Some PhD programs offer students an opportunity to either pay for the PhD themselves or to take a teaching assistantship in exchange for a tuition waiver.

Aside from a lack of teaching duties, are the work requirements and responsibilities of a paid PhD student any different from those of the teaching assistantship students?

  • I think you need to provide more background information. What kind of differences are you looking at: Profile after PhD? Time available for the research? Performance?
    – Oneira
    Aug 16, 2014 at 4:27
  • I cannot find any way to narrow the question down, because I have not completed a PhD before and do not know what to expect. I'll try to adjust my question to be more specific though.
    – Village
    Aug 16, 2014 at 4:36
  • But are you trying to choose yourself between those 2 options? Or is this question asked from an adviser point of view? Or you want to hire some one with such background and try to assess his/her profile?
    – Oneira
    Aug 16, 2014 at 4:39
  • I'm asking from the perspective of a student with the two choices.
    – Village
    Aug 16, 2014 at 4:46
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    @Stephen Tierney: In the US this is extremely common, and in my field in particular (mathematics) almost all students are funded this way. It's very different from paying your own way (which is very rare in my field) and it seems odd to me that the question lumps these together. Aug 16, 2014 at 12:55

1 Answer 1


There are usually 4 ways to pay for a PhD in my experience in the US:

  1. Out of pocket with your own money or with loans
  2. Get a fellowship or scholarship
  3. Be a Teaching Assistant
  4. Be a Graduate Research Assistant

None of these are necessarily mutually exclusive. TA and GRAships usually come with a whole or partial tuition waiver or payment of tuition. Fellowships and scholarships may come from the university, another government entity (e.g. the US National Science Foundation or Department of Energy), or a private source.

In my estimation, a GRA or fully-funded private fellowship is the best way to pay for graduate school for those whose focus is research because there are no teaching or grading responsibilities to take time away from working on your research. If you intend to go on to a professorship, starting with a TA for the first few semesters or years may help you learn something about teaching, but I wouldn't have wanted the TA responsibilities during the time I was writing up my dissertation.

Myself, I had a GRA with my full tuition paid plus a small privately endowed fellowship administered by my university which supplemented my income. Also, at the time, having a GRA position gave me health insurance. TA and GRA jobs are usually limited to 20 hours a week during the long semesters in the US since you are likely to be in classes at the same time. My advisor frequently upped me to 40 hours per week during the summer and winter breaks to supplement my income further.

Paying your own way, whether with fellowships, loans, or your own personal savings means that you aren't being paid by the advisor. A GRA position may be required to focus on a particular research project that funds the existence of the position. If the money comes from their start-up package or a private source, then you may be given much more freedom in your choice of research work, but either way, the GRA position is a job that allows the advisor to direct your work much more than if you fund yourself.

  • 2
    It should be noted that this is pretty US-specific. Things differ a lot in Europe. Most people in the sciences here are a mixture of GRAs and TAs, but with more substantial salary. Further, it is not uncommon to work at a company and do your PhD as an "external" student.
    – xLeitix
    Aug 16, 2014 at 17:47
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    A fifth option, as hinted to by @xLeitix, is to take advantage of work-sponsored education benefits where one has a full-time industry position while being enrolled in a graduate program on a part-time basis. In the U.S., employers that offer this benefit (such as most "high-tech" companies that I'm familiar with) cover tuition costs for their employee so long as the area of study is "closely" related to their job duties.
    – Mad Jack
    Aug 16, 2014 at 18:10
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    Agreed with both comments. I thought it was clear that my post was for the US, but I have edited to clarify. I lumped employer-sponsored PhDs into the private funding category, but it's definitely worth noting. The other side of this is a model where the employer pays but the employee is on leave. They commit (via contract) to come back to the employer for a guaranteed period after the PhD is done.
    – Bill Barth
    Aug 16, 2014 at 18:19

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