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.

Written by fabiorojas

May 6, 2007 at 9:36 pm

30 Responses

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  1. There’s money and there’s free money. A little bit of TA and RA work is valuable apprenticeship but beyond that it just takes up research time. If you have a TA position, still apply for fellowships as this will free up 20 hours a week and let you finish faster.
    Also, consider cost of living, especially housing. $25,000 in NY won’t go as far as $15,000 in a college town with dirt cheap graduate housing.
    Finally, if you don’t get any offers with money, don’t go to graduate school. Not only would you end up in a heap of debt, but if the sorting process is remotely efficient it’s trying to tell you that you either won’t finish or will end up in the adjunct market.



    May 7, 2007 at 7:37 am

  2. Well, it’s an N of one counter-example, but I took a leap of faith and went to Wisconsin without funding. I had spent a year in Ohio State’s program–fully funded, and I had fully-funded offers from other places including U. of Chicago. But I didn’t think the fit was right. Even after I finally scored funding at Wisconsin, I was still making squat and paying for part of my tuition (we all had too at the time), and I came out with some debt. But I think things actually turned out ok in the long run and I’m not sorry I made that decision.


    Dan Myers

    May 7, 2007 at 2:08 pm

  3. Thanks for sharing, Dan. I think it’s important to consider that Wisconsin is a public school, so paying a year or two of tuition isn’t that bad. At Chicago, it would have been $30k+ for tuition alone. Clearly, something is very wrong if you take out that much money and try to pay it back on a soc prof’s salary. In the end, that’s why I don’t say that you should never take out a loan. Maybe all you need is a loan to cover a semester or two, but after a certain point, it really becomes counter productive.


    Fabio Rojas

    May 7, 2007 at 5:00 pm

  4. I think the subtle message of this post is that some people shouldn’t get graduate degrees. I agree with this point. If you can’t figure out how you’re going to get out of grad school without tons and tons of debt, perhaps you should rethink your plans. Maybe it’s just not worth it.



    May 7, 2007 at 5:58 pm

  5. Agreed, Brayden. Academia is a career and every person must decide if this career can be financially and intellectually rewarding. Aside from deciding if you have academic skills, you also have to decide if it is a good personality fit. Market signals are one important bit of information in making this decision.

    In the Chronicle article, the author described a student in *personal counseling* who had acquired $140k!!! There is no job in that field at all that justifies that level of debt. Period. Perhaps if the institution had taken a stricter stand, this problem would have been avoided.


    Fabio Rojas

    May 7, 2007 at 7:18 pm

  6. Coming to this post late, but something caught my eye: the 40-80K for academic salaries in fields without a large “outside” market. Did you mean starting salaries? My experience is limited to one field, one type of institution, and is also now a bit dated, but this still seems low.

    I’m not arguing your more general point, incidentally. In fact, I’d go further to say that you should be paid to go to grad school, albeit with a salary (aka, stipend) that hovers around poverty level.



    May 8, 2007 at 2:45 pm

  7. Tim – I meant starting salaries. Is there any data that can be linked about this?


    Fabio Rojas

    May 8, 2007 at 5:05 pm


    according to this, the average assistant professor makes 65K. i know they have the data by discipline and they have an estimate of the range but i can’t find it.



    May 8, 2007 at 9:30 pm

  9. The salaries that Fabio and Gabriel are citing are those of assistant profs in sociology. The starting salaries of business school profs, sociologists or otherwise, are quite a bit higher.



    May 9, 2007 at 1:27 am

  10. Brayden – Are you trying to send me a message?


    Fabio Rojas

    May 9, 2007 at 1:31 am

  11. Fabio, no way. Indiana sociology needs you too much.



    May 9, 2007 at 3:35 pm

  12. Sorry to come to this discussion late, but it caught my eye. What about with grad programs that aren’t geared towards someone wanting to work in academia? I’m not talking about law or medicine. I’m talking more about grad programs that are specificially geared towards going into jobs in a particular field.

