Student Debt Diary: Wait, What was the ROI on my Education?

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Let’s get one thing straight: I don’t have a problem with my Ph.D. I have a problem with how I paid for it.

I wasn’t the brightest light in a constellation of doctoral candidates that pursued a “life of the mind.” In other words, I didn’t get the full-ride scholarship. And, life is a lot more expensive when you don’t get the scholarship.

Confronted with the cost of graduate school, I signed promissory notes for Stafford subsidized and unsubsidized Loans until my pen ran out of ink. “This life of the mind requires my full attention,” I told myself. “Let me throw off the shackles of responsibility! Let me be free now and borrow my way through tuition and living expenses!”

I wasn’t alone, either. There were quite a few fresh-faced graduate students in my class with zero assets and a lot of ambition. It seemed to me, anyway, that even if I didn’t understand compound interest, a student loan was a good and noble financial tool.

But, was it a noble financial decision?


In The Marketplace of Ideas (W.W. Norton, 2010), Louis Menand argues that over the last 40 years, the demand for Ph.D.s has been eclipsed by the supply of Ph.D.s. Still more, he says, the persistent dearth of teaching jobs, for which Ph.D.s are narrowly and expensively trained, casts a piercing light on the intrinsic value of a doctorate. Central to his argument is the sheer insanity that an English (or any humanities-based) Ph.D. takes, on average, longer to complete than a medical degree (and residency) or a law degree.

My own time in graduate school as an out-of-state student at a top public research university clocked in short of the nine year average. For me, it was three for required coursework and four years of research and writing.