I am trying to understand this regarding aspects of funding only and not quality of research.What is difference between funding an PHD and an MS student.

I thought both took courses, get some stipend and advisor funds them.Maybe for PHD they fund students for 5 years instead of 2 years of MS ?

Is there any other major difference?

I understand PHD student's research output expectations are completely different.I am asking this question with specific regards to state universities in US.

3 Answers 3


This is a US-based answer and maybe specific to Mathematics, but I think this generally applies.

From my understanding, the difference is only whether or not you have been admitted to the PhD program or not. Many times it is the case that you can be admitted to an MS program but not a PhD program until after you have passed some type of qualifying exams.

Depending on the university, you may see an increase in your pay after successfully completing the necessary qualifying exams, etc.

It is not necessarily the case that an advisor will fund you during your MS or PhD. At many universities, you will have an offer of a TA position (not related to research, as the name suggests), and you are required to teach / grade / hold recitations (depending on the university) in order to fulfill your TA contract. Often, you can attain funding from an advisor so as to 'cover' your teaching load for the semester or potentially the summer. The benefit here is that you are primarily spending your time on research and are not under a TA contract.

Often, if you have been admitted to a PhD program and passed your qualifiers, you will have the opportunity to teach higher level courses that a MS student would not.

  • so if somebody says they dont have funding for an PHD for that particular sem , does it also mean they dont have funding for MS student, given the tuition costs and stipend are same?
    – Boncek35
    Commented Feb 26, 2014 at 1:43
  • @Boncek35, my initial guess would be yes but is probably dependent on the situation.
    – nagniemerg
    Commented Feb 26, 2014 at 1:45
  • 1
    @Boncek35: It does not necessarily mean that, because funding for a PhD student is typically for a much longer time than a master's student. For most programs I am familiar with (in mathematics, at many US universities), funding needs to be found for multiple years at once. For instance, in my program when we admit a PhD student we guarantee funding for five years (formerly six) conditional on satisfactory progress. Thus admitting a PhD student can require significantly more longterm bookkeeping than admitting a master's student. Commented Feb 26, 2014 at 3:06
  • Some context for this question: Boncek35 thinks his advisor lied when she said she couldn't fund his PhD, see academia.stackexchange.com/questions/17340/…
    – ff524
    Commented Feb 26, 2014 at 3:32
  • 1
    @ff524 just trying to make my question general ,so that nobody says i am asking an personal question
    – Boncek35
    Commented Feb 26, 2014 at 3:59

Disclaimer: this is US-specific and quite likely engineering specific.

The only potential difference is that the rates for funding Ph.D students (post-candidacy) might be different to that of an MS student. But the difference is usually between types of funding(RAship, TAship, etc), not who gets funded.

  • so if i may be more specific -what is difference between RAShip and TAShip with regards to funding and not responsibilties? And how are rates usually different for post candidacy students( I mean are they usually on the high side?
    – Boncek35
    Commented Feb 26, 2014 at 0:17

Other answers pointed out that the amount of support for PhD students (post-qualifying exam) can be higher than M.S. students. However, in addition to funding levels, funding sources for PhD and M.S. students can be very different.

For example, in my lab (US, engineering), most of the M.S. students working as research assistants are supported by funds allocated by the department to the professor every semester. This money is given specifically for the purpose of creating extra educational and training opportunities for M.S. students, through participation in research.

Then, in my lab, the funds that support PhD students usually come from their advisors' research grants. (A small number of PhD students are funded by the department for a year, but this comes from a very limited "pool" that is separate from the M.S. student money, comes directly from the dept to the PhD student - not the professor - and is much harder to get. Some PhD students are funded by external fellowships, like NSF Graduate Research Fellowships.)

You didn't ask about undergraduate researchers, but we also have those in my lab, and they are often funded by the NSF from Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) grants.

Thus, in my lab there are certain funds that may be used only for undergrads (from NSF via REU grants); certain funds that can go only to M.S. students (from the department, via a pool of money allocated to create research opportunities for M.S. students); and certain funds that can go only to PhD students (from the department, via a pool of money allocated specifically for one-year PhD fellowships). Then there are funds (mainly, from the professor's research grants) that can be used to support any kind of student.

This is of course just an example - other labs will have entirely different "pools" of funds that they may draw from, which may or may not have restrictions as to who may use them.

It is entirely possible for a professor to be able to fund an M.S. student (because it comes out of departmental M.S. research opportunities money) and not a PhD student (because they don't have enough active research grants, or all their grant money is already committed, and the department PhD fellowship pool is empty).

  • A professor wouldn't fund a M.S. student if it comes out of departmental money. By definition the department is funding the student (and not the professor!). It is possible that the professor could still advise the student.
    – nagniemerg
    Commented Feb 26, 2014 at 2:38
  • @nagniemerg A certain amount of money is allocated to the professor from the dept each semester, and the professor hires a student who gets the money. I don't see why it's different than, e.g., the NSF allocating money to a professor, and the professor using it to hire a student who will get the money.
    – ff524
    Commented Feb 26, 2014 at 2:40
  • @ff524 so that department $$ can be used to fund an MS or PHD student ,not an MS student exclusively as you had said in your answer.
    – Boncek35
    Commented Feb 26, 2014 at 2:43
  • @Boncek35 No, the money is given by the dept. to the professor specifically for funding M.S. students. If the professor does not hire M.S. students that semester, then the money goes back to the department, unused.
    – ff524
    Commented Feb 26, 2014 at 2:44
  • 1
    @Boncek35 No. My dept. specifically wants to encourage research opportunities for M.S. students, so they give professors money that may be used only for that purpose.
    – ff524
    Commented Feb 26, 2014 at 2:48

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