Why a PhD May Not Be Worth It

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

When we think about those in academia, we might first conjure up the image of the absent-minded professor. Men and women wearing glasses, perhaps endearingly unaware of their untied shoelaces or unkempt appearance, frantic, over-caffeinated, and yet often engaging, brimming with enthusiasm about their chosen field. What you might not be picturing is an unemployed 20- or 30-something grappling with student loan debt. Debt which, according to several recent sources, sometimes totals well into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

And while much of the discussion about higher education has focused on undergraduate student loan debt, or the appalling conditions under which adjunct professors often work, usually with little or no benefits, we think it’s fairly safe to say that most people are unaccustomed to hearing that for many professors, even a tenure-track position (decent salary and all) isn’t enough to achieve financial stability.

Part of the reason why PhD debt is less commonly known than its cousins, undergraduate student loans or medical and law school loans, is that PhD programs have a reputation for providing pretty decent funding opportunities to the best applicants. This funding manifests in the form of things like stipends, teaching assistantships, etc. Students hoping to go on to attain a PhD are often told repeatedly about the importance of funding.

Karen Kelsky, a former department head and tenure track professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, says that, despite what students are told about the all-importance of funding, it almost never covers all, or even most, of a student’s expenses. Kelsky, who now runs her own business in which she helps coach PhD candidates through the job search process, is also the creator of the PhD debt survey, an open Google Docs spreadsheet in which thousands of contributors talk about their experiences with funding, student loans, and finding that holy grail, tenure-track job in the academy.

According to Kelsky, a typical PhD stipend for a candidate in the humanities is “about $15,000. Which — almost anywhere — is not enough to get by.”

So if PhD debt is really as big a problem as Kelsky and her survey’s contributors claim, then why does the current data on the subject paint such a starkly different picture? According to the National Science Foundation’s Survey of Earned Doctorates, an impressive 63% of PhDs completed their programs with no graduate school related debt.

Kelsky says that the numbers tell a deceiving story, primarily because there’s a huge discrepancy between those graduating with doctorates in, say, engineering and those graduating with advanced degrees in the humanities. For instance, just under half of humanities students were able to earn their PhD with little to no student loans, and about 28% needed to borrow $30,000 or more to finish their programs. In contrast, those graduating with PhDs in engineering rarely had any student loan debt of which to speak. Kelsky notes that for students in the humanities and social sciences, student debt varies widely, “anywhere from $0 to $250,000.”

Karen Kelsky explains that the increase in PhD student loan debt “starts with the massive defunding of higher education in the United States.” She adds that, “basically, it has become a revenue-driven institution, and so departments and programs that don’t generate revenue in the way that the sciences or engineering or business do, find themselves defunded.”

For most PhD candidates in humanities and the social sciences, the hope is that eventually they’ll land a tenure-track position where they’ll finally be able to work their way up the ladder and gradually pay off the debts accumulated while living on poverty wages as a student. But even a tenure-track position at a major university is often not enough to justify the often staggering amount of debt some students take on.

“I make a payment every month, bigger than my rent, but I’ll likely die with this debt unpaid, despite a TT [tenure track] job,” reported a sociologist who contributed to Kelsky’s survey, and who reported having more than $200,000 in student loan debt.

Other former PhD candidates wrote in with similarly grim stories. “I have no plan but some hope for a 10-year forgiveness program for teaching at a public institution,” wrote one anthropologist with $96,000 in debt. “I currently make so little money that I am not even making monthly payments. This entire endeavor was a big mistake,” the candidate added.

Kelsky says one of the other issues contributing to increasing PhD debt is the fact that students often paint themselves a much rosier picture of the academy, and academy politics, than they should. Many students, she claims, don’t understand just how hefty the price tag on that PhD actually is. “The students themselves have to do some work to overcome their own denial about the costs of this endeavor,” she says, per the Chronicle of Higher Education. “I really want graduate students to stop allowing themselves to be deluded about what going to graduate school entails.”

Some students, even in the humanities, find ways to make it work. Another survey respondent, also an anthropologist, describes his experience as a graduate student. “I tutored, worked 5 jobs, never bought drinks or ate on campus. I had several craigslist tutor jobs up. I also had 6 years Research Assistant to an administrator in which I was published a lot. I got 3 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.’”

Those who make it through their PhD programs and into one of just a handful of highly coveted tenure-track positions can be counted as the lucky ones. Those who fail to attain tenure-track positions usually work as adjuncts, professors who are often contracted to teach several classes each semester for little or no benefits and extremely sorry wages. The plight of adjunct professors is so horrendous that it has spawned “the Adjunct Project,” which seeks to demand better working conditions for lecturers.

As a result of their poor working conditions, the Chronicle of Higher Education reports (in an article titled “The PhD Now Comes With Food Stamps”), that the “number of graduate degree holders who receive food stamps or some other aid more than doubled between 2007 and 2010.”

“I find it horrifying that someone who stands in front of college classes and teaches is on welfare,” says Melissa Bruninga-Matteau, per the Chronicle. Bruninga-Matteau holds a PhD in medieval history, is a single mother, and relies on food stamps to support her job as an adjunct, which pays just $900 a month.

Regardless of the accuracy of Kelsky’s data (critics have pointed out that those with debt are more likely to see and participate in the survey), the results, paired with the statistics we’ve outlined, certainly paint a humbling picture of the current academic climate for those hoping to return to school. As Kelsky says, “you end up with the message that graduate school is only really financially feasible if you have family resources to fall back on.”

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