of April.

You can find out more on the NSF GRFP website.

Federal Student Aid for US students

If you’re a US citizen, you may be able to receive financial aid from the government to help fund your studies. Generally, international students are not eligible to apply except in very specific circumstances.

You’ll also need to have financial need, but there is no income cut-off to qualify for financial aid. Rather, there are several factors considered when assessing your application.

Unlike undergraduate students, Masters and PhD applicants are considered independent for financial aid purposes, meaning only your own income and assets are taken into account, as opposed to your parents’.

The types of federal aid available for postgraduate students include:

#1 Federal loans

Loans available for Masters students include Direct Unsubsidized Loans and Direct PLUS Loans.

For Direct Unsubsidized Loans, your university determines how much money you’re eligible to receive, up to an upper limit that depends on your personal circumstances. Find out more about Direct Unsubsidized Loan limits. Interest rates are currently set at 7.05% for the 2023-24 year.

Direct PLUS Loans don’t award a set amount. Instead, you can borrow up to the full cost of your Masters programme, minus any other forms of financial support you are receiving for it. Interest rates are set at 8.05% for the 2023-24 year.

To apply, you’ll need to be studying a course at 50% intensity or more (part-time programmes are eligible for direct plus loans, provided you study on a ‘half-time’ basis or greater). You’ll also need a good credit history to apply a Direct PLUS loan. You won’t normally be able to receive a Direct PLUS Loan if you have a record of credit default or overdue debt for existing loans. In some cases, a parent or other US citizen may endorse your application as a guarantor.

As a Masters student you won’t repay your loan until six months after you cease to be enrolled on your course. Note that this repayment period will normally still come into effect if you exit your graduate programme early.

Actual repayment plans vary, but you can view a set of guides from the US Department of Education.

#2 Work-study

Federal work study provides part-time jobs for US students who have financial need, to help them cover their living costs and tuition fees.

Roles can be on or off campus, and where possible related to your field of study. Off-campus jobs are generally for nonprofit organisations or public agencies, and must be performed in the public interest.

Postgraduate students may be paid by the hour or by salary, depending on the type of role performed. How many hours you’re allowed to work will be determined by your university’s financial aid office.

Federal work-study is generally not available for international students, but there are other ways to earn money alongside your studies. We cover this in our guide to working in the USA as a student.

Applying for financial aid

To apply for financial aid, you’ll need to submit a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form. Filling in the FAFSA involves creating an online account and receiving a unique FSA ID.

You should have access to the following documents and information when filling in the FAFSA:

  • Your social security number
  • Your driving license number (if you have one)
  • Your Alien Registration Number (of you are not a US citizen)
  • Tax documents or tax returns for yourself and your spouse (if married)
  • Records of any untaxed income, savings, cash or investments

The FAFSA form for becomes available for course starting the following year on 1 October annually. So if you’re planning to study a Masters or PhD starting in Autumn 2024, you’ll be able to fill in the FAFSA from 1 October 2023.

The FAFSA deadline for 2023-24 is 30 June 2024.

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Last Updated: 08 January 2024