Grad School Debt: It Can Happen Even if You’re Fully Funded

January 16, 2014

I’ve been meaning to talk about this for a while–in fact, my column for Vitae alludes to my own credit card debt. But with Karen “The Professor Is In” Kelsky’s massive, anonymous Google doc of graduate student debt and Kate Bahn’s “On Privilege and the PhD,” I felt it was time to talk about how you can get into debt even when fully funded.

Now, I’m  not going to give you the exact dollar amount of my debt. That’s between me and my credit card companies. But I certainly have it. Here’s how it happened:

Year 1: My stipend is $12,000, my rent $600/month in New York City. My dad helps me pay rent, because he can see that $400/month is not enough to live on. I also have substantial savings from college, mostly because I had a full scholarship that included both tuition and room, and I worked every weekend. Over the first year, my savings dwindle.

Year 2: With my stipend going up to $13,000, there still isn’t room for any financial error. I start working for the Columbia Bartending Agency, which really and truly exists. It’s a great way to make money, but, as I start writing my master’s thesis and TAing, it becomes hard to juggle. I get pressure from both professors and my then-boyfriend to quit bartending (really, the boyfriend, who is rich via his famous mother, wants to dominate my time).

Year 3: I still bartend a little, but it’s hard to keep up with coursework and teaching my own class for the first time. The debts are starting to rack up. Graduate stipend rises to $13,500, but, of course, my rent is going up each year, too. I start attending conferences locally, which isn’t so bad. In the “bad” column, my boyfriend asks me to go on an expensive ski trip with him–his mother’s paying for my ski rental, lessons, and lift ticket. When I get there, it turns out that she is not paying for anything, her present to me is a Nalgene bottle, and I’m out over $1,000. This is not really grad school debt, but I thought I would put it here since it’s the only radically stupid thing I paid for.

Year 4: At the end of Year 3 and beginning of Year 4, I take my comps. I pass with flying colors! However, it’s the last time I get to celebrate: Faculty relationships rapidly deteriorate over the fall semester. By the order of various administrators, people are not talking to each other. I cannot get my dissertation proposal approved, because the people who need to approve it are not allowed in the same room with each other. In January of Year 4, I’m sent on fieldwork with junior faculty approval, having to revoke the paltry amount of funding I did receive, because I lack the paperwork proving I have passed my proposal defense. This is my biggest mistake. It will cost me $20,000. (I finally get a proposal defense date after a giant fracas that involves a professor being forcibly retired. It was BIG DRAMA.)

Year 5: I go to my first national conference, flying from Seattle to Miami. That is not cheap, and, though my flight is funded, the rest of it goes on the credit card. I finish my fieldwork in Seattle and move to San Francisco to conduct more fieldwork and move in with my horrible boyfriend. San Francisco is incredibly expensive; it’s the worst site for fieldwork, ever. After my horrible boyfriend “accidentally” deletes my conference paper, I attend my second national conference. I can’t get funding for this one, because we’re limited to one per year. I do, however, stay with a friend and his wife, which dramatically cuts down on the costs of the conference.

The Year Off: I get stuck in San Francisco for another year, due to a fuck up with funding that was partially my fault and partially due to someone deleting something from my computer (again!). For obvious reasons, I move out of my apartment with the horrible boyfriend. I work all the time, for the worst boss I’ve ever had, and everything sucks. Just as I’m about to go to a conference (even in my year off!), my boss fires me from my $30/hour independent contractor position when she forgets that she gave me permission to go to the conference. It’s either keep my job–flushing the cost of the conference down the toilet–or go and lose my job. I leave, because she is driving me crazy. I end up working at the Gap and a yarn store for six months until I go back to New York. This erases all the progress I’d made on my debt, and adds to it.

Year 6: To make up for the SNAFU that happened the year before, one of the professors in my department makes sure I get a dissertation-writing fellowship, which is $19,000/year. My rent in my sublet is $1,025/month, meaning that I cannot leave my house unless I want to increase my debt. I make real progress, but I do not finish my dissertation by the end of the year. However, the two of the three chapters that I write that year will later win prizes in their conference paper versions. This will not help me get a job, but it’s something. In March, I end up getting evicted when the woman from whom I’m subletting tells the university she’s not returning. In a miraculous turn of events, I end up in the best and cheapest apartment in NYC. However, it requires 1) a broker’s fee and 2) first, last, and security. I borrow money from my dad, who, thankfully, has money to spare and does not want to see me homeless.

Year 7:  This is my last year of funding. I’m told to conference, conference, conference. I do. I go to a conference in Hawai’i. I go to a conference in Seattle. I go to a conference in Montreal. The only cheap conference is in Ithaca, NY. These conferences add up rapidly. Even Montreal, which can theoretically be done on the cheap, costs more than it should: the conference is during the Grand Prix de Montreal, which means that any restaurant within walking distance to the conference hotel was raising their regular prices or using prix fixe deals.

Year 8: While adjuncting, I finally finish a draft, but have a hard time pleasing one member of my committee. Another member of my committee, who sees me struggling, encourages me to really put myself out there on the job market. “You never know how far a good conference paper will take you,” she says cheerily. I believe her, but I should not, because no one goes to grad student panels. I go to conferences in Columbus, Seattle, and San Antonio. I defend the same day that Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy; the day my diploma is issued, October 11, 2008, the head of the IMF warns of potential international collapse. Jobs disappear, and I find myself stuck adjuncting.

In the years after graduation, working as an adjunct and VAP has meant that I’ve never gotten ahead of my debt in the way that I’d like. It’s always there. The adjunct pay cycle is not conducive to getting out of debt: even if you save during the semester, the pay is so little that it will not cover expenses during the summer.

I worry that this post will just cause people to call me an idiot (see: My Year Off), or to say that I do not deserve to be in academia if I couldn’t hack it financially. But the reality is, aside from dating a terrible human being for four years and going on an expensive ski trip, I don’t think there’s much else I could have done. I went to the best grad school I could, I got as much funding as I could, and I tried to live frugally. I spent money on things that would directly advance my career, such as research and conferences. And I still have debt, for a career that I’m leaving at the end of this year.

Grad school: it’s just not worth the damage to your bank account.

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One Response to “Grad School Debt: It Can Happen Even if You’re Fully Funded”

  1. Matt said

    This is a really great post. I can’t say I had exactly the same experience, but the financial underpinnings are very simiar for me. I started out with a hefty amount of undergraduate debt (despite having a 3.8-4.0 GPA every semester there is virtually no funding for continuing student scholarships.) But I thought the hard work would pay off when I got a full tuition waiver and a $10K stipend to pay for grad school. Somehow it didn’t seem to cover a bare minimum of rent, food, utilities, books etc. Then I changed programs, had one semester unfunded, and then was hired as full time staff with a tuition waiver. Somehow I’m carrying an unbelievable amount of debt. I finished a MS, but circumstances like you illustrate above have kept me from finishing a PhD. I still work full time as a staff member at a university and I adjunct on a part time basis. There’s no way now I can forgoe my current income to only pile on more debt to finish a PhD even with a stipend and tuition waiver. And of course the debt load is fairly burdensome even with both jobs now. Maybe in the long run a PhD would open up a world of income potential, but my education related debt has left such a bad taste in my mouth that I can’t stomach another red cent. It’s like getting sick from your favorite dish and never being able to enjoy it again.

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