Ph.D. Programs Have a Dirty Secret: Student Debt

Almost a fifth of students finish their doctoral programs with more than $30,000 in loans.

College debt. Law school debt. Medical school debt. These are all topics that have been hashed over ad nauseam in the past few years. 

But when was the last time you heard anything about Ph.D. debt? 

Unless you're an academic, my guess is you haven't. Doctoral programs still have a reputation for giving their students a (mostly) free ride by providing living stipends and teaching opportunities along with tuition breaks. And most of the time, the rep holds true.

But not always. In some cases, Ph.D.'s leave school with the same kind of mountainous loan bills we've come to expect for pre-professional students. This week, Karen Kelsky, a former tenured anthropology professor turned consultant and blogger, kicked off a conversation about this dirty little secret of the ivory tower by asking Ph.D.'s to report the debt they stacked up in grad school on a public Google doc and explain how they accumulated it. Hundreds responded—enough that the sheet temporarily appeared to crash from the traffic. 

Thankfully, we don't need to rely solely on crowdsourcing to get a sense of how much debt Ph.D.'s take on during their studies. According to the National Science Foundation's annual (and comprehensive) Survey of Earned Doctorates, about 63 percent of Ph.D.'s completed their degrees in 2012 with no grad school-related debt. However, about 18 percent bookwormed their way to more than $30,000 in loans.  


There were also vast variations between disciplines. More than three quarters of engineers graduated debt-free, and only 7.7 percent broke the $30,000 mark. In comparison, just under half of humanities Ph.D.'s finished without the help of student loans, and 28 percent needed more than $30,000 worth of them to support themselves. In 2012, 312 humanities students graduated more than $90,000 in the hole. 

So not only is a Ph.D. in English less likely to get you a job than a degree in, say, aeronautical engineering—it'll also leave you deeper in hock.

 Note: According to the NSF, averages are based on "all valid responses to the debt item." Table

In general, the NSF reports that Ph.D. debt levels have stayed stable even since 2002—but again, not for everyone. Engineering and physical sciences students? Things haven't changed much for them. But aspiring social science and humanities professors?  Their debt levels are on an upswing. 


Why do some Ph.D.'s accumulate so many loans? Part of the answer is that some programs don't actually offer full funding for all of their students, or might cut some funding over time. And often times, stipends just don't cover the cost of living, especially for students with families. Kelsky's spreadsheet, which is worth a visit, it replete with these kinds of stories, such as this one from an English Ph.D. who racked up $102,000 in loans. 

I got zero funding from my MA/PhD program--no stipends, no cost of living, no guaranteed teaching assistantships, no paid service work, and only minor conference travel reimbursement ( < $300/year). I had to adjunct 1-2 courses per semester while writing dissertation, in addition to working PT at a bookstore.

I was routinely frustrated to see new students get cushy stipend packages, only to leave after a year or less in the program--while I was told my GRE scores weren't good enough to get a funding package.

And of course, some students simply make poor decisions. Take this recollection from an anthropology Ph.D. who finished without loans while his classmates accumulated six-figures worth:  

I tutored, worked 5 jobs, never bought drinks or ate on campus. I had several craiglist tutor jobs up. I also had a 6 years of Research Assistant to an administrator in which I published a lot. I got 3 years fellowships. I played the game and it was okay for the tuition payoff. I don't regret it but do not recommend it for anyone unless you are rich and want to get a "vanity PhD."

I have several friends who owe over 100K and are very bitter and they have a right to be. I want to say I was lucky but I worked my ass off! 

There were over 14 of us when we started and only 4 graduated. There are 3 more that have over 100K debt and are still in the program. They let some of the people "hang themselves with their own rope" by not funding them and those people withered away. The older grad students were left to fend for themselves and also died on the vine. I also saw just plain bad decision making like some grad students living by themselves when they should have got a roommate or buying a new mac computer every 2 years and attending every conference on credit card debt.

Some students thrive in grad school, finishing in fine financial shape. And some "die on the vine." 

Presented by

Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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