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Student Loans

Best Ph.D. Student Loans

Ph.D. student loans offer a pathway to finance the extensive costs associated with higher education, covering everything from tuition to living expenses. We’ve identified the best Ph.D. student loans from the Department of Education and private lenders.

LenderBest forOur rating
Dept. of EducationFederal student loansNot rated
College AvePrivate student loans5/5
Sallie MaeCosigners4.8/5
EarnestLarge loans4.7/5

Use federal Ph.D. student loans first

If you must borrow using Ph.D. student loans, always max out federal student aid as your first funding source. Federal student loans, offered by the U.S. Department of Education, tend to be cheaper, provide more repayment flexibility, and come with other borrower perks, such as the potential for loan forgiveness.

UnsubsidizedGrad PLUS
Rates (APR)7.05%8.05%
Loan amountsUp to $20,500 per yearUp to 100% of certified costs

Federal Direct Unsubsidized loans

The first federal loan option to consider is the Direct Unsubsidized Loan. These loans don’t require students to demonstrate any financial need and allow for up to $20,500 in annual federal funding toward your Ph.D. program, depending on your actual educational expenses.

One benefit is that you don’t need a cosigner or a credit check when you apply, which you do by filing the FAFSA

Federal Grad PLUS loans

The Department of Education offers Direct PLUS Loans to graduate students to cover advanced education. If you’re eligible, you could borrow up to the school-certified cost of attendance, minus any grants or scholarships you’ve received.

Unlike some federal loans, however, Grad PLUS Loans aren’t available to you if you have an adverse credit history, and you’ll need to undergo a credit check to prove you don’t.

Best private Ph.D. student loans

After maxing out your federal student loans, you may still need more money to pay for your doctoral degree. If that’s the case, you’ll need to look into getting private Ph.D. loans.

Private student loans tend to have higher interest rates, can be harder to qualify for, and have less flexible repayment plans. However, they can cover shortfalls in funding that otherwise might make getting your Ph.D. impossible.

Our team spent hours evaluating the options to choose the best Ph.D. student loans. Among other factors, we considered their options for deferment, repayment plans, cosigner policies, and grace periods.

College Ave: Best overall

LendEDU rating: 5 out of 5

  • Choose between 20 different repayment schedules
  • 36-month grace period
  • Deferment during residency

College Ave is an online lender offering new student loans and refinancing. The company covers a variety of doctorate programs, including those for Ph.D.s. 

It stands out in several ways, including a 36-month grace period. You can also get a cosigner release after just 24 consecutive on-time payments. 

Repayment terms go up to 15 years, which is a little shorter than some other lenders who let you spread payments out over 20 years. However, you can borrow anywhere from $1,000 up to the total cost of attendance each year. 

Sallie Mae: Best for cosigners

LendEDU rating: 4.8 out of 5

  • Cosigner release after 12 months of consecutive on-time payments
  • 48 months of deferment during residency and fellowship 
  • No origination or prepayment penalty

Sallie Mae is the largest private student loan lender in the country. It offers loans for graduate students seeking a range of degrees and certifications, covering up to 100% of your educational costs.

Sallie Mae doesn’t have a Ph.D.-specific student loan product, but it offers graduate loans for students in master’s and doctorate programs.

Sallie Mae provides loans for up to 100% of your certified educational expenses, with no maximum loan limit. Repayment terms are up to 15 years, and cosigners can be released after 12 months of on-time payments. Though Sallie Mae loans are not federal, student borrowers may still be eligible for loan payment deferment in 12-month increments.

Earnest: Best for large loans

LendEDU rating: 4.7 out of 5

  • Skip a payment once per year, if needed
  • No fees
  • Check your rate without affecting your credit

Earnest is a popular online lender offering private student loans and the ability to refinance existing student loans. The Earnest Graduate School Loan covers Ph.D. programs in all states except Nevada. 

These can help cover between $1,000 and up to 100% of your school-certified educational costs. You can choose from five repayment terms, and Earnest provides a nine-month grace period.

How to get Ph.D. student loans

A graduate loan can be an important step in paying for your Ph.D. degree program. Whether you’re looking to cover tuition and fees, housing, or even miscellaneous expenses (such as a laptop for class), federal and private student loans can help.

