Grad School and Debt

A quick shout out for Serena Love’s blog, Tales of an Educated Scrounge, which addresses the serious subject of student debt. In covering this, she also writes about:

  • The actual, if non-material, rewards of pursuing an advanced degree in archaeology or the humanities.
  • The difficulties of getting a job as an academic archaeologist after six years (or more) of Ph.D. training and the kind of competition that one faces in the job market.
  • Her surprise upon discovering that a professional dog-walker could be paid more than a Ph.D. graduate starting his/ her first academic job.

I don’t always agree with what she has to say and I don’t think that I’d have made some of the choices that she made. I was brought up to be wary of any debt other than a mortgage. In part, I started a Ph.D. because I wanted to be an archaeologist but work as a professional field digger was almost impossible to find.1 But I do not think that I’d have jumped back into academia, if I’d have ever thought that I’d face substantial student loan repayments. Even though I felt that I wanted to be an archaeologist more than anything else, I don’t think I’d have been committed enough to the dream to take on a five figure debt — much less a six figure one.2

Reading Serena’s blog makes me realise how extremely lucky I’ve been in my pursuit of further education (“higher education” in American English).

I did my first two degrees in the UK in the early- to mid-nineties, a very different place than the UK of today. I squeezed through my B.A., before the days of top-up fees and while the student grant was still in place, even if it had been frozen for several years. A British Academy of Humanities post-grad fellowship funded my M.Sc.

When I moved to the States to start my Ph.D. at Stanford University, I had no idea of what an American Ph.D. actually involved3 and how long the whole process could take. Stanford University supported me, one way or another, for the first six years. Yes, I said, “Six years.” When that money dried up, I managed to land an entry-level paraprofessional job with SULAIR (Stanford University Libraries and Academic Information Resources) which sustained me while I finished the dissertation — I was lucky to get a job with afternoon and evening shifts that left me free to write in the mornings. I took a formal leave of absence from my Ph.D. programme, which allowed me to continue to work towards the final degree without paying university fees. At the time, I would have had to find over $2,500 per term just to be a registered student and retain access to the university libraries.

It could very easily have been very different. Without the job at SULAIR, my partner and I would have been in serious trouble after my sixth year. Meanwhile, friends and relations in the UK starting university only seven years later than me had to assume student debt that would have sent me scuttling off to “the real world” before even starting my B.A.

There but for fortune etc.

Serena’s taken the novel (I think) step of including an online contribution jar. So far, she’s raised $75 out of $115,000 that she needs to pay off her student loans. That’s not that much — if you swing by the blog, you might consider dropping a couple of dollars into the pot. The pot takes Paypal.

1 There are significant gaps in my employment record from the time in which I was on the digging circuit. When I was working, employment was short term and paid terribly. For tales of British commercial archaeology and its difficulties, see Paul EverilI’s Invisible Diggers project.
2 Make of this what you will.
3 This statement does not even begin to cover it.