Brow Beat

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.

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.