Student Loans for Graduate Study in Philosophy: a Poll


Don’t get a PhD in philosophy if you have to pay for it.

That is standard advice for those considering doctoral study in philosophy. An inability to obtain a funded position as a PhD student might be evidence (early and incomplete evidence, of course) of one’s later prospects; jobs are hard to come by, and even if you end up employed in a way directly related to your degree—typically as a professor—it is not as if those who teach in the humanities are typically making the big bucks. 

[Chad Person, “Kraken”]

Still, there are those who do pay for it, or who find that the stipends for graduate study insufficient for their needs, and as a result end up taking out student loans.

Some such people may have been banking on the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, a loan forgiveness program for those working for non-profit organizations and governments (including state schools). A philosopher recently wrote to me about how that program, in which over 400,000 people participate, is one that Secretary of Education Betsy de Vos is proposing to eliminate.

It’s not known how many people in academic philosophy in the United States would be affected by the elimination of the program, nor do we know how many people in academic philosophy took out student loans while getting their PhD.

Let’s see if we can get a rough sense of whether the standard advice about paying for a PhD in philosophy is being followed. Such information may serve as a prompt to more serious investigations of the question, or perhaps the creation of professional programs and services. Please take a moment to answer the following one-question, poll, which asks about the amount of student loan debt you acquired, if any, while getting your PhD in philosophy.

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mkazan
mkazan
4 years ago

I did take out loans although fully funded, because I am a single woman with a child. The exorbitant costs of childcare could never be covered by my stipend, and place a hidden burden on academic mothers.

It’s painfully obvious that stipends are set at a level that accounts for the needs of single, childless men, or men who are in more traditional two parent households, so that they have the financial advantage of either high quality childcare from a stay-at-home spouse, or a double income.Report

Lee
Lee
Reply to  mkazan
4 years ago

I absolutely agree that the stipend is not enough to support a child, and that this situation does burden single mothers. However, at the risk of being pedantic, I’d like to suggest that the stipend is not just designed for “men” — it’s designed for people without children or people who have another paycheck from a spouse. Many of these people are not men! I greatly sympathize with your larger point that student parents should be better supported.Report

Maja Sidzinska
Maja Sidzinska
Reply to  Lee
4 years ago

@Lee:

Yes, student parents should be better supported in general. But according to 2009 census data, over 82% of single parents are women. And unless there is a reason to believe that the stats are different for philosophy-grad-student-single parents, mkazan’s claim that stipends account for the needs of single, childless men are rather correct, empirically speaking. In other words, there is a gendered aspect to this issue that shouldn’t be overlooked.Report

SG
SG
Reply to  Maja Sidzinska
4 years ago

How many single woman parents are philosophy grad students or prospective philosophy grad students? That seems to be the important issue. My inclination is to think that not very many are. Indeed, I’m willing to bet that the vast majority of women grad students are not single parents.) (Another is: how come 82% of single parents are women? That seems crazy high. Why aren’t more men? Sincere question that I don’t know the answer to.)Report

Maja Sidzinska
Maja Sidzinska
Reply to  SG
4 years ago

SG–part of the reason that there may not be many single women parents who are grad students or prospective grad students is BECAUSE stipends are, in mkazan’s words, “set at a level that accounts for the needs of single, childless men.” If 82% of single parents are women, then low funding (i.e., the type of funding that WILL NOT cover childcare) will function to disproportionately keep women out of grad study in philosophy.Report

SG
SG
Reply to  Maja Sidzinska
4 years ago

I suppose that’s possible, but I’d like to see some evidence for it – how could we possibly know right now that a large group of single mothers are not going to graduate school *because* of the stipend situation? I’d like to see the statistics of single childless male philosophy grad students vs single childless female philosophy grad students.Report

B
B
Reply to  Maja Sidzinska
4 years ago

“mkazan’s claim that stipends account for the needs of single, childless men are rather correct, empirically speaking.”

