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This is Part II of a two-part series on the basics of a PhD. Part I is titled “how does a [sociology] phd work?” and I hope you start there!
A PhD ain’t for everybody, not because of intelligence, but because it requires a whole lot.
Dedicating at least five years of your life to getting an advanced degree that does not guarantee employment is a choice not all of us — or those who rely on us — can afford to make. Alternatively, a PhD can provide five years of job stability for the first time. Either way, finding information on the process as someone with further proximity to power — whether it be due to race, gender, class, [dis]ability, citizenship, language, nationality, or something else — can feel really aggravating. Almost everything I learned out about the “hidden curriculum” of graduate school came from word-of-mouth and, eventually, personal experience.
This U.S.-based FAQ of sorts is my attempt to make the process a bit less scary. And although I am writing about my PhD program in sociology, much of the information can translate across academic departments. I’ve included links if you want to learn more about a particular topic.
relevant information about the author
My name is Anthony James Williams, I use they/them/theirs pronouns, and I’m in my thirties. At the time of publication I am a third year PhD student in the Department of Sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles. I started community college as a first-generation college student in 2007, transferred to the University of California, Berkeley in 2013, became a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow in 2014, and graduated with my Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology, Theatre, and Performance Studies in 2016. I then applied to 13 sociology programs, got into eight, and began at UCLA in 2017–18 school year.
I have also worked as a mentor to undergraduate students in the humanities, arts, and social sciences, and this year I begin the National Science Foundation Graduate Student Research Fellowship Program. I am not an admissions officer, I’m just a Black queer graduate student trying to help folks feel prepared. The examples I give throughout are real and come from my experiences. You can learn more about me and my graduate school work on my website.
the basics on stipends
A PhD in sociology is supposed to be paaid. Lemme say that again: a PhD in sociology is supposed to be paid. This also applies to a whole lot of other disciplines. But you still may have to pull out loans for some of your expenses, but many of them should be covered.
Having to pull out loans for your bachelor’s or master’s degree is pretty standard fare, but your PhD program should pay you. PhD Stipends has collected data that can give you a preview of what you might make as a PhD student. Baseline stipends vary widely across the U.S. due primarily to prestige (department rank), public vs. private funding, and a whole slew of other factors. But stipends can also vary among individual students within a department, not just between departments at different universities. Here are a few reasons why:
students can negotiate their stipend using offers from another school, much like you would negotiate a work salary
students admitted last and/or admitted with less competitive applications often get smaller stipends than their peers
student funding in some departments is competitive, meaning they force students into a sick and twisted Hunger Games for funding
That being said, a stipend from a top ten sociology program in the U.S.—at the time of publication—can range from around $15,000/year to $38,000/year and they usually waive the cost of tuition. The lower end can be fantastic if you live in states like Indiana with lower costs of living and the higher end can be rough when you live in some of the most expensive cities and states in the U.S. Keep in mind that we spend our stipend on bills, food, rent, transportation, dependents, family, fun, books, school supplies, and more. And when tuition isn’t paid—meaning there is no tuition remission—then you have to factor that in as well.
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the offer letter
Each school is different. Once admitted, you should receive a physical and/or digital offer letter that serves as a contract for the duration of your PhD program. They expect you to treat this not like school, but like your new full-time job. Outside of much smaller classes and a more deep dive into your discipline, this is one of the largest differences. But do note that many students do find side hustles in order to make ends meet or have some supplemental income.
The offer letter is your job contract, it breaks down how you will be paid, which is usually though some combination of fellowships, teaching assistantships (TA), and/or research assistantships (RA). We make our money primarily through our labor as stipulated in our contract, so please read your offer letter carefully before signing. Do not be afraid to ask questions, even if that means asking PhD student friends instead of the department itself.
During a five-year contract you will likely teach for anywhere from two to four years, have zero to two years of fellowship — you’re able to focus on your work and do not have to teach—and sometimes one year of an RA appointment will replace or be interchangeable for a teaching year. But this really depends on your university size, as larger universities and public universities require your teaching labor to be able to function. Smaller and more private universities can sometimes offer less teaching years, more fellowship years, and more RAships.
the fine print
Your offer letter should also address whether health care, registration fees, and summer stipends are included. In the case of Harvard University, one of the richest universities in the game, dental insurance is NOT covered. This is just one reason that graduate student unions are important. Shoutout to Harvard graduate students for starting their own union and to UAW 2865, my own graduate student worker union.
What you ask for is really based on your needs. Examples include summer funding, relocation costs, or another guaranteed year of TAship. The easiest way to do this is to use another school’s offer to get a bump at the school of your choice. It does not always work, but the worst they can say is no. You typically work this out with the DGS, or director of graduate studies. And sometimes your desired department does not have anything more to offer you, but a particular professor can offer you an RAship or the department can apply for funds from the school’s graduate division, the larger umbrella under which they fall. I include a much more extended example below to demystify the process.
