Read This Before You Apply to Grad School

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes on economics, business and public policy. She is the author of "The Up Side of Down."
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If you're thinking about going to graduate school, read this before you apply. It's an open spreadsheet where graduates have posted about their debt levels, why they acquired so much debt, and how they're planning to pay it off.

Note that a lot of these people had funding. Before they go to grad school, people are warned that you shouldn't go unless you're fully funded (tuition paid, some sort of research or teaching stipend). And that's absolutely correct. If a Ph.D. program admits you without funding, it's telling you that it doesn't care whether you come; the program is willing to take your money, but not willing to invest in you. That means you won't have access to the opportunities and support required to have a viable career in academia.

But what the spreadsheet shows is that in many cases, that's not nearly enough. Some of the people with six-figure debt clearly shouldn't have been in academia -- one person writes that she took on debt because her stipend wasn't enough to support two children, which is undoubtedly true, and a good reason that someone with two kids and no second income should probably look elsewhere for a career. But others got married and had kids while they were finishing, which is probably going to happen if it takes 10 years to get a degree.

Others simply got caught in a common bind: the money didn't last as long as required to actually complete and defend their dissertation. Or they had to pay for extensive travel (a particular problem among archaeologists, apparently). Their undergraduate loans piled up interest while in deferral. Or their school was in an expensive city, with a stipend that didn't match the local cost of living.

Obviously, this isn't a representative sample; people who put their entries in the spreadsheet may be (probably are) more likely to be folks who are having debt problems. But they still offer a valuable caution to people who are applying to graduate school: it's not enough to have funding. You also need to have a time frame, and a budget, that fits the funding on offer.

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