Anthropologies/Savage Minds student debt survey: THE DEBTORS

Earlier this year I posted two informal student debt surveys here on Savage Minds as part of the Anthropologies issue on Student Debt. Both of these surveys focused on student debt in anthropology. Here at long last are some of the results. (Sorry for taking so long  to get to this…I was writing a dissertation over the last nine or so months.)*

There was a lot of data to sift through. In this post I’ll discuss the first survey, which had 285 total responses. We’ll start with the highest level of education attained. Thirty-four percent have completed their MA. Thirty-three have completed their PhD, fourteen percent have completed an undergraduate degree, nine percent have completed “some grad school,” six percent have completed between one and three years of college, and another six percent chose “other.”

Fifty-six percent of respondents said they are not currently enrolled in college or grad school. Forty-six percent are enrolled. Two percent chose “other” when asked if they are currently enrolled.

In terms of current employment status, forty-five percent have a full-time job, twenty-two percent have a part-time job, nineteen percent are unemployed, and fourteen percent chose “other.”

The majority of responses came from socio-cultural anthropologists (59%), followed by archaeologists (18%), biological anthropologists (13%), and linguistic anthropologists (3%). Eight percent chose “other” when asked about their disciplinary niche within anthropology.

Now we get to the subject of debt. When asked about current student loan debt, thirty-three percent of people said they have ZERO DEBT. Nineteen percent reported debt between $11,000 and $30,000, fourteen percent reported debt between $31,000 and $50,000, twelve percent have debt between $51,000 and $70,000, nine percent have debt between $1 and $10,000, five percent have between $91,000 and $120,000, another five percent have more than $120,000 in debt. A final three percent of people have student loan debt between $71,000 and $90,000. One issue with these numbers is that I asked about current student loan debt—the problem here is that some people who may have had debt in the past could have paid it down (in full or in part). A few respondents did note this issue in some of their comments.

When asked about the types of loans they have, the overwhelming majority reported taking out government loans (180 people or 58% percent). Another sixteen percent took out private loans, five percent took out personal loans, and a final one percent chose “other.” Twenty-one percent of people chose “not applicable” for this question.

Next I asked about credit card debt: “How much credit card debt did you accrue while pursuing your education?” More than half ( 55%) said they did not accrue any credit card debt at all. Sixteen percent reported credit card debt between $1,100 and $5,000, twelve percent were between $5,100 and $10,000, nine percent were under $1,000, and five percent are between $11,000 and $20,000. A total of three percent reported credit card debt of $21,000 and up.

This brings us to the more qualitative responses. Next we’ll look at 15 sample responses of people with student loan debt (approximately a 5% sample). I used a random number generator to choose representatives from the pool of 285 responses. I only included answers from people who submitted responses to every question. For each of these examples we’ll look at 1) education; 2) whether or not they are currently enrolled; 3) reasons why they went into anthropology; 4) student loan debt; 5) credit card debt; 6) thoughts about future career in anthropology; and, lastly 7) Any final thoughts or concerns. Here we go.

Response #216

Has completed PhD. Not currently in college/grad school. Unemployed. Last attended school 2007-2013. Focus: archaeology. Went into anthropology because they had a “passion for the field.” Their student loan debt is between 31 to 50k. No credit card debt.

Feelings about future career in anthropology: “Uncertain but still hopeful.”

Final thoughts: “I probably could have done without so many loans, but it certainly made things easier and sped-up completing the degree within the allotted (funded) time provided by the university.”


Completed MA. Not enrolled. Full-time job. Last attended 2005. Socio-cultural anthro. Why anthropology: “loved anthro.” Has between 51 to 70k in student loans. No credit card debt.

Thoughts about future career: “While the experience I gained in grad school was critical to getting my full time job in so many direct & indirect ways, that job is unrelated to anthro. I do teach anthro courses at a community college.”

Final thoughts: “Anthro as a degree choice, much less a career, is a tough sell post-recession. The field needs to work much harder to sell its practical benefits, which are many.”


