We're a little crazy, about science!

Funding and you, a PhD story

New day, yet another topic for me to talk about. Today I’ve decided to spare everyone from hearing about my data processing woes to instead touch on a topic that I haven’t discussed before (at least I don’t think I have!). Today we’re talking about funding your PhD. Specifically why it’s important and what power you have over the funding you recieve.

First rule of a PhD, you never, ever pay for it. While I can’t speak for all fields, you would never pay for a PhD in an engineering related field and I’m fairly certain other fields are similar based on discussions I’ve had. That’s a sharp contrast for those of you going from a BS to a PhD route, but trust me it’s the truth.

To be honest, I didn’t even pay for my Masters I was paid to get it, but that isn’t as common. You should definitely be getting paid to do your PhD though. So the question now is how do you get paid? The answer is unfortunately complex and depends on the lab and how prepared you are.

That last part? That’s more a comment on how sure you are of what you want to study. There are fellowships that will pay you for most/all of your PhD should you, 1) know what lab you want to work in; 2) know what you want to study; and 3) have support of your PI. That last one, that just means that you’ve already established where you want to be. It’s hard, but you should attempt to build a relationship with a PI you want to work with prior to applying to the school you want to attend.

Those are things you don’t get told in your undergraduate programs (usually). However, knowing the PI before you apply to the school can be the difference between getting in and being rejected. It can also mean the difference between receiving funding and funding yourself. Which again I need to be perfectly clear, do not fund your PhD yourself!

Now, I can only speak on this next part in the context of engineering(ish) fields, but there are several funding sources for you to choose from. Namely NIH/NSF, but there are also military funding sources like NDSEG (which I’m applying for this year). NSF requires you to be going from a BS to PhD or a MS to a different field of study though! Just a little hint about what paths open/close depending on degree choices.

For me, those are the big three, but there are so many other funding opportunities out there. More importantly, when you join a lab, you shouldn’t need to find your own funding, at least not at first. Your PI should have funds to support you while you get settled. Think of this as a startup package when you join a lab. There are drawbacks to not having your own funding, but at the same time you may not 100% know what you want to do within the field you’ve selected and that’s okay, that’s why funding is provided to you when you join!

I would be remiss of me if I didn’t talk about the drawbacks to that startup package though! Should you know exactly what you want to do, the field you want to do it in, and have a PI already set to go, you should 100% try to get funding for yourself. That gives you far more control over your studies and what you do. That startup package option comes with some strings, but they aren’t bad, especially if you don’t know what you want to study.

When I joined my lab I had switched fields completely. Design engineering is nothing like brain-machine interfacing. So I took my labs startup package option. I would be fully funded my first two years, minimum. The catch? I had to do the research that came with that funding. That experiment I just finished yesterday? That was what was attached to that funding. Since then I’ve secured a two year collaborative fellowship, which my Co-PI is planning on extending, but I’m also applying for my own funding (NDSEG) and I wrote a grant proposal for my main-PI to fund my research specifically.

Notice that nowhere in my career have I had to pay for my PhD. In fact, I’ve been getting paid ~$30k a year to do my PhD, which isn’t a lot, but it is on the high end for grad students (sorry to say). In the engineering field we typically rely on the big three I just listed and those all come with $25-35k a year of funding, plus a travel package, plus other perks. My new fancy laptop for example, that was not paid for by me, that was covered through the fellowship I have. I also have $3k for travel expenses for conferences and the such… haha pandemic.

Today’s point should be very straightforward, you never pay for your PhD, you get paid to do your PhD. In the US a PhD takes about 5 years to do. That just happens to be the average length of a marriage in the US. That is to say, your choice of PI is like a marriage, make sure you know what you’re getting into before you commit and more importantly make sure you talk finances. You are never tied to your PI for the full length of your PhD so you are 100% allowed to change after, but it’s not easy and if you do the work prior to joining the lab, you won’t have to worry about that (usually).

It’s fellowship/grant season, so good luck to everyone out there who has taken the plunge and if it’s your first time, don’t be discouraged!


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