Feeling Defensive About Student Loan Debt

Everyone is talking about PhD debt these days, and I’ve gotta admit: It’s making me a little crazy. Here’s an article Rebecca Schuman wrote for Slate where she talks about Karen Kelsky’s(The Professor Is In) debt doc and the numbers behind it.  I’m not 100% sure about the sequence of events, but it seems like the Google Doc and the subsequent article have everyone talking, and a lot of them are not being nice. It’s true, my feelings are hurt by some of the comments that criticize grad students for being irresponsible, short-sighted, even stupid. These comments are everywhere: following articles like the one I linked to, on Twitter, in my facebook feed–even in casual conversations on campus. I feel browbeaten by it. Like I don’t already know the predicament I’m in…like I can go back and change it.

I know what I say here is unlikely to change anyone’s perception of PhDs with a lot of student loan debt, but I feel compelled to share my story, my rationale, and my student loan debt reality.

First Generation Work Ethic 

I come from a working class family: my dad was an auto worker and my mom didn’t work outside the home (mostly). Neither of them went to college. As an undergrad, I got decent financial aid, my folks paid what they could, and I graduated in 2003 owing about $13,000. I worked full time throughout college–with the exception of one semester when I couldn’t find a job. My paychecks paid my rent & utilities, bought groceries, a few old cars that lasted a year or two before the transmission blew. I could’ve lived at home and had lower expenses, but for reasons I won’t get into here, that wasn’t what I wanted. I worked really hard to have a pretty unglamourous life. At one point, my roommate moved out and I got a second job to pay her half of the rent. It just so happened that she owned all the furniture we shared, so when she left, I had a bed and a 13 inch TV–nothing more–in a 2 bedroom apartment. Eventually I bought a used couch for 15 bucks.

The last two years of college, I worked for an insurance company during the day and went to school at night. While I worked at the insurance company, I thought about getting my MFA. I wanted to go to Iowa. Then I got promoted, loved my work, decided to stick around. A couple months later, I was laid off. I’d graduated in the meantime, and was now out of school and unemployed. I did two things: applied for the MA program at my alma mater and signed up at a temp agency.

The 3.5 Year Plan

My temp job turned into a full time job about the same time that I was accepted into the MA program. I’d applied late, so there was no funding available. I took loans to pay tuition (and used the surplus to pay off my credit card debt, which was around $3000), worked my full time day job, had class a few nights a week until 8 or 9, studied until midnight.

My school was in the process of adding an MFA option to the master’s program, so I applied for it; I also applied for an assistantship. I decided that I would not do both (grad school and full time work) for a second year. I was exhausted. I was going to school for fun, but balancing the two wasn’t fun anymore. I talked at length with my boss at the time about this. She had decided not to pursue a PhD in favor of a corporate job–she advised me not to do the same. “It’s easy to get back into the corporate world,” she said, “but you only have one chance to do academia.” (I think of this advice often. It was 2005; neither of us knew how different the economy would be by the time I decided to leave academia.)

For the next 2.5 years, I made $9000 during the school year and borrowed the maximum amount of student loans I was offered. I did this for a few reasons. The first, I admit, was foolish: because I had worked so hard as an undergrad, and equally hard the first year of grad school, I didn’t want to work that hard anymore. I wanted to be a full-time student, able to stay up all night studying or writing or hanging out with my friends. The other reasons were, I thought, more practical: I believed that I could save some of these loans for emergencies (the loans weren’t accruing interest yet, this seemed totally reasonable), I believed student loan debt was “good debt” — better than using a credit card when I had to (and sometimes you have to, especially if you’re only making $9000 a year). I felt guilty about taking these loans–I grew up believing it was noble to live within your means–but I talked with my parents about it (two people who never carried any debt other than their mortgage, which they paid off early) and even they thought I was doing the right thing. I had a couple of temp jobs in the summers, but I didn’t work much outside of my assistantship. It was a great time in my life, and worth every penny I owe for it today.

Getting a PhD: The Dumbest Thing I Ever Did?

When I approached the end of my MFA program, I believed I wanted to be a professor. My time in grad school had been transformative–I was happier and more confident than I’d ever been. I felt that for the first time in my life I’d set out to do something and excelled at it. It was affirming–I’d always wanted to be a writer and a teacher and now I was. Some of my cohort was looking for teaching jobs, but I didn’t feel ready. I’d been teaching for just a couple semesters and I knew I needed more experience. A PhD was the logical choice.