Completed undergrad degree. Not enrolled. Unemployed. Last attended university from 2010-2013. Focused in biological anthropology, socio-cultural, and medical. Why anthropology: “I started out want[ing] to study archaeology, go to law school, and work for UNESCO. A biological anthropology class changed everything, I wound up falling in love with genetics, falling out of love with genetics, and falling into medical anthropology. Now I’m awaiting admissions decisions from 8 PhD programs in sociocultural/medical anthropology.” Has between 31 to 50k in student loans. No credit card debt.

Future career: “Slightly optimistic. I’m young, I’m told that I was pretty successful for an undergraduate, I’ve been scouted by top notch anthropology graduate programs, I have a lot of options and a lot of open doors. In the end though, I don’t know. My career in anthropology can be what I want it to be, I’ve learned. It’s my future career in academia that I’m worried about.”

Final thoughts: “Before I went to school, I was an executive chef, and well on my way to making a name for myself. (I quit because I never wanted to cook, I had always wanted to be an anthropologist, and that time came when I qualified for the loans.) As an executive chef, I made about $40,000 a year. I’m concerned that once I get to where I want to be (while I will have a job that I love infinitely more than cooking), I may not make much more money than when I left cooking. I don’t know if that’s as much an issue with anthropology, as it is with academia though.”


Completed PhD. Not enrolled. Full-time job. Last attended 2009. Focus in Socio-cultural anthropology. Why anthropology: “Continue research, teach anthropology.” 31 to 50k in student loan debt. Between 5100 and 10k in credit card debt.

Future career: “In TT job, fearing tenure review, but otherwise stable.”

Final thoughts: “Took out a state government-sponsored loan (non-federal) to pay for four years of undergrad tuition. Loans were deferred over grad school, but they would not change term/duration of loan payback period, squeezing 15 year loan payback period into 5 years: now paying $1,500/month for past 3.5 years, for federal/state loans combined. Went from close to 100k to 40k. More than a third of my monthly salary goes to loan agencies. Pros: Will be done payments in 3 years; Cons: Still living like grad student. I don’t regret my undergrad school choice, but didn’t anticipate going straight into grad school, and having to pay so much over such a short period once finished. Very dodgy loan. High interest rates. Family and I did not know any better… Little college savings. Wish I had that too.”


Completed PhD. Not enrolled. Full time job. Last attended 1988-92. Socio-cultural anthro. Reason: “I loved the field of anthropology, and could not imagine doing anything else. I had the goal of getting a PHD from high school.” 11 to 30k in loans. Under 1000 in credit card debt.

Future career: “Now that i have a full-time (non-TT) job, I feel quite good about it. But immediately after I completed my PHD I had no idea if I would actually ever get a full-time job, and the fact is that part of why I have the job is because I followed my spouse to his TT job, and was then in the right place at the right time when this job came up at our university. I filed my dissertation in 1992, and was not in a full time job doing anthropology until 2009.”

Final thoughts: “It seems to be a problem that is of a piece with student debt generally, not specific to anthropology.”


Completed MA. Currently enrolled. Socio-cultural anthropology. Reason for going into anthropology: “To become an academic.” Between 31 to 50k in student loan debt. No credit card debt.

Thoughts about future career in anthropology: “Pretty good, but only because I can market myself to both STS and environmental studies jobs, which seem to be doing better than anthro.”

Final thoughts: “It is terrifying, and a disaster. None of my advisors have a clue how much debt I have.”


Completed PhD. Not enrolled. Full time job. Last attended college between 2004-2014. Focus in socio-cultural anthro. Why anthropology: “I was interested in learning anthropological concepts and methods to do practical applied work. While I have ended up working in academia so far I thought my degree would help me have better and more expanded career prospects.” Has between 31 to 50k in student loan debt. Has between 5100 to 10k in credit card debt.

Thoughts about future career: “I feel a great deal of trepidation. I never set out to have an academic career but lost sight of that during my training. Now I am trying to find a way of the academic world but feel there are few guidelines or bridges to do so.”

