In trying to plan for the future and decide on preferred programs and career paths, I'm trying to figure out the seemingly Byzantine nature of how academic funding sources interact. I am particularly confused about how departmental/institutional funding effect fellowships or grant money.

To give a specific example to illustrate the general point that I'm asking about, consider this FAQ for Prospective Students at Carnegie Mellon, where it is stated anyone accepted into the PhD program can expect their tuition to be paid by the program/waived, and a stipend of ~$24k per year. The page also suggests applying for a fellowship like the PIER Program, which states it provides about a $30k stipend + $10k towards tuition. Another possibility would be something like the SMART Scholarship, which provides tuition assistance, stipend, and allows non-interfering fellowships.

This is all well and good individually, but what happens if you get department funding and a fellowship like this PIER program? Does the department keep its funding entirely and you only get the greater of the two? If your tuition is paid because of your position, does the contribution of a fellowship towards tuition just give your school some extra funding but does not effect your financial situation individually? And how does a SMART scholarship factor in?

Please note I'm not solely interested in this limited example (as it would be of interest to so few people), but more generally how this works in academia across programs and institutions. I'm in the US, though surely how this sort of thing works in other countries would be valuable to know anyway.

As a second example, consider something like a SMART scholarship and then getting a TA/RA position (which they allow) which earns tuition remittance. Does the scholarship funding source get the tuition remitted back to them, or does any part of the tuition remittance get returned to the student?

The bottom line is deciding the real affordability of various institutions and living areas if you expect to need significantly more than a single stipend amount (raising a family, helping kids pay for their college, etc), and of course to help to decide if seeking certain scholarships and fellowships has a sufficient potential ROI for the time required to seek them.

Thank you all for any help in unraveling this Gordian knot of academic finance!

  • 4
    In regard to "...if you expect to need significantly more than a single stipend amount..." I would caution that graduate school is not a lucrative endeavor in general, and if you are hoping to be able to put the kids through college while attending graduate school full time yourself, you're going to need an alternate form of income (spouse, savings, loans) that is separate from your own school-related pay. May 12, 2013 at 10:53
  • @ChrisGregg That is definitely noted, thank you! I was more thinking of limited help with occasional expenses and sundries involved, but its certainly important to not expect to have wealth to spread around as a grad student if you don't have it already!
    – BrianH
    May 12, 2013 at 23:42

2 Answers 2


In general, the rule of funding in graduate programs is that external money is used to replace internal money. That is, if your department gives a stipend of, say, $20,000 per year, and you win a fellowship that pays $15,000 per year, the $15,000 will be used to offset part of the $20,000.

However, most departments that I'm aware of will also guarantee that fellowship and grant holders don't suffer relative to their peers by bringing in outside money. That is, they guarantee to make up any shortfall between the value of an external award and the department's standard. (In the sciences and engineering, I would steer clear of any department that doesn't have such a policy!) Many departments will even incentivize bringing in outside award fellowships by giving a premium or bonus that supplements the outside award. This might be done either by multiplying the standard award by a percentage (so, for instance your total would be 125% of the department's standard), or by giving a lump sum on top of an outside award (if it exceeds the standard, for instance).

One thing to watch out for, however, are restrictions placed on the outside fellowship: your department may have to certify, for instance, that you will not be assigned teaching duties or other non-research duties during the fellowship period. If you are unable to attain such a certification, the award may not be given out.

For the PhD phase of a program, the tuition should be covered by the department and the outside fellowship; however, in general the student does not receive part of the tuition payment back. In general, the tuition charge is a negotiation between the university and the fellowship program, as this is at the graduate level usually a financial transaction. Also, if the student were to receive the tuition payment which was then forwarded to the school, this could be called taxable income, which would make things very messy for everyone.

  • That makes sense, thank you. Is this concept of bonus or shared funding when a student provides their own non-departmental funding in MS/PhD programs common at all, in your experience? I found only a few scattered other mentions of the concept on the net, and none seem to be directly from Universities or their staff. Is it to be expected that this is not the norm, or requires negotiation, or is it just a rare perk afforded by few programs?
    – BrianH
    May 12, 2013 at 23:45
  • 2
    It's usually done at the department level, so it's not likely to be seen on websites (even when departments have their own admissions pages). Your best option is to contact graduate offices of the departments you're interested in.
    – aeismail
    May 13, 2013 at 0:06
  • 1
    @BrianDHall, you shouldn't expect to find it described on the net, but yes, this notion of "bonus" (a supplement) if you bring your own external funding is not uncommon. It will depend upon the particular university and department you attend, their rules and typical practices, your advisor, whether your advisor has money from a funding source that can be used in this way, as well as whether your external fellowship allows such a supplement. If it is allowed, the supplement might be (for instance) 25% of your external fellowship salary -- but it won't double your pay.
    – D.W.
    May 13, 2013 at 2:18
  • This answer rings true to my experience as well. My departmental stipend for PhD students is ~$27,000 USD/yr, assuming grads work 0.5 FTE (full time employment; 1.0 FTE == 40 hrs/week) as a TA for the department or RA for anyone in the department. Our department incentivized bringing in external funding, however, if it's not enough to fully fund a grad student (~$70,000 USD/yr). They offer something like $32,000 USD/yr and ask for 0.25 FTE, which in practice is more like 0.125 FTE. This gives students more pay and the university still can waive tuition and pay for student health insurance.
    – jvriesem
    May 2, 2017 at 18:00

The answer is: it depends. It depends upon the rules of both fellowships. This will be allowable only if both fellowships allow it.

Often external fellowships will have a "no double-dipping rule". For instance, NSF Fellows are not allowed to receive full funding from an alternate source: if you accept the NSF Fellowship, you can't also accept any other fellowship, including an internal fellowship. However, it may be allowable for NSF Fellows to receive a limited supplement/bonus on top of the NSF Fellowship, as a bonus and thank-you for receiving an external fellowship. Other fellowships will have other rules.

For internal fellowships, typically the intent is that you don't receive both an internal and an external fellowship: external funding replaces internal funding.

None of this is cut-and-dry, and there are exceptions to everything. If you have been offered two fellowships, you should contact both fellowship programs to find out about the rules they impose on fellows; that will tell you what you can and can't do.

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