U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Are We Different? Graduate Student Funding and Debt in USIH

student-debtYesterday at Slate, Rebecca Schuman reported on a project, begun by Karen Kelsky, to bring graduate student debt out of the shadows. What I like about this story and the project is it also is attempting to track debt by those who were funded.

Here are some intriguing excerpts from Schuman’s piece (bolds mine):

This is a refrain repeated throughout academia: If you must get a PhD, which you shouldn’t, make sure it’s fully funded. But, Kelsky says, even students with “full” funding packages still end up with “significant five- or six-figure debt by the end of a Ph.D. program.” She knows this, she says, “because so many of my clients have this level of debt.”

[Kelsky] created a simple, public Google document, and yesterday, she asked her readers to share their experiences. In the first day alone, the document has sprung to life with over 700 takers—and while there are a healthy number of “$0” entries, most are far from that enviable figure. The user-generated formatting inconsistencies make it difficult to search the spreadsheet for averages, but in the first 250 entries, the most common answers looked to be in the $20,000 to $40,000 range.

A shocking number of users also report $100,000 and up; some $200,000 and over, even with a funding package. “My graduate stipend did not cover my living expenses, books, money I needed for research,” explains one user. “TA salary and fee remission not enough to support my two children,” says another. Graduate students do not usually receive funding in the summer—but are often expected to complete intensive research or exam prep—so many users also cited summer living expenses.

The point of this project …is…to prove that—as usual—proponents of the current academic status quo are full of it. Kelsky’s goals for the project are somewhat nobler: She wants would-be Ph.D.s to know that “full funding” is “only in select cases sufficient to cover real-life living expenses.” She also wants “faculty and administrators to be forced to confront the true financial costs” of even a funded doctorate, “and to recognize their role in a profoundly exploitative and unethical system.”

mortar-board-debtHere’s the spreadsheet mentioned above. I don’t know if this link will work, but there are 86 entries for history. Here are ten randomly selected comments from the “Why did you take the money out?” column:

1. “MA and PhD was “fully funded” but the cost of living in California exceeded stipend.”
2. “First gen college grad from working class family at a private UG, R1 insitution.”
3. “11 years of graduate school, with only five years of funding, & that was in $10-12K/year range when funded. Single; parents unable help to due to low income & long-term medical crisis. ”
4. “I was determined to be a full-time student and quit my ft job. I did adjunct my way through, which barely made a dent. Fellowship money was nowhere near adequate to living in NY. Then it took longer to get through the PhD than I hoped.”
5. “High cost of living city and low graduate stipend; fellowships for research not adequate in the cities where research was conducted. No conference funding available. Stipend didn’t cover emergency expenses (family funerals, car troubles, need for new computer, etc). No consistent summer funding available.”
6. “Returned to undergrad as adult & wanted to get through quickly. Grad school debt was for living expenses, stipend was never enough to pay fees & cost of living. had a child in grad school because I was in mid-30s and afraid to try to do it on tenure track.”
7. “As a single mother living in Southern California, my grad stipend only covered my fees and food. Rent, childcare, medical expenses, etc.”
8. “I put myself through both my ungraduate and graduate education without assistance from my family. Although I worked part-time during both my master’s and undergraduate education, I needed the financial assistance in order to pay for books and living expenses. I have not taken loans during my PhD program except to cover a summer language program that I was not able to secure funding for from my university.”
9. “For private undergrad, family made just enough money not to receive much aid, and work-study only paid so much. For grad school, I took out loans to cover cost of living in expensive city, health insurance, conference travel, research year abroad, and wanted a bit of money to just live on and do at least a few fun things. I am single so I paid all bills myself. First year, 9-month TA contract only paid 11k. Final year was 20k. Any additional aid–including money for required/necessary conference and research travel–dried up within two years thanks to economic downtown and state-school budget crises while tuition and fees kept increasing.”
10. “I had no other way to pay for undergrad. In grad school, I lived in a very expensive city and despite the stipend I received, it was not enough to cover food, housing, bills, etc. I also traveled for my research which required money. I also had to relocate while finishing my degree and though I receieved some small fellowships to cover the cost of tuition, I had no extra money for living expenses.”

