No funding? Don’t do it! (on getting a PhD in anthropology)

The following is another installment for the Anthropologies/Savage Minds issue on Student Debt.

Well, it’s that time of year when prospective grad students around the country are anxiously pacing around their mailboxes waiting for responses from all the PhD programs they applied to.  Many are wondering who accepted them, who rejected them, and, of course, if they got funding.  That’s the big question.  Getting a full-funding offer is the highest mark of acceptance and application success.  It’s like getting the golden seal of academic and departmental approval.  It means you’re in.

Getting accepted without a funding offer is a not-so-wonderful middle ground.  Like getting a happy-face sticker that says “Great Job!” when you really needed a paycheck.  It feels sort of like acceptance, but there’s something hollow about it.  A lot of people decide to enter PhD programs without funding, thinking that at least it gets them in the door.  If they happen to have piles of extra money on hand, or family support, or a full-time job, or maybe even a partner who is working, it might be a reasonable choice.  Might being a key word there.  But many people simply don’t have access to those kinds of financial resources.  In these post-economic crash, disintegration-of-the-university-as-we-knew-it times, I think more students need to seriously reconsider entering PhD programs without full funding.  Why?  Because it doesn’t make any sense to go into debt trying to get a PhD in anthropology (let alone plenty of other disciplines).  Sarah Kendzior said it best on twitter not too long ago:

If the funding isn’t there, don’t do it!* Don’t get used.  Look at your options.  If you have been “accepted,” but without funding, think long and hard about the decision.  Pay close attention to the numbers of people in debt, the academic job market (a PhD is geared toward producing academics, after all), and other factors like rent and cost of living.  More importantly, think about how you are going to cover your costs.  If you’re thinking that student loans are a good option, think again.  Take the time to read up about student loans, and why accepting them might be a very, very bad idea.  One glaring issue is a lack of basic consumer protections for borrowers:

Student debt is treated more harshly than any other type of debt in America. Unlike your mortgage, business, credit card or even gambling debts, student loan debt cannot be discharged in bankruptcy and there is no statute of limitations on the collections of student loan debt. As a result, more than 40 Million Americans are buried under approximately $1.2 Trillion worth of student debt and more than 7 Million of those people have defaulted on their student loans, causing major financial hardships from which there is almost no escape.

Here’s what the lack of consumer protections means: You can go out and spend $50,000 on credit cards and file for bankruptcy.  You can run a massive, corrupt corporation like Enron and file for bankruptcy.  You can buy a house that you can’t afford and you still have consumer protections.  You can even gamble away thousands of dollars and still get those protections.  But if you go to school and amass thousands of dollars in debt, no dice.  You are stuck with those loans, thanks in part to the wonderful lobbyists (like folks from Sallie Mae) who worked hard to do away with consumer protections:

Sallie Mae’s lobbying efforts were recently described by The New York Times as “aggressive”i  spending $37,490,000 on lobbying from 1998 to 2012.ii  This year, Sallie Mae has already spent $1,230,000 on federal lobbying, working against several consumer protection bills, including the Private Student Loan Bankruptcy Fairness Act of 2013 and Fairness for Struggling Students Act of 2013.iii  Both pieces of legislation call for increased regulation of private banks with a history of bad lending practices.

Even if you do get a full-funding offer, take a close look at the numbers.  Look at the amount of the stipend, the time expectations coming from the department, and travel expenses related to doing fieldwork (this last one is huge).  As Karen Kelsky pointed out with her PhD debt survey a few months back, full-funding often isn’t enough.  This is definitely the case in anthropology, which, due to fieldwork requirements, certainly isn’t cheap.  One of the issues with fieldwork is that many of your costs back home can’t be covered by fieldwork grants.  And trust me, it’s not easy to keep up with your costs while you’re away doing fieldwork, unless you’re some sort of roaming free-spirit without any possessions, connections, bills, or previous obligations.  Even students with funding often end up taking out student loans to cover those “extra” expenses.  Again, this warrants a deep look into the pluses and minuses of student loans (see above).  These are the kinds of things you don’t hear too much about until you’re well into the thick of grad school.  Better to know sooner rather than later.

At some point we might want to think about how all of this debt is affecting the actual practice and meaning of anthropology.  Think about this: if we’re graduating a flood of students who are deep in debt, what kind of “anthropology” are we really producing in the end, and how does that bode for all of our big talk about “public engagement”?  Especially since the students of anthropology are one of the discipline’s primary public audiences.  Teaching is, after all, on the front lines of what many refer to as “public anthropology”.  It is one way we get the message out into the world.  But what message are we sending?  What does it mean for anthropology when our institutions are burying a huge percentage of our own in debilitating debt, while the rest of us just stand by and watch?

That’s a discussion for another post.  In the meantime, don’t get used.  Avoid debt at all costs.

