If you or a loved one will be headed to graduate school this fall, chances are you are worried about more than dorm survival. Instead, you may be wondering how to avoid six-digit student loan debt. It's a valid fear — no one wants to end up where I started.
Fortunately, there are ways to earn a graduate degree while avoiding financial catastrophe. Using myself as an object lesson, here are some strategies I would recommend:
Reverse-engineer the problem
Consider the degree you are interested in and ask yourself some tough questions: How easy will it be to find a job with that degree? Will you have to make other types of sacrifices to get a job in that field, like having no control over where in the country you will live? Are you willing to make those sacrifices?
Don't forget to ask yourself what the average starting salary is for entry-level positions in your proposed profession. From there you can work backwards to figure out what your net (take-home) pay will be.
Then assume basic living expenses, catch-up contributions to your retirement account, and some fun money. Once those are accounted for, how big of a student loan payment will you be able to comfortably afford? Don't forget repayments on any loans from your undergrad days!
Explore different options
If you don't like the numbers you are crunching, you have some options:
Choose a different career path that requires less education or that has a better return on investment (ROI). The GRS interactive career tool can help!
Find a way to get the same education for less money.
Find a way to earn more money while pursuing your education.
Let's focus on the latter two.
Typical ways to get the same education for less money
In this category, you will find a variety of fairly traditional frugal hacks, such as:
Living with parents
Living with roommates
Finding a full-time job that offers tuition benefits
Choosing a public university that will meet your needs, preferably where you are eligible for in-state/resident tuition
Learning how to cook and save on groceries
Insider tip — how to get the same education for less money
Most of the items on the list above are fairly self-explanatory. However, there are ways to save money on graduate school that are more creative and seldom discussed. These insider tips are where bigger savings lurk, but bigger sacrifices may be required to get those payoffs. (I know. How typical.)
Graduate on time
Resolve to graduate on time. This is easier said than done. On paper, most PhD programs take five years to complete. However, according to statistics from the Survey of Earned Doctorates, a federal agency survey that gathers information from research doctorate graduates, in 2013 the average time to degree (TTD) for graduates in the physical sciences was about six and a half years. In life sciences, the average TTD was closer to seven years compared to almost eight years in the social sciences and over nine years in the humanities.
What does this mean for you? Manage your time wisely. Say “no” to opportunities that sound intrinsically rewarding but won't advance your studies. Don't change your research focus halfway through the program or refuse to defend a dissertation that isn't perfect. (Pro tip: Your dissertation will never be perfect.)
Be willing to reconsider your direction
If you find that you are really unhappy in your program and/or realize that you are not cut out for graduate school, leave. ASAP. I mentioned this in a previous article on #StudentLoanDebt, but it bears repeating:
According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, Ph.D. programs have approximately a 50 percent attrition rate.
Only half of Ph.D. attrition in humanities programs takes place by the third year. The other half leave after Year 3 but before Year 10!
There is no shame in acknowledging that your talents lie outside academia. Don't fall victim to the sunk-cost fallacy. Get out of grad school and find an arena in which your skills shine!
Find a way to earn more money while pursuing your education
Again, there is the typical advice for how to earn more money:
Being a TA or RA (usually this comes with a tuition waiver, stipend, and student health insurance)
Getting a second job/summer job
Starting a side gig
Selling items you no longer want or need
However, most of these tips have been covered before, here or elsewhere. Additionally, in the graduate school setting, some of them may actually be counterproductive. Let's say that you can earn an extra $3,000 a year at a second job but that job takes up so much time it takes you an extra year to finish and doesn't make you more competitive for postgraduate positions. That is not a good use of your time! Yet in the moment, it might be difficult to see or acknowledge this.
Insider tip — how to earn more money while pursuing your education
Less often emphasized are money-making opportunities that are unique to graduate school and/or academia. One example is applying for departmental, university, or professional organization travel grants to attend conferences. That way you can take advantage of networking opportunities on someone else's dime. Similarly, small seed grants for pilot research can help keep your TTD in check and make you more competitive for large, prestigious grants in your field later on in your program.
Not only do these types of activities offset the cost of graduate school while you are there, they help you finish faster and may increase the odds that you will get a job once you're done. Not only that, but the beefier your CV is, the more bargaining power you will have when you negotiate your salary and the other terms of a job offer. Now that's a win-win-win!
And while student loans can be a postgraduate burden and certainly can't be considered “income,” that doesn't mean you should take them off the table completely. If used strategically, the ROI for student loans can be real. Let's say that taking a $10,000 student loan during Year 5 will allow you to not only defend your dissertation on time, but also revise two chapters into articles for publication, which helps you land a tenure-track job. On the other hand, not taking the loan and continuing to TA may add two years to your TTD, during which time you publish nothing. What do you think the odds of landing a tenure-track job are in that circumstance?
What strategies do you think are helpful for those hoping to minimize grad school debt? Share your advice in the comments below!