The Shame of Ph.D. Debt

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:

First Ph.D. Debt Survey Spreadsheet (now closed to new entries)

Second Ph.D. Debt Survey Spreadsheet (accepting new entries through form)

Form for Entering Your Ph.D. Debt Info


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.



The Shame of Ph.D. Debt — 59 Comments

  1. I really appreciate the work you’re doing to get this information out there. It’s also instigated conversations among my PhD-program peer group. Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the common themes of these conversations is agency. To what degree do grad students have agency in the decisions they make? To what degree are they constrained by structural conditions? And to what degree is it surprising that well-educated people pursuing degrees predicated on research are not researching the reality of funding and the laws surrounding student loan debt?

    Among my friends, I found it interesting that both those who came from very working-class (no parental support, often supporting family) and upper-middle-class (parental support if needed though not yet used) backgrounds were the ones who were most debt-averse and most debt-aware. In other words, those striving to avoid the tenuous circumstances of their families and those striving to maintain the status of their families seem to have sought out the information necessary to do so, while those from poverty or middle-class or wealthy backgrounds seemed to be less likely to acquire this info. Not sure what to make of these observations.

  2. here, here. It’s about time that we have this conversation. I was lucky to get funded– and no loans, but I know many colleagues who are struggling in the market. Even with a full-time tt job– in a place that the cost of living is fair — I am still paycheck to paycheck. Still driving a 93 LeBaron — and happy that she still works! I am now advising students —who look shocked when I tell them that they better research where they want to be and how much debt they want to take on.

  3. I think a lot of it is a kind of cult mentality – compared to not having any funding at all, having funding makes you feel like you won, like you beat the competition, and were deemed special. Your seniors are impressed with you and it’s a big ego boost. You don’t often stop to realise that all of your friends who very sensibly get out have ‘won’ much larger salaries and better life conditions. The price of this ego boost is a fairly hefty opportunity cost, but when confronted with people doing it entirely ‘for the love’ with no funding at all, you are encouraged to feel privileged.

  4. I wonder how much of the current (dire) job prospects in academia are related to the inability of the social sciences to train their students to applying their research outside of university-sanctioned activity.

    I – perhaps foolishly – also incurred debt well into five figures to complete my undergraduate and master’s degree in Anthropology. While I believed at the time, and still do, that the field of anthropology had tremendous explanatory power in many of the areas that interested me, my Master’s degree in a competitive, research-focused university convinced that academia was not the right place for me to make out a living.

    Instead, I found myself unemployed, living at home and working as a temp for a high-tech company. Without pursuing my Ph.D, I could have written off the time I spent in graduate school as an enormous waste of time and money, but with the degree in hand loan payments looming such hindsight didn’t do me much good. Instead, I decided to figure out how to make my degree work for me in the private sector.

    I read books, talked to anyone I could about my degree and how it applied to what I was doing, and got to work figuring out how to practice what I was preaching, the whole time thinking “No one TAUGHT me how to do this!”. A couple years out of grad school and I have now found gainful, full time and fulfilling work in the high-tech field. My title is not “anthropologist” but I use my degree every day, and my company recognizes (and rewards) the value of my perspective in a world full of programmers and technicians. I may never have the prestige of a tenure-track position, but I do have plenty of money to pay off my loans, enjoy life, and continue to learn.

    This is not intended as a boot-straps story, but rather to question why we, as a discipline, do not do a better job in teaching our students to proactively and effectively apply the social sciences outside of the tiny world of academia. By insisting on a single, and unobtainable track for all students, we are doing a disservice not only to the ones who won’t have the luck or the resources to go all the way, but also to today’s ANTH 101 students who will be taught by professors with only one kind of background, and very limited understanding of what else is out there.

    • BRAVO! Good on you. I hope you get back to Karen and consider providing her with a guest post, as I am very curious to know the specifics of how you achieved this. I am ABD and not blind to reality of probably being forced to work outside the academy (with debt), so I can’t help but consume stories like this. 🙂

      • Yes, I hope you’ll elaborate in a guest post as well! I am ABD and trying to find as many resources as I can about making my education work for me when I make my escape from the academy.