    I applied to a program, and couldn’t get any funding (assistantship). I then deferred my admission for a year in the hopes that being the first person accepted would help my chances of landing an assistantship. The college itself told me my early admission (in the second year) would greatly enhance my chances as well.

    The problem I have is that I’m a late 30s adult student, and this particular program only allows full-time study with the classes really spaced out (day, afternoon, evening). There is no part-time track, or track which caters to working adults.

    So I’d have to quit my regular full-time job just to attend. The school knows this, so that’s another reason I really needed an assistantship which would carry a tuition waiver and small stipend. I’m also the only adult above 27 or 28 who is even in the program. Most of the rest of the crowd is 22, 23, etc.

    I just don’t understand what I’m supposed to do. I can’t continue my job and also do the program since their schedules conflict too much. I also can’t quit my job and attend the program without some kind of funding. And I’m not going to simply take out massive loans to just be a
    full-time student for two years (without working). Maybe if I was in my early 20s that lifestyle would be attractive, but it is not now.

    I’ve also become aware that the school has already offered assistantships to several people (of the more traditional college ages).

    Any advice? The school really had promised to work hard on helping me get funding. But it looks like I won’t be getting any, and I was the very first one admitted to the new class due to the deferment.

    It also seems like they don’t understand the challenges some adult students face in going back to school. The program is set up in a way that makes keeping a regular job impossible. So wihtout an assistantship, I don’t know of many adult students who could afford to go. And if you’re wondering, this is also a very expensive school.



    June 30, 2007 at 2:18 pm

  13. Dear Jack: I am quite sorry to hear of your predicament. You are right that the grad skool rulz are geared towards academic graduate school, but here are some thoughts.

    When I advise folks on professional programs, I ask the student to make an estimate of how much extra income they would make if they did the program and then compare that to the costs of the program. That is, would the extra income of $X (over your normal salary) outweigh (a) the tuition/fees + (b) lost income from quitting your job for a couple of years. Unless the degree is an absolute requirement of the job, think about alternatives if the cost-benefit doesn’t work out in your case. In doing this calculation, you might come to realize that the cost of a degree is too high.

    My sense is that if the program can’t fund you, they aren’t that committed to your education. If after two tries, they won’t give you an assistantship, it doesn’t sound promising. Perhaps you can arrange a meeting with the dean of graduate studies to get more advice, or meet personally with the graduate chair of the program.

    Other alternatives include seeking out other graduate programs that are willing to fund you, or applying for a large number of grants/fellowships, hoping that one of them will come through and you can afford to take time off from work to complete your degree. Another possibility is to ask for another derement, or think about career options that do not require this degree. Best of luck to you, Jack. Hope things work out.


    Fabio Rojas

    June 30, 2007 at 8:10 pm

  14. Thanks for your reply, Fabio. You bring up a good point about weighing the benefits versus the costs of getting a graduate degree (eventual extra income versus cost of program, etc).

    In my case, this graduate program would help me change careers into a totally new field. A job in this new field would certainly pay more than I’m making now. It would also involve a move, since there aren’t really jobs related to this field in my geographical area.

    Of course, there is the other gamble here of actually “getting” a job with this new degree. Although the college likes to say that almost all the graduates of this program get jobs, things could always change in 2-3 years from now (economy, etc).

    And it isn’t the most expensive graduate degree on the face of the earth. I’d say for two years it will run me about 15-20K. But there is of course the lost income element that you also mentioned as part of the cost/benefit equation.

    As I mentioned before, the program only allows someone to go full-time, and the classes are so spaced out that it not only makes keeping my current job difficult, but it makes it hard to land some kind of off-campus part-time job that I could work in non-school hours.

    There is a similar program in another area of the country that is set up more for working people. This other program is
    full-time also, but you go to school on Saturday from about
    8-4pm. I’ve also found another program in this field that is an online program, and from a very reputable place. Naturally, though, I’d much rather go to the program that is already in my town.

    It does seem like the structure and funding opportunities of my program really can put one in a bind. You either have to give up work and go to school full-time for two years, or don’t go into the program at all. It seems like there should be a better way or something in between.

