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I got accepted into a PhD program, but I wasn't offered any funding through assistantships. I emailed a person in charge, and I was told that if I receive good grades in the first semester, it would be possible to get funding. The email also seemed to suggest that there is still a chance that I could receive funding, but it's hard to understand since the email was strangely written.

I really want to go through with this, but I need to eat. Not only will I be out of state, but I need to start living like a human being. I don't even have a car for goodness sake. I finished paying off my undergraduate loans, which were significantly smaller because my family helped me out with that. But no one will help me with the graduate program.

What do I do? Do I be really upfront and clear that I need funding? I emailed the person back to make sure that if I get good grades that I'll get funded, and not just a vague potential of it. But I haven't asked about the possibility of getting some funding right off the bat (since they said I haven't been considered yet for it, and I don't want to be a nuisance).

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    Don't accept a PhD position without funding (unless you are independently wealthy and are self-funding your PhD). – Bryan Krause Apr 23 at 19:37
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    grades hardly mater in PhD programs. This is very weird. Don't go. – Azor Ahai Apr 23 at 19:42
  • Ok, so it sounds weird, not just me? I'm hoping they promise me some, but we will see... Would it be a bad idea to ask them about it? – etfhan Apr 23 at 19:50
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    I have heard of situations like this, but it seems like a lousy bet. Once you've shown that you're willing to enroll without a guarantee of funding, you lose your leverage in the future. If you can't get some sort of clearly articulated commitment to funding, take a pass. – Elizabeth Henning Apr 23 at 21:46
  • A bad bet. You're already willing to enroll for free? ... It's maybe not the individual faculty, but the administrative set-up, that will find no reason to pay you and not collect tuition from you if you're already willing to pay tuition... – paul garrett Apr 23 at 23:05
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My advice for "typical" students seeking a Ph.D. degree is that you should not pay tuition for the degree and that you should receive assistantship or fellowship funding to compensate you for the time you spend working as a research/teaching trainee with a faculty advisor or advisors.

Reputable doctoral programs have access to one or both of the following types of assistantship funding: teaching assistantships funded by the department, college, or university; and/or research assistantships funded by individual faculty or sometimes by the department. Fellowship funding might come from the university or from external sources.

If a department or faculty advisor has not committed funding for your Ph.D., then this means that other students (new or continuing) have been selected for funding ahead of you. When they tell you that you might receive funding if things go well, it usually also means that either someone else must leave the program unexpectedly early or that they will commit some of next year's funding to you instead of to an applicant in next year's cycle. This sometimes does work out but puts all of the financial risk on you, the student. This is not fair. For this reason, my department does not allow unfunded Ph.D. students. Do not take an unfunded offer of Ph.D. admission.

  • How do I go about stating my case? At the same time, I don't want to sound too annoying or pushy, but I definitely need funding. – etfhan Apr 23 at 23:06
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    @etfhan I'm sorry, but you don't have a case. They offered you it, you can't afford it. Attend another university – Azor Ahai Apr 23 at 23:24
  • My advice to you is to let them know that you will not attend without a funded offer. If you are willing to wait for a final decision, let them know your deadline. – alerera Apr 24 at 1:40
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    you should not pay tuition for the degree - for STEM in the US, I agree, but I think standards can vary quite a bit with the area (both academic and geographic). – Kimball Apr 24 at 3:07
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In the U.S., in mathematics, if you are accepted to a Ph.D. program without funding, there's already something suspicious... Most good places do not do this any more, though 30-40 years ago it was more common.

At best, if you enter that program, you've already been appraised as not as promising as the people who are funded. Given the limited staffing for advising/mentoring and supervising research, you're starting out at the very back of the line. And, indeed, staffing for scientifically expert mentors and so on is one of the not-so-publicized difficulties in graduate programs.

At least in mathematics... absolutely only go to a PhD program that will pay your tuition and give you a stipend. Even if you're "accepted" to an allegedly better program without funding, the odds are strongly against your coming out of that stronger program in a good situation.

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I'm going to have to guess that it might be best to consider taking a pass on the offer. The possibility of funding under these circumstances seems slim, and aren't likely to improve.

If you are willing to take the risk, you could just inform them that you would be unable to accept their offer without adequate funding. They might well withdraw the offer and you would need to look elsewhere.

But, unless you think this is the best offer you are going to get, it might be time to reassess, look elsewhere, and try to build up your finances. It might be a longer, but possible, path to your goals.

But if you start and don't get funded, then you are already on the longer path. Think carefully about the risk and the options.

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I have some experience: I got into a PhD program in mathematics without funding (this was in 2006). I had a bad undergrad GPA, mediocre subject GRE scores, but good grades in my math courses and some strong letters of recommendation. So they were willing to take a chance by admitting me, but I had to "prove myself" to get funding. I was able to impress some people with my work, and pass preliminary exams quickly, so was offered support in my second semester.

As far as whether you should: This is a really big risk. You need to think carefully about what your chances of success are, and what financial possibilities your degree will open for you. Are there well-paying jobs available outside of academia? Also, if you don't get offered support your second semester, do you stay one more? What if you don't get offered support in your second year? When do you cut your losses?

I would really only do this if you feel like you have not been performing up to your full potential for some reason leading into grad school (health problems, youthful mistakes, etc.). In this case you have a good chance to prove that you are in fact capable of being a successful student worthy of funding. Otherwise, I would pass.

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