A Peek at Graduate Student Loan Debt

An article popped up on my personal Facebook feed last week that was accompanied by a spirited discussion in the comments about PhD student stipend levels and the necessity of taking out student loans even for students who are “fully funded.”  Of course I clicked over and eventually found my way to this spreadsheet of student loan balances created by Karen Kelsky of The Professor Is In to demonstrate her point that even funded humanities PhDs can result in five or six figures worth of debt.


bills and degreeThe spreadsheet fields are undergrad debt, graduate debt, total current debt, graduate field of study, graduation year, why you took out the loans, institution, and a few more questions about employment in academia.  Since the first time I looked at it several fields have been added and at the time of this writing there are 1355 entries.  This is all voluntary self-reporting so it’s not a proper survey and the information could very well be unreliable (though I hope it’s not).  The entries are heavily skewed toward degrees in the humanities and social sciences, but there is a fraction from STEM graduates, many of whom didn’t take on any debt.


I’m not trying to do much with the bulk of this data other than by making small observations about which fields tend to have super-high ($100k+) associated debt and which fields surprise me with the low debt levels.  What kept me looking at this spreadsheet for over half an hour the first time I opened it (and why I’m recommending it to you) were the explanations as to why they took out the debt (or what they did to avoid taking out any/more).  Some of you getting-out-of-debt PFers might also be interested in the descriptions of their repayment plans.


Of course there are the expected explanations of having to pay tuition or living expenses and TAs/RAs not paying enough for the cost of living.  But there are some other ones that struck me because of the unusual situations or choices (all of these are exactly as written, with my emphasis added).


“Needed loan to cover tuition, keep our house, and send kids to preschool. Didn’t get any scholarships/fellowships while teaching full time”

“Was only partially funded, and I believe in the permanent income hypothesis. My utility is fairly maxed out at 40k annual income and I can expect to make at least 65k. Not married and have no kids.”

“I avoided “real loans” by doing sex work all through UG. However, I got caught short one semester due to family expenses (ill partner) and moronically put 3k on my credit card so I didn’t have to talk to anyone about it (fin aid seemed unlikely bc I was tax-evading, not a resident). Don’t do that!!!”

“There was a one-month gap between the end of grad school and the start of my post-doc”

“had assitantships and grants, lived in hovel with grad student girlfriend, ate at hotel happy hours and hari krishna nights at bookstores

“Credit card debt in grad school because we are not paid during the summer

“Decided I wanted to write my dissertation while living in New York because I wanted to spend at least some of my 20s in a big city. If I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t be in any debt,”

“Undergrad was for tuition. In grad, I needed a couple thousand bucks to pay off debt associated with getting married


This spreadsheet also exposed me to a wider world of graduate student finances.  Recorded in this spreadsheets are births of multiple children, illness, spousal layoffs, familial gifts and support, unreimbursed research expenses, deceptive parents, divorce, and much more.  It’s fascinating.  I spend too much time with a small segment of attitudes about finances between our friends from our programs (all receiving reasonable stipends, none taking out debt to my knowledge) and the PF blogosphere.  I have a lot to learn about how loans work if I ever want to be of use to graduate students outside of (truly) fully funded fields.


A lot of the people submitting to this spreadsheet acknowledge bad past decisions leading to their debt (and a few blame others).  Some even say they regret going to graduate school.  Many recount having to take out loans despite working as a TA or RA, being awarded grants/fellowships, and/or having multiple part-time outside jobs.  These grad students know how to hustle!  Those who didn’t take out debt credit living frugally on the stipends they were given (after my own heart!).


What’s the point of this post?  I just wanted to give you an opportunity for financial voyeurism.  If you have a PhD, you should also enter your own data.  I’m not into activism around PhDs/academia, so if this spreadsheet hypes you up in that way you can follow up on the links within the first article I linked to.


What do you think of this project to raise awareness of PhD student debt and would you participate in a project like this if it were relevant to you?  What is your reaction to the concise life stories in the spreadsheet?  Do you enjoy getting to peek into others’ finances?


photo from Free Digital Photos


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22 Responses to "A Peek at Graduate Student Loan Debt"

  1. Ashley says:

    Oh gosh- I do like getting a sneak peak into other people’s finances… as scary as it may be. Eating at happy hours because you don’t have enough money?! So many things wrong with that statement, haha
    Ashley recently posted..Rock Bottom

    1. Emily says:

      I was kind of assuming those examples were of places to score free food.. but I’m not sure!

  2. Very interesting. I love the permanent income hypothesis reason – even the act of taking on loans is one of consumption smoothing to some extent, no?
    Well Heeled Blog recently posted..Iceland (fascinating, tourist-friendly, and expensive) by the króna

    1. Emily says:

      I just learned about consumption smoothing from nicoleandmaggie in this post on grad students and economics. As you can tell from the way I conduct my personal financial life, I don’t agree. 🙂 But I thought it was interesting that he used it as a justification.

