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).

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February 11th: The Day We Fight Back

I imagine most everyone who reads this blog is aware of the 2/11 day of action, but if you’re not, the banner below (which will activate at midnight on 2/11) will show you how to get in touch with the people up top who will (hopefully) listen to our demand for real change. You can also visit https://thedaywefightback.org for information. I feel really passionately about privacy issues, although I think our networked world is changing exactly what that looks like.
Whether or not we’re having to rethink what personal information is showing up on the open web for potential employers to see, or any other perennial issues associated with our online presence, most people I talk to agree that whatever information is on our profiles (or devices, or whatever else) should be something our government can’t just listen in on whenever it wants. Using a networked device should not be an unspoken agreement to being surveilled, particularly when our networked technologies offer us the ability to strengthen our democracy and encourage participation. That’s not going to happen, however, if we feel like any potentially dissenting comment we might make, in public or private, is subject to scrutiny. I hope you’ll join me and countless others in tomorrow’s action!

 

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The Spring Semester

A quick note to throw some ideas out there for this semester as we’re all settling into our schedules:

I passed my prelims (hooray!) and am starting on my prospectus. Years ago, myself and a few other folks used the #teamachieve hashtag on Twitter to motivate each other as we shared our daily word counts. I want to ask those folks to get involved again, but I think it would be cool to have as a bigger endeavor too. So if you want in, let me know (or just start tweeting!)

I’m going to the iConference in Berlin this March. I had an absolutely amazing time with my colleagues at ALISE, and I wanted to see if anyone will be at the iConference and is interested in going for a meal or beverage with me! 

I’m really wanting to do some arts-based research lately, but need some inspiration. Does anyone want to do a Google Hangout or Facebook group or something and bounce ideas off each other? 

Happy Spring semester!!

 

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This Year in the Life of your Absentee Blogger

Hi everyone!
I’ve been entirely absent from all of my blogs (and most of my social media in general) this year, so in the interest of keeping everyone up to date, I’m posting this on all my various blogs. It’s just an update, so don’t worry, I’m still working on my PhD (and excited about LIS!), planning another book, and cooking and preserving lots of food. I just haven’t actually started the book or blogged about any of that stuff (yet), but hopefully that will change soon!

This year has been really significant on a number of levels. On one level, it is the year I turned 30, a year I’ve always held in high esteem and been excited about ever since I was little (related: 30 is my “golden birthday.”) I think in some ways I expected I would finally have my sense of self figured out and in some ways I do, but I also love that one of the hardest years has also given me a chance to rediscover myself, what I love, and how much more I have to learn and see and do. Why such a hard year, you ask? Well…

The main reason this year has been significant is all the things that have happened in it. It’s been a time of major growth and reconnection with many very special and important people in my life, but also unfortunately a time of distancing from others who were not a part of that process in ways that I needed. Between the end of January and the end of October, three of my grandparents died. Every conference I’ve been to this year has been immediately followed or preceded by a funeral, so if you saw me at a conference and I wasn’t my chipper self, it probably wasn’t you! 

The last of my grandparents to pass did so three days after a dear friend, and one of the most amazing human beings I’ve ever met, was killed in a car crash while I was at a rare live performance of one of my favorite bands. That performance will always be in my heart for its beauty and for the joy I got to share with some other wonderful friends who I watched it with, but also because I can’t imagine a more fitting way for me to have spent Emily’s last moments besides being exactly where she probably would have loved to be.
I also had mentioned on all my blogs an impending New York move: That was cancelled at the tail end of January after returning from funeral/conference set number one and hearing from my partner at the time that he was not interested in continuing that partnership. That was good in some ways because I still get to be friends with the person, and I get to move and plan my studies around my own schedule, but at the time there was a decent amount of hurt that went with the experience. By the time my second grandparent died, I felt like I had learned a lot, but still had a lot of learning and processing to do, but I also had a better sense of what to expect.