*Note: Some folks might respond to this by saying something like “But if the only people who get PhD’s are those who have the money or resources, then graduate school is going to become little more than an elitist institution for the rich!” My response: It already is. Encouraging more people to go into debt isn’t going to change that.


Ryan Anderson is a cultural and environmental anthropologist. His current research focuses on coastal conservation, sustainability, and development in the Californias. He also writes about politics, economics, and media. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

19 thoughts on “No funding? Don’t do it! (on getting a PhD in anthropology)

  1. The nasty reality in anthropology is that only the grads from the top 10 universities are the only ones likely to get a job. I am sooo glad I am retired.

  2. Wish I’d taken this advice when I was in school. Instead I took the school at its word that more and would come as I demonstrated my ability. Well, top of my class year in and year out and that magical and never materialized, as I sank deeper and deeper into Sallie Mae bondage. Was it worth it? Pretty much no. And as the article points out, student loan debt is tenacious and missteps virtually non-recoverable – once you screw up, you STAY screwed up.

  3. Jay: that’s a nasty reality alright.

    Dustin: I wish I had known about this about seven years ago. I made the assumption that taking out loans for grad school was a “good investment.” Turns out that’s not really the case. Now one of my goals is to get this information out to others who are thinking about the grad school/PhD programs. It blows my mind that consumer protections have been stripped away from student loans–of all things.

    Thanks for the comments.

  4. There aren’t enough real jobs for anthropologists or other academics any more. The deeper you go into it the more committed you are to it. It’s a very dangerous path. No one thinks the situation is on its way to improving. Once you are done with your Ph.D. and are on the market, all the other Ph.D.s finishing in your year are just the beginning of your competition, since those who finished years before and have more experience are trying to get the same jobs you are. Some of them already have good jobs and are looking for better ones while others are from the ranks of the partially employed and adjunct. Then let’s say you do get that great job. You’ll be teaching students a subject for which there is no work and at least implicitly luring them into the same scam. Is this the future you want for yourself?

  5. Completely agree. I took a bank loan for my master’s (14 percent interest!) and graduated right into the middle of recession. Had to pay off my loan working in a bar. I do want to do a PhD now, but only if i get a fully-funded one, full stop.

  6. This is good advice, which I’ve given to many people over the years. For the record, though, I took out substantial student loans to pay for my undergrad and grad degrees, and then went on to get a job and tenure. Of course, I was hired pre-2008 when times were different. I’m still paying off my loans and will be for… god what, until my kids are ready to take some out for college? But it is worth emphasizing that loans may sometimes and in certain situations be a necessary evil, even if they often appear to just be Pure Concentrated Evil.

  7. Hey Rex. Ya, loans are a reasonable risk if there’s something on the other side to balance the debt. Right now people are racking up massive debt and realizing there’s nowhere to land. Not good. So getting the PhD just isn’t worth all the debt.

    Are loans a necessary evil? Maybe sometimes, as you say. But they look a lot like PCE when they have been completely stripped of all protections. More grads need to know exactly what they’re getting into. The whole deal with credit is that lending is a risk…but when consumer protections are gone, the game is rigged.

  8. I can sympathise very much with this post. In the Netherlands we have something called an ‘external PhD candidate’, which is what I am. Basically it means you don’t have to be part of the faculty, except for the time you have and the contact with your supervisors. In my case I just hand in chapters, they read them and provide comments. The faculty also provides me with access to electronic journals. This is not like they are providing charity to me, as they get $ 125K from the state for my thesis if I finish it (while I get $ 0).

    Couldn’t find anything in the USA resembling this, does it exist?

    It strikes me as highly unfair to have to take on loans to get a PhD, if that money is to pay for some institution. Basically it looks to me like a crude form of feudal surplus extraction (though perhaps without the $ 125K of state money it would be the same here).

    Academia = feudalism for geeks?

  9. I hear the bittterness and disappointment. Having learned to be a knowledge producer may confer benefits in the consultant field outside of academia. Other models to engage with the public and academics like OSEARCH are in their infancy. You need to be more entreprenurial.
    University systems are expanding in Asia and the Middle East.
    Take heart, you may yet thrive.

  10. I have said for years “if you do not have a long term funding offer, do not accept.” Often, that means taking another year to apply to the ‘second choice’ schools, honing your applications, letters, and writing samples, and hoping that you’ll receive a funding offer from one of them. I have watched friends and colleagues rack up debt from $30 000 for those who use loans to supplement crappy stipends to $100 000 for those who have rarely, if ever had semesters of funding.