  3. E 2 says:

    I have found this interesting and eye-opening, but at the same time, a little dismaying how it’s being reported in places like Slate. “Even PhDs with full funding have tons of debt!” ARGH. For those of us interested in making transitions to other fields, this makes it so much harder to explain that we’ve spent our graduate years gaining the skills of self-sufficient adults, both in our independent and outcome-oriented research, and in our personal lives. And on a personal level, I just really hate when people assume I’m stuck in permanent adolescence, sponging off my parents, have made terrible life decisions, etc.

    It’s also interesting how people explain taking out debt to top up stipends, survive summers, or replace stipends after they ran out of funding. These are decisions I would try really hard to avoid making, so I’m curious why people think it’s worthwhile. If I had to take out debt, I wouldn’t even be in grad school. (That’s a major reason I’m in a PhD program instead of the more career-oriented but unfunded MA programs in a field in which I still want to work, though, so perhaps I am a little on the extreme side.) The reasons involving medical costs and supporting families and children are understandable though – I don’t think it’s fair to blame people for having problems healthy single people/DINKs don’t have to deal with, and medical debt is certainly something that can hit anyone.

    On another note, what’s weird about paying to send kids to preschool? Most states don’t have free pre-K, which means that even one year of a local morning program that gives kids a huge leg up in kindergarten costs a *little*. And this is coming from someone who grew up in a rural area where it was common to send your kid to preschool at a local church, not an area where you try to make sure your kid gets into Harvard by sending her to the “best” prep school at age 4.

    1. Emily says:

      It’s sometimes hard to tell what’s field-dependent, necessary debt and what’s an unwillingness to hustle or keep expenses low. There’s a lot of gray area. I also read one explanation that I didn’t include that indicated that the person started grad school with a TA/RA position, a grant, and permission to work 20 hours outside and didn’t need debt that first year, but with subsequent years those sources were yanked and to finish up he had to resort to loans (I think this coincided with the recession). In that case the best of intentions weren’t enough.

      I would think that you would be able to counter your naysayers by showing evidence of how you worked for your income in grad school, though – TAs/RAs, grants/fellowships/scholarships awarded, summer jobs, etc. All that stuff is resume-worthy, right?

      It seems that grad students have very little margin for error. Many of us can manage to run our normal lives on our stipends, but if any big emergency or life change came up we would be thrown for a loop in a way that people with Real Jobs probably wouldn’t be.

      I didn’t say it was weird to pay for preschool, I said it was an unusual reason to take out student loan debt. (I attended a Montessori preschool, and Planet Money has convinced me of the importance of preschool.) What I found unusual about it was that this student had multiple kids old enough to attend preschool! (Although I read another account of a PhD student with kids in college!) As I said in my post last week, just a few people in my program have had a first baby, so the life stage of that student is very different. Maybe the cost of preschool was much higher than daycare for that person? I know my university daycare subsidizes daycare for kids of grad students, but I don’t know about preschool.

      1. E 2 says:

        Oh yeah, people do have good intentions, and stuff comes up. I have a friend who was going to deal with running out of funding the exact same way I plan to, by saving up beforehand, working on the side, and job searching, but then she had an accident and had to take out a loan because she was physically unable to work for a long time. It was really, really awful luck. You’re right, when you get barely a living wage it doesn’t leave room for any costs above the basic cost of living, or enough of a cushion to deal with serious problems.

        But I am still a little surprised that, at least when I looked (before it was 1300 answers!), there were a LOT of “low stipend in expensive city” answers, which means a surprising number of people think PhD debt is a worthwhile choice from early on. I think it’s the difference between seeing the PhD as preparation for employment, i.e. an investment that will pay off, vs as employment in itself, which makes the idea of paying to work seem a little crazy. I think of it in the latter sense, and I forget that people think of it in the former.

        I didn’t realize it was the “old enough for preschool” part you were surprised at! And yes, that reminds me, daycare is one of the scariest costs for grad student parents – full time childcare can take up something like 2/3 to 100% of the grad stipend here, and there are very minimal subsidies available, so a lot of grad student parents try to do the best they can to make due without. This is the case for low- and middle-income working parents in the area as well, it’s mind-boggling that childcare can cost someone’s entire paycheck. Maybe the person who posted didn’t even have daycare until preschool, so even if preschool was cheaper, it still cost more than they were spending?

        1. Emily says:

          I definitely see the PhD as preparation for employment even though I treat our income as if it came from a job. I try to suspend judgement about the debt issue. I think it’s perfectly reasonable for an MD and most other medical professional to take on debt to get their degrees, and also JDs and MBAs if they go to a good school, so it’s not unreasonable to me that a PhD could be similar if there is a very solid plan for employment on the other end. Or your field is your mega life’s passion or whatever maybe that makes it worth it too, even if you’ll be repaying for a long time.