    Because if a school promotes itself to “adult” students, it should also realize that adult students can have “adult responsibilities” and concerns which make it hard to just quit a job and become a full-time student for two years. If I was a young buck in my early 20s, and had parents to fall back upon, I probably wouldn’t mind another two years of full-time schooling and the debt associated with it.

    But it’s still such a shaky economy that I just can’t get my head around giving up my employment, and basically having no income for two years while running up between 15 and 20K of debt. It seems like they should have more options available for adult students like me. I’m more than willing to do good work for this college (as an assistant).

    And I agree with you that it doesn’t sound like this school is that committed to my education. That discourages me quite a bit.



    July 2, 2007 at 7:44 pm

  15. Fabio and others, have you ever seen this Gary North article about graduate school? I came across it during my research into graduate school issues. What do you guys think of this? I think this article merits discussion to some degree. It does raise a number of issues.

    The Ph.D. Glut Revisited
    by Gary North



    July 3, 2007 at 4:09 pm

  16. […] grad skool rulz #9 – don’t pay for grad school […]


  17. […] Go to a rich school with good funding so you don’t have to teach much.  (Of course, never pay for a Ph.D.) […]


  18. Too late. I’ve already paid for my PhD. I started my MA with $16 000 CDN in debt and now I’m up to about $45. And I’ve done well getting funding for the last two years and I’m completing it in 4-years. Here’s hoping I get a job.


    Simon Kiss

    June 20, 2008 at 7:28 pm

  19. Very late comment meant for all: I always liked the advice of one grad school – CONTROL AND TARGET YOUR FUTURE – write a letter to a company/institution that you might consider a future employer. Tell them your are planning to write your thesis on … process/program that happens to be exactly what the target is developing as you would like to learn from them . Understand that they have to pay headhunters at least a full year of your future salary in finders fees so this ‘plum’ drops into their lap for free. The target’s HR staff will tell their R&D staff to immediately invite you (all paid) to a weekend to “see if they can be of help”. As they look you over and if interested – a month later they will get back to you and ask if you would like fly down to their “new product/line national roll out presentation or a convention to further the dialogue. Now you have them. They will “pop the question” ask you to sign a contract to promise three or four years of employment for which they will pick up all grad costs. At $55-90K in recruitment costs, it is a bargain for them.
    Understand that you may not finish that “thesis to be” as earlier stated – but now you have another road to consider – cost free.



    December 29, 2008 at 3:14 pm

  20. I don’t want to squish your grad school dreams, Jack, but it truly sounds as though your way forward is clear. You are unwilling to relinquish the standard of living to which you have become accustomed. I, and most of the graduate students I know, from various programs, quit jobs to go back to school, anticipating the loss of income. It’s just the breaks that come with pursuing a fulfilling career. If your sole reason for grad school is greater income, the math is clear for you; if it’s not, then debt should have less meaning for you.

    Students are students, unless there are kids involved, which involves a whole different set of calculations. “Young” students and “old” students aren’t separated by exactly as much “responsibility” as they choose to be–while I know a few grad students who sponge of mom and dad, many of us severed that cord long ago. I chose not to buy a house, knowing that I could never afford it, and I manage to live on my little stipend just fine at the tender age of 28. You come off sounding as though you are unwilling to endure a little hardship to attain your goals. But you’re the only one who knows whether that is true or not.


    Not starving grad student

    February 16, 2009 at 7:52 am

  21. I completely agree with Jack’s predicament and I have to disagree with Not A Starving Student. I am enrolling in a graduate program this fall after deferring from my dream school. I am in my mid-twenties and have been working full-time for three years. Because of the debt I accrued as an undergrad and my current bills, it would be nearly impossible for me to attend graduate school without some sort of tuition waver and a stipend (I funded my undergraduate education entirely on my own). Living frugally is no problem; however, some of us do have “adult” responsiblities and bills, as Jack mentioned. Unfortunately, some of my bills cannot be eilminated at this time. I have had some people tell me to just go, enroll in the program, take out the loans and keep plugging away from aid and I have had others encourage me to explore different programs (the primary programs I have been focusing on are interdisciplinary MAs and because they draw from various departments, associateships are not available). Ultimately, when I graduate and continue for a doctorate and eventually a career, I do not want finances dictating my decisions– and taking out an exorbitant amount of loans would be doing just that.



