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109: HelloPhD Guide to Grad School Applications – Understanding Your Offer Letter with Dr. Emily Roberts

It’s been an exhausting journey, but you’re nearing the end. You slogged through reams of application forms, personal statements, and letters of reference. You gave up every weekend for two months, traveling to interview at different schools.

But the blessed day has finally arrived when your inbox ‘dings’ with the sound of a grad school offer letter!

It’s time to take everything you’ve learned about research programs, college towns, and faculty advisors and add another layer to your decision making: Can I actually afford to go to grad school?

Fellowship of the Bling

Getting an offer letter from a top-tier graduate school is absolutely enthralling, but before you pop the bubbly, it’s worth taking a few minutes to understand the details behind the ‘Yes!’

That’s why we asked our friend and frequent guest Dr. Emily Roberts from the website and podcast Personal Finance for PhDs to help us break down the numbers.

Read on for a look at the different parts of a typical offer letter, or check out Emily’s website for a full description and companion worksheet!


We open the conversation by talking about the big number everyone looks for first: the stipend. This is akin to a salary you’d receive at your job, and it sets the basis for most of your financial decisions over the next few years.

While stipends that allow you to pursue your own research project are common, there are some flavors of funding that come with strings attached. For instance, there are research assistant fellowships that may require you to work on an unrelated project to earn your monthly allowance.

Other students may be required to act as a teaching assistant (TA) and commit 10-20 hours per week outside the lab and inside the classroom. This can be great experience if your career goals include teaching, but may slow down your progress on your main research topic.

It’s vitally important to find out where your money is coming from, and what you’ll be expected to do to earn it.

You’ll also want to compare your offer to other programs and regions. Dr. Roberts hosts an amazing website for doing just that. It’s called, and it allows you to search by field, department, or region to see what other students are earning.

Your search results will also include a living-wage ratio, effectively letting you know how far your stipend will stretch in your new home.

Though the living-wage ratio can get you started, Dr. Roberts says there’s another resource that you shouldn’t overlook.

What you really need to do is to talk to students on the ground. That’s something you can do when you meet current grad students on your visit weekend or maybe you can do it later on via email. But it’s very important.

Tuition and Fees

In many cases, a PhD program will include funding for your tuition. Take a minute to confirm that’s true for the school you’re considering and move along.

If your tuition is not completely covered, find out how much you’ll be expected to pay per semester. Tuition costs can change from year to year based on your progress through the program, so it’s vital that you take the long view and not get fixated on years one and two.

Another factor you can hopefully skip quickly are fees. They should be minimal and well defined, but Dr. Roberts has heard from students who saw their fees rise to a level that was untenable for their finances.


In the US, healthcare costs continue to rise. You need to understand both sides of your responsibility: how much the premium will cost you month-to-month, and what the care actually covers.

Since most graduate students are relatively young and healthy, it may not be an issue. But if you have a chronic condition or a family that will depend on your coverage, take care with this aspect of your offer.

But Wait, There’s More!

This episode is jam-packed with information you’ll need to know when making your decision, and we go pretty deep. In addition to the topics above, we talk about:

  • Which parts of your offer letter are negotiable?
  • What should you do with a ‘signing bonus?’
  • Things you can learn from current graduate students that the program will never tell you.
  • A simple formula for knowing whether your stipend will cover your expenses over the long term.

We also break out of our IPA-Free Fall to sample a Boomsauce IPA from Lord Hobo Brewing Company in Woburn, Massachusetts.

Though it sat in the back of the fridge for the last few months, it lightened our moods and enlightened our minds by revealing the science behind beer colorimetry.

To hear more from Dr. Emily Roberts, check out our previous interviews on financial topics:

For more in the Grad School Applications Series , check out:

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