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I had applied to Florida State University, among other schools for a PhD math for fall 2023 and the application is still showing "under review". Recently I finished a 5-week summer research program and I updated their grad admissions office about the work I did there. I received the following response:

"Thank you for your application to FSU Math. I have added this material to your application. We have no funding remaining at this time, do you want to be considered for a non-funded offer of admission?"

I have no idea whether an unfunded PhD is even possible. I have the following questions regarding this and I would like to respond as soon as possible.

  1. Is it a good idea to accept an unfunded PhD offer in Math? (Most answers here advise against it). I do not have much savings, so I'd be relying on part time jobs or a student loan.

  2. Is it still possible that they might receive more funding in the near future?

  3. Would it be unethical to accept this possible unfunded offer and look for a funded offer elsewhere again next fall?

  4. Does Florida allow student visa holders to find employment outside of the university and does it restrict the number of hours of employment?

Even though my interests have shifted slightly after my summer program, I still might end up applying here again for the next admission cycle, so I do not wish to leave a bad impression by agreeing now and declining an offer later.

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    Math departments are going to run lower on funding in general. I wouldn't expect to get anything at a later date. Jul 19, 2023 at 11:56
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    I don't know what the position is in the US, but in many places you would not get a student visa if you can't demonstrate that you can cover your living costs.
    – avid
    Jul 19, 2023 at 19:15
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    In any case, if you can get an unfunded offer now then you can probably get an unfunded offer next year too. So there is little to lose, and a lot to gain, by waiting and re-applying to places in the next round.
    – avid
    Jul 19, 2023 at 19:16
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    "I have no idea whether an unfunded PhD is even possible." Yes. Rich Americans and foreigners supported by their own governments sometimes use this option.
    – GEdgar
    Jul 20, 2023 at 7:26
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    Probably a bad idea. Doing a PhD can get difficult at times, imagine if you are not even being funded and getting the funds from elsewhere. The only person I know who does it has a parent who is quite high up in the government of the country where he is from and he has not produced any research during the PhD (don't know if that is typical of unfunded PhD candidates). I would most definitely look for another program, they can't expect you to do a PhD without funding.
    – Tom
    Jul 20, 2023 at 14:20

3 Answers 3

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  1. It's a bad idea on principle, let alone financially. Taking loans just compounds the bad idea.
  2. Departments work with annual budgets, so the only possibility for short-term funding would be another student quitting. If you prove to be a really good student, the department might then give you the funding they had budgeted for a prospective student the following year. But don't count on it. They might as well think that if you put up with it for one year, you'll probably put up with it for another year.
  3. It's both ethical and a good idea to look for other programs, if you were to accept the non-funded position.
  4. Issues of student visas and work are ruled by federal law, not state law. You can only legally work within the university. Off-the-books jobs run aplenty in Florida, but these require a strong back. After doing one of these jobs for a week, you'll never utter the phrase "hard work" referring to academic employment.
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I suspect that you can do better elsewhere and should explore that. If they will cover your tuition and fees, along with providing healthcare it might not be a terrible option, providing you can cover your own living expenses.

But, in math, an unfunded doctorate is pretty rare, I'd guess, since universities need a lot of TAs to manage the undergraduate program.

Almost all of the alternatives (jobs, loans, etc) are very unattractive. They will negatively impact you now and/or in the future. Even waiting a year seems preferable to any of those options; especially if you are on a visa. Working "off the books" is especially risky as you could be sent home at any moment.

First option: look elsewhere. Second option (perhaps): wait.

It is a bit risky, by my personal temptation would be to tell them no, you need the funding. But it is your risk, not mine.

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    As an international student who is a prospective math Ph.D., OP will not be able to secure loans. U.S. providers only offer loans to international students at highly professional schools (law, med, business school, maybe some others); and providers in the home country will not fund a student abroad, at least not in the Western European countries I'm familiar with (the U.S. student loan system is largely unknown there). Jul 19, 2023 at 13:55
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Offer of admission to mathematics PhD program but without funding, for international student, is practically equivalent to rejection, unless you have so much money that you can fund their graduate program yourself.

Math PhD is highly stressful. You need to pass those qualifying exams within 2 years, find an advisor, find a problem (your advisor might turn out an idiot and you are then on your own), solve it (you are on your own), and publish 1-2 papers (unless you do algebraic geometry or similar stuff where publication before graduation is 'not the norm'.

Plus, tuition fees for unfunded foreigners are astronomical figures in USA, and even take home salary of full time math postdocs are barely enough to pay the tuition fees and just survive. In particular, legal part time jobs will take you nowhere close financially, but will add to the stress.

All these go against 'unfunded admission'. There is a hypothetical positive. Most of the times, faculty members who do good research (even in pure math) have lots of unused grant money that they sometimes agree to spend on a student if they think it is a good idea to invest on the particular student. For this, you need to do sufficiently well in your first year of studies (at least) and have them take notice of you (by having/adding some spark in your profile).

As stated, this is not an obvious take away. There are lots of ifs. You should have sufficient fund to survive one year on your own, and do very well in studies, and the dept. had at least one good professor (with lots of grant money) who is a good human being too. However, note that you don't know what is the actual evaluation of your application by the admission committee there which prompted them to not offer funding (assuming admission is offered). And if they put some negative evaluation on your file but still offer (unfunded) admission --- and trust me, this happens and student will never rationally find out, that will ensure that you won't get funding from professor's grant (except in very very rare case).

I would suggest you to look for options in EU universities. There, the profs mostly hire students directly to work on some specific project of theirs, and as a result, admission decisions are less bureaucratic.

Good luck!

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