  5. These aren’t representative stories. The largest chunk of people on the original spreadsheet has between $1 and $50,000, as per the figures I made based on the spreadsheet. There are no people with $1-$50,000 in the 8 profiles here (or 1 if you count case #4 at $50,000). It is representative that there are two people (25%) with $0 debt (if you count case #4 at $0); however, I don’t believe that ALL people with $0 debt (for grad school) had help from others. For undergrad, maybe. It’s not JUST about family help; it’s also about living in a city or not living in a city.

    • It’s also about where you do your PhD. My parents paid $6,000 or so towards my undergraduate degree, but I did my PhD and MA overseas and graduated not only without debt, but with $40,000 in savings from my stipend and teaching (my institution required no teaching and paid about $30 for every hour of teaching or actual prep – that is, about $120 for each new prep, $90 for each additional teaching of that prep, and $30 for an hour of marking). Many countries support their PhD students much more reasonably than does the US, and US citizens sometimes have access to this support.

      • This is very true. While the UK is no halcyon market, stipends there are typically about £13,000, which if you’re not in London and don’t have dependents, is very liveable. Likewise in Scandinavia the pay is very generous.

        • When I was a PhD student in LDN the stipend was £14,500pa (a handful of years ago). I was also paid for any teaching work. When I completed my PhD I was able to pay back the loan from my UG (it was in the four figures) in full from my savings.

  6. A representative selection would be 2 people with $0 debt, 1 person with 6-figure debt, and the other 5 with 5-figure debt. Quantitative research 4-eva!

  7. If you use the NSF data that you linked to (the one I downloaded is 2002-2012), then for just the social sciences and the humanities, 52% of people have no debt, 9% have $10,000 or less, 13% have $10,000-$30,000, and 27% have $30,000 or more. So that would be with 8 stories, 4 people with no debt, 1 person with less than $10,000, 1 person with $10,000-$30,000, and 2 with $30,000 or more.

      • With all due respect to the folks pointing out that “hey, most people don’t have much/any debt,” with the implication that this means we’re making a mountain out of a molehill: Stop. Education is broadly touted in the US as being the gateway to professional work and a better life. The very people who would have the least help from family/spouse to achieve even a lower-middle-class lifestyle without college are also the ones who would be most likely to need loans just to be able to attend. Unless we’re ready to cede the American ideal of social mobility completely and just decree that college is for the very wealthy (or the very lucky who get full funding and who can maintain uncomplicated lives without illness, children, or other costly circumstance for 5, 8, or even 10+ years of adulthood) we should *not* be writing this issue off as irrelevant or unimportant. Assuming that everyone who incurs debt of more than $20,000 or whatever is an irresponsible fool is classist and shaming. Those of us who didn’t come from money, and who clawed our way into a tentative and debt-riddled position in the academy, already have enough shame and stress, thanks.

  8. Wow. I had a professor once try to talk me into working towards a PhD. I decided against it. I always wondered if that was the right choice. I see now that it was.

  9. As the title and topic of this post is the shame surrounding debt loads held by PhDs, I find it unfortunate that you chose to end the piece in this way: “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.” This value judgment contributes to the culture of shame surrounding PhD debt, and as a PhD who holds 6-figure debt and participated in the survey, I find it rather hypocritical to position yourself as casting light on a problem (presumably with an aim to reducing the stigma) and reifying it in the same post.

  10. Pingback: Debt and the Academy | Struggle Forever!

  11. And thus, the production of knowledge will continue to be in the hands of the privileged who, overwhelmingly, are white. What a corrupt travesty. Foucault and Bourdieu never been more relevant….

    • Okay, so how does one make the tradeoff between promoting diversity (encouraging less-privileged students to pursue graduate studies) versus giving students sound career/financial advice?

      My current strategy is to simply tell students “there were 10 jobs this year, and each one has 50-250 applicants, in this field” and to explain how little they will be paid in grad school, and to not pursue graduate school unless they somehow can do it without going into debt. But this is likely to disproportionately scare away women, anyone who is less-than-wealthy, and probably also first-generation college students. I am 100% on board with structural change (fewer students, unionized adjuncts, etc). But what do I tell the students that keep coming to me and asking about grad school?

