Last week, in response to a skeptical comment about levels of Ph.D. debt on an earlier post, I created The Ph.D. Debt Survey, an open-source Googledoc spreadsheet. It has now passed 1700 entries. The original spreadsheet is here. I’m still collecting new entries, but through a form. I welcome your contribution. Please fill out this form with information on your debt—whether your debt is 0 or $250K or anything in between. The information is invaluable, for reasons I will talk about in today’s post below.
The links, again:
What does the Ph.D. Debt Survey show us?
It shows us that without monetary support from either parents, grandparents, some other relative, or a working spouse, someone doing a Ph.D. in the humanities or social sciences will probably be unable to finish his or her program without 5- or 6-figure debt.
The stipends that most humanities and social science Ph.D. programs pay, even in so-called “full ride” fellowships, are insufficient to cover the expenses of actual adult lives. These expenses include gas, rent (particularly in major cities), food, medical care, and childcare. They also include the university fees that are typically not covered by waivers (up to $1000 a year), and professionalization activities required to search for a tenure track job, such as conferences, which will cost about $1000 per conference.
Stipends in the humanities and social sciences are often in the $15,000 range. This is an income of $1250 a month. It is not a stretch to imagine a modest budget (rent: $500, gas: $100, food: $300, utilities: $200, books and research: $200, misc: $200 = $1500) that immediately exceeds this. Add the fees and conferences, and it falls further behind. Now add dependents. Or, god forbid, any kind of medical issue. Without help from family or spouse, the only option to keep afloat in the program is a loan. A modest loan of $10,000 a year seems not too extravagant, but now multiply by 7, or 10 years in a program. Add interest, which for graduate students accrues while they are still enrolled….
Add to it debt from the undergraduate degree…
And little chance of a secure income at the end to pay it off.
For those who like official sorts of figures, the NSF gathers data on graduate school debt. Find it here (search under Financial Support for Graduate Study). To me, as an anthropologist, it’s of course the stories that tell the real story.
Case 1: Archaeology. 2010 Ph.D. Total Debt: $67,000
Why did you take out the loans? I did my BA at a private R1 with one of the best undergraduate archaeology programs in the country. My mother was an under-employed single mother; I had absolutely no parental help with the cost of school or living. I received half of my tuition in federal grants, and the other half was paid for in federal student loans. My undergraduate school, between 1998-2002, cost about $20,000-$25,000 per year (it now costs $50,000!). In graduate school (a public R1), my funding package (i.e., teaching assistant work) only covered the academic year, not the summers (which are four months long at that institution, and my program was eight years long). For three of the summers I was able to teach my own summer class, but it was conditional on getting enough students enrolled (always a challenge) and the salary for a summer course wasn’t enough to cover the four months of summer. I ran out of funding my very last semester, and had to pay for one semester out-of-pocket just to defend my dissertation (a $6,000 expense). Teaching assistant salary was just enough to get by on a month-to-month basis, and not enough to put anything in savings for the months when there were no classes to teach.
Plan to repay the debt: After struggling for two years in non-tenure-track work and moving three times in 24 months, I found myself without another teaching contract and no longer able to afford the intra-state moving expenses of going from one temporary postdoc/teaching job to another. I left academia and moved in with a family member while I try to find another career path. I have no spouse or partner to lean on financially. I currently work at Starbucks, and my student loans are in forebearance. I need to earn at least $45,000 per year in order to make the minimum payment on my student loans.
Are you employed in the academy? No
I have more to say: I decided to “leave” academia (i.e., stop applying for academic jobs or attempt to stay competitive for jobs while unemployed in academia) when I passed up the last relevant job posting because it was for a non-tenure-track, temporary teaching job at UCLA for which the salary was $25,000 *before* taxes, and required a move of 3,000 miles across the continent with no moving expenses reimbursement, and the ability to pay rent on that salary, in LA. I wouldn’t have been able to afford to take the job, even if I had been offered it.
How much debt was offset by parents, family or loved ones? None. I have been financially independent since the age of 18, when I left home for college. I have never been married. I have no children. I have never owned a car. My mother cannot support anyone beyond herself; my grandparents are no longer living; my father did not contribute to my educational or living expenses; nothing was ever put into a trust fund or savings account for me when I was a child.
Case 2: Religious Studies. 2015 (expected) Ph.D. Total Debt: $140,000 (so far)
Why did you take out the loans? Funded for three years of coursework. Took loans to pay for everything beyond what 9-month academic year stipend wouldn’t cover: medical expenses, summer living expenses, research travel expenses, car insurance, conference and presenting travel, pet care. After those three years, took loans to pay expenses while researching out of country; took loans to simply “live” while researching/writing when department funding not offered; took loans to augment semester-length adjunct income which is below living wage for hours spent in prep and travel time.
