Karen Kelsky’s PhD Debt Project

It’s another Two-Schumaner at Slate today, and this one’s my tribute to the inimitable Karen Kelsky, and this Google doc, which I highly recommend everyone fill out.

Here’s my debt story: I was too stupid to understand not to go to grad school unfunded for my MA (AT NYU), and as a result, even though I racked up zero debt whatsoever during my PhD (only because I borrowed money from my parents, and they’ve yet to report me to the credit bureaus), I will be paying off student loans for the rest of my life, all for an education that ended up doing me more harm than good.

It is because of Karen’s project that I realize I’m not alone, and I can even admit this in public.

8 thoughts on “Karen Kelsky’s PhD Debt Project

  1. With all the boycott talk in academia lately, can we get an NYU boycott going? If all the best MA and PhD students all of a sudden refuse to go to the NYU’s #20 English program and instead go to Indiana’s #22 program, don’t you think they’d feel pressured to make life easier on their students?


    • And, obviously, the problem isn’t specific to NYU. But many people have commented that all the best programs are in the most expensive cities. But 1) that’s only marginally true , and 2) with the money you save you can go to more conferences, get more research done, etc.


  2. One thing that does link tenure track humanities faculty at R1s with tenure track humanities faculty elsewhere is that in both cases their salaries depend upon students borrowing money to buy degrees for which it seems like there’s a negative return on investment.

    If those loans were dischargeable in bankruptcy — and if lenders could choose to stop loaning money to fund literature PhDs — those programs would got out of business almost immediately. Nobody would attend because apparently even fully funded programs do not provide enough to live on for the X number if years they take.

    The saddest part of that spreadsheet might be the plans for paying it back column, as that’s where people seem to acknowledge that the degrees have actively hurt their career development and that their only hope is to win the lottery or something to make their investment of time and money worth it.

    This isn’t to say, btw, that the humanities have no value. They clearly do, but it’s a little fucked to pretend that really expensive literature programs at universities have some sort of monopoly on literature itself, and that paying for a humanities degree is the only way to access it, especially if it involves borrowing huge sums of money to make an investment that will never pay off.


    • @guest: you nail it with: “…. but it’s a little fucked to pretend that really expensive literature programs at universities have some sort of monopoly on literature itself.” Agreed and ditto for the rest of the humanities/social sciences. It’s part of the cult mentality and we have to fight it. That’s why I love public intellectuals and independent PhD researchers/ scholars. Journalists have also proven to be some of the best damn historians out there (shaming so much of academic history, so often a pile of mediocrity sweetly covered by obfuscating, BS lexicon).

      I also agree with “guest” that: “… their salaries depend upon students borrowing money to buy degrees for which it seems like there’s a negative return on investment…..” Clear as day. What’s worse: after graduation, it’s nearly impossible for PhDs to continue conducting research because the academy will not allow them access to libraries without a formal affiliation (despite a degree that grants them “rights and privileges” as what? As thinkers and researchers, damn it!!). This gatekeeping is, to me, ample proof of academic capitalism (it’s all about the money and institutional self perpetuation….NOT about promoting the humanities in the wider environ through the masses of scholars who’d like to combine a non academic job while continuing their independent research). The message is ” Nope. If you’re not in the ranks of the academy, we won’t let you produce knowledge because it’s a threat to our livelihood.”


  3. The role of debt in all of this is undeniable, but “fully-funded” doctoral programs – at most R1s – don’t pay faculty salaries. Most universities lose money on graduate education – both because they provide stipends to graduate students and because they lose student credit hours at the undergraduate level. Which only underscores the larger point here: keeping these graduate programs around just to maintain an institution’s status is unethical.

    MA programs are different, of course. At most places they are “cash cows,” but it is probably less likely that this “cash” finds its way into the general budget. I.e., to salaries.


    • Well “lose money” on graduate education is probably relative for, say, the UC system where graduate instructors and TAs accomplish … what? Half? Slightly more than half? Of all undergraduate instruction, iirc.


  4. As I type this, I’m waiting for a process server to show up at my door. (They were here last night, but they missed me.) In 2008, with jobs in my field (tech) dried up, I went to a humanities PhD program. Even with full funding, the switch to grad school meant that my income went down 40 percent (from my last, temporary job in the field) and my cost of living went up 20 percent in the move to a more expensive city. Right about the time the banks were being bailed out, my bank “charged off” my delinquent credit card.

    I’m enrolled. I’m writing. I have no plans to become a professor; in addition to the paucity of jobs, I’m not suited to it. But all this is to say: I’m in deep shit already, with the debt that I can discharge, via a settlement or bankruptcy. When these student loans come due? Which even bankruptcy won’t discharge? Hello, again, process server.


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