Are you thinking about applying to a PhD program? Are you already a doctoral student? PhD is a huge investment of time and money. So make sure you spend 15 minutes of your time reading this blog devoted to PhD program success and survival tips. I'm confident that these tips can save up to 10 years of your life, up to $1,000,000 of your money, and, most importantly, your physical and emotional health.
Friday, March 27, 2009
It is true that most doctoral programs offer full tuition waiver and some sort of a stipend (usually around $20,000 per year). Before you accept an offer from a PhD program, you have to consider some of the factors that don't seem to be obvious. First of all, you really have to "read the small font". Just like car saleswoman, your prospective school may be playing dirty tricks with you. For example, full tuition waiver may not include "other fees". So you may still end up paying 1-2K for tuition per semester. Also, there may be a "as long as the student is in a good academic standing". This may mean that you will get the support for up to four years. Since most PhD students do not graduate withing 4 years, you may be facing a very real possibility of paying full, "out of state" tuition for the last year or two of you studies.... In the worst case scenario, this may be around 6K per "long" semester. Usually, there are ways to get around this. But it will cost you a lot of time and nerves to extend your financial support beyond what is considered by the school a "normal" length of a program.
Even if you don't take into account this dirty financial tricks, $20,000 (or even $30,000) per year may not be enough to live a decent life. You will need money for vocation (if you are planning to live 5 years without a vacation you are a prospective candidate for a mental house). You need money for textbooks. You need money to go to conferences (some departments provide some sort of support for graduate student travel, but this may not be enough). To get a feel of how it is like to live on 20K, you have to talk to folks working at McDonald's. But keep in mind that they are likely to be making more money on per hour basis than you. I have two friends who got out of graduate schools with debt pushing the $100,000 mark. As for me, after living a quite frugal lifestyle, I spent around $50,000 of my own money after 5 years in a PhD program.
Also, don't forget to factor in the opportunity cost. Let's assume that before you get into a PhD program you have a job paying around $50,000 a year... Let's say you manage to save $10,000 a year for the next five years. If you put invest this money at 5% a year, you will end up with roughly $140,000 in 20 years. This is the difference you may never be able to make up even if you end up having a decent academic job after you graduate (see this post). I've know a person, a former mid-level executive, who decided to become a professor after many years in the industry. After more than 6 years in a PhD program, he estimated his opportunity cost at around $1,000,000.
From an economic perspective, a "free" graduate program may be a good deal only to a guy from a poor Indian, Chinese, or Russian village. This, in part, may explain why there are so many foreign students in graduate programs.