I don’t see how this follows or is even suggested by the data you provide. Stipends are designed to support people without children, whether those people are men or women. How would a childless man fair better on a graduate stipend than a childless woman would?Report

Maja Sidzinska
Maja Sidzinska
Reply to  B
4 years ago

If stipends are designed to support single people without children, those people will tend to be men BECAUSE single men are less likely to be caregivers to children than single women. That is all that the data supports.Report

Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
Reply to  mkazan
4 years ago

You talk about stipends being “set at a level” as if the creators of these stipends had plenty of money lying around to throw at grad students. The fact of the matter is that grad student labor is not infinitely valuable to the university, nor is putting out PhD students infinitely valuable. I struggled to support five children on my stipend (with the help of my wife, yes), but I don’t feel that the stipend was set at an unfair level for me. If we increase the amount of the stipend, the university will simply give out fewer PhDs. There is not endless money, especially not in the humanities.Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  Arthur Greeves
4 years ago

” If we increase the amount of the stipend, the university will simply give out fewer PhDs.”

Why do you say this as tough it’s a downside?Report

metamorphic
metamorphic
4 years ago

There might also be a question, do you regret having done so? or, would you do it differently if you could go back? or, do you think it was worth it? Something along those lines.

I took out a what seemed a staggering sum but it was worth every penny and I wish I had taken out more. My current and future self would love to make life a bit less financially stressful for my past self if we could.

Of note, there are lots of socio-economic background issues related to taking out loans for graduate school. Most of the people I know who took/take out loans in order to make it into and through graduate school were 1] from geographic areas where few if any people we knew had every done such a thing, and 2] from families where not only was no financial help forthcoming but there were social pressures against doing any such thing. The loans were a somewhat risky ticket out of a deadend life, but that risky ticket was the only option, vastly better than no ticket at all.Report

A Postdoc
A Postdoc
4 years ago

I took out ~$20k worth of student loans in the second half of my PhD when it became clear that (1) I had a reasonable shot of getting a job in philosophy if things continued on their trajectory, (2) In order to continue on that trajectory I would need to continue to travel for conferences, and (3) Continuing to do so on the ~$20k/year with minimal ($500/year) departmental support was taking a toll on my wellbeing (and, thereby, on the quality of my work). The point of this post is not to bemoan the professional norms that pressure graduate students to attend conferences. Indeed, I find a significant amount of value in attending conferences as they serve (at least for me) to increase the quality and speed of my work by allowing me to enter the broader philosophical community. Rather, I point this out to encourage the profession to respond to this shift in the professional norms by increasing the amount of funding available for sending graduate students to conferences.Report

Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa
4 years ago

Is the question meant to target only those loans that come via programs earmarked for students, or would you include other people who took out loans to incur student expenses, for example via credit card debt, too?Report

Jen
Jen
Reply to  Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa
4 years ago

I took out loans INSTEAD of credit card debt in the hope that loans will be forgiven. If the forgiveness is done away with I am screwed, although I would at least hope there will be a grandfather clause.Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
Reply to  Jen
4 years ago

Why should your loans be forgiven? Are you an elementary or secondary school teacher?Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
Reply to  Professor Plum
4 years ago

Sorry, I see now that even professors teaching at state schools are eligible for this loan forgiveness program.

I must say that I find it pretty difficult to worry about how this program’s elimination will affect philosophy professors. I find it doubtful that any philosophy professors really could have staked their futures on the promise of loan forgiveness in the way that, say, public school teachers or social workers might have. Given the state of the job market in philosophy, it would be pretty insane to finish a PhD and then commit to applying *only* to state schools in the hopes that one’s loans would then be forgiven. Moreover, I do balk at the idea that all professors at all state school are doing “public service” in the first place.Report

N Rebol
N Rebol
Reply to  Professor Plum
4 years ago

FWIW The income-based repayment plan also forgives remaining loan debt after 20-25 years and caps your loan payments at 10,15, or 20% of your discretionary income (based on a variety of factors), so although twice as long it is conceivable that someone might find 10% of their future earnings worth getting a phd.Report

