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Crowdsourced Data Finds PhDs Drowning in Debt

“I will never know a moment of financial peace in my lifetime.”

“I accept the fact that I will be in debt until I die, and I’m just glad that whenever that happens, my remaining loans will be forgiven.”

These are just some of the stories that have come forth recently as the result an extensive online crowdsourced discussion on Ph.D. debt levels, an informal survey that has found many postdoctoral students have buyer’s remorse, grapple with mountainous debt, and even feel grim about their futures – despite their schooling accomplishments.

Dr. Karen Kelsky of The Professor is In, a popular blogger among academics in higher education circles, created the open-source spreadsheet, called the Ph.D. Debt Survey, in mid-January. After only one month, the survey contains more than 2,200 entries detailing the stories of students who have finished their schooling or are currently in post-grad degree programs.

The survey asked students about their undergraduate and graduate debt, their field of study, and the year they received their degree. It also asked why they took on debt, and their plans to pay it off.

Many students compared their levels of debt as equivalent to already having a mortgage. One contributor to the survey wrote: “I will be a lifelong renter…I just have to tell people my ‘house’ is what’s in my head because that’s what I pay a mortgage on.”

Almost 900 contributors claim to have no debt from graduate school, but some of these still have outstanding debt from their undergraduate education. The survey showed it is not just the “extreme case” that students finish graduate school in debt.

Part of the problem, the survey found, it is it’s common for students to take on additional loans because the cost of living is higher than the money they received in grants or from their job as a Teaching Assistant.

Many graduate students also reported that they take care of families during graduate school, and the cost of childcare, school, healthcare, and unforeseen events far surpassed any TA salary or even the earnings of an adjunct professor, which is a part-time professorship that is contractual rather than tenure track.

When asked how they will repay their debt, many students cited a government program called an Income-Based Repayment Plan. However, students must qualify for this plan and not all loan types are eligible. Additionally, anyone with an Income-Based Repayment Plan must pay higher interest in exchange for the reduced monthly payment, as well as submit annual documentation.

Other financially distressed students said they just pray for “debt forgiveness.”

In her original post, Kelsky claimed graduate students had the potential for being hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt and that many of her clients are people in this situation. In her survey alone, more than 400 people had at least $100,000 in total outstanding debt.

The most extreme case was an English Ph.D. student with $750,000 in debt. This student wrote:

“My assistantship only covered 5 years of funding. Average time-to-degree in my department was 7 or 8 years IF you finished, so we all did some hard time as adjuncts.  And I just couldn’t live on the adjunct salary at my institution. Also, once you’re an adjunct, completion becomes all the more difficult because of the increasing course load it takes to pay the bills. So I quit — quit ! — my adjunct job in Year 7 and finally finished that last chapter of my dissertation.”

Despite these unimaginable debt levels, some respondents still insisted they would do it all again. They said they love the work they do now and consider the debt necessary.

Kelsky declined to comment to The College Fix for this story.

College Fix contributor Jessica Cruzan is a student at Centre College.

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IMAGE: Cellar Door Films / Flickr

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