Tell your academic mentor that you're thinking of going for your PhD, and they'll tell you, "Unless they're offering full funding, don't do it." It's conventional wisdom in academic circles, but conventional wisdom is something like an old wives' tale. Sometimes it's right. Sometimes its not. If you read free Phd on a program's website, don't just assume it's a completely free PhD program – always read the small print! More often, you'll see the term fully funded in graduate school literature, so let's clarify the meaning of "free PhD" and "fully funded PhD."
The meaning of "fully funded PhD" can be tricky. If you mean paying nothing at all, ever, for a PhD, you might be wrong – but you might be right. Full funding may simply mean tuition is paid, in which case books, supplies, and fees are coming out of your pocket. But full funding, at a very generous university, may mean exactly what it sounds like – everything you need is paid, with no money (or student loans) from you.
However, free PhD programs come at a cost. That's why you'll rarely find a free online PhD – most free PhD programs are on-campus. Why? They're free because you pay in your time, teaching or doing research. Free online PhD programs might be rare, but online PhDs can earn their own keep with flexibility, convenience, and affordability. They may not be free, but online PhD programs are usually cheaper than on-campus PhDs, unless they're fully funded.
Online more your speed? Check out our most recent ranking – Top 50 Best Online Phd Programs.
What Do We Mean By Fully Funded?
If you're looking into getting a free PhD, look at the package. The Package: Every university's "fully funded" package is a little different, depending on what the school can afford, but there are generally two essential elements:
- Tuition paid in full
- Stipend for living expenses
Having your tuition paid in full is nice, but there are a lot of other expenses involved in getting a PhD. There's also a lot of time involved in getting a PhD, and the rigor of a serious PhD program means it will be very difficult to work a full-time job and earn the degree. A stipend for living expenses can help out tremendously, even if it's just $14-$15,000 a year (a common range).
However, better programs will offer more. Look for:
Health Insurance – Many fully funded PhD programs will offer health insurance, at least for the student as an individual; some very generous programs will offer more comprehensive plans for the student's spouse and children as well. It's a PhD program – lots of students will be well into their 30s, with families to support. Health insurance goes a long way to making life a little less stressful.
Research/Travel Funding – To compete on the academic job market, you've got to do research, publish, and show up to present at conferences. If you don't manage to do those things while you're still a student, you may already be dead in the water when you graduate and hit the job market. But traveling to conferences is expensive (especially if you're living on $15,000 per year). A PhD program with extra research and travel funding is doing it right.
Your PhD Program: Teaching or No Teaching?
It's not an iron-clad rule, but it's pretty certain – if you're getting a fully funded PhD, you're going to have to do some teaching or research. Most of the time, the stipend for living expenses is tied to a research assistantship or teaching assistantship. That means working for one of the tenured professors, either helping with research, or helping in the classroom. For some part of your week, you'll be looking up citations, finding sources, and entering data (if you're a research assistant), or leading discussion groups, grading exams, and fetching coffee (you wish we were joking).
It's also pretty common that, after the first year as an assistant, you'll take on a class or two completely on your own, as the teacher of record. These assistantships have their upsides and their downsides, like anything else in life. On the upside, they give you valuable experience teaching and doing real academic research, experience that helps you feel more confident in the classroom, and gives you some good stories to tell in job interviews (or over drinks with friends). On the downside, teaching takes time and energy, and it can be easy to forget that your first priority is to get your degree – the teaching is actually secondary. But just try telling that to the students who are paying their tuition for your class.
We're not saying that a teaching requirement for a fully funded PhD program is a good thing or a bad thing; that's for each student to decide. We are saying that it's a reality you'll have to cope with, so be sure you're sure – you may have to teach. Ask any teacher – you're as ready as you'll ever be.