    March 11, 2009 at 5:43 pm

  22. I’m a high school senior who’d hopes to become an English professor. I’ve already won enough scholarships to get my undergraduate degree without debt, but I wonder if there’s anything I can start doing now (aside from working during the summer and applying myself in school) to reduce the amount I’ll have to borrow for graduate school and a doctoral program.



    April 28, 2009 at 12:18 am

  23. Jane: First, congratulations on graduating and getting such great scholarships. Second, don’t worry about grad school now. You should spend your time in undergrad taking many different courses in different field and learning about different career tracks. Why not take history? Or chemistry? or economics? You might like it.

    It really is a bit too early to worry about being an English prof, so just read widely, have fun and enjoy your time in college.



    April 28, 2009 at 1:03 am

  24. Jane, I join Fabio in congratulating you. I was sidetracked from English into one of the fields he mentioned. I am a professor, but literature is where I escape, rather than toil. For summer reading, try James Hyne’s The Lecturer’s Tale and Richard Powers’ Galatea 2.2. They are interesting views into post-grad school paths in English. Best of everything in the future.



    April 28, 2009 at 1:39 pm

  25. This thread is of great interest to me because I’m broke, profoundly in debt, and about to finish college via distance-ed while I look for a job in DC.

    My undergrad degrees aren’t from a school that did any social research, and as a result, I’m graduating with no relevant experience in the field. I don’t want to go back to school yet, and my grades aren’t awesome, so I don’t think I could get a free ride even if I did – any ideas on how to break into research?



    May 13, 2009 at 3:07 pm

  26. I took off two years after college to work in the private sector. I lived like a pauper for those years, but I stashed away enough money that, with three semesters of TA-ing, I can pay for my two year, unfunded Ivy League master’s program and come out without any debt (though hardly any savings… I project ~10k as a max. amount).

    When I graduate in another year, I can waltz into an only modestly paying (only about 1/2 to 2/3 of what I made when I graduated college!), but tremendously fascinating government job that precisely matches my professional interets. Plus, I had a lot of valuable practical perspective to bring to my program that the kids directly out of college didn’t have and (generally speaking) seem to be less for it.



    March 28, 2010 at 5:15 pm

  27. Great Post. I have found it very useful!. Keep it up. I have paid off
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    May 27, 2010 at 4:34 am

  28. Nice to get all the informations in your blog ,keep the work going…


    Komal usha

    December 28, 2010 at 5:06 pm

  29. Hi, I am posting very late but hoping for a response. I am 36 and finally went to college and left a miserable job behind to follow my dreams of teaching community college history. I am 1 year away from my BA in history and my academic adviser told me to get on applying to grad schools now. I am terrified, I keep looking at the cost of graduate school, and cringing. Yes I have saved up money to live on from working, but if I wind up paying full price for grad school I am in a bind. I am totally ignorant about grants, and all this stuff listed, do I ask the school directly about this? I guess this seems silly but I didn’t know where else to ask.



    September 4, 2011 at 8:35 am

  30. I just finished a masters while working full time. I had tuition reimbursement from my job (professional career). Now Im going on to a phd in a different program (that masters program didn’t offer phd). I doubt my employer will pay for that as well, so I’m looking at scholarships, otherwise paying since I’ll still be working full time at my first career, and can’t afford to take pay cut for TA “position”.
    Interesting thing (or amusing) about phd programs is that its just a set up for the prof to get cheap labor on their projects, not yours. But I just want to study my own thing, so I found a program where I can work full time on career 1 and get a phd in career 2. I don’t want to go into acadmics either. I want to remain professional.



    March 23, 2012 at 12:20 am

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