How To Negotiate PhD Offers

Feb 24, 2023
First, congratu-f*ckin-lations on your PhD offers! Remember when just a few weeks ago you were all stressed and wondering if anyone was going to make you an offer?
Well, they did!  And now, just a few days later you’re wondering if you can get a bigger stipend because, well yea, cost of living. Check out this short video where I explain this a bit further, and read below for more details.

What Is A PhD Offer And What’s Included?

A PhD offer letter is usually a pdf they send you via email with your official admission letter to the University PhD program. This means you are officially accepted, and they are making you a financial offer to come and be a worker/student during your PhD and receive a living stipend. 
Now this is a big precarious. Technically, most PhD people are classified as “students” but PhDs often provide services (teaching, research, etc.) and get paid to do so. But, they’re not usually classified as “workers”. This has increased union discussions at various schools, but it is not mainstream that PhD students are “workers”.
Therefore, the “stipend” is usually some amount of money given to a PhD student to live while they study, research, and provide services for the University.
This offer letter usually outlines how long the award is for (9 month vs 12 month appointments), health care coverage, tuition fee waiver, and the annual stipend amount.

What Is A Good Stipend?

Stipends can vary from school to school, department to department, and across the different urban and rural areas of the US. 
Typical stipends range from $25,000 to $45,000 per year. I know that seems like a wide range, and it is. This depends on the cost of living in each area, and what department you are in. Typically STEM fields make a bit more than humanities fields, but social sciences also see higher stipend rates.
Cornell recently announced raising the minimum PhD stipend to $43,326 per year. This means students are receiving paid tuition and $43,326 per year to live on while they pursue their PhD full-time.
While most research based PhD programs are fully-funded, the National Science Foundation’s Survey of Earned Doctorate reports that ~15% of PhDs are self-funded.

How Do I Negotiate My PhD Stipend?

Here’s the deal. You can ask, but there's not a ton of wiggle room.
These stipend amounts are typically set far above your head and aren’t likely to change just because you’d like them too.


This is actually a good thing. It keeps biases out of graduate stipends, and makes sure those doing similar work are paid similarly. 
You can ask if you can get a 12-month stipend instead of a 9-month (if that was your original offer). You can also ask about additional merit scholarships you may apply for (which puts money directly into your pocket, instead of to the University). You can also ask about additional funding (travel, etc.) available during your tenure.
Sometimes, there is a few thousands dollars they can add as 'top up' or 'first year bonus' funds. This is largely dependent on the grants that professor has and is not always an option.
Or, you could apply for fellowships that may pay a higher rate than your stipend.For example, if my offer was $30,000 per year I may want to apply for NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program, which has an annual stipend of $37,000. Now you don’t get to keep both the $30,000 stipend from the school and the $37,000 from NSF, but you do get to make an extra $7,000 per year, so that counts for something.

What If I Really Want To Go To This School, But The Offer Is Bad?

First, do your math. What do your finances look like without doing this PhD and with it?
This requires you to examine how much money you make now, how much you will make during your PhD, and after your PhD. Then you can do a ROI calculation to see if this small blip matters. For example, MD students go hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, but know they will make it up and thus feel secure to make that decision.


If it doesn’t make financial sense, or you feel unsafe to move forward, it is OK to wait. It is OK to pursue a different path.

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