Several graduate schools in the US offer free PhD programs, but we shouldn’t generalize just yet. Depending on your degree, your background, and which school you would like to attend, you might have better chances of getting a free PhD. Let’s start by assessing the costs of a program and how to receive funding.
How much to graduate school cost?
Graduate school can be quite pricey in the US. Only very few schools offer free graduate-level degrees to all accepted students. The cost per year varies depending on the university. State and private universities have average yearly tuition plus fees costs of $30,000 and 40,000, respectively (source). A PhD in most cases, is no different than standard graduate degrees; therefore, they can be very costly. Especially if we consider it takes several years to complete a PhD due to its difficulty and research requirements.
Some US universities offer free tuition to grad students looking to earn a PhD. In most cases, those universities will restrict this benefit for only in-state students or a specific field of study. For example, if they are looking to build or expand their Mathematics department, then they will offer fully-funded Mathematics doctorate programs. The main challenges with those programs are that you might be ineligible, or it might just be too difficult to get accepted. If you are from out of state or you are not interested in any of the tuition-free majors, then that university won’t work for you. Also, since universities advertise their fully funded programs, they receive thousands of applications from all over the world. It is not impossible to get accepted, but it is a big challenge.
How to fund your PhD (free tuition)?
Universities build part of their prestige upon innovative research and discoveries by PhD students or research professors. For that reason, US universities might want to fund your PhD. When the PhD is fully supported, then you don’t have to pay for tuition and fees. There are two main ways to fund your PhD: GA and RA positions.
GAs and RAs
A GA position is a Graduate Assistantship, and an RA is a Research Assistantship. If you are awarded a GA position, then you will perform GA related work. A GA is basically a Teaching Assistant but at the graduate level. In many cases, you will grade homework, grade tests, and assist during classes. The RA position is a bit different. When you are an RA, you get paid for doing research. In the first few years of your program, you might be mostly focusing on courses, but sooner or later, you will have to go very in-depth into the research world. It is a huge benefit to get an RA position; you get paid because of your research work. You are funding your education through your research.
Having a GA or an RA position gives you a great advantage. They both help you pay for your PhD. The only difference is the type of work you are performing for each funding opportunity. If you get a GA position while starting your PhD and you are worried you won’t have enough time for research. Don’t worry just yet. Once you are in the department, you can get connected with professors and seek for an RA slot.
Summary: If you want to get funding for your PhD look for Graduate Assistantships or Research Assistantships. Do not get overwhelmed with the process. I suggest getting connected right away with faculty and staff to be aware of all funding opportunities.
This is not the most common path to fund your PhD, but I thought it might be useful for some. Several US universities, especially state institutions, have tuition waivers for university employees and staff. The waivers might cover all the costs or a subset of credit hours. If you work at a university or are looking into working in the academic world, research about this possible perk. If the school offers the perk, then you can earn credit while you work at no cost. It will take you longer to complete your graduate degree, but it is still an outstanding benefit.
Can you get paid for a PhD?
Short answer: Yes.
In the previous paragraphs, we explained the concept of funding your tuition and fees with GA or RA positions. But what about room and board? There are many costs associated with dedicating several years of your life to a full-time program. Luckily, universities can pay you to earn a PhD.
You can receive funding from several sources. In most cases, you can receive a stipend through your institution or your advisor. If the stipend is provided by the institution, then there is usually a standard rate. If your advisor offers to pay you a stipend based on your work, then they will give you their own number. A good estimate for a graduate stipend is $1,500 a month. With that pay, you probably won’t be able to save much, but at least you can pay for basic personal expenses.
How to get started?
The first step into getting into a PhD program and getting paid for it is to be very competitive. Work on building skills that will be beneficial for your field of study or research in general. Also, be prepared for taking standardized tests to prove your skills in reading, writing, and math. The most you can impress a potential advisor or a graduate admission board, the higher the probability they will offer you an attractive acceptance package. Do not be afraid of asking for funding; it is of crucial importance. Are you ready to get started searching for universities (and funding)? You should read this article:
How to get into a Ph.D. program? 7 crucial steps to success