    As an international student attending programs in the U.S. I did not have the option of loans, I had to demonstrate that I had ____ years of finances already accounted for (in my bank or agreed upon by the school) before my documents would go through. The totals were somewhere in the order of $25 000 – $35 000/year. Demonstrating these numbers, especially when moving on from MA to PhD and renewing my papers (5 yrs to get the PhD according to the Gov’t) takes some creative financing. I always managed to do this through funding, savings, and creativity without taking out loans. Throughout my degrees I have managed a horse farm, trained showhorses and galloped racehorses , taken on consultation contracts doing project and instrument development, data analyses, and project evaluation all while raising my kids and excelling in my graduate work. It has been emotionally and physically exhausting.

    Now, faced with the prospect of two things, I am having to re-evaluate finishing my PhD. With no funding for the final phase of field research and the reality that my PhD is actually placing me out of reach for the applied/policy work that I would like to do, I am having to consider whether finishing the dissertation is really worth it. Luckily, debt in the order of tens of thousands of dollars is not a part of this decision.

    My story and my experiences are in no way unique. There were many semesters that I would have gladly pulled loans to get out from under the yoke of working 19 hour days to make ends meet and fulfill my academic duties. In hindsight, I am glad I didn’t. If you look closely, as I have, there are hundreds of people like me (ABD liminality) and perhaps thousands of the ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’, indebted and still struggling. The entire process needs to be re-evaluated, and prospective students need to be fully informed about the graduate school experience in anthropology. Thanks to sites like this and authors like Ryan, this is finally happening in an open and honest way.

  11. There are some interesting projects developing to deal with the problem of student debt. This one uses a rotating savings and credit association (ROSCA) model in which indebted students contribute and support each other in paying off debts. A compelling idea because it addresses the problem of interest compounding, but I don’t know the details about how they’re going to ensure cooperation.

  12. For anyone who is fresh out of undergrad and has never had a job, this is great advice.

    However, it is not the best advice for anyone who already has a resume or an MA/MS. Before you accept that golden funding, do your homework on what the benefits actually are. In my case, I needed a job that makes only $24/hour at 20 hours a week (without benefits) to make the same amount as my funded colleagues (including stipend, tuition, and health insurance). I luckily found a job that made more than that. So, I didn’t apply for funding.

    There are some serious benefits to not taking funding as well. (1) Your 20 hour work week is usually exactly 20 hours a week. Not around 20 hours a week depending on the class you TA or teach or the whim of the faculty member you work for. (2) When you don’t want to be full-time, because your requirements are done or you want to explore other projects for a semester or you want to focus on non-class requirements, do it. You can’t do that while you are funded. When you are funded, most programs make you stay enrolled full time until you are ABD, which for most people I know meant taking much much longer to get to ABD status. It is much easier to cram all of your requirements up front and then take 1 credit independent studies each semester after to leisurely pass your exams, write your dissertation proposal and apply for grants. (3) Thanks to Obamacare, you can now get affordable health insurance with better benefits (esp. maternity care and coverage for your spouse and dependents). So, even your healthcare is better without funding. (4) When you graduate, you have actual job experience that doesn’t include TAing, which —let’s face it— in today’s job market can get exactly one job: adjuncting (unless you are one of the privileged few who get a tenure track position out of the gates). If you build a skill on the side like web design, graphic design, brand consulting or something related to your interests, you will look better to non-academic employers.

    That said, however, I very much agree with not putting yourself in debt to get your PhD. (Unless you are using it pay in monthly installments as you go like me, paying off each semester by the end of it.).

    Being a fully-funded PhD is nice. But it is not the only option and in many cases is not the best option.

  13. I’m currently waiting to hear on funding so this applies to me. It’s looking like Year 1 will be funded and after that things are looking ambiguous. At the same time, I’m already making under 30K a year with an Anthro BA and my current job is not very fulfilling. From the perspective of a 24 year old, it’s difficult for me to not jump at the opportunity.

  14. @Marcus: I think “feudalism for geeks” might sum it up perfectly…

    @Sheri: Hopefully more and more people will be looking into–and creating–new ways of doing anthropology outside the usual academic model.

    @Alissa: thanks. Your story is one more example that shows the diversity of experiences when it comes to grad school. Part of the problem in my opinion is that the actual process of grad school is sort of a black box before you get in, and once you’re in you have to try to figure out how to pull it off. I agree with you that a lot more open and honest conversation about what’s going on is definitely in order. If anything, I’m hoping that future grad students can start the process a lot more informed than I was. Maybe then things will start changing.

    @Erin thanks for the ROSCA link. Never heard of that. Sounds intriguing. And ya, my first question was how you would get people to join in and stay in.

    @Angela: thanks for the detailed comment. You bring up a lot of very good points. I was hinting at some of that in the second part of my post (when I talked about the amount of stipends, time commitments, etc), but you spelled it out much more clearly. As you point out, funding comes with a lot of strings attached, and if we start taking a close look at all the time and expectation, coupled with not-so-great stipends, in many cases it could be a much better idea to work 20 hours elsewhere, potentially make more money, and not be on the obligation hook. These are exactly the kinds of discussions about grad school I’d like to see more of.

