What is a stipend?
The graduate stipend is basically a sum of money the college/university pays you, in regular intervals, not including tuition or credit remission, for your living expenses. Simply put, it’s the money the University pays you to sustain yourself while getting your PhD. This money may or may not come with a work component, depending on the institution. It will most probably come with academic stipulations, i.e. maintaining a certain number of credit hours per semester or a maintaining a certain GPA.
Why is it important?
The stipend is important because as you take on being a full-time PhD student and researcher, your stipend is your livelihood. I’m sure you’re aware that the PhD path will be a challenging one, so unless you have Ducktales money in the bank, the stipend may be your main source of income for rent, food, self-care and even professional endeavors such as presenting your work at conferences or buying data software. In many ways, thinking about the stipend before entering a graduate program is similar to inquiring about the salary and benefits for a new job.
Where do I start?
Start with research. Once you have a healthy list of programs you are interested in, start looking on the program websites for stipend information. You may have to look in graduate student handbooks or FAQ’s for potential students.
If you do not find information about the stipend online, you should ask someone. I know talking about money can feel taboo and makes some of us squeamish, but The Ebony Tower consensus is that you need this information and should definitely ask someone before applying. The office administrator or a current graduate student are good people to reach out to if you feel uncomfortable asking faculty.
What questions to ask?
Once you find out what the stipend is, find out what stipulations come with the stipend. Is there a TA/ RA (teaching assistant/ research assistant) component? How many hours are you required to work per week?
How many years of funding are guaranteed? Compare that with how many years it typically takes PhD students to complete their degree in the program. Is the stipend cycle year-long or only during the academic year? Do you get paid weekly/monthly/ per semester etc? And when is your first payment dispensed (this is important in order to plan paying for books and deposits on housing, first month’s rent, moving fees, etc.)?
And don’t overlook researching the cost of living in a particular city or state when considering an institution’s stipend. An amount that goes a long way in Columbus, Ohio will not go so long in San Francisco. Believe me!
Also be sure to ask about other types of funding. For example, does your stipend cover you during your research and dissertation writing periods, or will you need to find external funding? Does the program offer additional support for professional advancement (i.e. conferences, writing workshops) or would you have to pay for these things with your stipend? The goal is to minimize your student debt by avoiding the need for emergency student loans!
If you didn’t get a stipend
There may be hope if you don’t get a stipend! Some programs may offer funding to an unfunded PhD student they see potential in, in place of accepting as many new students the following year. However, I DO NOT recommend relying on that scenario for two reasons: (1) There’s no guarantee you’ll get funding and the long-term financial rewards of getting a PhD does not always outweigh the financial burden of funding your own PhD and (2) vying for funding in a department with limited amount of funds (which is most) is known to breed an environment of debilitating competition and distrust between students and generally overall in the department. So why do that?
The best thing to do is secure funding before you start your PhD program.
Even if you have to work a few odd jobs (as I did, babysitting and tutoring), do your research beforehand and get a stipend that enables you to navigate your graduate school experience with as few external stressors/ crises/ hiccups/ meltdowns… (lol now I’m just being morbid) as possible!