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Some Ph.D. programs charge tuition fees. Others are competitive.

Does a Ph.D. done by paying tuition fees have the same gravity as a Ph.D. done on stipend when it comes to an 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 '19 at 2:36
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    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 '19 at 11:53
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    @Dawn Or when you get a funded PhD in France that covers your employment for 3 years in terms of full salary, travel and publishing expenses, but still expects you to pay your (symbolic) tuition fees like any other French student. – penelope Jun 25 at 11:32
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    In my opinion, after a stage you need to be paid to study, so no. Even if a PhD is seen as an apprenticeship for academia, I support paid apprenticeships. – user117109 Jun 25 at 15:16
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+50

The answers above say that no one will ever know how you funded your PhD. I somehow disagree with it. At least in social science where self-funded PhDs are not so uncommon and PhD programs often ask if you anticipate you can attend the program without any financial aids provided, the prospective hiring committees can learn how your studies was funded from your CVs. It is reasonable that you don't mention any information about your funding source if you are self-funded, but keep in mind that other PhD candidates on the job market would mention theirs if they received a grant. So if you don't mention this, it implies you don't have any grant. THEY WILL KNOW.

Tips for you is to find some CVs of PhD candidates in your subject/field to see how frequently they clearly state it.

Besides, how good is your dissertation significantly overweighs how your PhD is funded. This is of course true but not to everyone. The rejection rates of a postdoc position in a reputable research group or a faculty position are quite high nowadays. Once you're on a shortlist, you are faced with a cohort of candidates whose profiles are almost equally interesting to the hiring committees. Various factors play a role in the final decisions and usually the hiring committees will have deliberation unless someone is obviously much better than others. The grant you received in your PhDs is a signal. The signal tells them either that your past merits are not fully matching the reputation of your university (means if you request for fellowship, you're very likely to be not admitted to the university you're in but a much less reputable one) OR you're not that good among your peers (assume if you again fail to secure funding in your later years of PhDs unless you can prove that there is a convention in your program for PhD students to be self-funded). It's a negative signal even when other candidates and you are equally matched.

My conclusion is unless you assure you can do a great job achieving a good record of publication under the supervision of your advisor OR the universities you're going to self-fund are extremely excellent (as even your work there is mediocre, at least the title of you university can send you to a well-paid position in industry), let's say Oxford or Cambridge as what has been discussed above, self-funding is never recommended.

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  • there are some countries where there are no ways of doing PhDs without paying tuition fees. E.g. Portugal. – user366312 Jun 26 at 17:21
  • I got accepted to a PhD program in Lisbon and 90% of my tuition fees were waived. Besides, Portugal provides FCT scholarships for PhD students to apply for. I learn in some countries tuition fees always need to be paid either via the scholarships or own funding, but as long as you can secure a PhD grant, it doesn't lie in the scope I discussed. – Finley Huaxin Jun 26 at 17:37
  • I got accepted to a Ph.D. program in Lisbon and 90% of my tuition fees were waived. --- could you kindly tell me how that process works? I am seriously considering Portugal. – user366312 Jun 26 at 18:24
  • It's a structured PhD program of Universidade NOVA de Lisboa. Tuition fees are automatically waived based on the application's merits. And this is renewed each year. I think it may depend on the program. – Finley Huaxin Jun 26 at 18:32
  • Where can I inquire about this? – user366312 Jun 26 at 18:42
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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.