    Arianna: That’s a tough position. Try to get as much information as you can so you can make the best decision possible. One year of funding is going to come and go quickly, and being in limbo after that could get difficult. Sometimes, as Alissa said above, it’s a good idea to wait for another year, put some time into new applications and letters, and aim for funding from some other programs (or perhaps even reapplying to some of the same ones). I was in the same boat as you when I applied to grad school (not great pay, didn’t love my job), but looking back I wish I had been a bit more careful with some of my decisions. Take your time–it’s a big decision and there’s no sense in rushing the grad school thing. Just my 2 cents.

    Thanks for all the great comments everyone. Good stuff.

  15. Good blog and the comments are also quite interesting. I applied to 6 or 7 grad schools and received fellowships or grants to 5, selecting the grad school which offered the best grant, of 3 years. That was Berkeley. Even then, I would not have entered a grad school without some form of support, which was and continues to be an indicator of perceived success. While having done a visiting professorship, I did switch to working in the international development arena and am not at all sorry for that choice.

  16. I’ve been thinking of how to respond to this blog post and some of the comments (not all of which I have read, so I do apologize if what I end up saying is redundant), but I struggle at being an absolutist, so I’ll just be reflexive and honest.

    On one hand, I agree with the message of the post. When I gained the legal capacity to make financial decisions about ten years ago, I made terrible decisions. Now that I’ve grown, learned about personal finance, and how I fit into the larger scheme of things, I can look back and see the destruction that I have wrought. The advice stated above falls in line with “just good decision making” practices. It is fiscally responsible to avoid the pursuit of a PhD until non-borrowed funding can be secured in one way or another. I, myself, have just finished my BA in December, and in the months leading up to New Year’s I applied to eight or nine programs, only one of which was not in a position to provide so-called “guaranteed full-funding.” (It was Berkeley, and I applied for a NSF Graduate Research Fellowship for that reason.) My undergraduate advisors did not frame this issue of “cost” in terms of debt; I was not told not to pursue a PhD without funding, rather I was told that if I worked hard enough, there would be no question that I would receive full-funding.

    This brings me to the “On the other hand.” I have very many friends with a BA in anthropology, many of whom worked very hard until the end to secure that sacred document, most of whom will make excellent anthropologists one day, and only one of whom actually secured full-funding for his PhD. I could never bear to look some of my more talented friends in the eye and tell them, “Maybe you shouldn’t pursue this if you have to rely on loans.” And so, in that respect, I would almost have to advocate for the position I took during my own undergraduate career: “If I’m going to take out nearly $40,000 in loans to get a BA, you better believe that I’m going to make it as worthwhile as possible.”

    Back to the first hand: I made it so worthwhile during undergrad that I was privileged enough to be accepted to a PhD program with “guaranteed full-funding,” so I worry that advocating that same attitude to my friends-without-funding may just be the privilege talking. I think many of us are aware that even the best-of-the-best graduate students are not guaranteed the jobs they want post-PhD, Sarah Kendzior (mentioned in the post) among them. The system is definitely broken and the bubble is definitely going to pop, but I don’t know how advising the PhD-minded to avoid soul-crushing debt will or will not affect the timing, duration, or aftermath of that pop. As far as I can tell, this is more of a personal decision (Am I willing to be a “company man” at best, or a slave at worst to get what I want? Do I want to play “the game?”). Or is that my privilege, too?

    tl;dr: I am embarrassed that I start this response claiming to understand “fiscal responsibility” and ending it with, “Just do it anyway.” As I said: I’m conflicted.

  17. The emphasis on the “leveraging” of the cost is understandable, from both the student’s perspective and the professor’s; however, if I were to add an observation, it would be from the perspective of someone who went into interviews with professors sincerely interested in their research and publications, and who was met with astonishment in reply, because this was completely unexpected, in a context so dominated by these financial considerations.

    I spoke to professors who were shocked (shocked!) that I had read their published work before I spoke to them; one responded with disbelief when I commented that he hadn’t published anything on an area (and a language) that he claimed expertise in and when, in reply, he claimed he had an unpublished thesis on it, I asked (very earnestly) how I would be able to get a copy.

    The idea that students read and evaluate the work of the professors, and are interested in their professors’ competence (e.g., their language-ability, something verifiable) before making this type of (financially-binding) decision is, perhaps, the most unsettling aspect of all, for the people who are in the professors’ chairs. The economic uncertainty is “normal”, and precludes the possibility of other kinds of questions being asked.

    The competence of both persons and institutions is often falsely advertised to students; I know of one graduate student who was forced (simply) to learn Vietnamese rather than Cambodian, although competence had been claimed (and courses promised) in the latter. So, this is the even more shadowy side of the value-for-money equation, from my perspective as a perpetual outsider.

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