Plan to repay the debt. Paying $800/month and will be doing so until death. Will not have children due to years spent striving for degree and debt load. Will not be able to own property due to debt.
Are you employed in the academy? Yes, insecure adjunct type position.
I have more to say: Basically between a rock and hard place after coursework completed: adjunct to earn enough to live on which cuts into research/writing time, or take out additional loans to live on when unfunded and not adjuncting. When unfunded, “out of sight, out of mind” to non-attentive advising committee, compounding months to finishing. Was given the impression that degree would be earned within six years, committee solid, and tenure-track positions available. Would never have begun this hamster wheel Ph.D. marathon if this type of information was available about the costs (financial, emotional, physical), the departmental dynamics and drama, and the clear lack of future positions. Thank you for opening eyes.
How much of your debt was offset by parents, family or loved ones? Supported myself. Family never understood the need for college or advanced degree.
Case 3: Anthropology. 2013 Ph.D. Total Debt: $0
Are you employed in the academy? Yes, secure position.
How much of your debt was offset by parents, family, or loved ones? My undergrad was paid by family; I took a loan for my MA and it was paid by family. I had 5 years funding for my PhD. It was only possible to not take loans because of family support.
Case 4: Art History. 2007 Ph.D. Total Debt: $0 (formerly $50,000)
Why did you take out the loans? To be able to afford a decent apartment with my wife in a booming area, be able to shop at the Costco and not to have to eat popcorn or ramen for dinner all the time. My grad program paid $11,500 as an annual stipend at the time.
Plans to repay the debt. None. It’s now all paid off, thanks to a small inheritance from my wife.
Are you employed in the academy? Yes, secure position.
I have more to say: Although I am employed and out of debt, I understand the severity of the debt question. My U, a low-ranked, regional public institution, pays 25% less than our peers (even regional peers) and has done for a long time. We don’t get raises. And this is an expensive town to live in. I don’t see how other people who have debt manage it.
How much of your debt was offset by parents, family, or loved ones? All of it. That is, my wife inheriting about $100,000 when her father died allowed us to pay off my loans, her loans, and put a downpayment on our house. Before then, we were paying much more for our loans each month than we were for a mortgage.
Case 5: Anthropology. 2006 Ph.D. Total Debt: $75,000 (formerly $90,000)
Why did you take out loans? Undergrad-no aid. Graduate work-to supplement fellowship and dissertation grants.
Plan to repay the debt. I just keep chipping away at it. Month by month. I am hopeful to one day experience loan forgiveness.
Are you employed in the academy? I am a tenured associate professor
Case 6: Rhetoric and Composition. 2014 Ph.D. Total Debt: $140,000
Why did you take out the loans? To supplement my meager income; because I was initially told student debt was “good debt”; because I thought I could get a job with a BA, then an MA and lots of practical experience/internships.
BA: Prestigious local private school offered a lot of scholarships and grants; parents paid for some, I took out loans (~$3k/year) to cover the rest.
MA: Did this abroad for once a lifetime opportunity. Carefully figured out finances and took out loans based on reasonable expectation I would earn around $40k/year when I graduated. Instead, I found no employment for months (looking in broad fields of teaching, technical writing, communications, events).
PhD: Made my decision for one school>others based on award given in conjunction with stipend for first year and low relocation costs. Stipend is in the $10-$15k range, which amounts to even less in hostile political environment (e.g., our health care premiums have increased dramatically). Have supplemented my income with freelance work and adjuncting each summer, which delayed my dissertation; am on fellowship this year to finish on time but am ineligible for loans and am maxing out credit cards while on the job market, paying for campus visits and anxiously awaiting reimbursement.
Plan to repay the debt. Hoping for a job at a public school for forgiveness after 10 years; will aim for working out a minimum payment plan with lenders upon graduation.
Are you employed in the academy? Am on the job market for TT jobs.
Case 7: History. 2013 Ph.D. Total Debt: $100,000.
Why did you take out loans? My parents took out the loans for college, and they are now mine to pay off. I was “fully funded” for 5 years of my graduate program at 17.5k per year, but barely covered my rent and living expenses in a major urban center. It took me more than 3 years to finish the dissertation, teaching nearly every semester but two, and the teaching pay and various writing stipends never added up to more than 15-20k per year. The spike in loans for my last academic year reflects only teaching and interviewing at 3 professional conferences out of town, with a lot of travel and related expenses.
Plans to repay the debt. I got a job! But I have no idea how I’m ever going to pay this off.
Are you employed in the academy? Yes, secure position.
How much of your debt was offset by parents, family, or loved ones? None! (how great would that be?) This debt is my deepest secret.
Case 8. Visual Art/Art History. 2011 Ph.D. Total Debt: $57,000.
