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 Slate, a story in the Atlantic, and coverage in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Within two days it had over 1300 entries.
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.
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.