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Winter for Higher-Ed
Another Reason Not to Get a PhD

Graduate programs have been churning out far more PhDs than there are available academic positions, and on top of a desperate job hunt aspiring PhDs increasingly have another problem to worry about: student debt. Unlike other degrees, PhD programs often allow students to attend school for free, receiving tuition waivers, stipends, and fellowships to cover their expenses. But in some disciplines, at least, this is beginning to change as programs accept more students without funding, or provide only meager stipends.

To get a snapshot of the problem, take a look at this survey from Karen Kelsky, which asked students and graduates of PhD programs to report their grad school debt and their plans for paying it back. Some students are doing fine, but others, many of them with doctorates in literature, anthropology, and other humanities disciplines, have racked up six figures in debt in grad school with no concrete repayment plans other than the faint hope of landing a tenure-track job. This report is obviously anecdotal, but over at The Atlantic, Jordan Weissmann digs deeper into the data, which backs up these findings. more than one third of all PhD students accumulate debt while in school, and more than a quarter rack up more than $30,000. The problem is particularly acute in the social sciences, where over 30 percent now graduate more than $30,000 in the red.

Some of the blame here falls on the students who pursued a degree they couldn’t afford to prepare for competitive jobs they had little shot at getting. Yet the bigger problem is that the grad programs that sprang up when the market was good continue to admit students they can’t afford to support, despite the fact that there are far too few positions open for most of them to get jobs as professors when they finish. The simple reality is that the number of PhD programs needs to shrink.

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  • Andrew Allison

    Might I gently suggest that, “Graduate programs have been churning out far more PhD’s than there are available academic positions,. . . ” is a bit silly. The majority of jobs for PhD’s are outside of the Academy, thus the real issue is that graduate programs have been accepting far more candidates seeking academic positions than there are jobs for.

    • Jim__L

      Only some types of PhD’s have job opportunities outside the academy, and now that companies have shut down their R&D divisions in favor of academy partnerships, even the technical PhD’s are getting squeezed out of jobs. It’s impossible to justify Humanities research to stockholders; it’s getting tough to justify basics physics research to the same people.

  • Mister_Carson

    I think we’re talking about Humanities degrees, not STEM degrees, which do indeed have opportunities beyond academia. With the humanities, we’ve reached the saturation point, unfortunately. No one gets a Ph.D. in Art History to be COO of a corporation, do they?

  • TommyTwo

    “Another Reason Not to Get a PhD”

    When you introduce yourself as Doctor So-and-so, people start graphically telling you about their ailments.

  • Luke Phillips

    i admire this man but this needed to be done 🙂

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