Six Things I Wish I'd Known Before Getting a PhD

Potential graduate students sometimes ask me for advice about graduate school. For the last two years, I felt like I couldn’t give helpful advice because I was too angry over student debt, the job crisis, and the plight of adjuncts. My advice came out as a stream of invective that surprised even me.

I’m calmer now. Sort of.

I’m still angry about a lot of things about academia. I’m angry about structural inequalities that put academic positions out of reach for people who could make the greatest impact. I’m angry about what neoliberalism has done to higher education, transforming it into a glorified Walmart made up of ever-increasing numbers of adjuncts. As I wrote in my last post, I’m angry about the state of student debt. I’m still angry about feeling so rejected by the academic world.

Despite the anger, I’ve reached the point where I can give potential graduate students reasonable advice. Here’s what I wish that I’d know before starting my graduate program:

You don’t have to get a PhD.

I didn’t think very hard about why I wanted a PhD. I wanted to understand better the legacies of violence and racism that I’d seen when I served as a Peace Corps volunteer. The idea that I should think about how a PhD might get me a job never entered my head. I’m not saying that all decisions should come down to economic realities; if we all used market value to make life choices, we’d have no artists, writers, musicians, or (likely) historians. I’m not sorry that I have a PhD. In fact, I love having a PhD. On the other hand, I wish I’d put a little bit more thought into why I wanted one. Following my intellectual passions and interests didn’t mean that I needed to get a PhD. An M.A. might have sufficed. Graduate school is a means to an end, not an end unto itself. Consider your end goal carefully.   

Ask a lot of uncomfortable questions.

If you're determined to go ahead and go ahead with a PhD program, be prepared to ask some questions that will make other people uncomfortable. I recommend that students visit the campuses of programs that they’ve been accepted to before accepting any offers. A PhD is a huge investment, so it’s worth seeing where you’ll be hanging out and meeting the people you’ll be working with for the next 5-7 years. You’ll want to do some research about the university, the program, and funding. Ask graduate students, faculty, and potential advisers some questions. How fast do students finish the PhD? How many finish? What are the graduates of the program you’re considering now working? Are they working in academia or other fields? How many graduates of the program are adjuncting? How does the program you’re considering prepare students for non-academic careers?  This last question will probably catch some people off guard because graduate programs don’t generally prepare PhD students for non-academic careers. If the program doesn’t have any plan to help PhDs with careers outside the traditional academic career path, you’ll need to do that work on your own.

Understand the academic job crisis.

Conduct some research about the academic job market. What has it looked like in the past? What does it look like now? What might make it change? In my case, I didn’t think to ask any questions about the job market, because it seemed so far away. A word of caution here: if anyone tells you that the job market is going to get better or that “good students” still get jobs, give them some serious side-eye and remain skeptical. Often times, faculty don’t know about the realities of the job market because they haven’t been on it for a long time or they’re the lucky few who recently got jobs. Both of these factors cause people to see the job market as much more favorable than it really is. Fortunately, you can do research about the job market and draw your own conclusions. Here, for example, is an article published in the American Historical Association’s Perspectives, entitled, "The Troubled Academic Market for History." (Plot spoiler: the academic history job market sucks.) Take particular note of the graph: this does not look like a job market that will recover any time soon. During the research process, talk to some PhD adjuncts. (If don’t know any, I know lots and will hook you up.) Ask them about their experiences as adjuncts. They’ll have much to tell you. Above all, know that a PhD will not guarantee you a tenure track job in academia because those jobs are disappearing. What’s your non-academic plan?  

Decide what you think a PhD is worth.

Graduate programs often euphemistically call teaching assistantships “full funding.” In reality, full funding for graduate students doesn’t really cover basic living expenses. As I wrote in my last post, the lack of funding means that graduate students rely on loans to fund education that probably won’t result in the jobs they want. If you want a real shock, check out Karen Kelsky’s PhD debt survey. As I said, I’m not sorry that I have a PhD. I am sorry that I am in serious debt because of it. You need to decide upfront exactly how much money you’re willing to spend on a PhD, which will depend on your age, financial situation, and goals. What’s the PhD worth to you? $20,000? $50,000? $80,000? $125,000? More? I caution people against banking on potential external funding as a sure thing. Yeah, you might get some fancy fellowship to cover your diss research costs, but what if you don’t? Once your research gets rolling, you might be tempted to exceed your pre-set debt limit. It is not easy to abandon something that you’ll love as much as your personal intellectual journey and academic research. If you decide to throw all caution to the wind and get a PhD regardless of cost, be aware that it might get incredibly expensive and that you’re going to be paying for it for a very very very long time.

If you take out student loans, understand them.

Student loan debt sucks. If you decide to take out loans, be sure that you understand them. You’ll want to know the difference between subsidized and unsubsidized loans. Learn about the differences between private and public loans. Research the magnitude of the current student debt problem. Consider how you might repay your loans if you don’t end up with a tenure track job. You want to devise some way to keep track of your debt. I actively tried never to think about how much money I was borrowing because it gave me horrible anxiety (as well it should have). After a while, the huge amount of money that I owed ceased to seem real. Even though you might not start paying back the money for 5-7 years, student loan debt will be there waiting for you for the next ten or twenty years. Also know (among other things), that student loan debt cannot be discharged through bankruptcy. Policies on discharge after death of the borrower also vary between public and private loans. If you don’t know what that means, you should. It’s unpleasant stuff to think about, to be sure. Education, above all, is an investment. Sometimes investments work out and you get an awesome job and a great return. Sometimes investments tank and you’re left holding the bag of thousands of dollars of student loan debt.

You need knowledge AND experience.

The knowledge and skills gained through the PhD process are awesome. However, if you don’t end up with an academic job, you’ll need some non-academic skills to fall back on. The academic job market evaluates the “potential” of job seekers to become important and productive scholars. Experience, rather than potential, counts outside of academia and will win you non-academic jobs. Non-academic employers often have little understanding of what your PhD skills entail. A PhD on its own (especially in those amorphous fields like the humanities) isn’t going to win anyone a non-academic job. Even though the PhD workload will crush you, you need to develop some non-academic skills that you can put to use. Coding, language skills, teamwork (I’m looking at you, solitary historians), and web design skills all count. These, of course, are part of PhD skills, but unless you’re doing them outside of academia, employers don’t tend to think you have them. Volunteer and even temp work show that you have experience.

I wish I’d thought about even a fraction of this stuff before I’d started. I might have made different life choices. Or maybe not, but I would have gone into my graduate program better informed and able to make better choices.    

I'd be interested to hear what other people wish they'd known before graduate school. Ideas?



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

What’s PhDebt?

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 and

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.


"It was real expensive," I explain.

Dead silence.