  12. Just a reminder that there are other terminal degrees than PhDs … MFA in my case, and huge debt is all too common for us, too …

  13. There is one more type of person to add to that “profile of student who can pursue an advanced degree in the humanities without incurring serious financial risk.” I am that fifth type. Yes, i was married and that two-income household was key. But there was something else. I did a humanities Ph.D.—something i NEVER would have done as the offspring of a pragmatic, and poor single mother–if i did not have a fairly lucrative if tedious former career to fall back. And it’s not only the financial security of that backup career but the learning i gained from it that made my chances better of securing a decent academic job. i combined a theoretically-oriented humanities Ph.D. with an applied background in policy and planning related to science & technology projects. my dissertation topic was fundable and job marketable. Part of my relative success which i am very grateful for is also that I was 32 when i went in to the PhD. I knew something about the world. Thus i also finished quickly.

    As a professor now i look skeptically at PhD applicants who are fresh out of undergrad. I don’t care how good their GPAs or GREs are. At 22, they can’t possibly know enough to realistically assess if they should be here, however much they might want to be. and i do not feel it is ethical given my personal background and as someone who would not myself have tolerated self imposed poverty to recruit students who i do not feel have a very good chance of decent post PhD employment.

    i cannot say i enjoy your blog posts. they are thoroughly depressing, but i appreciate your candor. and i very rarely disagree with anything you write. i feel i am in conversation with you and this conversation along with my own experiences is causing me to think hard on what needs to change in the humanities and social sciences in order to deal realistically with a radically changed academic climate. thank you.

    • great point, KimT. Many people I know who successfully made a post-ac transition also used the skills from a previous career to do it.

      Your last paragraph made me smile. Thanks for sticking in the conversation!

    • I was one of those straight-out-of-BA-with-no-career-experience anthropology Ph.D. students — the only one in my program, and for me it worked out well, though I left academia to enter the non-profit sector when I finished. I came in with NSF funding and managed to stay funded pretty much throughout. Saved enough to cover summers, etc. And I came from a solidly middle-class family that was incredibly debt averse, so that definitely helped. Ironically, one of the things that can make grad school work as a viable option for someone like me is the fact that it is ultimately based on a Medieval journeyman/apprentice type model, in which the core paradigm is that the entry-level positions are taken by the young, who gradually work their way up while acquiring basic skills and at some very basic level being supported either by their families or by low level work/wages. Academia has changed in that experience is now valued more than potential in many fields (and personally I think that is a good thing — I did well in grad school but probably would have done better if I had been a bit more mature/had more real-world experience), and so the typical incoming grad student is no longer a 22-23 year old recent BA grad, but rather a 26-35 year old person with significant career experience, often with a spouse/partner and children as well. But the funding packages are still structured as if $10-20k a year is a generous sum. It can be, maybe, if you are sharing a house with several other people in a reasonably priced location, riding your bike to campus, willing to bring your own cheap lunch, and don’t have to worry about health or childcare issues. If you are willing/able to live like an apprentice or, as you rise through the ranks, a journeyman, you might make it financially. But if you can’t or won’t cut your expenses down to those basic subsistence levels, you will probably find yourself in trouble financially.

      • No. I always shared a home with at least 3 other students, I always rode my bicycle, I always taught university classes for income, I wasn’t afflicted with chronic illness, etc. I still had to take out $10K/year to support decidedly non-middle class living while in the PhD program.

        This N=1 ‘controversy’ over putative PhD profligacy is a little ridiculous in that it is easily resolved with data, and I do not know why anyone has not mentioned this yet:

        The federal government calculates how much it costs to live at a student subsistence level in that locality, attending that school, and that calculation determines the student’s yearly loan amount. The maximum amount of any student loan is precisely the minimum cost of living as a grad student in the locality attending that school, up to a cap (for a limited number of years — implicating Time to Completion policy).

  14. The sneering “you should have known better” way in which some people react to Ph.D. students with debt, one would think we spent the money on sex workers and cocaine, instead of the pursuit of higher education (in the hope of becoming a modestly paid tenure-track professor.)

  15. I am also troubled by where we locate the “shame” of education debt. Taking into account a larger cultural and economic/ideological context, where we (as citizens, as future employees, etc.) are told to “invest in ourselves” (one of the mantras of neoliberalism), and where loans have replaced other subsidies for education alongside increases in tuition and fees, and where graduate student work (and other forms of contingent labor) are not recognized as work (baring us from collective bargaining rights and other forms of job security), it seems to me that the real shame lies not with individual students, but rather in larger and more impersonal structures and policies (including the corporatization of the university).

