Student Debt and Continuing Education?

Getting a PhD is a personal goal for me, and I know that I would be able to handle the academic rigor and workload of the program.

However, as I am finishing my masters degree, I find that I am faced with a choice: pay off my student debt or join a PhD program (I realize that the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but I have a little bit over 40K in unsubsidized student debt).

Yes, it is true that I do not have to accrue more debt in a PhD program if I am fully funded by the school. But it is also true (to my knowledge) that my unsubsidized loans will gain interest during the time that I spend in the academic program. On the other hand, if I decide to work full-time in lieu of completing a PhD straight out of grad school, it may be years before I decide to go back to finish my education (if at all).

Seeking insights, opinions, and stories of others’ experiences. Thanks :slight_smile:

What would keep you from tossing a bit of change at that student debt while in your PhD program? Run the numbers. See how difficult for you it would be to keep up with the interest, and if the interest wouldn’t be a problem, see how hard it would be to knock back some of the principal too.

Can you take 2 years between, live with parents and pay most of it off before entering a program? The interest can be very harsh, esp if the program is 4 or 5 years.

Yeah, the middle ground is to pay as much of the interest as you can while you’re in a PhD program. Particularly in the later years of a PhD, you can work part-time to offset some of that cost. As was suggested, you could also take a couple years in between to pay off some of the debt but not all of it.

But here’s the thing on option 2. Let’s say that you did decide to work full time and you decided to take several years before returning for a PhD. So what? That would mean that you’re at least content with what you’re doing at that time and don’t have a burning desire to return for a PhD, which isn’t a bad thing by any means. Taking several years to pursue other interests is something many people do.

And let’s say that you decide not to return at all. So what? Seriously. A PhD is (or should be) a means to an end, a credential for pursuing a certain kind of career that requires it. If your work takes you to a place where you don’t need it…well, you’re saving working incredibly hard for 5-8 years at low pay :slight_smile:

@girl266254 - Welcome to the Forum. I agree with @juillet. You are just finishing a masters degree. Can you tell us why you chose to pursue that instead of a PhD directly? It makes good sense to use the qualifications gained with the Masters to work for a bit and then make the decision on whether to continue on for the PhD. It would help if you could tell us what your degrees are in as that might make a significant difference in whether you can pay down your loans by working for a year or two.

You also need to think of why you want a PhD. If it is just because then perhaps that is not such a great idea. If it is because you love research and want to pursue a career whose doors are opened with a PhD, then it is a different story. having a Masters is already a significant achievement which could easily lead to a rewarding career.

Thank you all for your insights. To speak to some of the questions raised, here is some further information:

Why did I chose to do a masters rather than a direct admit PhD?— Incidentally, I did a dual degree program as an undergrad and decided to get another masters in order to both diversify my academic background and mitigate “educational incest.” Also I didn’t take myself seriously enough to delve into the world of PhDs.

What degrees do I have?— I have a bachelors and masters in political science and am working on my public administration degree.

Career goals/next steps?— I see myself working in international education and cross-cultural communications, either from the policy/public service side or from the academic side. For me, a PhD would permit me an opportunity to do original research on a topic I am passionate about in the short-term and could give me more flexibility in the long term (if I wanted to teach, for instance). I could see myself teaching as equally as I could see myself in administration… Meanwhile, I feel that I lack professional experience as most of my work experience has been either internships or part-time positions at my undergraduate and graduate institutions. From that standpoint, joining the workforce would be a good idea, though pursuing a PhD will also qualify me for jobs I am more interested in.

Also, thinking about the stipend that PhD’s in my field receive–yes, it’s low, but so is the salary that I would receive working in public service.

Why do I want a PhD?— Aside from reasons listed above, I like learning and enjoy writing academic papers. And, if I am going to go deep- the university environment is a familiar and safe place for me as I have little experience beyond it, doing a PhD is a safe move that requires little change and readjustment, also I want jobs that are fulfilling (maybe that’s too much to ask? lol). On the other hand, I desire professional experience and realize how valuable being in the workforce would be to position me for a future career, and there are entry-level jobs political that I want to take simply for the learning experience. But I also realize that putting off a PhD makes it that much harder to complete later on (because of readjustment, complacency, and the application process/reconnecting to professors for letters of recommendation after time outside of university life).

Will you be able to transfer credits so you can complete the PhD in only 2 years?

You sound a lot like a college professor in that last posting :slight_smile: I would say, go for the PhD. There are student loan forgiveness programs you could take full advantage of, if you decide to spend your career in a university. Yes, unsubsidized loans do accrue interest, but your loans could be potentially forgiven after 10 years.

I’m going to be blunt in the interest of being helpful.

This is not really a good reason to do a PhD. Given the time and opportunity cost (and potentially money, even if you are funded), the choice to do a PhD needs to be a carefully considered decision that’s based on your professional career goals. The best way to build comfort in the work world is to get out there and work :wink: You’re going to have to do that eventually, right?

In many (most?) jobs, the work experience you’d get is more valuable to hiring managers than the extra degree. So I’d do quite a bit of poking to ensure that a doctoral degree is really what you want/need to advance your career at this stage. There are certainly jobs and careers in international education that you can do with an MA in political science and an MPA.

Also, it’s true that there are some loan forgiveness programs, but I would not rely on that. First of all, you shouldn’t attend a PhD program that isn’t funded anyway. Secondly, I was talking to a few friends that are eligible for public service loan forgiveness, and they were telling me it’s not a guarantee - it’s a somewhat competitive program and not everyone is accepted for it. Thirdly, if your career interests take you in a different direction - working for an employer that doesn’t qualify - you don’t want to feel trapped or stymied by having taken on big debt. Fourth, you should know that the current administration is trying to eliminate this program.