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    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 '19 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 '19 at 10:43
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    Good answer. As an exception to Who paid for the PhD never enters these sorts of considerations would be if you get a graduate fellowship that you applied for such as an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship. However, even the "bump" of those fellowships fades after a person's 1st job. – Richard Erickson Jun 25 at 13:26
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    I don't necessarily agree with the statement that "Nobody will ever know. In fact, nobody will likely ever ask you about this.". I remember this question come up multiple times in interviews. When we see zero teaching experience on a CV, the interviewee is often asked if he or she had RA positions or fellowship. It makes a difference for a position with heavy teaching load. – ssquidd Jun 25 at 21:33
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    I also disagree that nobody will ever ask. It is a normal question in my field and, in addition, it is one of the most common CV entries of receiving grants. A PhD scholarship or bursary goes a long way to address that very important pont in an entry-level CV. – user117109 Jun 26 at 15:04
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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.
  • Ditto for certain, extremely competitive institutions (e.g., Oxford).
  • Perhaps in some countries, the financial gap between funded and unfunded positions is less wide.

But I usually don't recommend taking an unfunded position, especially in thu US, because:

  • 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, you should be realistic about your odds of eventually getting one of the ~dozen faculty jobs in your field that are open each year. Of course, it is not impossible, but I would strongly consider other options with a better risk/reward ratio. It could even make more sense to spend a year or two strengthening your application and then reapply for the funded position.
  • Fiveish years of tuition fees + living expenses is very expensive. 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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    This is extremely bad advice and is un-necessarily discouraging to the user. Unlike in USA and Canada (and probably many parts of Europe) where essentially all PhD programs come with a stipend, Oxford doesn't work that way and while many people do get scholarships, many people pay their own fees. Getting into Oxford (funded or not) is harder than getting a funded PhD position at many other places. But more importantly, you are saying that an undergrad not "good enough" to get a funded PhD is unlikely to be "good enough" for a faculty job. It's completely wrong. People bloom at different stages – user1271772 Jun 25 at 16:56
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    Thanks for your note. I added a caveat about very prestigious institutions, which should address your first criticism. To your second point -- sorry, I disagree; while it is true that people bloom at different stages, we have to be realistic about how competitive the job market is. The alternative would be analogous to encouraging someone who couldn't make their college football team to go deeply into debt so they can pursue a career in the national league. – cag51 Jun 25 at 17:42
  • Personally I excelled as an undergrad and graduated with a dazzling CV, got a very competitive full scholarship to Oxford, and began my PhD while friends that started their undergrad with me were doing their 5th or 6th year of undergrad or spending a year not knowing what to do with their lives; but as grad students they became interested in academia, had a series of successful experiments which led them to immediate faculty positions (even earlier than me). Dmitri Iouchtchenko is one of the best grad students I've ever met, but he entered his MSc in 2013 with no scholarships, then got several – user1271772 Jun 25 at 17:59
  • awards/scholarships in 2015, 2017, 2018 and again in 2018 as you can see here (no funding in 2013 or 2014 though, he told me that his grades were hit-or-miss during undergrad... some 90s and some 60s). The part that strikes me as a little unfair is that you say "if you're not currently good enough to get any of the ~thousand funded PhD slots" - this seems a bit harsh. Some people don't adjust well to living away from their parents (or moving to a different country to study, often needing to learn a new language). They are "good enough", but blossom later – user1271772 Jun 25 at 18:02
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    +1 - This is my standard advice. In the U.S. at least, an unfunded PhD offer should be viewed as a soft rejection. – Fomite Jun 26 at 9:30
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France

In France, paying tuition fees is not the same as paying for your PhD. This is just a technicality in terminology, but I think it's good to have this information for completeness.

PhD students in France are in a really odd sort of limbo -- French academic system is organised into institutes which work closely with Universities. The institutes provide the Professors for the courses at the University, and in exchange the University acts as a primary pool to get students in for summer projects, internships and finally PhD programmes; and also serves as a host institution for PhD students. This means that a PhD candidate in France is, at the same time, an employee of the institute, and a student at the University.

A funded PhD in France therefore means the following:

  • An external body (e.g. the French government, a foriegn government, or a company) will sponsor the PhD, ensure the funds for 3 years of (gross) salary, publication and travel costs, i.e. they cover the employment of the PhD candidate and expenses one is expected to incur during this time.