    While many of us (myself included) might have made different decisions, there is no way I could have anticipated the change in academic scene that occurred during the time I was in grad school (2002-2010), including the rise in student fees from $300/semester to nearly $1000; the collapse of the economy; the underfunding of the humanities; the increased reliance on contingent faculty (to now about 75% of all teaching); the increased need for student loans that came in the wake of the decline of other subsidies for education; etc.

    While I often feel ashamed of my own student debt (approx $70,000), I also do not support the moralizing about debt and the rhetoric of personal responsibility that often accompanies it. The real shame lies with those who benefit from and perpetuate the current situation.

  16. I have great sympathy for those who entered the university system without the requisite counseling and applaud Dr. Kelsky for setting up this website and forum.

    A recommendation I have for those who are able is to seek positions internationally. In my experience, regional schools in Central and Eastern Europe tend to pay much more than the local cost of living. Throw in some ESL classes or proofreading jobs on the side and plow all that extra earnings into your debt. I took this route and paid down 15k in student debt and 3k in credit card debt in 2 yrs. I also had a great adventure.
    It builds your academic resume too, and keeps your dream alive.

    Best of luck to all!

  17. I’d like to echo what Stephanie wrote about some of these programs not helping students looks beyond academia and transfer their skills to other sectors. When I graduated from an MFA program over a decade ago, I had two job offers: one for an adjunct position teaching 5(!) sections of composition for a little over $17K/year with no benefits, and another in the private sector earning $25K/yr with full benefits.

    I followed the money. And while there were a lot of my fellow students and professors who pooh-poohed the idea of leaving the bubble of writers for the real working world, I actually found my writing blossomed outside of academia. Having a 9-5 job with good pay, benefits, and weekends without grading papers permits you to be more creative because you have breathing room.

    Yet in my MFA program, there was no job-seeking discussion that looked at opportunities beyond academia and publishing. It’s a shame–a broad-looking, “how to get a job anywhere” session should be a required course in graduate humanities/social science courses.

  18. Generally I agree with Karen’s take. Grad school is not designed for non-wealthy people. But I do think it’s possible though to get through grad school without debt. You have to be very picky about where you go and very aggressive in your search for money. Also, cut your losses and run if you think you’re doing to have debt — never worth it. Some tips:

    1) Go to a school with generous funding in a cheap city. Make sure before you agree to go that you are funded for all years, guaranteed. Make sure your school provides health insurance. Find out average cost for rent, transportation etc and make a budget. Will your funding cover your budget? If it doesn’t, don’t go. If you are not rich, do not go to graduate school in an expensive city. It is impossible.

    2) Apply for every bit of funding available. Do not worry about being “greedy”. Take whatever you can get. My department offered $2500 of “article writing funding” and I applied every summer and won it every summer. I also won research money for a couple summers on top of the writing money. Some people got mad that I took all this money and said I shouldn’t have applied because it was “rude”. I didn’t care — and I have no debt.

    3) Do not go to a school that does not offer summer money, conference money, and travel money every year. Find out how many students get this money and what your odds are of doing so.

    4) Do not buy your books. Borrow them, get them from the library or share through Kindle.

    5) Don’t go to conferences on your own dime. It’s not worth it. They do not help you as much as people say they do. The whole thing is a racket. Compensate for your lack of conferences by making connections online, for free. They are far more meaningful than you might believe. Make these connections, and you may get invited to workshops and conferences – they’ll pay YOUR way if they value you. Invited talks look better on a CV than conferences anyway.

    6) Finish your dissertation in the allotted time. It does not matter how good your diss is. No one gives a shit. They might care about publications in journals, but really, no one cares about your dissertation. Your department probably just wants to get you out of there. Get it done, and get out. Do not do an extra unfunded semester/year perfecting what no one reads. Get through your program as quickly as possible.

    7) Consult or do other work on the side. Who cares if your department discourages it? Do it anyway and don’t tell anyone. It’s good to have the work experience if/when you don’t get a job.

