Working toward a doctoral degree is a monumental undertaking.

Figuring out financing is an important part of the task. This can seem intimidating, with so many options to look at—and so many dollars involved. Brett Pequin, Capella University’s Associate Financial Aid Advisor for doctoral programs, discusses the best ways to approach doctoral program financing and things you should know.

His first piece of advice? “Take it one step at a time,” says Pequin. “That means being sure the doctoral process is right for you. A PhD or professional doctorate is not a cakewalk. Is the advantage of getting one greater than the cost you’ll incur? Will it further your career? What’s your motivation behind getting a doctoral degree?” In other words, before you sign up for a program, make sure you’ve identified the ways it will benefit you.


Establishing a Budget

It’s critical that you establish a budget that identifies what the degree will cost, and where the money will come from. Questions to ask yourself include:

  • How much educational expense have I accrued so far, and how much of that is currently unpaid debt?
  • Can I repay my existing balance now?
  • For the new program, what can I afford?
  • If I take a loan, what can I reasonably expect to repay and over what time period?


Starting the Financial Aid Process

Once you’ve determined that the doctoral program will be of value, you’ve asked and answered the budget questions above, and you’ve been accepted into a program, the next step for financial planning is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Don’t hesitate to call on your school’s financial aid office for assistance with FAFSA if you need to. “We can’t do anything without it,” says Pequin. “Once the FAFSA is complete, we can determine your federal financial aid eligibility and assess possible scholarships, tuition discounts, assistance through your employer, and credits you can transfer that can reduce your overall cost. As we gather this information, the financial picture becomes clearer.”

At Capella, doctoral students will develop a spreadsheet during their first quarter to help them keep track of their costs and aid. The spreadsheet, called the Personal Education Financing Plan (PEFP), helps track the financial picture quarter-by-quarter.


Determine How to Get What You Need

Student debt can become overwhelming, so it’s important you only borrow exactly what you need. But before you even do that, consider the following funding options:

  • Employer tuition reimbursement. Some employers will pay part—or even most—of your educational expenses if the program is relevant to your work, or would make you eligible for a promotion or sideways career move within the company that would benefit them as well as you. It never hurts to ask.
  • Out-of-pocket. If you have money saved, can you use some or all of that to pay for school without putting you (and your family) at risk? Or if you’re planning to work while pursuing your degree, how much of your income could you dedicate to paying for school rather than taking out a loan?
  • Scholarships or grants. Are there scholarships and grants you might be eligible for? Check with your school’s financial aid office, which should have a full list of scholarships, grants, and discounts for you to explore.


Stafford Loans and Graduate PLUS

Once scholarships or tuition assistance of any kind has been factored in, it’s time to look at Stafford Loans, which are U.S. Department of Education student loans. Pequin notes that Stafford Loans are central to the doctoral financial process. “They’re the backbone of the overall financing,” he says. “You build up or take apart around it.”

An important thing to know about Stafford Loans is that they are finite: there’s an annual limit at the doctoral level of $20,500, with a lifetime maximum of $138,500 (except for medical degrees). Students who have been using Stafford Loans for undergraduate and master’s programs will need to determine their remaining eligibility to fully understand their financial picture.

For additional educational expenses, you may look to other federal loan programs like Graduate PLUS.



Finishing Your Dissertation

If your dissertation takes longer than expected, and as long as faculty and advisors will attest to the fact that you’re still making progress and are likely to complete your dissertation, additional loans and aid may still be available to you. This will depend on a number of variables within each program. (Note: There are no extensions beyond the cap on Stafford loans.) No matter what, you should only borrow what you actually need; if you borrow heavily in the beginning, you may run out of resources before you complete your degree.

Academic financial aid organizations do understand that completing a dissertation is a major undertaking. “In general, the longer it takes to complete your dissertation, the more loans you will take out. Essentially, time is money in a dissertation,” says Pequin.

Remember: the time spent in the dissertation phase is driven entirely your pace. As you plan for that time—and those expenses—be sure to factor in what it will cost you if you don’t meet your original finish date. Can you afford to keep going if that happens?



Want more information? Capella’s financial planning checklist can help guide you through the financial aid process.

Capella University offers professional doctorate degree and PhD programs ranging from business to education and health to technology. Learn more about Capella’s online doctoral programs.