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.
Update Summer 2021: The survey response form has been reopened to new entries! Please share your story using this form. There are almost 700 entries from 2021 so far. To see 2021 responses, scroll to the Form 1, Form 2, and Form 3 Responses Sheets at bottom (sorry–i’m not adept at Google Sheets and ended up with some duplication of effort)
Here are a few entries from the 2014 survey chosen at random. The columns are undergrad debt, graduater school debt, total debt, field, year of graduation, reason for taking loans, plan for repayment, type of doctoral institutional, and current academic position, yes or no.
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.”
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.
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.