Our expert’s take on loans for Ph.D. students

Erin Kinkade


The amount of student loans needed for a Ph.D. program will likely be more than a bachelor’s or master’s degree. But along with that, the earning potential could be greater and facilitate an easier repayment.  It’s important to understand the repayment terms; try to make extra payments while pursuing the Ph.D., and don’t wait until you graduate or get a job, if possible. Of course, make room in your budget for this payment, and when job searching, ask whether the employer offers any benefits for paying back student loans, such as 401(K) employer plan matching, which takes effect on January 1, 2025. This will assist with “lost” retirement savings and help you gain traction to meet your retirement goals.

To gain access to these loans, you must do the following.

  1. Fill out the FAFSA. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid is a form you must fill out months in advance before the deadline for each year you want financial aid. It helps determine your financial need. This is required if you hope to take out federal loans for any part of your educational expenses.
  2. Consider federal loans. Federal student loans have protections and features that private loans don’t offer. While you may be limited in how much you can borrow based on financial need and annual limits, consider borrowing as much as you can with federal loans before turning to private loans.
  3. Shop around for a private loan. If you’ve exhausted all your other options (including scholarships, grants, educational savings, and federal loans), it may be time to turn to private loans. Shopping around is a wise step when looking for the right private student loan, and it can help you find the right loan with the right terms and rates.
  4. Add a cosigner. If your credit history is limited, you have a low score, or you don’t meet the income requirements for a particular lender, consider adding a creditworthy cosigner to your private loan(s). This cosigner will be held equally responsible for your loans until you refinance or release them, but adding them initially can often unlock lower rates and higher loan limits.
  5. Provide documentation. Before disbursing your loan, your new lender may want to see some documentation. This could include proof of employment, academic progress, identity, and more.
  6. Get your loan. Once approved, your loan funds will be sent directly to your school, where they’ll be applied to any outstanding balance. The difference will often be refunded to you after the start of the semester.

Alternatives to a Ph.D. student loan

If you’re looking for alternatives to Ph.D. student loans, consider these funding options that could help lower the cost of attendance. 

Tuition reimbursement

Look into tuition reimbursement programs with your employer—where your employer will repay a portion of your tuition costs in exchange for an employment contract.

Program support

Some Ph.D. programs offer financial support, which can be structured in several ways. The first is a fully funded Ph.D. program, which covers tuition, fees, and a stipend for living expenses. 

You can also search for Ph.D. fellowship programs. You get financial help during your studies based on merit, and there may be a service requirement attached to the funding. 


Which Ph.D. student loan is the best?

When it comes to taking out loans for your Ph.D. program, federal student loans are usually the best place to start your search. Federal loans offer more benefits and protections than private student loans. They may even allow you to have some of your debt forgiven later on, particularly if you plan on working in public service. 

If you must turn to private funding, the best Ph.D. student loan for you is the one that offers approval at the lowest interest rate, with the best repayment terms for your unique situation. This lender may be different for each student borrower, so it’s wise to shop around first.

Do I need a cosigner for Ph.D. student loans?

Depending on your credit history, credit score, and current income, you may need to add a cosigner to qualify for a private Ph.D. loan. In exchange for adding a creditworthy cosigner, you may be eligible for certain loans, rates, and repayment terms you didn’t qualify for on your own. Depending on the lender, you may be able to release your cosigner from this obligation later on, once you’ve made a certain number of on-time payments.

Do Ph.D. student loans cover living expenses?

A Ph.D. loan can help cover your school-certified expenses, which may include housing. It’s important to note that some lenders (including federal student loan lenders) may have annual or aggregate limits. If you take out too much for tuition and fees, you may need to consider adding a private loan to cover your living expenses, too.

How much can I borrow with Ph.D. student loans?

The amount you can borrow with a Ph.D. student loan depends on the type of loan and even the specific lender. With federal graduate loans, you are limited to a maximum of $20,500 per year (though certain healthcare fields may qualify for higher limits). With private loans, you may be able to take out up to 100% of your eligible expenses.

When does repayment on Ph.D. student loans start?

Once you drop below half-time enrollment or graduate (depending on the lender), your grace period will usually begin. This grace period often ranges from six to nine months in length, during which you don’t need to make any Ph.D. loan payments. After that grace period, repayment will typically start.

Recap of the best Ph.D. student loans

LenderBest forOur rating
Dept. of EducationFederal student loansNot rated
College AvePrivate student loans5/5
Sallie MaeCosigners4.8/5
EarnestLarge loans4.7/5