Even Ph.D.s Who Got “Full Funding” Have Huge Amounts of Debt

Slate's Culture Blog
Jan. 15 2014 5:49 PM

Even Ph.D.s Who Got “Full Funding” Have Huge Amounts of Debt

Overloaded student in library.
Research is the least of your problems.

Photo by Otmar Winterleitner/iStockPhoto.

Karen Kelsky occupies a niche only possible in the weird world of academia. She is a former tenured professor of anthropology who is openly cynical about academia, and yet she is to the academic job market what the Wolf was to organized crime in Pulp Fiction. Kelsky, proprietor of the consulting service The Professor Is In, knows every intricacy of the academic hiring process—and for a price, she will navigate you through it. She has an open, ruthless skepticism of the “ivory tower” that can only come from being locked inside it. But for those who have the dough, she’ll get you in there, too.

Rebecca Schuman Rebecca Schuman

Rebecca Schuman is an education columnist for Slate.

Unsurprisingly, Kelsky—who tells me her website got 1.3 million views in the past four months—is a polarizing figure in the vaunted “profession.” In a recent blog post, she responded to a conference panel at which a tenured professor insisted that reducing the number of graduate students admitted each year would be “professional suicide.” Kelsky quipped: “Professional suicide is what graduate students are already committing on a daily basis as they confront the reality of Ph.D.s that cannot be turned into meaningful work, and the looming default on what are often hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans.” This did not go over well.


“Commenters immediately expressed skepticism that any humanities Ph.D. would have that amount of debt,” she tells me. This is a refrain repeated throughout academia: If you must get a PhD, which you shouldn’t, make sure it’s fully funded. But, Kelsky says, even students with “full” funding packages still end up with “significant five- or six-figure debt by the end of a Ph.D. program.” She knows this, she says, “because so many of my clients have this level of debt.”

So Kelsky decided to emulate the wildly successful open-source Adjunct Project. She created a simple, public Google document, and yesterday, she asked her readers to share their experiences.

In the first day alone, the document has sprung to life with over 700 takers—and while there are a healthy number of “$0” entries, most are far from that enviable figure. The user-generated formatting inconsistencies make it difficult to search the spreadsheet for averages, but in the first 250 entries, the most common answers looked to be in the $20,000 to $40,000 range. (I have a Ph.D. in German; if I were a statistician, I’d probably have a better job—though I might also be in some debt.)

A shocking number of users also report $100,000 and up; some $200,000 and over, even with a funding package. “My graduate stipend did not cover my living expenses, books, money I needed for research,” explains one user. “TA salary and fee remission not enough to support my two children,” says another. Graduate students do not usually receive funding in the summer—but are often expected to complete intensive research or exam prep—so many users also cited summer living expenses. Though Kelsky expected a substantial reaction, she says she is still “stunned” at the rate at which entries keep coming in, and “with such devastating figures and stories.”

The point of this project, as I see it, is not to throw these highly educated debtors a pity party, but rather to prove that—as usual—proponents of the current academic status quo are full of it. Kelsky’s goals for the project are somewhat nobler: She wants would-be Ph.D.s to know that “full funding” is “only in select cases sufficient to cover real-life living expenses.” She also wants “faculty and administrators to be forced to confront the true financial costs” of even a funded doctorate, “and to recognize their role in a profoundly exploitative and unethical system.”

Finally, Kelsky wants Ph.D.s with debt “to know that they are not alone, and that their circumstances do not need to be hidden as a kind of ‘secret shame,’ but are representative of a larger system that has shrouded the financial truths of the Ph.D. behind a myth of vocation and higher calling.” And of course, in the meantime, if you still insist upon answering that calling and joining that system, Karen Kelsky can help you with that, too.



Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore, and Schools Are Getting Worried

The Good Wife Is Cynical, Thrilling, and Grown-Up. It’s Also TV’s Best Drama.

  News & Politics
Sept. 19 2014 9:15 PM Chris Christie, Better Than Ever
Sept. 19 2014 6:35 PM Pabst Blue Ribbon is Being Sold to the Russians, Was So Over Anyway
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 4:48 PM You Should Be Listening to Sbtrkt
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 5:09 PM Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?   A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.