  4. Mrs. PoP says:

    Even within the PhD program I was enrolled in, where we all received exactly the same stipends there was a wide range of living situations financially. Some took loans, some had credit card debt from spending at Nordstroms (for the record, this was a guy!), some had sizable subsidies from mom and dad, and some of us put money into our Roth IRAs and other saving without outside support. It was all over the map even though we all had exactly the same stipends from the university.
    Mrs. PoP recently posted..Happy Friday – Creating Happiness In The Details

    1. Emily says:

      That’s amazing that you were talking so openly about your finances. I did talk with people more in my 1st year when everyone was getting set up, but no one admitting to taking out debt aside from car loans. I remember in my postbac, though, the some of the people who chose to live in DC (like, in in) had parental subsidies. I wonder what it is that differentiates people all looking at the same stipend and some choosing to save and others to take money from other sources. To me, the impulse to “live within my means” is very strong.

  5. It’s too bad that some fields don’t have the same sort of funding for their students. Luckily Mrs. DB40 ended up with funding, but that runs out this year and we are hoping that some fundin applications she’s put in come through, or TA/RA positions are offered.

    With the amount of time required for graduate school, I think the traditional option of working is pretty much off the table. Basic living expenses might be covered with TA money, but the actual tuition and any funds needed for research…those I could see necessitating loans in a lot of cases.
    Done by Forty recently posted..Did Americans Really Overpay by $1B at Tax Time?

    1. Emily says:

      How many years did her funding last?

      I think the programs dictate what kind of work students can take on. In my program, we’re not allowed to have outside work, we all have RAs or fellowships, and we have to TA but aren’t paid for it. In Kyle’s program, he’s not allowed outside work and everyone has RAs or fellowships. In other programs outside work is either expected or permitted.

      Does Mrs. DB40 have to pay for her own research costs? I don’t know anything about how that works as everything I buy comes off my advisor’s grants.

  6. Cash Rebel says:

    Wow, what a treasure trove of info. When I was in grad school, debt seemed to be super correlated with your major. Engineers and hard science majors got assistantships and (to my knowledge) mostly lived on those. Most of my friends in the humanities fuels their degrees with debt. Interesting stuff!
    Cash Rebel recently posted..the cons of unfiltered optimism

    1. Emily says:

      That’s the basic divide I see as well but it’s not fully uniform and it depends if you are going for an MS or PhD. I’m interested in the nuances of field differences!

  7. LOL at the sex work thing! can’t tell if that’s for real or a joke. I will say that for law school grads, it can be really tough after graduation. My brother was promised a job that didn’t start until September and he finished school in May (and had to study and take the Bar in July) so he did have to take out a bridge loan to cover expenses (plus the crazy cost of the Bar exam classes) from May until September. While some folks can get a job during off periods, when studying for the Bar, you have no time to do so.

    I really don’t have much sympathy for folks who go for a PhD in a field like Communications. If you graduate with $150,000 in debt, you knew what you were getting into. You can easily find out the average starting salary for an adjunct professor (low) and the competition for teaching jobs (high) before shelling out the money for the degree. Unlike an undergrad degree, where 18-year-olds still don’t have fully formed frontal lobes to make the wisest decisions, if you start a PhD program at 24/25, you are pretty much a fully functioning adult at that point in time. Unless you’re as easily swindled as a great-grandmother is with a Nigerian Prince email scam, there is no excuse for adding to your mountains of debt with additional education that won’t pay out in the long term! But then again, colleges need students coming in to make money so I’m sure some humanities grad school programs can be very misleading in job placement stats.
    Tara @ Streets Ahead Living recently posted..Yay for Snow Days

    1. Emily says:

      I think the mention of sex work and taxes in the same sentence is a bit too creative to be false. But I find it sad, not funny.

      Yeah, the long summer off after law school is pretty unique. I thought most law students who landed corporate jobs got signing bonuses to tide them over, though? Maybe that is a misconception I had. And of course not all fresh JDs go for corporate positions.

      It’s hard to find that line between “are these students just ignoring the ROI?” and “are the schools misleading the students?” especially with the recent economic shift. Since I’m not in those fields and I don’t know the ROIs I can’t really say.

  8. I’ve wanted to go back to study for a PhD for a while now, but in a way it just seems like a super expensive hobby to me. I’m fascinated by theater theory and all, but the odds of landing a well paying job in academia are so slim, it’s ridiculous. And it’s so dang hard to even get into a program in the first place. I finally finished paying off my Master’s degree a few months ago and the thought of going back into debt just doesn’t make it seem worth it… which is awesome, because it also makes all that debt from my Master’s degree pointless as well.
    Mel @ brokeGIRLrich recently posted..From Scene Shop Minion to Stage Manager

    1. Emily says:

      I do think that you should at least have aspirations for your PhD to further your career if you can’t cash-flow it. Some subjects should continue to be hobbies for some people, as you said. Maybe later in life! Sorry you feel so down about your master’s. :/

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