  19. Tracking this story with interest… I have a undergrad debt of $55 K and am still planning on pursuing a master’s, not only because of my passion for my field, but because finding a job in the liberal arts with only an undergrad and limited field experience is difficult. It’s not that I’m unwilling to work in another discipline and find out how my liberal arts background contributes to it – but those jobs are not any easier to find, in my experience. The extra years spent bolstering my writing portfolio and gaining extra job experience can only help…I hope.. At the same time, I am pursuing only master’s programs with options for full or nearly full funding, and plan to work part time to make sure my debt burden stays at nearly the same place it is now. Ideally, I would like to work enough to make payments on my loans while I am in school, but not sure how realistic this is.

  20. It’s not just poor decision-making or lack of research. There have been enormous and unforeseeable changes in circumstances in the last 20 years. Most people take 10-15 years (at least) from undergrad to the Ph.D. During that time, for many of us, costs of healthcare, rents, and prices generally have sky-rocketed while jobs within and outside of academia have disappeared. Part of the problem may be that people feel they have sunk a huge investment in their education and press on even though prospects get dimmer every day. But this assumes there is a better alternative out there. For some there is, but let’s remember that the job market outside of academia is also heinous, most of the country is struggling with debt, and our educational backgrounds are treated with disdain by many people in this political climate, so that years toward a Ph.D. can be seen as a liability on the non-academic market. In many cases, an intelligent person who does their research may end up in exactly the dire positions we see all over this survey, because they made a series of decisions over time, and circumstances changed around them in ways they could not control (student debt *was* good debt for a brief period in the 90s — as long as you went into your program and got out again, and employed, within that window). Then add in the other kinds of unexpected changes: spouse circumstances, children, illness. /historian

  21. Also, I’m struck by all the self-blame in this conversation. Academics are struggling to get by in huge numbers, so we accuse ourselves of being idiots for getting into this position. Why aren’t we talking about universities paying lesser qualified non-instructional admins enormous salaries and throwing billions into unneeded facilities, while not raising faculty salaries decade after decade? Why aren’t we talking about how the entire country is going into debt because of healthcare costs — is everyone an idiot who didn’t do their research, or is the healthcare system broken? I could go on and on. Do we want to live in a world where only the rich can be at the forefront of building and disseminating knowledge? Is that in anyone’s interest? Is the solution for those of us who aren’t rich but who happen to be singularly talented at building and disseminating new knowledge to just go work at Starbucks? Who does that serve?

  22. Thanks for posting. The columns are not aligned correctly in my view. I’m not sure if this is the fault of my browser (Safari on a MAC) or the configuration, but I wanted to let you know since this is too good not to be able to see correctly.

  23. I agree completely with Stephanie. Graduate students are not taught anything about finding jobs, managing life in academia, and/or dealing with how to make your degree work for you. I’ve always found ways to make my degree(s), initially starting with my BS degree, work for me. You have to market yourself, gain new skills and think creatively. In terms of finding jobs, most of my jobs have always been acquired because I either applied for a job that I wasn’t qualified for, but someone saw my resume and knew they could use me for a different position, or I cold-called places. I cold-called faculty prior to applying to graduate schools and got accepted to everyone I called. Once I passed my quals, I started doing the same thing. I cold-called faculty where I was interested in working. As a result, my top university created a position for me and hired me 4 months before I finished. I think we need to do more in graduate school to prepare the younger students (those with little work experience) for the workforce and how to find their niche in the world.

    • Cold-calling works great, if you’re an extrovert who thrives on the “salesman” approach. But if you’re an introvert, cold-calling is an absolute anathema to your very being.

      Thus, part of the difficulty in finding employment in the academy is the same as in the “real world”: the world is geared toward the “salesman” (per Susan Cain, “Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking”) and against those to whom character is more important than sales-pitch.

  24. I really encourage high school students to value public schools in their state, particularly if the schools are well regarded. I attended UNC with in-state tuition for college with my family’s help and graduated with no debt. I would have had debt at a private school. For the past five years I’ve had an $18,000 stipend in graduate school with an extra $5000 for summer teaching. To keep costs down, I share a 3-bedroom apartment. I scrape by without much difficulty, but I haven’t saved anything.

