Recently I got admission from one U.S. university for my Ph.D. study, and they offered me a kind of scholarship that only covers my tuition fee. When I asked them about other funding possibilities such as RA or TA positions, they said that at this point they are not offering any RA or TA positions to any incoming students, only when you arrived at university, you can find one by yourself.

My question is whether this situation is common in U.S. universities. I have heard that some students can get an assistant-ship even before attending the Ph.D. program. Although I have an admission letter in my hand, without enough funding for my future study I really do not what to do. Therefore I desperately need suggestions from people who have been through this and have experience.

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    @PeteL.Clark I'm not sure which quantifier you are talking about --- I thought that my edit had preserved meaning and just cleaned up grammar. Please feel free to undo anything that you feel changed meaning.
    – jakebeal
    Apr 5, 2015 at 20:01
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    @jakebeal: The OP wrote (in boldface): "my question is whether this situation is common in every US university". Apr 5, 2015 at 20:09
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    Ah: I see "common" and "every" as conflicting with one another, and think the question is really about "common"---the OP doesn't seem interested in whether it's a universal experience, but rather whether it is a frequent situation and thus how to approach it.
    – jakebeal
    Apr 5, 2015 at 20:15
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    @PeteL.Clark Like I said, I don't think I changed the meaning, but please feel free to undo.
    – jakebeal
    Apr 5, 2015 at 20:54

1 Answer 1


The way you are asking the question, the answer is a clear no: this is not common at every university, certainly not in every department at every university. In my department (mathematics, UGA) to the best of my knowledge we have not had -- say for the last decade -- any PhD students without funding (occasionally from an outside source) that is sufficient for them to live on (albeit less than lavishly). This situation is quite common in mathematics departments in the United States, and I think it is similar in other STEM fields. In the social sciences and humanities, funding is distinctly more scarce, but certainly many entering PhD students get funding in these areas.

You ask for advice. To get good advice you should speak to someone who knows more about your situation. This advice is centered on the situation in mathematics, but nevertheless I think it is worth hearing: I would think at least twice before entering a PhD program that was not committed to supporting me. The academic job market is very tight right now, but unevenly so: it contracts severely at every career stage, so that the majority of people who had a lot of success getting placed at one stage find themselves having more difficulties with the next. Not just anybody gets funding for a PhD program: the resources need to be there, and you need to be (in the judgment of the admissions committee) worthy of them. However, it is not nearly as hard to get student funding as it is to land any kind of post-PhD academic position (tenure-track or otherwise: actually, in many cases it is harder to land a research postdoc than a tenure track teaching job).

If you have a very specific plan -- worked out with at least one faculty member in the program -- for your success in that graduate program, then maybe things can work out well for you even without advanced funding. Short of that: depleting your own financial resources to fund your graduate career is certainly, on average, a poor investment. Please think carefully before you do this.

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    thanks for your advice, I am really appreciate that, another question is that do you think it is appropriate to contact faculty member in the program, especially my future adviser regarding the source of more funding possibilities..
    – Daniel
    Apr 4, 2015 at 20:42
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    @Daniel: Absolutely yes. If there is a faculty member in the program who will be your advisor if you enroll, then you should talk to them about the funding situation. Since they've made an offer to you, the ball is in your court and you should not hesitate to ask "tough questions". E.g. I would certainly ask about the funding situation for other students of the advisor and what s/he anticipates in terms of future funding. Be upfront: your reasons will be understandable to all. Apr 4, 2015 at 20:50
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    One more data point: As far as I know, my department (mathematics at the University of Michigan) never admits Ph.D. students without offering funding unless we know (usually from their application) that they have adequate funding from some other source. This was certainly the policy when I headed the graduate admissions committee, and I believe it remains the policy. Apr 4, 2015 at 21:23
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    I know of several programs that regularly give out completely unfunded offers, and it seems to be fairly common in economics to give out a significant amounts of offers that don't include first-year funding (but possibly guarantee funding after that). It isn't the norm, but in certain fields it definitely isn't rare.
    – Roger Fan
    Apr 5, 2015 at 14:50
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    I should add to this (excellent!) answer by pointing out that in fields where funding is more scarce, the "return on investment" if you exit academia with a PhD tends to be lower. Consider not only your finances during the PhD, but also what you want to do when you finish. If you have little intention of continuing in academia, a "non-STEM" PhD may not pay for itself over time even if you get funding. That said, research is fun – and if you get paid enough to live on, that makes the opportunity cost a lot easier to swallow than if you are draining your savings.
    – Moriarty
    Apr 5, 2015 at 18:32

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