grad skool rulz #9 – don’t pay for grad school
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A recent Chronicle of Higher Education article brought my attention to the fact that many graduate students conclude their studies with significant debt. My general feeling is that a little debt is manageable, but more than, say, $20k total is probably a very bad idea. Why? It’s simple – academic salaries tend to hover from $40k to $80k, unless you are in a field with a large non-academic demand like medicine, law, economics, business, or computer science. Furthermore, many schools are concentrated in urban areas with tight housing markets. Thus, you will have to pay mortgage/rent while paying a similar sized monthly student debt payment. Acheiving a tenurable record is hard enough, but add a $1000 mortgage payment and another $500-$1000, then you have a real problem. And if you have children, it’s a crushing burden.
Here are some rules of thumb:
- Do not go to any graduate program that does not offer a tuition waver for the first 4-5 years, especially if it’s a private school. If they don’t offer some sort of assistance, decline the offer. There are always other programs. With a few exceptions, there is simply no salary you can make as a professor that will allow you to live comfortably and make your monthly payments on a loan that covers private school tuition. If a department is unable to support entering graduate students with fellowships, assistantships, or teaching, then it’s a bad sign.
- Do your utmost to finish your requirements in a reasonable amount of time. Why? Many universities reduce tuition for graduate students who are doctoral candidates (i.e., dissertation writing phase) or living far away from campus.
- Message to advisers: Don’t mess with your students. Every time you delay a student’s advancement through the program, you increase the chance that a student will have to pay a significant amount of tuition and/or fees later.
- Investigate as many fellowship opportunities as you can. You may get rejected a lot, but if you can get a single award that covers you for a year or two, it will save you much pain down the road. Even if you have a fellowship now, still apply for more – you never know when you will need the extra support.
- If you are in the position of having to pay tuition, complain a lot. Contact the graduate chair, the dean of graduate studies, or whoever is in charge of advising students. Even if you need a loan to cover this semester, you might be able to get some help to cover next semester if you whine. A teaching assistantship might open up and they might give it to you becuase you complained, you never know until you ask. Remember, the squeaky wheel is greased.
The key insight is that academia is an enormous subsidy. American society knows that it is vauable to have a pool of experts on a range of fields that don’t have a lot of market value. Therefore, it is absurd for you to pay for your training because everybody knows you can’t pay it back. In exchange for specializing in academic topics and teaching young people, at a heavily discounted price may I add, society should make your training very low cost. Readers who know about grad student financing are encouraged to add their own thoughts in the comments.