  25. Absolutely stunned by the figures and stories in the spreadsheet. I live by a simple creed when it comes to academia… If the cost of the education (either including or excluding living expenses) exceeds what you can expect to make in your first year in the “real world” by more than 100%, then it should not be considered as a path to financial security but more as a passionate hobby. Which is why I pursued an education/career in IT. Hell, you can be accredited by the largest of technology corporations for less than $250 and looks far superior on the resume than some generic degree. Once you get in the door, the private sector will gladly pay for any additional education you desire (So long as it’s related to your field of work). Being financially stable, I am now able to attain my BA in History and move onto the MA at my own leisure as more of a “thing to do on weeknights”. I am pursuing the degrees as a love of knowledge and as a luxury… sure I may be a few years older than your typical undergrad, but at least I don’t have to break a sweat about the rat race in academia. (Your articles give me the perception that the academia rat race is far worse than the corporate rat race).

    I am also quite astounded with the notion of education debt being “good debt”. When the phrase was lobbed at you, along with a plethora of glossy brochures and loan application forms, did you not stop and ask why it is considered good debt?

    Good debt, I can see a mortgage debt being a good debt (yes yes, I know mortgage means dead wage in french), but the minute you acquire that debt, it immediately starts being paid off little by little. You also have something immediately tangible, the house, that starts growing in value (Well, maybe not in the states at the moment 😛 ) as opposed to a education/lifestyle funded by loans where you are immediately in the whole and nothing of value and won’t have for at least 10 years…

  26. Pingback: What to tell students wondering about PhD’s, and other terminal degrees « craig dennis howard

  27. Pingback: Stripper With a PhD - Order of Education

  28. >What does the Ph.D. Debt Survey show us?

    The survey shows that unverified, anecdotal data are of no value in drawing any conclusions.

  29. Pingback: PhD Debt Solution: “Fake own death” - Indigo Project

  30. This is a terrific, insightful post. I am currently doing my PhD at City College of New York, where I receive a “full fellowship” (the equivalent of $250,000) but at the moment I am struggling to keep it together on the meager reality of the stipend, work study, and part-time work (I’m an ESL teacher by trade). When I was told about my acceptance I assumed that I would have everything taken care of (I work in non-profits and so $50,000/year is a step up, honestly); at this point now, I’ve just taken out Perkins Loans of $4,000 for the fall and spring of this year and I don’t know what is to come.

    It is VERY important to address the issue of academic culture here, which you’ve done beautifully. The faculty are empathetic when the topic comes up, but I truly think the definition of “starving scholar” has changed since many of them were in school. There is a knowing un-knowledge that creates a pleasant fiction between professors and their students, and even the kindest and most human have only a vague notion of how tough it is to rub two pennies together.

    A big big thanks to you for this work. Keep it up for all of us — I will share this with my colleagues!

  31. As a first generation college graduate from a rural, low-income background, I have constantly struggled to stay in school. Beyond co-signing loans for my undergraduate education, my family was unable to financially contribute to my education. My senior year of college was miserable – I attended a fairly affluent private liberal arts college, yet I slept in an un-insulated porch, subsisted on concoctions of peanut butter and turnip or mustard greens ($1 a pound!) and washed my clothes by hand in the kitchen sink. I could not even fathom owning a car. To pay for school, I cobbled together as many on-campus part time jobs as I could (five simultaneous positions was my record) and struggled to maintain my four merit-based scholarships that required intensive rehearsal time. Additionally, I took full advantage of my Pell Grant eligibility and my state-level low-income aid, though this process was emotionally devastating for my parents, who hated being considered poor. Somehow, I still managed to accrue a mountain of debt. I was and am ashamed.

    I thought graduate school and subsequent loan deferment was my most fiscally viable option after graduating college. My first (fully funded) master’s degree was awarded from a R1 public university. However, despite the relative low cost of living and the relative generosity of the stipend (tuition reimbursement and ~15k plus great health benefits) I found myself working two part time jobs outside of the academy to make ends meet. Though I was fortunate to attend an institution with a strong graduate student union, a clause was added to TA contracts that stipulated no recipient of ½ funding could hold outside positions. While I was perfectly on-track for my degree, my teaching ability was praised through both formal and informal channels, and I was awarded a highly competitive institution–wide fellowship for interdisciplinary scholarship, I felt ostracized by my department. The head of the program sent an email shortly after the (non-union approved) changes were made to the TA contracts that stated:

    “When the faculty offers a ½-time funding package, it has chosen to invest a substantial amount in your progress to degree and has demonstrated its commitment to helping you move through the program at a satisfactory pace. External work pressures dilute your time commitment to your degree, which in turn negate the efforts of the faculty not only to support you as an individual graduate student but also to build a strong program.”

