Hi, my name is Lisa. I have a PhD in history. I’m currently $XXX,XXX in PhDebt. I'm too ashamed to share the actual dollar amount, but rest assured that it is definitely six figures. And it fucking sucks.
This is my personal story about accumulating a ridiculous amount of debt to pay for an education.
But first, why am I (and everyone else I know who has pursued at PhD recently) in this much debt?
The Nature and Scope of the Problem
PhDebt is a term I’ve coined (or at least I think I’ve coined it) to describe the particular awfulness of accruing insane amounts of debt to pay for a PhD.
Although we hear a lot in the news these days about student debt, news stories usually report on undergraduate debt. Don’t get me wrong: undergraduate debt is serious. Using some 2017 statistics for overall student debt from Student Loan Hero (with whom I am not affiliated in any way), we find:
$1.26 trillion in total U.S. student loan debt
44.2 million Americans with student loan debt
Student loan delinquency rate of 11.1%
Average monthly student loan payment (for borrower aged 20 to 30 years): $351
Median monthly student loan payment (for borrower aged 20 to 30 years): $203
(Data via newyorkfed.org and clevelandfed.org)
Any way you look at these statistics, they look bad.
If undergraduate student debt is bad, PhDebt, I think, is worse. PhD students are in school longer (depending, of course, on their course of student), usually later in life. Graduate loans also (depending on their kind) often carry higher interest rates. In other words, we’re borrowing huge sums of money at high interest rates when we’re in our 30s and 40s in the pursuit of dwindling numbers of jobs.
Karen Kelsky of The Professor Is In (with who I am also not affiliated), invited readers to share their debt struggles on a Google spreadsheet. Turns out, the number of people who responded to share their debt information (and shame) was overwhelming. There are now two spreadsheets worth of PhDebt information. As far as I’m aware, this is the only real data available about the scope and nature of the PhDebt problem.
Drawing on Karen Kelsky’s data, The Atlantic published an article about PhDdebt in 2014. It is, as the headline implies, the dirty secret about academia. We might look like success stories on the outside, but we'll making massive student debt payments for years.
In the end, some writers argued that a PhD might not be worth it.
Unfortunately, they were too late for me. The already anemic academic history job market collapsed in 2008. As of this writing, it hasn't recovered. I couldn't get an interview for an academic job, much less actually land one.
It is now my personal responsibility to pay off my debt without the job that I assumed was waiting for me at the end of the PhD tunnel.
How I Ended Up in PhDebt
My personal PhDebt story started in August of 2007. I’d come back from my Peace Corps service in Guatemala the year before, burning to study Latin American history. I was a brand new master’s student.
I came out of my undergraduate degree at a small state college without any debt, thanks to family help and a lot of scholarships.
I wasn’t offered any financial aid at the beginning of my program, but assumed I’d receive funding eventually.
I took out a bunch of loans to cover my tuition, housing, and living expenses. I got a job and worked ten hours a week for extra money. The job didn’t pay much, but I reasoned that if I “worked my way through school,” I wouldn’t be saddled with crippling student loan debt when I graduated.
My degree program eventually gave me a teaching assistant ship, known as “full funding.” As I would learn much later, full funding means nothing of the sort. My department gave me a tuition waiver and paid me for teaching, but costs continued to rack up. I didn't worry about it too much. Student debt was "good debt," I reasoned. Plus, everyone else I knew was doing the same thing.
Funding for graduate students kept shrinking. Although the dismal funding situation for history students became a routine talking point, we did not talk about how many students were accruing debt at alarming rates. I don’t know any of my graduate cohort who lived in expensive apartments or drove fancy cars. Nevertheless, I think many of us found that even affording groceries on our $1200 a month salaries as teaching assistants was difficult.
Through some weird circumstances beyond my control, I lost my small part time job. In truth, I was relieved, as the sheer volume of coursework overwhelmed and exhausted me. I didn’t want to take six credits a semester; I wanted to take nine. I reasoned that I would “finish faster” and have less debt. Without the small extra paycheck, I turned to student loan money to make up the difference. I took out a small Graduate PLUS loan at one point, which had carried a ridiculous interest rate of 8.6%.
Costs increased as I went through my program. I funded necessary research trips and conferences with my student loans. I expected to receive some fantastic fellowship to fund my dissertation research. I had my heart set of the Fulbright-Hays. Incredibly, the year I submitted my proposal, the competition was canceled. I wrote grants for Inter-American Foundation, Boren Foundation, School of American Research, and a bunch of smaller grants. I received rejection letters for all the major grants I applied to. I won a few smaller grants, but nothing that would cover the year I planned to spend abroad completing my research. Without external funding, I decided that I’d just have to suck it up, take out more loans, and self-fund my research.
My final semester of graduate school, my department did not offer me any funding. I had no tuition waiver and no teaching assistantship. I faced the prospect of paying full out-of-state tuition, housing, and living costs. So close to finishing and panicking at the prospect of not finishing, I applied for a final round of loans. I finished writing my dissertation as quickly as I could. I finished in December of 2014. I defended and completed my revisions before the start of the 2015 spring semester. I refused to pay for one credit for another semester. I graduated with a PhD in history and six figure debt.
(The horror of the academic job market and my failure on it are for another post.)
I don’t wish to blame anyone for my debt situation. My department offered me the funding it could. The job market, already on a downhill slide because of neoliberalism and corporatization of higher education, happened to bottom out in 2008. Bad timing. Above all, I know that my debt was, and is, my fault and responsibility. Education is an investment. Like any investment, it sometimes doesn't work out. I gambled that getting a PhD would lead to a well paying job. It didn't. Some people have mortgages. I have a PhD.
My alumni association calls me occasionally to ask for money. It often uses bubbly and enthusiastic sophomores to makes these calls.
"SO TELL ME ALL ABOUT YOUR AMAZING UNIVERSITY EXPERIENCE!" one will say.
"It was real expensive," I explain.