Final thoughts: “I am the first person in my family to graduate from college as well as acquire higher education. As such everything I have learned about the system I have had to learn on my own. I am appalled at the very little guidance available on issues of financial management and debt. I feel that my debt mostly was accrued as a result of how long my degree took me. A shorter time-to-degree and making the process faster, more structured and stream-lined with warnings about hidden costs of graduate school would be tremendously useful.”


Completed undergrad. Not enrolled. Unemployed. Last in school December 2013. Focus in socio-cultural anthropology. Why anthropology: “My last class for a 2 year degree was Anthropology, and I felt I’d found a career that was just being me. I went to university 6 years after that class for the sole purpose of being an applied anthropologist.” Has between 11 to 30k in student loan debt. No credit card debt.

Thoughts about future career in anthropology: “I am very excited to see how the field opens up and moves away from academia. I look forward to being a part of the movement and putting my debt to good work. The hope is that at least somebody will benefit… ‘cause I know I won’t be making my money back anytime soon.”

Final thoughts: “I am devastated that I feel I am being forced into greater debt in the form of a Master’s degree. I think that the field of anthropology should be more accepting of people with work experience or self-education who want to be identified as anthropologists. Thinking like an anthropologist is not just about the training one gets in school, and we all know that sometimes people get advanced degrees in the field who can’t seem to think like an anthropologist anyway.”


Completed MPH. Not enrolled. Last attended college from 2005 to 2012. Focus: Biological anthropology. Reason for going into anthropology: “I was at the end of my freshman year deciding classes for fall and I found an anthropology course I thought would be fun. Half way through the semester I switched majors from psychology to anthropology. I graduated with a BA in anthropology. Then I studied public health focusing on community health education. I plan to go back after my AmeriCorps term is complete to work towards a PhD in applied medical anthropology. I already applied and am waiting. Hopefully, I will attend this fall.” Debt: 51,000 to 70k in student loans. Between 1100 to 5000 in credit card debt.

Thoughts about future career: “With a BA in anthropology, I feel I have little options. Not many people know what an anthropologist is and the few who know, ask me about Bones and Indiana Jones. With a PhD I will be able to conduct research and work for a government agency or teach at university level. a PhD combined with my MPH will open more doors for me.”

Final thoughts: “I am worried the years it takes to complete PhD will push my debt well into the six digits. It’s scary to think I can buy a decent house for the cost of my education. The interest rates are also scary. The lingering thought of employment prospects and a low salary is also concerning. Obviously I am not doing this for the money.”


Completed PhD. Not enrolled. Has a full-time job. Last attended college from 2004–2013. Focus in socio-cultural anthropology. Reason for anthro: “I had spent several years in a well-paying but soul-sucking private industry job. I had done a BA in archaeology and decided I wanted to learn more about culture and representation, so I went back and did a second BA in cultural anthropology. After traveling in the Middle East and Asia, I started a terminal MA program in visual anthropology and went on to complete a PhD in cultural anthropology with a focus on the Middle East and economic development.” Has between 91 to 120k in student loan debt. Between 5100 to 10k in credit card debt.

Future career: “I am lucky because I was able to secure a VAP position while finishing my dissertation and then a TT position immediately after finishing. I am at a small state (teaching) school in an ideal location (in the south, minutes from the beach) and the cost of living is not too high. But the pay is not great ($50,000….I feel terrible complaining about this, though!). But childcare, credit cards repayment, and student loan take a big chunk out of that and my husband is still making very little. I have taken a second job (part time program creation that I can primarily do from home) which helps quite a bit. On paper, it looks like we are doing well but it is still very tight and I am putting in about 60 hrs a week and my husband works about 50–60 hrs/wk. This leaves very little time for writing/publishing and continuing my research can only be done during the summer. It leaves very little time to actually spend with my child or husband. OK, now I sound super whiny! I know I am a lucky one.”