Why did you take out the loans? I grew up very poor and am lucky I was able to go to college at all. I got a full scholarship for my undergrad but took out some loans then to pay for a computer and help with textbook costs and living expenses because my parents could not afford to help me. I took out substantial loans during graduate school despite having a full tuition remission because in the first year of my masters I was handed a life-threatening cancer diagnosis. With treatments, surgeries, radiation, and chemotherapy I had to stop working for several years. Student loans helped cover the cost of living and are directly responsible for me being able to pay for my cancer treatments, many of which were not covered fully by my limited student health insurance. Student debt seemed like a much safer option than accumulating more credit card debt given my situation.
What is your plan for repayment? I am on the academic job market right now and hoping that something will come through. If that doesn’t work out, I plan to just keep working multiple jobs and freelancing on weekends. I only have Stafford Loans and right now I’m paying back what I can through the merciful (but also scary) income based repayment plan option, but I don’t make enough money to scrape the surface of the loans as of yet. I have had some recent health trouble relapses and I worry about what another significant health issue could mean for my future. I can’t even see past the next year let alone the next ten years of my life because my debt hampers my decision making so much. I doubt I will ever own a home, let alone retire. I hope that I can eventually get to a place where my debt doesn’t make me feel suicidal every day.
Why do intelligent people make the choices they do with regard to this level of debt? A couple insights come to mind from reading the above cases.
Believing and being told that education debt is good debt
Insufficient financial literacy to understand long-term consequences of the loans
Inaccurate assessment of the tenure track job market and chances for secure employment
Unexpected health crises that cannot be financially covered by low-quality graduate student insurance
Debilitating secrecy and shame that prevents proactive decision-making with regard to the debt.
Regarding the last, here is an insight:
“I have some grad school debt, and to be honest with you, I do feel a strange sort of shame about it. I was ‘funded,’ after all. I think I stayed in my program longer than I should have because I started taking out loans. How could I justify the loans if I didn’t finish?”
Here are the outcomes I want from the Ph.D. Debt Survey:
I want everyone to know the real price tag of the Ph.D. and to weigh the costs against their chances of an income sufficient to pay off this debt.
I want faculty and administrators to understand the true costs of their pathetically inadequate “full funding” packages.
I want Ph.D.s with debt to know they are not alone.
The Ph.D. Debt Survey is the evidence for the truth of Bill Pannapacker’s claims in his infamous Chronicle column titled “Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go.” Contrary to the title (which he did not choose, by the way), Pannapacker advances a descriptive—not prescriptive—claim in this column: that only a certain profile of student can pursue an advanced degree in the humanities without incurring serious financial risk.
“As things stand, I can only identify a few circumstances under which one might reasonably consider going to graduate school in the humanities:
- You are independently wealthy, and you have no need to earn a living for yourself or provide for anyone else.
- You come from that small class of well-connected people in academe who will be able to find a place for you somewhere.
- You can rely on a partner to provide all of the income and benefits needed by your household.
- You are earning a credential for a position that you already hold — such as a high-school teacher — and your employer is paying for it.
Those are the only people who can safely undertake doctoral education in the humanities. Everyone else who does so is taking an enormous personal risk…”
Here’s the truth. When I was a faculty member sitting on the admissions committee, proudly and grandiosely handing out our offers of “full-ride” fellowships to “deserving” incoming students, I often secretly wondered how any student, no matter how “deserving,” could possibly live on the $12,000 stipend we were offering. I never asked this aloud, and it was never openly spoken of.
Now of course it’s obvious. They can’t. Not if they are in a city, or have a child, or get sick, or lack a family subsidy.
It’s only since I left the academy and opened The Professor Is In business that I have confronted this truth. I confront it because I can’t avoid it. New clients, writing for the first time, usually devote a few lines to their circumstances. Their circumstances nearly always involve debt over $50,000, and frequently in the six figures. In the three years of running the business I’ve grown accustomed to this.*
Consequently, I didn’t realize that others were not aware of the true level of humanities and social science Ph.D. debt out there. I was startled by the widespread shock occasioned by the emerging results of the survey. You’re surprised that humanities and social science Ph.D.s finish with massive debt? Really?
But of course you are. Because outside of the oddly confessional space that is my email inbox, this is never spoken of aloud. It’s shrouded by denial (on the part of faculty) and shame (on the part of graduate students).
Do I think humanities and social science Ph.D.s with six figure debt have made the most responsible of all possible life choices? No, I do not. I believe the level of denial about the repercussions of this debt is almost beyond belief. But I also understand the cult-like nature of the academy that prevents people from being able to imagine quitting, and that makes this debt appears logical and “good,” as if it’s in the service of some “higher” calling.
*The Chronicle reporter, in the otherwise excellent Chronicle story of the Survey, quotes me as saying I was “startled” by the results, but this is misquoted—I was startled only by the speed with which the document was being filled out before my eyes, not by the figures being entered.