Ph.D. Debt Survey Revisited

Remember my Ph.D. Debt Survey (who could forget it?) — my crowdsourced google spreadsheet from 2014, of volunteered reader debt information from their undergraduate and graduate studies?  (It’s still open–feel free to add your own info using the form)* It’s not a scientific survey, but it contains lots of individual stories of graduate school debt, including not a few humanities Ph.D.s with debt of over $200,000 and a Psychology Ph.D. with debt of $350K.

Well, two readers went to the trouble of providing graphic representations of the findings.  Karen Lichtman (Ph.D. Spanish) provided the following:

KML PhD debt figure

KML PhD debt pie

KML PhD debt by year

More recently, reader Tanim Islam (Ph.D. Physics) got in touch recently to tell me that he had gone to the trouble of providing us with a bit of statistical analysis of the results, divided between STEM and non-STEM fields.  Here it is.

Thank you, Tanim!

UPDATE 12/2/15:  Tanim and I decided to remove a $750K debt for an English Ph.D., assuming that this was probably a typo.  So text and the graphs have all been updated as of today.

I have done some rudimentary analysis on your google docs spreadsheet, which I have linked to here. I found of the 3022 current records (as of 25 November 2015, 7:18 AM), that I define 2917 records as valid: the record has a total current debt that is not none, and a field of study that isn’t blank or stated as unknown. Of these 2917 entries:

  • 411 are in STEM fields.
  • 2506 are in non-STEM fields.

I have identified the list of 86 fields in the 2917 records that are STEM, in the attached file “stem.txt.” I have identified a list of 250 fields in the 2917 records that are non-STEM, in the attached file “non-stem.txt” I have not done especially thorough systematics to determine how accurate was my classification.

In any case, I have summarized the statistics:

  • for the 411 graduate degree holders in STEM fields in your survey:
    • 205 / 411 (49.9%) have no current debt.
    • The median debt is $300.
    • The mean debt is $22188.
    • The maximum debt is $186000.
  • For the 2506 graduate degree holders in non-STEM fields in your survey:
  • 580 / 2506 (23.1%) have no current debt.
  • The median debt is $40000.
  • The mean debt is $55548.
  • The maximum debt is $425000.

I also have distributions of debts for STEM and non STEM degree holders.

Here they are:

nonstem_debts stem_debts

I hope this is useful.

*Here is the form!

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Ph.D. Debt Survey Revisited — 8 Comments

  1. As far as I can tell, neither the form nor the data clean-up/standardization allows for inclusion of information about people who never took on any debt for education (like me). Although I’d suspect that the small number of people who never took on debt would not change the overall picture much, to leave it out gives the impression that the results are purposefully being skewed to make a point.

  2. I’m 53, lucky enough to be tenured at a great SLAC, and just paid the last of the 38k i owed. It was student loan debt, but –like more than a few people i knew- I took it out while i was abd and adjuncting, so that I could buy student status to keep my crappy U of I health insurance while attempting to build a cv at 2k a course. Such arrangements are typical in a world where the average time to degree is so great; in my dept over a decade. STEM students had 1/3- 1/2 time to degree and built their cvs while being paid by the university, not adjuncting in corntown and soyville.

  3. At my public flagship institution in a Southern state, we are in the middle of a top-down culture change that is ugly and bullying. Many unwelcome changes are being foisted on faculty by administrators, and new rules have made tenure almost meaningless. But some terrible changes are also afoot for graduate students: in my College of Public Health, we have been told “we no longer want” students who are part-time or continue working a day job (even if their employer is covering the cost of their doctoral degree). Instead, we want students who are full-time only — who are all-in and will have no other distractions. However, we do not have money for assistantships for the vast majority of these students, so what we really want is students who must take out loans for both tuition and living expenses — fully indebted students. We are also being told “we no longer want” students who are considering a career in public health PRACTICE, but only careers in academia. So we are encouraging students to go heavily into debt for a limited number of lower-paying academic jobs. This seems like exactly the opposite of what a new trend should be… or the changes that should be imposed by a university (without faculty governance — again, it is all being handed down from the top). I am curious: is this happening at other institutions and in other disciplines? (Not asking whether it is something that has BEEN happening, but whether other places are seeing this as an emerging practice).

    • I can see this was written a while ago, but this is exactly the trend I’ve observed in my current university (University of Lethbridge). This is a fairly low-ranked school, and even as such, the graduate program is one of the less-respected programs. I wonder if this is just a trait of less-respected schools in particular – the kind that don’t have the resources to develop their graduate programs, but try to do so regardless? I can’t imagine a reputable graduate program adopting this approach. I mean, how do you expect your students to focus exclusively on their work (be “all in”) if they’re constantly worrying about where their next meal is coming from?

      • No, it’s across the board. The humanities stipends at even elite institutions are not remotely equal to the cost of living for most people,certainly those with dependents or a health issue.

  4. Pingback: Thoughts about going to graduate school | Katy Pearce

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