Some candidates have the personal or family resources to self-fund their graduate studies, or already know that they are willing to take on debt for them (disregard whether this is a good idea, which has been addressed before). They still, however, need to actually be admitted to a graduate school, and having funding doesn't guarantee admission.

The ability to self-fund obviously makes it possible to take unfunded offers, but are there any other ways to actively leverage this funding situation during the application process? Should the applicant inform schools that they would take an unfunded offer, and, if so, when should they (e.g. when applying, after being put on a waitlist)? Are there specific strategies that a candidate might be able to use when choosing schools to apply to?

I suspect that answers to this question might be field-specific, so I won't necessarily specify a field. Answers discussing the differences between fields might also be interesting.

Note that I am not in this situation, so I won't really be able to answer those kinds of clarifying questions. I just thought it was an interesting question that was inspired by but not directly addressed in this question.

  • 8
    Are you talking about graduate studies in the US? In the UK, I get the impression that if you're good enough (good grades in first degree or relevant industrial experience), then it's quite easy to get accepted but funding is quite competitive. A number of people self fund, it's not really taboo.
    – Rikki
    Commented May 21, 2015 at 8:42
  • @Rikki I was mostly thinking about US programs, but I think the question still stands for other countries. Since it's less taboo to self-fund, does that mean that it is more beneficial to mention self-funding in the application?
    – Roger Fan
    Commented May 21, 2015 at 15:23
  • "or already know that they are willing to take on debt for them (disregard whether this is a good idea)." It is pretty hard to do that. Should we really advise people to do things that in our expert opinion could cause them long-term financial hardship? Commented May 21, 2015 at 19:29
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    @PeteL.Clark I just wanted this question to be more about how self-funding is viewed by adcoms and how it might benefit (or not) your application. Whether self-funding is a good idea is a separate question that has been addressed many times on this site already (e.g. here, here, and here).
    – Roger Fan
    Commented May 21, 2015 at 19:40
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    @Roger: But as you can see from Anonymous Mathematician and me, many adcoms are very concerned about putting naive young people in a situation of financial hardship, and some people (like me) think that some adcoms should be more concerned about this than they are. I'm not criticizing your question in any way (I upvoted it, BTW): I'm just saying that certain issues are hard not to consider. Commented May 21, 2015 at 19:44

4 Answers 4


I may have an unusual perspective on this, since many mathematics Ph.D. programs in the U.S. fund all their students (at least through teaching). In this context, I'd recommend against even mentioning the possibility of self-funding:

  1. It sounds unconfident, like you don't expect to receive funding, and this is not a positive impression to convey. You don't want to give the impression that you feel your own application is subpar, and that you're bargaining to try to turn a rejection into an unfunded acceptance. This might be a reasonable approach at the end of the process, if you're stuck on a waiting list, but it's a problematic way to begin.

  2. Letting Ph.D. students go into debt feels exploitative, especially in a program in which most or all of the other students are funded, and letting wealthy people buy their way into graduate school is also troubling.

  3. There will be worries about how sustainable your self-funding is. In a year or two, your money or willingness to go into debt may run out, and the department would have to choose whether to come up with money for you or kick you out. That's an unpleasant choice, and the admissions committee may even worry that you are deliberately aiming for this situation (in the hope that they won't be willing to kick you out once you've joined the department).

In the sort of programs I'm familiar with, announcing in advance that you would be willing to self-fund a Ph.D. won't increase your chances of admission. I've only seen this come up very rarely, and the admissions committee has simply ignored the offer of self-funding and made a decision of acceptance with funding or rejection. I can easily imagine that it could decrease the chances of admission a little, although I haven't seen a clear-cut case of that.

By contrast, if you are awarded a prestigious fellowship with guaranteed funding for a certain number of years, you should certainly make sure admissions committees know about it. That doesn't have any of these disadvantages. However, it's not in your best interests to offer to pay your own way unless that's a common and respected approach in your field.

