I had the impression that in general, PhD programs are the only really "free" ones in higher education in those typically high cost English-speaking countries that they charge no tuition, pay you to do research, teach, do scut work etc., give stipend, maybe free housing. On the other hand, masters degree program would charge big tuition, less assistantship opportunities, likely no stipend? Even in Science. Is that right?

  • 2
    Which country are you talking about? Tution differers a lot between countries. Jun 12, 2015 at 11:42
  • There is a big difference between the academic culture and norms in those countries, so that doesn't really help.
    – MJeffryes
    Jun 12, 2015 at 12:44
  • In Scotland, all university courses are free for Scottish and EU citizens where university is free.
    – Davidmh
    Jun 12, 2015 at 16:56
  • Personal anecdote: in the department I got my degree from, they played with the system a bit, and basically everyone admitted into their graduate program was treated as Ph.D. track. Even if they were explicitly or implicitly expected to only be able to complete a Master's. My department didn't have an excess of graduate students, though. If the one you apply to has more than enough "true" Ph.D. students to cover their teaching needs, or other sources of funding, then you may find a Master's program alone to cost you. UCLA is like that, for example. Jun 12, 2015 at 23:46

2 Answers 2


In the US, PhD students typically have their tuition paid by the federal grant that also pays them a salary or waived by their universities. It is not exactly free, but it may be paid on your behalf.

My understanding is that also typically any student paid on a grant as a graduate research assistant has their tuition paid. This covers master's and PhD students. I don't recall if this is my institution's policy or NSF's, but it is pretty common.

These are both common situations, but neither is guaranteed. The vast majority PhD students in STEM have their tuition covered somehow and also get work as GRAs or TAs or have some sort of fellowship or stipend. There are lots of models. Universities don't want to take on a long-term (4-6+ years) commitment to get a PhD student through to their dissertation while running the risk they might have to leave or work an unrelated job to cover costs. Master's students are less commitment (2ish years), but there are opportunities for them, too.

The vast majority of GRA seekers that cold email me looking for positions are master's students without a job looking to get their tuition covered and make a half-time salary. PhD students mostly don't have to do this because they get some sort of package when they are admitted.

  • Not really the focus of the question, but to the best of my knowledge, tuition waivers, and scholarship funds that are used to pay tuition, are not taxable income to the student. Stipends are, however. Jun 12, 2015 at 18:41
  • @NateEldredge, perhaps, it's been awhile. I think if it's paid directly as part of a GRA or TA you're gonna get a 1099-T about it. I certainly did. If it comes from a scholarship, maybe not. My university doesn't do waivers, so I don't quite have that experience.
    – Bill Barth
    Jun 12, 2015 at 18:48
  • I think you mean 1098-T. It shows the amount of tuition waived, but that doesn't mean it's taxable income. Typically, if there is a taxable part, it would show up on a W-2. Jun 12, 2015 at 18:58
  • @NateEldredge, Yep, I think you're right on. I've edited it to remove that spurious junk.
    – Bill Barth
    Jun 12, 2015 at 19:09

In the UK, competitive scholarships and bursaries are sometimes available. Unlike PhD funding, masters bursaries do not typically cover living costs.

UK: http://www.findamasters.com/funding/guides/masters-funding-guide.aspx
France: http://www.findamasters.com/funding/guides/masters-funding-france.aspx
USA: http://www.findamasters.com/funding/guides/masters-funding-usa.aspx

This site is useful for those looking for masters degrees and the links are useful for information on general funding.

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