Did I know what I was getting into with the PhD? Yes and no. Professors gave me articles from Inside Higher Ed ad The Chronicle to read, they showed me charts that illustrated how competitive the tenure track job market was. I understood that getting the dream job was just that–a dream. But it was one worth pursuing. I still had that former boss’s voice in my head: you can always come back to corporate. I’d take a shot: read more, write more, teach more, then look for a job. I didn’t know how hard it would be. I didn’t know that the only program to give me a viable offer would be in one of the most expensive cities in the country. I didn’t know that it would take me more than six years to finish. I didn’t know that there would be a recession during my first year in the program and that going back to corporate would not be as easy as my former boss made it seem.

My current assistantship pays a little over $15,000 a year. I’ve worked most of the last 6 summers, except the one when I went to Italy (I used an inheritance, not loans), and the last 2 years I’ve worked into the school year as well. But even with the second/summer jobs, it’s tough to make ends meet in Chicago. I sold my car 4 years ago and exclusively use public transit. All my furniture is 2nd hand. I try not to buy new stuff. I’ve lived alone most of the time I’ve been in Chicago, except for the last six or so months since Benny moved in, so rent has been a huge expense. Otherwise, I think I’ve been pretty frugal. This year, for the first time, I didn’t take any loans. It’s tough, but it’s possible because I’m hustling and because I’m splitting expenses with a partner now. If I were still single, I would’ve had to take loans this year, too.

And yet: I owe somewhere between 100,000-150,000 in student loans after 15 years of higher education. If I had not listened to that boss back in 05, if I had stayed at that job and never gotten a single promotion or raise, I would have made around $300,000 in the last nine years. Instead, I borrowed over $100,000 to supplement the $120,000 or so I earned. I don’t know the formulas to figure that all out, but it looks like the PhD cost me well over $300,000 (loans + lost wages) even though I was fully funded. That’s awesome, right?

The Moral of the Story

If I had a time machine, I’d likely do it all the same. Why? Because I believe in the butterfly effect. I found the guy I’m going to marry because the desire to get a PhD brought me to Chicago. And I’m smarter and stronger for the hell I’ve gone through as a PhD student.

these are some scary numbers, y'all

these are some scary numbers, y’all

But, but, but: if you can avoid my fate, dear reader, please do.

I’m not saying don’t go to grad school if that’s what your heart tells you to do. I am saying that you ought to use that crazy smart, analytical brain that will get you into grad school to make smarter choices than I did. Have a second job while you study. Seriously. Yeah, there’s always something else to read, another CFP to respond to, more papers to grade. But you have to draw a line somewhere, and if you don’t want to spend the next 40 years paying off your loans, it’s worth it to take some time away from your coursework to pick up a couple shifts at the bar on the corner, or to adjunct at another school in your area, or to pick up a temp job during breaks. Plus, it’ll help you stay connected to the real world and might make the nearly inevitable postac transition easier when you realize the tenure track job of your dreams doesn’t exist. (This is important, kids: DO NOT put all your eggs in the professor basket. DO NOT allow yourself to believe that your only options are tenure or failure.)

And if you’re one of the people who rolls your eyes and tsk tsks at people like me–especially if you have a PhD or some other advanced degree–I envy you your foresight and your frugality. Congratulations on taking a calculated risk and not losing.

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4 thoughts on “Feeling Defensive About Student Loan Debt

  1. Mom says:

    Maybe we’ll win the lottery! ;)

  2. Gina says:

    I never knew you worked in insurance, Sara! So did I before going back to grad school. We should talk property and casualty sometime or something! I agree with what you say here, and another reason I think it’s crappy when people judge grad students for the amount of loans they have is that I was explicitly told in my MA program that I wasn’t allowed to hold a second job, and the attitude in many departments is that “serious” students won’t hold second jobs. So people who would be wise enough to take your good advice might get ostracized or reprimanded for their choices. I felt like I was doing the right thing by taking out loans to buy myself the time to focus on my scholarly work rather than having a second job, because how would I be competitive for those tenure-track jobs only 40% of us get? Now I look at it differently and just wonder what I was thinking taking out so many loans for a chance at a job that the majority of people with my training don’t ever get. But it’s only hindsight that’s 20/20.

    • Sara says:

      Hey Gina! I didn’t know you worked in insurance either. How funny! We should definitely chat about that some time.

      And I completely forgot–I wasn’t allowed to have a second job during my masters either. I think we were allowed to work something like 8 hours a week outside of the assistantship. Now I feel less guilty for taking loans–it really was a necessity! Thanks for the reminder.

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