PhD Cost: Essential & Not Obvious Considerations

Many adults come to a point in their careers where they want to excel further and do more in their field. They may want to focus more on research, teach, or simply have the greater depth and breadth of knowledge a PhD can provide so they can move into a higher management or leadership position in their organization. A PhD is highly valued in today’s job market, as more people earn graduate level degrees. The research skills and knowledge that a PhD provides employees is something that many organizations are seeking. Having a PhD also says that you can work on extensive projects independently and be detail oriented and see projects through to the end.

(If you like this post, you are going to love this one on the advantages and disadvantages of getting your doctorate.)

Other considerations

Of course there are many things you must think about before deciding pursuing a PhD is right for you, and one of the most important factors is cost. The other factors include whether you are at the right point in your career to take on the extra workload, whether you have family support to help you pay the bills and tuition, whether you are a parent, and whether a PhD will actually give the competitive edge you’re looking for.  

This post was written by Stephanie A. Bosco-Ruggiero (PhD candidate in Social Work at Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service) and Jessica Russell (freelance writer) on behalf of Dave Maslach for the R3ciprocity project (Check out the YouTube Channel or the writing feedback software). R3ciprocity helps students, faculty, and research folk by providing a real and authentic look into doing research. It provides solutions and hope to researchers around the world.

Stephanie decided to do a PhD when her son was close to entering elementary school because there was more time to focus on doctoral studies with him starting regular school and because she felt it was needed to move forward in her career in terms of doing more research, teaching, and becoming an independent professional who could earn money freelancing. She had a spouse with a good income, however, which makes this type of flexibility to study, be a parent, and work more doable. This is not to say that single parents can’t do a PhD while working, but honestly, it will be much easier if you can work part-time and have extended family who are very involved in your children’s lives. 

This blog focuses more on the cost factor, but the other above other factors to weigh when deciding whether to do a PhD program are critical as well. Here is Dave’s vlog on the cost factor of getting a PhD degree:

Stats on average cost

Whether you’re looking to gather information on how much the average PhD costs or are comparing your program to others, you will find that costs vary. According to an informal poll Dave took of users (n= 36, 2020 USD), when asked “How much was the total cost of your doctorate degree? (USD, 2020 dollars)” the average response was $60,000 USD. 

The table below shows the breakdown in responses to Dave’s question about cost. You can see that there is a wide range of costs. Here is the link to the poll if you would like to participate. As you well know, more data increases accuracy of any poll results.

Total CostsPercentage of Students
Up to $40,00044%
Greater than $10000019%

These numbers are likely representative of people around the world and private and public programs, more so than other surveys, because the R3ciprocity channel has a global audience. In addition, Dave’s questions focused on the total cost of a program. The results also skew towards people who are doing a PhD in business related fields. 

Different types of PhD programs will vary in their costs. The National Science Foundation has a survey that’s based on looking at PhDs and how much it actually costs to get a degree, but those numbers will typically be from respondents in the United States. According to the survey, a PhD program is likely to cost you around $15,000 per year for 5 years, which is about $75,000.

What else should I incorporate into a cost estimate?

However, there are some other costs that are not necessarily represented by this cost estimate. One is lost income from perhaps decreasing the hours you can work at your day job and the cost of not getting a promotion due to this reduction in hours. The 4-7 years that you spend doing a doctoral degree could be spent advancing in your career and making more money. This is something you should budget and plan for, but of course not something that directly impacts the cost of tuition. These are sometimes called opportunity costs.

You might also think about the possibility that you do not complete your degree or for some reason decide it’s best to switch programs or to pursue a degree in a slightly different field. If you do this, it will cost you, but you simply may not be able to afford to make such a change once you’ve begun a program. The more that you go down the ‘Rabbit Hole’ in a knowledge domain, the harder it is to switch to another domain. The investment you have made will likely hinder you from choosing other career paths.

Think about relocation costs as well. If you are admitted to a highly regarded program in a different city, what is the cost benefit of spending money to move to a new city to do that program? Are you losing money selling a home? Are you moving to a city with a higher cost of living. Do you have work lined up in that new city? Think about the impact of moving on your family members as well.

University Brand (Or Reputation & Status)

You also need to think about the value of a PhD degree based on the brand of the university. We do not necessarily want to think about a PhD from one program being more valuable than a PhD from a different program, but you should think about this a bit. PhDs from top tier programs (think U.S. News and World Report) will generally be viewed as having similar value, but hiring Universities and even organizations may view a PhD from a middle or lower tier program as less valuable. (You really should read this great post on figuring out the best PhD programs.)