    I'm not sure if equipment is something provided through this funding, or by the host institute. I think there's a good chance this funding might cover any visa or other immigration expenses, or the institute might, if you ask nicely.

  • The PhD candidate pays for yearly student tuition fees to the host University themselves. This is often a hidden cost which nobody remembers to warn you about.

    Fortunately, this is a minimal cost: when I was doing my PhD, it was around €400 a year. Not a pleasant surprise when you're on a measly PhD salary, but definitely affordable, and unfortunately unavoidable.

Summary: Obtaining funding for a PhD programme in France is very competitive. Proceeding without funding would mean you are doing a full-time job for 3 years for no compensation, and since not even your publication costs or travel costs would be covered, I doubt any advisor would accept such a candidate. On the other hand, all the PhD students in France pay their own student tuition fees, which are however very low and affordable.

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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 '19 at 16:03
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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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  • You might want to put a caveat that Oxbridge is an exception. Someone graduating from Oxford University unfunded is more likely to land a faculty job than someone graduating from Oxford Brooks that was fully funded. – user1271772 Jun 25 at 17:02
  • This is poor advice, or at least extremely very field specific. Firstly, no one I've ever met, nor non of the hundreds of CVs i've looked at lists their PhD studentship as grant capture. This is, at least in part, because for most studentship it is the supervisor that applies for the money, and then finds a student, rather than the student applying for the money and then finding a supervisor. Because of this no one will know if you were funded or not. As far as teaching opportunities go - in STEM no one expects you to have teaching experience, and most early-career jobs are research only. – Ian Sudbery Jun 26 at 16:14
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All PhDs charge tuition fees, the question is not whether they are charged, but who pays. In those "competitive" cases you posted above a 3rd party research funder will be paying the fees.

You'll also note that to get one of the funded places "you must either be eligible for employment in the Netherlands or obtain a knowledge worker visa to qualify for a paid PhD position". This goes for the UK as well - a student must be British, or an EU citizen usually resident in the UK (and this will stop at the end fo this year). One of the most common reasons for people to do self funded PhDs, at least in the sciences, is because they are not eligable for a funded position, usually due to nationality.

Thus, being a self-funded student brings no judgement - all universities accept both funded and unfunded students, and many unfunded students are unfunded simply because they were barred from apply for funded positions. In the end, a CV will not say either way whether your PhD was funded or unfunded.

A 4-year self-funded PhD will set you back about 120,000 - 150,000 euros, including about 15,000 a year to living expenses.

Why do you want a PhD? I can think of three reasons:

  1. Financial. This is subtle. For example, in Biology, people with PhDs earn less that those with just an undergrad degree. But thats because most undergrad degree holders don't stay in biology. Within Biology (industrial, commercial or academic), those with PhDs earn much more than those without. A PhD will cost you around 150,000 euros. Whether you will recoup this in the length of a career is something only someone in your industry can tell you.
  2. You want to be an academic. Only about 2-3% of students, funded or unfunded, will make it as far as a permanent faculty level position. Now, if you are getting paid to do a PhD you might think its worth rolling the dice. But if you are paying for the privilege of only having a 3% chance of a job? Only you can say. Also bear in mind that if you were eligible for a paid position, and didn't get one, you must ask yourself why. There may be good reasons. Perhaps admissions tutors don't think highly of your school. Or perhaps you are in a minority that is discriminated against. But it is also possible, in the kindest way, knowing nothing about you, that you are not in the top part of your class. I'm not saying other people will imply this about you because your self-funded (people won't know, see above), but it might never-the-less be the case.
  3. Because you love the subject, you've got the money in savings, and want something worthwhile to spend it on. Only you can say if this is "worth it". If a PhD will make you cry, it will stress you out. You will hate your subject and everyone in it. I large number of student experience mental health problems in a PhD. But, it can be the most special experience and meaningful experience, in-and-of itself (as opposed to a means to an end). 3-4 years to do something for no other reasons than you think it is cool/interesting/important.
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