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I recently accepted a PhD program offer of roughly $21,000 for a year (2 semesters) of TA work. I will be attending a university in the USA, and I am studying computer science, if that affects the answer. If I drop out before going through the whole program, do I have to pay anything back? My girlfriend was concerned about this.

I already looked for a duplicate answer on Academia Stack Exchange but didn't find any.

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    It is country and university specific. In France we have Écoles normales supérieures. I was paid by one to get my PhD, but in return I signed a contract with the French State. However, your interest is to get a PhD.... – Basile Starynkevitch Apr 30 at 5:45
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It would be almost unheard of in the US for you to be asked to pay back money in such an arrangement. But note that you are probably paid monthly, and if you quit in the middle of a year, the monthly payments will stop then, and you won't see the entire amount.

You aren't promised the total, but only an amount that will come to that total if you see it through.

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    As a curiosity, up to about 20 years ago, PhD students who dropped out in my country had to pay back all the money earned during the year in which they dropped out (I did my PhD under these terms). Luckily, rules have changed. – Massimo Ortolano Apr 29 at 20:25
  • @MassimoOrtolano What country? – Nathan Apr 30 at 16:03
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    @Nathan Italy. PhD scholarships are largely funded by the government with an additional portion from the university (this portion varies from university to university). At the time, in case of drop out, they wanted the money back from the beginning of the year (this probably happened also if you were fired from the PhD program). – Massimo Ortolano Apr 30 at 17:04
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    I've heard of something similar where MD-PhD students would drop out of just the MD portion. They would be required to pay back the Med School tuition they received. – noslenkwah Apr 30 at 20:50
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If it is actually structured as a salary for TA work (not a generic scholarship), in general it's not possible for the university to claim any amount paid for actual work done since it would be your wage; otherwise it would be wage theft and illegal under labour laws.

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    This is correct, with the caveat that if you quit mid-semester you may in fact be on the hook for at least some tuition for that semester (TA line wages are generally accounted for separately from the tuition waiver / scholarship). I've never seen someone quit a TAship mid semester so I'm not sure if & how that would be enforced. – user120011 Apr 29 at 21:42
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    @CJR If I quit, I very much hope it will be a reasonably well-considered decision rather than one made in the middle of the stress of the semester. But thanks for the note – Nathan Apr 30 at 16:04
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    @Nathan I wouldn't really recommend starting out your relationship with your grad school by asking questions about how much money you get to keep if you quit. Just ask if the taxes on your stipend are a W2. That will give you your answer. – Jeff Apr 30 at 21:28
  • @Jeff If you wanted to make this comment an answer, I would probably accept it. It doesn't exactly answer the question in the header, but it solves my next step, haha. Maybe something like "almost certainly not, for a U.S. university, but to check for certain, just ask if the taxes on your stipend are a W2" – Nathan May 1 at 1:41
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    @Nathan It is your life, your decision. Personally, I would hope that the acceptance letter unambiguously spells out terms (it probably does). Failing that, I would ask for clarification on anything I was unsure about. – emory May 2 at 13:42
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Norway

Since I am living in Norway, I will answer for our country. At this point this might seem like a list of answers for all countries.

As for the current rules, Lånekassen is in charge of granting scholarships (stipend) and loans (lån). As long as you are studying fulltime, you have a right to taking up loans granted that you're not a full two semesters behind in terms of credits.

If and when you pass your courses, you will be forgiven 50% of your loan, transformed into scholarship instead.

So, yes, here you would need to pay back 100% of the courses you haven't passed. For the courses you have passed, you would only need to pay back 50%.

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  • As a note, public schools here are free, so scholarships/loans are granted as a means to survive, and are only given to people that do not live with their parents/family. – mazunki May 1 at 16:46
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As others have said, the answer would be country dependent.

It would be unlikely to hear about someone reimbursing their funding while dropping out of a university at the US. However, I would like to add this as a warning to students from other countries stumbling across this post: in some places, like Brazil, this would not be the case. For instance, the policy is actually dependent on what specific entity is funding your work, and you should always check the rules regarding those possibilities.

One example where the money payed to the PhD student throughout the program should be fully refunded (Brazilian funding agency, link in portuguese): CAPES Portaria 76

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    This is an important caveat even in the US; one of the major funding sources for postdoc fellowships carries a repayment agreement that can be extremely harsh if you quit early. – user120011 May 1 at 14:52

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