PhD Debt, “Bad Decisions,” and Misdirected Focus

I’ve been thinking about some of the arguments I’ve seen recently that place the focus of student debt arguments on students. The end of one article I saw last month caught my attention for this reason, and I’ve written a bit of a response. It’s somewhat more blunt and cranky than my writing typically is, but if you don’t mind that, read on!

Last month, an article was published in The Atlantic that brought attention to Karen Kelsky’s PhD Debt spreadsheet in Google docs. The spreadsheet gave current and former grad students a chance to talk about their debt and how they try to manage it. Lots of people have some really good ideas about dealing with debt, and some of these, as well as plenty of information on the rising cost of education, make it into what was mostly a very enjoyable article. However, at the end of the article, the author reminds us that PhD debt can also be the result of “simply making poor decisions,” and points to the following quote:

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.

I know people who have done this. I’ve worked full-time in graduate school. We all work our asses off and make a lot of sacrifices. But ending the article with this implies that this should be the path everyone takes (or is able to take). First of all, huge kudos to this person for having the energy and ability to work so many jobs and balance that with graduate school. If you’re able to do that, good for you, and you have a skill set there to be proud of.
However, how feasible is this for…almost anyone else? How can you tell me and my colleagues that it’s stupid of us to borrow money to attend conferences, when the decision not to attend a conference means not being able to share your research or get a job with your degree? How could someone who’s a parent possibly work all these jobs on top of the insane workload of school and childrearing? How could you tell me that when I elected to live alone when my world was crashing around me last year, that I made a “bad decision” by choosing to keep my sanity rather than living with that insane couple from Craigslist?

Ending the article with a quote that emphasizes other people’s different choices as “bad” places the onus of student debt squarely on the shoulders of debtors, and ignores the much, *much* bigger issue of unreasonable educational costs. Students have always made sacrifices to go to school, but the implication was that they would be able to be more prosperous in their careers. I love my students, my field, and my research so much, and I’m grateful every day to do my work. However, I also am looking at paying back a mortgage’s worth of debt so I can do work that will hopefully help people and improve education.* This means that I don’t have the freedom to be as flexible in where I go or how many risks I can take, which in turn potentially diminishes how well I can do the work I’m paying all this money to do. I feel like in my field I’m very lucky because my colleagues are supportive and wonderful, and wherever I go I’ll probably be in an environment that fosters creativity and professional development, but I know that’s not the case for a lot of people.

Just like every other student, my path is a process of balance as I try to negotiate keeping costs low while in school while also doing the things I need to for success. In my case,  I grow, cook, and preserve as much of my own food as possible, I hand wash my clothes, I keep my heat low and my A/C high, and I walk wherever I can (among many, many other things). But I also need to travel to conferences, pay my rent, keep the lights on, and sleep once in a while in lieu of working a 4th job, and so I take out loans. The idea of paying them back is absolutely terrifying, but it’s also the only option if I want an education (our departments try to offer as much assistance as they can, but in a lot of cases their hands are tied when it comes to how much students can be compensated and for how long).

My path isn’t right for everyone either (I doubt most people are interested in fermenting sauerkraut in their apartments!), but I think it’s a mistake on the part of the article’s author and this former student to judge other people’s decisions without knowing what goes into them. I have very good reasons to live alone, and I have very good reasons to not get a 4th job. Other students have struck a different balance and there are very good reasons behind their decisions too. Yes, sometimes people make bad choices, but that is true with absolutely any set of decisions one is offered with, and the vast majority of the time, student loans are used to try to make ends meet. My advice to them is to remember that this problem is bigger than any one of us, and to turn your judgment and frustration towards those making it near-impossible to get an education. If you still want to direct some feelings towards struggling grad students, make sure they are feelings and actions that help those people learn and put food on the table at the same time.

*I think the biggest problem I have with a lot of this is the assumption that because someone is willing to pay for an expensive education, that it means it’s ok that the education is expensive (and this wasn’t in the article, per se, just a trend I’ve noticed).

2 Comments

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2 responses to “PhD Debt, “Bad Decisions,” and Misdirected Focus

  1. One thing your commentary brought to mind is WHY it is so important to go to conferences and do unpaid internships and *not* take a third job just so you can focus on things like writing articles: because the economic reality has changed for academics — the decent jobs, the tenure-track/research positions are so rare and so damn hard to get that people who do not do those things, debt or not, will not be successful. In these times of the “adjunctifying” of higher-ed, the choices are pretty stark: make the sacrifices and take on the debt, or get sidelined. /2 cents

    • juliaskinner

      That’s how I feel too! When I read the article I felt like the person that’s quoted above might have had lukewarm feelings about their degree because they worked many jobs instead. When I think about what it means to balance grad school with the rest of one’s life, that balance includes conferences, publishing, etc. and not just the act of using the program of study as a checklist. I think that approach isn’t good for a variety of reasons that I’ve gotten into many times before, but in this case that balance is near impossible to strike without loans. Unfortunately those are the two choices–I think higher ed is an amazing place, but there is a lot of room for urgently-needed improvements too!

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