DC
DC
Reply to  Jen
4 years ago

I agree; the “public service” part of PSLF has long been indefensible in a lot of cases.Report

declined
declined
4 years ago

Given inequalities in access to loans, it might be fruitful to make clear whether the poll options are only for those successful in “acquir[ing]” loans and debt in these amounts, or also those who tried but were declined, perhaps adding one further option if the intent was the former. Otherwise, the poll may be at risk of excluding some of those we might most want to hear from on this matter: It isn’t uncommon for those most in need of financial support to also face increased and disproportionate barriers to receiving loans/other financial support, despite best personal efforts, and this seems very relevant to the broader questions being considered here.Report

Jen
Jen
4 years ago

Why do you find it so difficult? If a single-parent was considering taking out loans, and then found out about the loan forgiveness program, why shouldn’t they count on it? And a backup plan to failing to land a TT philosophy is primary school teaching.Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
Reply to  Jen
4 years ago

Well, because no one with a PhD in philosophy (or the humanities more generally) can “plan on” getting a job in their field at all. People with professional degrees will have a much easier time making the case that that they actually relied on this program. Given this and the patently false claim that all university professors are doing public service, I’m surprised this program has lasted as long as it has; surely the significant amount of money this program is costing could be put to far better use.Report

John
John
Reply to  Professor Plum
4 years ago

The federal government loans money to one of its citizens for education (which, let’s not forget, in this case is job training). If that citizen works to educate others for ten years, the citizen need not repay the remaining education expenses, so that the federal government in effect has made a scholarship, retroactively, to an educator. What is the better use to which this money could and plausibly would be put in the present USA? Trump/Ryan & co. aren’t going to allocate it to health care, ethical prison reform, public programs, elder care, poverty reduction, and the like. Would it be better spent on the military budget? The wall?Report

Jen
Jen
4 years ago

And professor plum, it is all professors, not just state schools. Private schools count as well.Report

Mark LeBar
Mark LeBar
4 years ago

Note that there is slippage between the advice you begin with and the question you end with. Lots of us may have taken out loans (for better or worse) and may not regret doing so. But that may be in conjunction with institutional support. The advice not to go if you do not get that support is untouched by those cases.Report

Alan White
Alan White
4 years ago

Although I responded to the question–being an older philosopher who attended grad school back in the later 70s–I suspect the question should have been directed only to grad students in the last 15 years or so. My $7000 in total student debt (undergrad through PhD) probably translates to somewhere around $50000 in current dollars today (I’m just guessing in terms of relative purchasing power), but still is a data point that skews any useful interpretation of responses toward a positive assessment of the economic value of my education given that I have had a career. And given the fact that this poll is posted on a blog that is read only by those already employed in the field (and for many like me for a long time) as well as more recent PhDs seeking employment or recently employed, I worry that the results may not be all that revealing, especially as pertinent to more recent PhDs.Report

Clifford Sosis
4 years ago

Good point, Jonathan. We should also include interest!

Plum, what would you consider public service, exactly? I will be extremely surprised if you can come up with a set of necessary and sufficient conditions that manages to exclude philosophy professors.

When I was an undergrad with enormous debt, I wondered, “why is it O.K. to get a BA in philosophy if you have to pay for it, but not a PhD?” Related note: Why aren’t we including undergraduate debt, exactly? We talk about the utility of philosophy, cower when we have to put our money where our mouth is.

Should be noted that people have made big decisions on the basis of this program. Implemented in 2007, many have planned lives, the lives of families, around it over the past decade.

Want non-wealthy people to get involved in philosophy? Make it possible for them to afford it. For many from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, a stipend, in some cases putting the individual just above the poverty line, isn’t merely supplemental income. As Metaphoric pointed out, if it was merely, 10 to 15 grand for the year, say, and you have a children (as Mkazan, Maja, and Lee point out) or you have an emergency come up–a serious illness, a death in the family–you’re washed out of the discipline (setting aside things y’all take for granted like holiday travel). You need to take out loans every year to make ends meet. Keep in mind the people who aren’t responding to the poll right now (as Alan points out). Philosophy can’t just be for the bourgeois who make it, can it?