    This email came after months of countless department-wide meetings with out-of-touch faculty who suggested moving home for the summer or asking parents for help with living expenses. Faculty answers to student financial struggles illuminated the academic class divide perhaps even more painfully than my undergraduate experience. Had any professor in the department ever signed a lease?! And assuming that my parents could afford to house me for a summer, how was I supposed to do any kind of intensive research smack in the middle of the rural Midwest, far from any of the resources I needed?

    I am currently pursuing an unfunded second master’s degree (terminal, and squarely between the arts and sciences) at an Ivy League institution. I work seven days a week between three part time jobs to support myself, and send all loan money beyond tuition payments home to my parents. The stress of hourly part-time work and demanding courses has been compounded by the sneaking suspicion that my crazy schedule has hurt my ability to make the most of this educational opportunity. It is hard to find time to explore new academic interests or network at a school-sponsored cocktail hour when you have exactly 18 minutes to rush from class to a job across the city while reading for class.

    I’m attempting to remain hopeful about my future, but all the while the debt is compounding. Should I have avoided school in the first place? Should I have stayed in my small hometown and hoped for a shit job at a big box retailer to become full time?

  32. What an interesting post! I was kind of surprised that a full fund for a Ph. D. is that much in the US (in contrast with Hungary, Central Europe where the government grant is 2.5-times lower) and some people still can’t manage to live without taking out loans. It’s not a big money, I know, but the general problem is that people can’t use their money wisely. Regardless of the amount of it. The elementary education should include some courses teaching how to manage life financially (and how to estimate the value for money). In practical, realistic ways.

  33. Thank you for this survey. I have been horribly ashamed and embarassed about my sstudent loan debt, and I certainly still feel that way. However, I feel less like an anomaly now, which helps.

    Brief profile of my sotuation:
    -undergraduate and master’s degree in a behavioral science from a flagship state university
    -PhD (conferred in 2014) in a behavioral science from one of the most “prestigious” private national universities in the US that has the #1 ranked PhD program in my discipline (“full ride” funding package)
    -current position: “prestigious” (that term is laughable to me now because one cannot eat prestige, nor does prestige pay the rent) postdoctoral fellowship with excellent prospects for a tenure-track position (based on the aggressive recruitment efforts from a number of universities)
    – total student loan debt= $140,000
    -Median salary for new assistant professor in my discipline is $75-80,000 depending on source

    As an “underrepresented minority” who grew up in extreme poverty, I demonstrated exceptional academic aptitude at a young age. Growing up, I saw higher education as the way out of a life of poverty. Sadly, my family was unequipped to provide me with any financial assistance or guidance whatsoever. I therefore followed the well-meaning but misguided advice and guidance of respected academic mentors from comparatively financially privileged backgrounds.

    Despite scholarships and grants as an undergrad–i also worked full-time in mostly service industry jobs while attending school full-time-student loans were the only way i could find to make ends meet (and I wasn’t exactly living an extravagant lifestyle to put it mildly). As a doctoral student, I wound up having to take out additional loans due to an avalanche of unexpected medical expenses that my crappy student insurance hardly covered (no rx drug coverage is what mostly did me in).

    Instead of providing a means out of poverty, my pursuit of higher education has instead ensured that I will be poor until the day I die (barring an unforeseen miracle).

    I want to emphasize that I am not trying to blame others for my plight. I am responsible for my own financial ruin.

    Having said that, I believe there needs to be a concerted effort to provide intensive education in financial literacy vis-a-vis student loans that are tailored to and specifically target students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and/or under-represented minority students. Ideally, such programs would begin targeting students in high school. The existing (and perfunctory) requirements (e.g., one-day informational sessions or brief online student loan repayment “educational” modules) are woefully inadequate for these populations.

    I have a PhD, but I am going to struggle financially just as much as (and perhaps more than) my mother who has worked for years as a cashier at Wal-Mart. This madness must end. The blanket myth that more education=financial security is one that has contributed to the financial ruin of many folks from my particular background.

