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Some PhD programs charge tuition fees. Others are competitive.

Does a PhD done by paying tuition fees have the same gravity as a PhD done on stipend when it comes to academic career?

When does it really make any sense to pursue a Ph.D. by paying tuition fees?

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    This is perhaps too flippant for an answer, but I am tempted to say: when you are wealthy and are viewing the PhD as a form of leisure consumption. – Dawn May 5 at 2:36
  • Being funded by a teaching assistantship may be a positive point when applying for one's first teaching job, especially if one has taught whole classes (as opposed to holding recitation sections, grading papers, etc.) and has done a good job. – Andreas Blass May 5 at 11:53
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Nobody will ever know. In fact, nobody will likely ever ask you about this.

At the end of the day, for an academic career, what matters is that you have a PhD and have shown an ability to do independent research. Who paid for the PhD never enters these sorts of considerations: You may have been funded on grants and only done research, or you may have been a teaching assistant to get a salary and have tuition paid, or you may have paid for the tuition yourself. It really doesn't matter, and nobody will care. What people do care about are your qualifications.

  • What they care about is your capability of applying, using or passing on what you have been taught... – Solar Mike May 5 at 7:34
  • I think this answer is too optimistic. If you are paying tuition, you are presumably in the bottom x% of admits. Unless you learn quickly, you may also be in the bottom x% of graduates. If you are in a field where the bottom PhD graduates get jobs that are not much better than those an undergrad could get, it does not make much sense to pay for a PhD. – Dawn May 5 at 20:15
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    I'd say it depends on the wider context. If the university is known (or speculated) to be a paid-for PhD mill, where you are quasi-guaranteed a PhD for paying a certain amount of money, then many people will certainly be very cautious wrt hiring OP. – Frank Hopkins May 6 at 10:43
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UK perspective

Unfortunately, self-funded PhD students are often regarded as ipso facto less suitable for an academic career than PhD students funded by a grant.

The reason for this is that, rightly or wrongly, an important criterion for many academic jobs involving research is "grant capture" or "research income". For an early-career academic applying for a job, grants obtained for/during PhD studies are valuable in demonstrating to a hiring panel that the candidate has a track-record of obtaining grants.

On the other hand, self-funded PhD students in the UK tend to end up with more teaching work, and it is arguable that having lots of teaching experience is more relevant than "research income" for an early-career academic, since a lot of early-career academic jobs in the UK are "teaching-only". Many universities are wont to informally discriminate in favour of self-funded students when it comes to allocating teaching work (by the way, this practice is probably illegal, and is morally wrong, since funded PhD students still need lots of teaching experience if they are to be taken seriously by the academic profession these days, so I would argue that the allocation of teaching work to PhD students should be determined solely on the basis of who would do the best job for a given topic/module/course [declaration of interest: I am a fully funded PhD student, permitted to do up to six hours' teaching per week under the terms of my funding, but have been given more like six hours per term, despite being far better qualified for many topics than the self-funded students who got allocated teaching work on such topics])

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Agree with the other answers saying no one will ever know how you funded your PhD. But, I don't see anyone addressing this:

When does it really make any sense to pursue a Ph.D. by paying tuition fees?

Blunt answer: very rarely. If you already have a job in industry doing research and need a PhD to progress, it could make sense. But professorships and similar positions in industry are incredibly competitive -- if you're not currently good enough to get any of the ~thousand funded PhD slots, it is maybe a bit naive to think you'll eventually be good enough to get one of the ~dozen faculty jobs in your field that are open each year. Further, don't neglect how expensive ~5 years of tuition fees + living expenses is -- even with a high-paying job, it can be difficult to pay back that level of debt, particularly since many industry jobs (and quite a few faculty jobs) tend to be in a high cost-of-living area.

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In the US, all schools that I know of charge tuition and fees. So there is no dichotomy of programs in this sense. Though some schools do not allow students to attend their doctoral program without having funding to pay that tuition/fees, either by a fellowship or from their advisor's grants, or perhaps via industry sponsor. I suspect this is because the faculty don't want to promise any time to advise students when they aren't getting funded for their own lab as part of the deal. The funding source, if there is one, then pays the tuition/fees. Beyond that, "self-funded" students are generally the same as those with fellowships; they can choose their project more freely and are not committing part of their time to being lowly research or teaching assistants. They may well have an industry job instead.

One drawback of course is a student is not a great judge of what is a good direction. Whereas the advisor's dogged pursuit of grants would tend to pull their own projects in the direction of more important problems which are probably better for the student's career. Choosing one's own direction also requires a patient advisor who is willing to continue advising while the student does run off and chases their own interests more freely.

At an opposite extreme is advisors who treat self- (or externally-) funded students the same as if the advisor was providing the funding anyway. I.e. they expect to set tasks and supervise the student, rather than simply advise them. Then you're paying out of pocket to be a research assistant. Which is certainly unfair.

As for whether there is some kind of ranking in the mind of hiring committees or firms down the road, regarding how you were funded, nope. A PhD is a PhD. It's primarily a hazing process anyway. The self-funded student will just be missing that line in the CV regarding your assistantship, which many do not put anyway since it is pre-doctoral.

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    In the US, all schools that I know of charge tuition and fees. — My US (public R1) university waives tuition for all students on teaching or research assistantships. No, this does not mean that the tuition is paid from a different pile of money. The tuition is actually waived; the university does not receive the money at all. – JeffE May 5 at 16:03

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