Ph.D. Debt Survey

On January 15, 2014, following on the comment thread to this post, I created an open source Google Doc spreadsheet called the Ph.D. Debt Survey, and put it up on the Professor Is In Facebook and Twitter feeds.  It almost instantly went viral, aided and abetted by coverage by Rebecca Schulman on Slatea story in the Atlantic, and coverage in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  Within two days it had over 1300 entries.


You may still contribute to the survey!  Please use the form at the very bottom of this blog post to do so.


Contributors revealed debt accrued during their Ph.D. programs ranging from 0 to over $250,000 (in Religious Studies!).  More heartbreaking were the stories.  Here is just one, from a grad student in Psychology who owes $225,000:

“I went back to school in my 30’s to complete a BA, MA, and then Ph.D. I paid more for my daughter’s pre-school tuition than I did for my Masters program. So, I took out loans. When I began my Ph.D., I was separated from my husband and had a 5 year-old to care for. Full-day kindergarten cost money, and then just the costs of a home, car, tuition, books, etc. added up. I now am too scared to apply for a home loan because I’m sure I’ll be turned down, since I make in the $50’s and have over $200K in student loan debt. It is overwhelming and I wake often thinking about the fact that my 14 year-old will soon go to college, and I have my own enormous debt. I work in a job where I will hopefully get it wiped away after 10 years, but I fear that won’t happen by then. It’s a HORRIBLE feeling to owe this much. I wish I had never gone back to school.”

Ph.D. debt is, as the Atlantic wrote, “the dirty little secret of the ivory tower.”

When some anonymous person deleted all the content on 1/17, I switched from an open-source spreadsheet to a form; that form is available and open to use at the bottom of this post.

Here is an update from 2015:

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.  I would love for you to fill it out with your numbers and stories.  I want everyone to understand the true costs of doing the Ph.D., even with “full funding,” when the funding is inadequate to cover the actual expenses of an adult life.

For another crowd-source project on the real rate of pay for adjuncts (the flip side of this toxic debt coin), please see the Adjunct Project. It was initiated by Josh Boldt, and is now hosted on the Chronicle website.


Ph.D. Debt Survey — 14 Comments

  1. I really appreciate this project, for a number of reasons. However, based on the comments on the chronicle article, I am sad that it no longer seems possible to be able to read the spreadsheet containing the full data that you are collecting without being able to delete it? I think a lot of people are losing the context they need to be able to interpret this information.

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  9. This is especially disheartening to read as we learn that student debt (and I am talking about debt incurred as a result of being a student, not debt in general) does not have to exist, as the German government have just shown by scrapping tuition fees. I welcome the view that education is a ‘human right’ and that all should have access to it at no cost. Perhaps a secondary motion to come out of the disgust and shock of seeing such appalling figures of debt is that a form of lobbying takes place to awaken senators and politicians to the debilitating effects of such debt. I too am a grad student (U.K.) and am familiar with the feelings of horror associated with having accumulated debt, for what I consider to be pro-active and positive reasons (I aim to better my career prospects after all). It is not healthy for the workplace, and not conducive to having an efficient workforce to have a good number of employees with student debt ever present on their minds. Good on you, The Professor Is In, for championing this issue.

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