Example: I was initially offered:
the good stuff: Health care, dental care, vision care, and tuition remission (I don’t pay for tuition) for all five years.
year 1 — $21,000 fellowship for nine months ($2,333/month) paid in one lump sum per quarter. No teaching, no researching for a professor.
summer between year 1 and year 2— $4,000 guaranteed for three months ($1,333/month). This was supposed to be paid in two lump sums of $2,000, if I recall correctly.
year 2/3/4 — TAship at 50% time (meaning I should spend no more than 20 hours a week teaching) at $21,500 ($2,388/mo) for nine months for the first year of teaching and $22,380 ($2,486/mo) after three quarters of teaching. This, as usual, is paid per quarter and not per month, although I did list the monthly rate to make it easier to compare to a fulltime job. This covered almost everything “with the exception of certain miscellaneous fees of about $379 annually.” And the TA salary is subject to change with new union salary negotiations.
year 5 — Assuming that I am ABD, $21,000 ($2,333/mo) for nine months, but paid in lump sums per quarter.
any time — Up to $1,000 reimbursement for conference travel from the graduate division. This means that I have to front the money and I get paid after.
any time — Up to $500/year reimbursement for conference travel from my home department only after I have used up the graduate division funding.
2018–19, my first teaching year, brought me responsibility over 75 undergraduate students per quarter for a total of 225 students. Our union protects graduate student-workers by setting labor limits. We max out at three sections a quarter and 25 students per discussion section. The two 300-student and the one 150-student classes I taught for had two weekly lectures taught by the professor and once-weekly discussion sections that I ran along with my co-TAs who ran their own sections.
Regarding fit and cost: I was deciding between two schools and Harvard was offering me more, but I felt like UCLA was a better fit. So I negotiated by using my Harvard offer letter. UCLA is a public school and Harvard is a private school, so they could not compete on the base rate, but they went for other funds. During the application period I applied for and received the Eugene V. Cota-Robles Fellowship, a campus-wide fellowship rather than a department-specific fellowship. This bumped me up from the initial offer of $21,000 for nine months to $25,000 for nine months. And they submitted me for a competitive campus-wide fellowship.
I felt odd about asserting negotiations at first. It felt like a sense of entitlement, but just like we should negotiate wages at our jobs, we should do the same in graduate school. What also helped is knowing that my portion for a two-bedroom apartment in graduate student housing cost $1315/month at the time, making housing 56% of my income at $21,000/nine months and 47% of my income when I got bumped up to $25,000. And then with $1,333/month for the three summer months, $1315/month in rent makes housing quite literally 99% of my income, leaving little room for simple things like…I don’t know, food? Needless to say, saving during the nine-month academic year became essential to surviving the three-month summer.
Each school has their own timeline for payment. Ask the department and/or current graduate students when you get paid and how you get paid. Will fellowships be added income in a regular paycheck for teaching? Will taxes be taken out because it counts as income or will you be responsible for paying the taxes in April of the next year?
Some schools do not pay until a month or two into your program, meaning you have to stack some cash before entering, already be well-off, or rely on credit. Most schools pay every academic term but that $15,000 might work out to three payments of $5,000 or one payment of $7,000 and one of $8,000. Some also pay a few weeks in, whereas others pay at the beginning of the academic term. This changes whether you can pay rent or not and is important to know. And because most departments do not guarantee summer funding, you have to figure out if your $15,000 works out to ~$1,666/month for nine months or $1,250 for twelve months.
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There is so much written about internal and external funding, so I’m going to give a very basic run-down. External comes from outside the university, internal comes from inside. Departments provide you with internal funding and expect you to apply to external funding every year.
What I really want to re-emphasize, however, is that a lot of money in academia grants work on a reimbursement basis. You have to have the money or borrow the money upfront. So you spend your $1,000 to get to the conference in some great city, you keep and later submit your receipts, and then you wait a few weeks to a few months to get that money back in the form of a physical check or direct deposit. This can be really difficult on families, poor folks, working class folks, and people without credit cards.
grants & scholarships
Grant and scholarship aren’t quite interchangeable, but they serve similar purposes, they just come from different sources. In general, the funding comes with less strings, but some do restrict what you can use the money on. Examples include a grant for new technology that cannot be used for rent. Or a travel grant for that has to be for air travel to a conference and does not include lodging.
Fellowship funding requires a bit more, depending on where you get them. You may have to publish, teach a class, give a talk, or something else entirely. While no money is free, grants are sometimes referred to as “free money,” whereas fellowships come with more obligations.
PhD students often apply to nationally competitive fellowships and grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Ford Foundation, Spencer Foundation, Soros Fellowship, the Harry S. Truman Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and more. And each has their own rules. For instance, you can only apply to NSF once as a student without a master’s degree, but you can apply to Ford every year. And last year Ford only accepted 70 students nationally, versus the thousands that NSF accepted.
We also apply for geographic area-specific and discipline specific funds from libraries, banks, non-profits, corporations, professional associations, and more. Find them nooks of money! And finally, each organization comes with political leanings and implications, so do consider that as you apply.
Example: In Part I I mentioned that I was a Mellon Mays fellow as an undergraduate. As a former MMUF, I have access to SSRC-MMUF grants. And I’m currently a graduate research fellow with the NSF, meaning I get a monthly stipend in exchange for attempting to make a broader impact, submitting an annual report, and recognizing them for funding when I present my research.
Image courtesy the author (me!), photographed by Jenny Baquing.
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So now you know a lot more than I knew about the PhD process as I applied. If you missed it, please check out Part I of this two-part series, “how does a [sociology] phd work?” If you’ve read both, feel free to visit “AMA: PhD edition,” the public thread where you can ask me anything about this whole process.