For all the challenges of the year though, there have been plenty of good things. I got to see both sides of my family in the same year, which is a rare treat, spend much-needed and much-desired time with all of them, and hear stories about our family’s past. I got to cook a lot of great meals alongside my friends and family, and share them with people I love. I got a new pet Bearded Dragon and still have three happy and healthy cats.  I got to tell a lot of people that I love them. I took my preliminary exam, which ended Monday, and hopefully passed so I can advance to candidacy. I got to offer support to people who needed it, and I learned more about how to be a better support to the people around me.
I got an adjuncting position teaching an amazing class at a school that has some amazing faculty, and I got to teach some incredible undergrads in my first ever face-to-face TA assignment. I got to meet new people, develop new relationships, and strengthen the relationships I have too. But I also got a chance to learn when it’s time to create distance between myself and a project or myself and a person when I feel like I’m overwhelmed or need support that I’m not finding there, and that’s huge too. And I got to re-shift some priorities, and make more time to allow myself to heal.

There’s not really an ultimate “point” to the post; no major life lesson or anything that I feel an urgent need to share, but I feel like it’s important to put this stuff out there. Many of the people I’m connected to on social media are people who I feel kinship with on some level, and I’m happy you’re all a part of my little corner of the world. And even though this year was crappy, and hurt, and I wasn’t always convinced there would be a light at the end of the tunnel, I’m glad I can take a lot of lessons away from it. I won’t ever stop missing everyone I lost this year, but I also will be better about telling everyone who’s still around how much they mean to me. 

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Helping Colorado Libraries Rebuild

Most (if not all) of you know about the recent devastating floods in Colorado. If you’re looking for a way to help out, sending a few dollars toward affected libraries is a great way to help vital community organizations rebuild so they can continue to provide information during a time when community members need resources on rebuilding (and recreational material when they need a break from recovery efforts). As an added bonus, donating directly to the library means more of your money is going to meet those needs, rather than being filtered through a third-party organization that may take out a portion of your donation to cover their overhead.

These posts are probably starting to look familiar (I’ve written posts raising money for libraries after other disasters in the past), but this one hits especially close to home since, well, Boulder is my hometown. I was devastated to see the flooding in the town I love and the damage to so many places I care about, and this is a great way to give back to an amazing community that is home to so many wonderful people.

I’m working on compiling a list of libraries that have been impacted by the floods and could use help rebuilding. So far, the list is small, but if you know of a library that has been flooded and is accepting donations, please let me know in the comments so I can add it to the list! To everyone else, please donate what you can to the libraries on the list below. Every dollar helps!!

Boulder Public Library, Reynolds Branch: This branch of my hometown library is closed until November due to flood damage. Katherine, one of the friendly folks on their reference staff, said that donations can be sent through the Boulder Library Foundation site (this branch is actually the closest branch to the neighborhood I grew up in, so by helping them out you’re doing a favor for me and for my old neighbors as well as the library!)

Lyons Public Library: I emailed them earlier today as well, but given the extent of devastation here I’m not placing any expectation on when they will be able to respond. You can fill out their donation form using this link to donate to the Friends of the Library.  (Note: I put a link for an online donation page earlier, and looked more closely later and found it was for an Illinois library. I’m sure they still appreciate the donations, although they aren’t anywhere near the flooded area!)

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Interview for Library Juice Academy

Are you interested in learning more about the courses I mentioned in my last post? Rory Litwin interviewed me about them, and I got to talk a bit about what I’ll be covering and why I’m excited to teach! The full text of the interview is available here

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So Who is This “Julia” Person Anyway?

I mentioned a while back that I’ll be teaching two courses for Library Juice Academy soon. I wanted to write an introductory essay for my students, particularly since it’s an asynchronous course, and I thought I would put it online for my newer readers who maybe don’t know much about me. To my students: I am absolutely thrilled beyond words to get to work with you, and I’m looking forward to a great class! Continue reading

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