Final thoughts: “There needs to be more of a focus on practical applications in graduate school. For example, in a methods class there should be time spent on M&E. This might increase chances of being able to secure contract work as a way to bolster one’s income. Departments also need to keep an eye on the increasing tuition costs and ensure funding covers this. It would also help to have committee chairs doing everything they can to get their students done and out of the program as early as possible.”


Completed MA. Currently enrolled in PhD program. Full-time job. Socio-cultural anthropology. No reason for going into anthro. Has between 11 to 30k in student loan debt. Between 5100 and 10k in credit card debt.

Future career: “I actively pursued a non-academic career as soon as it became clear just how dire the job market is. Thankfully I’m well-positioned to pursue a career in applied research and should be able to pay off my debt relatively quickly. Currently, my salary exceeds that which is offered to just about any assistant professor.”

Final thoughts: “I hate to waste energy writing about it. We all know what the problems are. The onus is on faculty to reduce the number of admitted PhD students and to get off their asses and learn how to advise students how to pursue non-academic careers. We are also all well aware of the structural problems that will keep them from doing these things.”


Completed MA. Currently enrolled. Unemployed. Socio-cultural anthropology. Why anthropology: “Entirely by accident, if I’m being truly honest. I started my MA in architectural theory (my former profession), and as part of that course read Hugh-Jones and Carsten’s ‘About the house’ which led to wider reading in anthropological theory. This was enough to make me transfer the following year.” Student loan debt: between 11 to 30k. No credit card debt.

Future career: “I feel it is unlikely that my PhD will lead to a career, in the sense of a post-doc/lectureship. It seems unlikely in the context of my home country (UK), and perhaps even more so in the US or Europe.”

Final thoughts: “As with all social sciences/humanities, it seems silly, on a practical level, to pursue even undergrad study without funding these days. It’s a shame that education is now subject to the logic of the market, especially with the social sciences as they’re the few subjects able to seriously challenge the notion of education having more than instrumental value.”


Sixth year PhD. Currently enrolled. Part-time job. Focus in socio-cultural anthropology. Why anthropology: “passion for anthropology and for teaching undergrads.” Has between 91 to 120k in student loan debt. Between 11–20k in credit card debt.

Future career: “hopeful to stay in academia, hopeful that I will be able to finish my PhD.”

Final thoughts: “anthropology as a discipline needs to carve out its significance rather than remain an ‘outsider’ to more prestigious disciplines, this way, more government funds can be made available for anthropology grads. Also, more funds should be made available for anthropologists who study in North America.”


Completed MA. In grad school. Unemployed. Focus in archaeology. Why anthropology: “Tried corporate stuff, hated it.” Has between 71 to 90k in student loan debt. Between 5100–10k credit card debt.

Future career: “I am optimistic, and have a few opportunities developing. I am confident that I will pay off my debt before I die.”

Final thoughts: “I don’t regret taking out the loans or entering this field. I absolutely love what I do, love teaching anthropology, and I have been able to travel and do research all over the world.”


Completed PhD. Not enrolled. Full-time two year position. Last attended college in 2011. Focus in archaeology. Why anthropology: “I loved anthropology and couldn’t see myself doing anything else.” Has between 31 to 50 k in student loan debt. Between 5100 and 10k in credit card debt.

Future career: “Not particularly optimistic. I was always at the top of my field with full funding but my options are limited because we can’t afford to keep moving around while we wait for a tt position to come through. Taking my current position has seriously crippled us financially. Dual career couple makes it worse. Even if the best case scenario happens and both my husband and I get tt jobs, I don’t know that we’ll ever be ok. We’ll have to pay about $2000 a month for paying back debt alone.”

Final thoughts: “Academia is extremely elitist and anti-family. All of the people I know who made it either were either single or had financial support from families or spouses who could support them. Paying for childcare is impossible. As a consequence, I could not be as productive as my childless colleagues. These 1 year positions are ridiculously exploitative—they get cheap labor and put us further into debt just to be jobless again in a year or two. Create tt positions or hire someone locally, the current system is a joke.”

*Compare this post with some of the responses from those who were debt free, here.


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.