  34. Thank you for gathering this data. It is stunning to me that regards such great loan debt which affects so many North Americans, there is so little data gathered…

  35. I am just curious as to whether or not this information encourages students to pursue PhDs in the humanities or not. I am currently a first year MA student at a well-known language University. I will finish my MA in 2016-2017 after spending a year in Madrid. The next step, at least for me, is to pursue a PhD but after looking at the data and reading the comments I am having second thoughts. Fortunately I do not have undergraduate debt but I will have to take out a loan to finsih grad school. I read elsewhere that PhD programs that do not pay you are not worth it. Is this true? And what is the job market looking at for University Professors at this moment? Thank you for the advice

  36. “Archaeology, Religious Studies, Anthropology, Art History, Anthropology, Rhetoric and Composition, History, Visual Art/Art History”

    Ok, but is it different for engineering/technology?

  37. As a first generation college student in the fifth year of my PhD I’ve felt out of place my entire time here. For the last five years I’ve pursued a PhD focused on educational policy research. I don’t understand how my peers are making it work. This spreadsheet has been a great resource in understanding just how many more people are in my shoes.

    For me the take home pay is 840-920$ every two weeks to live outside of Boston. Heating bills can surge near 400$ when it’s real cold (because it is not like we can afford to live in energy efficient apartments). Factor in the cost of eating at 100$ a week, and that stipend is almost totally accounted for. Forget keeping the lights on, paying for Internet and cell phone, gas and insurance for car and electricity. God forbid I get sick and have medical bills. Now factor in the interest on my loans, the fact that I haven’t contributed to a 401K, and that I can’t afford to save a modest safety net. Life is great. Thank god I’m married and my spouse makes a normal salary. We still struggle since I’m not carrying my weight financially.

    Now, the expectations of being a graduate student. Conferences are my absolute favorite. In my lab our advisor can usually toss us a couple hundred bucks (which we usually get 2-3 months after we’ve shelled out the whole expense of the conference). That amount barely ever covers over half of the airfare. Then there are: the cost of the hotel room, association fees, eating out, etc. And we are expected to do at least 1 of these a semester.

    Dissertation grants are another favorite of mine (I’m in the midst of writing one now). Much of what I and my peers do is analyze secondary data that is free. Most typically opportunities that I’ve seen are 20-30K. However, you can’t pay yourself to work on the dissertation with the entirety of that budget, so most typically students are instructed to inflate budgets with conference travel, computer and software costs, etc to seem competitive. In most cases students actually end up in WORSE financial position if they obtain these grants because they are left with little to pay their bills. Maybe the prestige of obtaining these is worth it for some, but keeping the lights on is my most pressing concern. On top of that many grants state that you can’t apply if you have already received a dissertation grant, and the graduate school stipulates you can’t receive and grant and work as a paid research assistant.

    In the end I’m going to just take a job and work on the dissertation on weekends. I can’t afford to do otherwise and to take out loans for this experience would be absurd, though I’m sure my advisor won’t be supportive of that decision because it means cheap qualified labor disappears.

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  39. Thank you so much for sharing all of this! It is truly unbelievable how little I’ve ever heard of this problem. I am finishing my M.A. in English at a SLAC in the Midwest, and was fortunate to land a job at a marketing firm that will start after graduation (no thanks to my advanced degree, tbh). However, I had applied to PhD programs anyway. I recently was accepted to a program with full funding. However, it’s not even a top 100 school, more like in the 110 range, so, as I already had the job lined up, I declined. And the first year GAs were aghast that I’d consider leaving academia. Sorry, “prestige” can’t feed me, and assuming I got lucky and earned a TT job immediately after graduating, it would be at a similar lower level school, which means I’d be earning on the very low end of the assistant prof. pay scale. It just shocks me how so many people think you should be grateful to earn less money while going to school (and teaching) (and taking classes you may not be fully interested in) (and dealing with awful advisers) (and academic politics) than what an average grocery store pays. If I worked 40 hour weeks, M-F, at $10/hour, I’d make more than any stipend I’ve seen would pay me! And that includes weekends off!

  40. Pingback: Abolish the PhD – blog.devicerandom

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