The full cost of applying to PhD programs is significant; it can easily surpass $1,000 and even reach a few thousand dollars if you take a GRE prep course, apply to a large number of programs, and/or pay out of pocket to visit the universities you applied to. Given the enormous impact where and with whom you do your PhD has on your career, it’s vital to present yourself as well as possible in your applications and interactions with faculty. Mostly that’s going to translate to a large investment of time and energy, but sometimes it does translate to spending sufficient money on the application process.
This post outlines the three main direct costs of applying to PhD programs so that you won’t be caught by surprise during the process and can adequately prepare for this expenditure.
Know Your Programs
PhD programs are amazingly diverse. There are field-to-field differences as well as university-to-university differences. It’s imperative that you grasp how the admissions process works in your field and at each university you apply to. There are different expectations regarding the personal and/or research statement that you write, whether you should contact individual faculty members in advance of submitting your application, the purpose of a campus visit, etc.
Another massively important difference is the level of financial support offered to PhD students and what form it comes in. You might be funded by a fellowship, training grant, teaching assistantship, research assistantship inside or outside of your dissertation advisor’s group, or graduate assistantship (or some/all of the above). The support might be year-round or only during certain semesters, and it might be guaranteed for a certain number of years or at the discretion of your advisor or department. You might or might not have to pay fees or insurance premiums out of pocket. You must to know what is typical in your field to evaluate the offers that are ultimately extended to you.
The best way to figure out these largely unspoken cultural and policy differences is to ask current students or recent graduates of the programs you’re interested in. Tap your alumni networks and any relevant personal connections (LinkedIn can help you find these). Faculty members in your field at your current institution or a faculty advisor charged with supporting prospective PhD students are also wonderful resources.
Want more details about how to do this and what to ask?
While the predictive capabilities of the general GRE have come under fire, most universities in the US still ask for general GRE scores and sometimes subject GRE scores on their applications.
The registration fee to take the general GRE is $205 and to take the subject GRE (biology, chemistry, literature in English, math, physics, and psychology) is $150 as of July 1, 2017. Test-takers with qualifying financial needs can receive a 50% discount on the fee.
If the programs you’re applying to weight the GRE in their admissions decisions, such as by setting a minimum score, you could decide to study for the exam so you can perform your best. You can avail yourself of free resources available through the ETS website or purchase a review book (tens of dollars), course (hundreds of dollars), or tutoring (thousands of dollars). Whether or not you spend money preparing for the test, you may choose to devote significant time to it. However, extensive preparation for the exam is totally optional, and your time may be better spent on other aspects of your application.
Most application fees for US PhD programs fall between $50 and $100. Here are a few examples of fees for the 2017-2018 application cycle:
- Clemson University: $80 for domestic applicants and $90 for international applicants
- Indiana University at Bloomington: $55 for domestic applicants and $65 for international applicants
- Johns Hopkins University: $75
- North Carolina State University: $75 for domestic applicants and $85 for international applicants
- Rice University: $85
- University of California at Davis: $105 for domestic applicants and $125 for international applicants
- University of Kansas: $65 for domestic applicants and $85 for international applicants
- University of Notre Dame: $75
- University of Utah: $55 for domestic applicants and $65 for international applicants
- Washington State University: $75
Many universities also offer fee waivers for qualifying applicants, the details of which can be found on their websites.
In addition to the application fee that the university charges, you will also usually pay a fee to send your GRE scores and transcripts to each university. You can choose to send your GRE scores to four universities for free on test day for the general GRE and upon registration for the subject GRE. To take full advantage, make sure your application list has four schools finalized on it before you are prompted to send the free scores. ETS charges $27 to send your score from each test to each additional recipient.
With the full cost of each PhD application hovering around $100, the cost of applying to a handful of PhD programs adds up quickly. Determining the number of schools to apply to is a challenge: too few, and you risk the randomness of the application process leaving you with no acceptances; too many, and you spend a lot of money and spread your time thin, possibly harming your chances of getting into the university that would fit you best.
Visits and Interviews
Another field-by-field difference is whether the application process involves an interview or campus visit.
Some programs admit or reject applicants outright, and if a prospective student wants to visit the university, she’ll do it on her own dime and schedule. Some programs request interviews, but the interview is conducted over video or the prospective student pays to visit campus. Most STEM programs arrange for a visit weekend, where a group of prospective students is flown to campus to meet with faculty and be courted by the program. That visit weekend might include interviews upon which the admission decision will depend or simply serve to sell the program to admitted students.
The out-of-pocket costs for the visits could be $0 if everything from the flight to your meals are paid for by the department or reimbursed (be prepared to front money, though!) or the applicant could be responsible for the full cost (up to hundreds of dollars for flights, lodging, ground transportation, and food). Even if you think the program will pay for everything, it’s a good idea to budget some walking-around money for each visit in case a meal ends up going unreimbursed or you want to do some sight-seeing or buy a souvenir.
While deciding what programs to apply to and preparing your applications is very time-consuming, it can be done on your schedule. One of the hidden costs of campus visits is the time it takes to leave school or work for 1-3 days. If you have a (part-time) job, save some vacation time or try to shift your hours around so that you don’t have to forgo any wages to go on the visits. However, for schools you are seriously considering, it’s worthwhile to miss work to properly evaluate the programs, and that will need to be factored into your applications budget.
Wondering how you’re going to come up with the money to fund your application process?
The temporal and monetary cost of applying to PhD programs generally – and the application fee in particular – serves as a disincentive to apply to too many programs. It takes so much time and money to fully investigate and apply to each program (not to mention actually choosing which you will attend!) that you should be judicious about which institutions make your list. This requires carefully evaluating your own research and career goals as well as the programs, but you will without question benefit professionally and personally from this careful introspection in the application stage.
How much did you pay to apply to graduate schools? Did you incur any costs not listed here?
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BONUS: the PhD Applications Budget spreadsheet