Options for Graduate School Financial Aid

Ideally, mastering doctorate-level academic material should be a bigger challenge than paying for graduate school, but the reality is that many doctoral students find the financial hurdle much more vexing. Knowing what resources are available to you--in terms of both information and graduate school financial aid--can help you ease the financial burden and concentrate on your studies.


Make no mistake about it, earning a doctorate degree is expensive, but it is also a sound investment. A doctorate degree can boost both your earning potential and career options. The trick, then, is to get past the short-term financial hurdle in order to reap the long-term rewards of earning your doctorate.

Evaluating Doctoral and PhD Programs

The starting point in the process of paying for graduate school is to evaluate PhD programs to find the one that is right for you. This involves more than simply finding a good PhD program in your area of study. The cost of different programs is also a factor. You should consider all your options, including earning a PhD online.

Whether you earn your PhD online or in person, you should check the school for proper accreditation through the U.S. Department of Education. Because accreditation affects your financial aid option, you may want to limit the field to properly accredited schools. After that, make a priority list according to suitability, reputation, and cost. Establishing the cost gives you a target to shoot for, at which point you can start exploring ways of paying for graduate school to meet that target.

Graduate School Financial Aid: Overview

The general hierarchy of financial aid is:

  1. Grants, fellowships, and scholarships for graduate students
  2. Assistantships
  3. Student Loans

Awards are listed in descending priority order from least to most burdensome.

PhD Scholarships, Fellowships, and Grants

What grants, fellowships, and scholarships all have in common is that they are awards that don't require ongoing work or service on your part, and they don't have to be repaid as long as you continue to meet all requirements. This is what makes them the most attractive form of financial aid--they have the fewest strings attached. Unfortunately, federal grants are focused on undergraduate students, so for your doctoral studies you want to concentrate on PhD scholarships and fellowships.

PhD scholarships and fellowships are both forms of financial awards given specifically to help fund your education. Fellowships are typically based on academic achievement and potential, whereas PhD scholarships may be based on academics, financial aid, or affiliation with a specific community group or employer. Fellowships and scholarships for graduate students are often contingent upon maintaining a particular threshold of academic achievement and progress during your studies.

Graduate school scholarships and fellowships are often available through particular schools, but also may be awarded by a variety of governmental, charitable, or business sources. You should first check out what graduate school scholarships and fellowship are available that aren't associated with a particular school, because these give you some flexibility in your choice of PhD programs. Ultimately though, knowing what graduate student scholarships are available from individual schools could impact your choice of institution.

Assistantships for Doctoral Students

Assistantship can be thought of as a high-level form of work-study program. You receive a stipend in return for performing some form of service for the college or university. This service often involves something related to your area of study, such as assisting with teaching or research.

The nature of assistantships is such that they are offered by the academic institution, so finding out what assistantships are available for doctoral students may be an important consideration in your choice of school.

Student Loans for Your Doctorate Studies

After you've secured any of the above forms of financial aid that you can, you may still have a gap in financing your doctorate degree. If so, a student loan may be the best way to fill that gap.

Student loans are available through both government programs and private lenders. You may want to start with government loans because they generally carry advantageous interest rates and/or repayment terms. To apply for a federal student loan, you would complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

If you are still paying off loans from your undergraduate studies, think about whether you should consolidate your old debt into a new student loan. Consolidating student loans makes sense if you can save on interest rates or defer the time when you need to start making payments. You can also look into loan deferment options for your undergraduate loans when you enroll in graduate school.

Financing graduate school can be a puzzle that takes several pieces to solve--scholarships or fellowships, assistantships, and student loans. Once that puzzle is complete, you might be better able to picture yourself receiving your doctorate degree.



  • Department of Education: Accreditation in the United States, Ed.gov
  • Department of Education: Student Aid on the Web: Graduate and Professional Students, Ed.gov
  • Department of Education: Student Aid on the Web: Funding Your Education, Ed.gov
  • University of Tennessee, Knoxville: Fellowships, Assistantships, and Other Funding Sources, Gradschool.utk.edu

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