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    I probably wouldn't, but this would be safer than announcing it earlier in the process. Commented May 20, 2015 at 17:58
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    +1 for "your money or willingness to go into debt may run out". (Young) people may change their mind, especially when the PhD has stuck or does not go as planned.
    – Alexandros
    Commented May 20, 2015 at 19:27
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    I did my PhD after my industry career, so I could self-fund. My instinct was to not mention it at all during the application process - it just didn't feel right. Commented May 20, 2015 at 20:52
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    I disagree with these. 1) Confidence doesn't seem to big factor in PhD interviews. 2) Exploitative or not, it's modus operandi in many fields (PhD students being exploited? Who would have thought!). 3) There exist sources of funds that are very secure, for instance student loans as I understand once granted are not withdrawn unless you get kicked out of the program. Either you have the loan or not, there is no worry about it being sustainable (that is, excluding things like all student loans being legislated out of existence overnight, with no grandfathering).
    – Superbest
    Commented May 21, 2015 at 1:03
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    This is definitely dependent on the department. We have a number of self-funded PhD students in our mathematics department. Indeed, the number of people we admit to our program far exceeds the number of GTA positions we offer. Most students turn these unfunded admissions down, but many do not. I'm not saying this is a good thing.
    – Jim Conant
    Commented May 21, 2015 at 1:57

To add to Anonymous Mathematician's answer (I'm also in math), if you get an external fellowship, this can certainly increase your chance of admission. When I applied, I initially got waitlisted by one top univerisity, then accepted when they heard I got an NSF Graduate Fellowship (in fact, the way I learned I got the NSF fellowship was from my acceptance letter from this university, which incidentally I didn't go to).

In the cases of self-funding, sometimes it does help, if you're strong enough to warrant acceptance with funding, but the department is low on funding that year. However, in most cases, I agree it is not so helpful to advertise this up front, particularly with top programs, but if you get waitlisted and seem to be a borderline case, then letting the admissions committee know you would be interested in admission even without funding may help.

Where I think it will be more helpful is, if you have trouble getting into a good PhD program, you can use self-funding to help get yourself into a masters program first (after which, if you do well, will have better chances for a good PhD program). Some departments will fund masters students, and some not. Ours typically does, but definitely accept some applicants we would not otherwise, just because the have self-funding. My guess is this may be rather common, as master's degrees are not as serious commitments as PhD's, and one worries less about the quality of grad students getting watered down in this way.

  • In the US, having a master's degree can get your chances of getting into to PhD programs as they can't give toy that gown parachute. A master's is generally required for admission into European PhD programs.
    – Eric
    Commented May 23, 2015 at 3:10
  • @Eric Yes, the system in the US is different from Europe, but if you look at the comments, it appears the OP is primarily asking about the US. (BTW I have no idea what the end of your first sentence means.)
    – Kimball
    Commented May 23, 2015 at 11:33
  • Auto complete killed the message. A master's degree is considered a golden parachute in many US PhD programs for those who can't pass the qualifying exams. Having a master's degree already means they can't give you that graceful exit so it is a disadvantage when applying to some PhD programs.
    – Eric
    Commented May 23, 2015 at 12:27

Given your position, I would suggest approaching professors directly that you would like to work with to discuss what possibilities there may be. A student who can fund themselves should have more freedom in terms of choosing what they want their research to focus on. This may be interesting for professors that have some ideas for projects they have no funding for but would like to investigate. It may also let you choose your own research program and get a professor to agree to supervise you with it.


From the perspective of someone in public health, I would approach the idea of self-funding with caution, and likely not mention it at all. There are three real reasons for this:

  • Because there are very few external fellowships available, generally speaking whether or not you have been offered funding is a very strong signaling mechanism for the program's actual interest in you.
  • The most common paradigm for graduate funding in the field, especially in later stages, is to take a research assistantship that's been written into someone's grant. This is often also the source of your dissertation. While not self-funded, I did have a funding source that institutional rather than tied to a person, and while that gave me somewhat more freedom, it was also considerably harder to get firmly on a project over the long term and to have a PI view me as "theirs".
  • Keep in mind even if you can self-fund, assuming that money is fungible, there's other things you could do with that money. I wouldn't put forward spending it on tuition etc. unless you have to - and in my experience, if a department wants to admit you but can't assure funding they'll tell you that, rather than outright rejecting you.

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