Do no cost or free PhD programs exist?

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Congratulations on choosing to pursue post graduate education! The next step after making this important decision is to hammer out pesky details such as how to pay for what may be another four to eight years of education, and what to study. With increases in tuition rates at institutions of higher learning far outpacing inflation, many people may be daunted by the costs associated with an advanced degree. Fortunately, there exist multiple opportunities to pursue graduate education for no cost to you.

Tuition Free Programs

The first route to a no cost PhD is through one of a very few, but potentially growing number of programs that do not charge tuition. The most important example of this sort of program would be Harvard University’s PhD program for education leaders. The goal of this program is to allow motivated candidates the educational opportunities necessary in order to play important roles in senior leadership in public school districts, nonprofit agencies, government agencies, as well as the educationally related private sector. The program combines professors and material from three schools at Harvard: curriculum and instruction, policy and politics, and management and leadership.

Look Abroad

A second option available to those seeking a free graduate degree is one a bit further afield: Europe. Many European nations, particularly those with a strong socialist political force, offer free higher education to both their citizens and foreigners, including Masters and Doctorate degrees. A fringe benefit of certain countries, such as France, is that the degrees take less time. For example, a masters degree takes five total years of university education, compared to six in the US, and a doctoral degree takes eight total years of university education, instead of the potential ten to twelve in the US. Other countries offer similar free to low cost graduate education, including Sweden, Germany, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Austria and Belgium. Certain of these countries may require a nominal administrative fee, typically around 200 euro per year. As well, in many of these countries, the government provides a stipend to help students with living expenses. In this way, not only is the tuition free, but cost of living during graduate school is very low to negligible.


Perhaps the most popular option for free graduate education is that of a fellowship. A fellowship takes many forms such as a grant from a private or governmental organization, such as the Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowship (FLAS) offered by the Department of Education and the Department of Defense. Typically this type of grant is related directly to the field of study of the candidate, such as National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants and fellowships. Another, perhaps more common, form of a fellowship is offered by the department or college within the university. This typically consists of full funding of all tuition and fee expenses, plus a living stipend, in exchange for either teaching or research. For example, a science student may run a lab for a professor or conduct research under them, or a literature student might teach an introductory course within the department.

In short, no cost programs for PhD or graduate education do exist. However, these programs are highly competitive, and, with the exception of European options, follow the mantra of ‘no such thing as a free lunch’. Every program or fellowship will require something of the successful applicant, be it work, research, or an eventual career in an underserved field.

This post is part of the series: PhD for Free

How to fund a PhD without digging into your own pocket.

  1. PhD Education : Do No Cost Programs Exist?