This is not to discourage you from studying at an average program that may be more affordable and better for you, but it is simply the reality of the competitive academic job market. What you do to make up for going to a lower tier program is do all of the research assistantships and teaching that you can possibly do to build up your CV. Most PhD programs are basically respectable, and how you do after graduating may have more to do with what you did with your time in the program, whether you were mentored, received awards or scholarships, engaged in research, traveled, networked, etc. than the brand. 

While most programs are respectful, do not fall into the trap of pursuing an online PhD, for example, that is worth very little in the world of academia or on the market. There are some for-profit programs for example that take advantage of students who are not necessarily ready for PhD level work but admit them anyway. Coursework and assignments may not be on par with reputable PhD programs and the teaching may be pretty bad. They may even be akin to a diploma mill at the PhD level. Do your research and make sure you are applying to a program that is basically respected in your field and have good evaluations from students and professionals in the field. Talk to people, talk to graduates from these programs, and do some online research.

Reducing the cost of doctoral programs

Conversely, there are some factors that would reduce the cost of a PhD degree that are not necessarily incorporated into the above cost estimate for earning a doctoral degree. For example, most programs will offer research or teaching assistantships that will reduce the cost of tuition through full or partial tuition remission or providing a stipend for a limited number of hours of work each week. You might also be awarded a grant or scholarship, a fellowship, or a stipend for study or research abroad, which will reduce the cost of obtaining your degree. Here is Dave’s vlog on earning stipends while in a PhD program:

When thinking about the value of a PhD degree you should also think about more than the projected salary in the field you are entering. You may end up in a similar field or a field that is somewhat different from the field you started out in. You might find yourself doing something you couldn’t have imagined when you started your PhD adventure, and making more money to boot! A PhD of any kind is in high demand and you might just find yourself making more money by doing something outside academia, even if you set out to be an academic. You might end up starting your own consulting firm or working in government (Although, in some fields this is more rare than others). 


There are a number of resources and articles available to help you think about all the aspects of what all the “costs” may mean for you when thinking about earning a PhD. 

Grad School Cost Calculators: Most academic institutions have information on their websites regarding tuition, fees, room and  board costs, and are often broken down by semester and year. You can also find calculators to help you determine how your ability to pay out of pocket combined with grants, scholarships and loans will look like. The calculator linked here is great because it gives you a visual comparison of assumed net worth before and after a program like a PhD, as well as how long it may take to see the benefits of a higher level of education. 

Financial Advice for PhDs:  You can find advice and a community of PhD students and graduates on the Personal Finance for PhD’s website. Listen to podcasts and take part in online meetings to discuss your concerns. Community membership has a cost which includes the online meetings, a resource library and forum for discussion, but blog articles are free. Dave has many great videos about the financial aspects of doing a PhD, but you might want to watch this one:

Time: According to The Cost vs. Reward of a PhD Degree includes more than just money. It’s important to consider the time it takes to obtain your degree. They say time equals money and it’s never more true than when you are giving up the opportunity to make money while you pursue a Doctoral degree. 

Mental Health: But just as important as the length of any given program is the mental costs associated with doctoral programs. This is something we’ve discussed a number of times on the R3ciprocity Blog, and should be considered along with financial costs. Academia, Stress and Mental Health issues are common among those in competitive academic settings. The cost to your well-being is something that should be as important when selecting a program and applying. 

Costs to Family: And, a PhD program costs can affect the family both financially and psychologically. According to The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, “More and more, doctoral students sacrifice family, wealth, and their mental health to earn a degree with terrible job prospects.” Many students are supported by spouses and family members, or forego starting a family altogether. The time and commitment, combined with small stipends and limited ability to earn an income that can support a family leaves many with an important decision about not only their academic future, but the family’s well being as well. 

You really should watch this video on having a family during your doctorate.

Debt: If you’re looking for information on what debt may look like after your completed PhD program, look no further than the PhD. Debt Survey by Karen Kelsky. In her The Professor is In Blog,  you can find “Guidance for all things PhD. 

Humor: We all need a good laugh sometimes. Well, let’s face it, as a PhD student we definitely do. You can find 20 years worth of laughs on You can also follow @phdhumour on Twitter. 

The bottom line

The decision to pursue a PhD is not easy. It may be something you have dreamed about since college, but make sure your expectations match the costs. Also, don’t compare your situation and expected outcomes to others’. From the outside looking in, it may seem like a professor or colleague you know had an easy time earning their degree. It is never easy, but they may have more support or financial security than you do at this point in your life. Just remember that when thinking about all this information and how to move forward, the importance of cost, whether financial or otherwise, will be something each person weighs differently. There is no right choice, only the choice that is right for you. 

If you enjoyed this blog, check out these others on that may help you make a decision about whether to pursue doctoral studies.  

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