I’m interested: why can’t universities can’t afford higher stipends, Arthur?Report

Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
Reply to  Clifford Sosis
4 years ago

Some universities can. But I went to a smaller school, and their TAships fluctuated each year — some years they didn’t offer any, at all. In that sort of environment, the reality is that higher stipends mean fewer PhDs. Sometimes that might be the best choice to make, but I don’t think it’s a no-brainer.Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
Reply to  Clifford Sosis
4 years ago

I don’t have a full account, but it seems like public services are services which should be available to all in order to satisfy residents’ fundamental rights. A philosopher teaching two graduate courses a year at an elite institution may be doing many fine and glorious things, but I don’t think she is providing a public service, so construed.

The point of this loan forgiveness program (if I’ve finally understood it correctly!) is to encourage people to provide these services, especially to those who are vulnerable or in great need. Even if you disagree with me about philosophy professors providing public services, you should agree that we don’t actually need to be encouraging any more people to get a PhD in philosophy. The current glut is what is making life miserable for many graduates.

As far as the economic justice argument goes, I don’t see the relevance to this particular program. If stipends are too low to live on without familial support, that should be addressed at the university or program level. I survived on my stipend with no help from family, but if someone finds they need to take out a loan, they are still free to do so. The question is whether this loan should be forgiven on because they are performing a public service after graduation, and I think the answer to that question is, in the vast majority of cases, “no.”Report

B
B
4 years ago

I know a guy who took out maximum federal loans in grad school and bought Apple stock. That was back in the early 2000’s. So sometimes loans can work out.Report

A Postdoc Abroad
A Postdoc Abroad
4 years ago

I still have >$30,000 in loan debt (including interest), and it’s all from grad school. My university did not offer full stipends to TAs at the time I was there, and I had a partner who had a pre-existing condition and did not qualify for my health care. We had to pay a lot of expenses out of pocket. I also waitressed part-time. As someone who now works outside the US, it is extremely frustrating, not only to have to pay back loans from abroad (since you can only pay federal loans from a US bank account), but also because my “public service” does not qualify for any sort of loan forgiveness.Report

Robert
Robert
Reply to  A Postdoc Abroad
4 years ago

Is the “public service” you mention being done in the US or outside the US? It seems from your comment that it is the latter. If so, I have a hard time understanding why US taxes should used to forgive your loans based on public service that does not benefit US taxpayers….Report

A Former Grad Student
A Former Grad Student
4 years ago

I had to pay approximately $2000 in student fees a year, and my stipend for 10 months was $12,000, or thereabouts. So either for that 10 months I had to find a way to set aside $2000, or use student loans. This is on top of the fact that summer funding was inconsistent, and unreliable, on top of the fact that student loans can help ease the financial burden of poverty-level stipends.

I suspect a large number of people are in this category. The advice “don’t go if you have to pay for it” hilariously does not mean that the pay and stipend you get can actually pay for your school + living expenses. I know several people from wealthier families that never had these issues, and faculty never had any real insight into the financial problems grad students can have–it feels that these voices are overwhelmingly represented in these discussions and the hidden costs of grad school even for funded students are rarely discussed. For example, when I accepted my offer, this was not something I was informed of–and I didn’t become informed of–until after the bill showed up the first time.Report

Sara L. Uckelman
4 years ago

I did not take out loans to pay for my graduate work in a philosophy PhD programme. When my husband and I withdrew from our programme to go to the ILLC in Amsterdam, we couldn’t afford the international move + tuition + no funding without loans. We both took out the maximum amount of interest-free-while-in-school federal loans we could get, for two years. We weighed up the odds of one of us getting a job straight out of PhD that would allow us to pay the loans off quickly, before too much interest kicked in, and decided it as worth it.

And it was: We had all our loans payed off within ~2 years of both of us completing our degrees.Report