07 December 2004

Now I really have to work on that AHA paper

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Graduate Students and Consumer Debt

A question I've been asking myself recently: what amount of debt is acceptable in the completion of a PhD program in the humanities?

An anonymous columnist in the Chronicle of Higher Education has asked just that question. As a PhD candidate in English at a midwestern research institution (OK, anonymity is really, really getting to me!) she started with $1000.00 in credit card debt and now, in her finishing stages, has no student loans but $11,000.00 in credit card debt.

Well, I started grad school with NO credit card debt and now have, um, somewhat more than that but less than our commentator. While I haven't ever spent money on silly things like $300.00 handbags, I just looked over my online credit card statement. Like the columnist, I have used my credit card to make ends meet.

First, I had to acquire an apartment in Cambridge, MA, in 2001. This meant having enough cash on hand to pay first, last, and finders' fees (usually equivalent to one month's rent). In my case, just getting the keys to my studio apartment with the leaky bathroom ceiling and chronic rodent problem cost $3000.00. Since then, most of my credit card outlay has been focused on keeping said apartment and feeding myself in the summers when Harvard either doesn't pay me or pays me peanuts. I don't have a car. I don't buy expensive clothes or shoes. I've thought of it all as the cost of getting my PhD, and someday when I have a tenure-track job at a small liberal arts college, I'll be able to pay off the debt.

This rosy little picture looks less rosy, of course, when one considers that I will not finish in June 2005 (few historians finish in five years). That means I have at least another year--a year in which Harvard will cease to consider me for financial aid. Yes, that's right: next year, I face the prospect of paying Harvard tuition, so I can stay at Harvard and do grunt grad student teaching jobs.


Presumably, that step would also require some loans and further leaning on the credit card in order to survive. (All this will be moot if I get a finishing fellowship. IF. And that story is another blog for another day.)

And when I finish, my compensation for a teaching job could be spectacularly LOW. Castleton State College just posted a job with a 4/4 load starting at 26,4K and maxing out at 34,8K.


It seems that graduate students who stick to a tight budget and accept abject poverty and debt as the price for acquiring the coveted degree (and that would be most of us) are stuck: poverty and debt before the degree, poverty and debt after the degree. And I'm saying this from a university acknowledged to be at the top of the heap in funding and opportunity.

Academic institutions need to do three things: 1. admit fewer graduate students, 2. fully fund those students they do admit on a 12-month cycle for at least five years and probably seven, taking into account higher costs of living in cities, and 3. they need to pay professors more than 30K a year.

Yep, I know it's a pipe dream. But it is still worth thinking about.