Among all of these, I think #5 speaks to a number of elements in “the story”: urban col issues, underfunded stipend/TAships, conference funding, travel for research, emergency (i.e. life) issues, normal life changes (marriage/kids), etc. But then, more importantly, gender specific issues (e.g. #7) can really blow up the traditional funding model.

So, in relation to the S-USIH and larger USIH and IH crowds, how do these comments and the overall feel from the Schuman article relate to us? Are there special problems in relation to intellectual history that don’t fit the general model of graduate studies in history?

Mortar-board-protestMy preliminary thought is that intellectual history might be wash in terms of research costs, but that we might require longer periods in grad programs to ruminate and mature. Why? Because the issues we study are complex, our work requires extra reading in philosophy and theory, plus a greater intellectual maturity to grasp, or see, the deeper issues. I’m guessing that we are on the high end for average time from matriculation to graduation. If I’m right here, it makes our student population more susceptible to expenses occurred in the emergency and ‘natural life changes’ category. A lot of our programs are also in expensive areas of the country (DC, NYC, LA, Chicago, etc.). Intellectual history is sustained by larger departments which necessarily are at universities in more populated areas or cities with higher standards of living (e.g. Madison, WI).

Your thoughts? Again, how is our subfield either the same or different from the profession generally? – TL

10 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Tim, maybe the AHA has data on TTD broken down by subfield. Absent that data, though, I think it’s really unlikely — and not a little unseemly — to suggest that USIH folks would probably take longer because our work is more complex or requires “more intellectual maturity.” That just doesn’t look right, and I don’t think it is right — that is, I’m guessing it’s not correct, and I think it’s certainly not fair to our colleagues in other subfields.

    • ‘Maturity’ is perhaps not the best word. What I was trying to capture there is the wherewithal needed to think through the complexity of melding complex philosophical systems with history theory, historiography, and writing a story that connects to the present. The equation for success in USIH has that extra variable of figuring out, communicating, and distilling complex philosophical systems. That said, not all intellectual history work involves dealing with a philosopher’s complex system.

      But I’m not going to back down from the assertion that some historical work is more difficult than others, and that USIH projects are consistently on the more difficult end of the spectrum (either they do take longer or have the potential to take longer, depending on your starting point, advising, etc.). That said, the inherent difficulties in the our endeavors is *not* something that should foster elitism or excessive pride. It’s just part of what we do—the cost of doing business in the subfield. – TL

    • Also, read in context, my comment about maturity was relative to one’s starting point. I talk about how we might need greater time in programs to ruminate and mature in relation to our subject matter.

  2. Well, Tim, like I said on FB, I’m not looking to pick a fight. I figured a few others might weigh in here and suggest some other ways to view the possibly longer time to degree for intellectual historians. I think there are other ways to think about that phenomenon — if it is, in fact, a phenomenon — than asserting that our work is so much harder than that of other historians, or that we’re so much deeper thinkers, or that we have to handle so much more when constructing our narratives than other historians do.

    Maybe people are just busy right now, or maybe they don’t want to get into it because they don’t see that much good can come out of the discussion. Or maybe the general silence is an indicator of general assent with your basic argument. I hope not, because I think framing intellectual history in this way puts up unnecessary barriers for people who are already committed to graduate work in history and who might be willing to consider the field.

    • It’s one thing to “put up an unnecessary barrier” (which I didn’t), and another to acknowledge, realistically, potential barriers and differences that already exist (which I did, or at least tried to do). All subfields are different—each with their own special hurdles and characteristics.

      And, on the last sentence of your first paragraph, you’re not acknowledging my point above (12:42 comment) about it being relative to *yourself*—your starting point—as much as relative to others. The “greater intellectual maturity” I mentioned above was relative to us as beginner graduate students. You’re objecting to a potential comparison with other subfields I did not explicitly make. – TL

  3. Yes, you are different . . . just like everyone else. Like everyone else who has decided to take the plunge into academia, you fail to look and comment on the eight hundred pound gorilla in the room. Statistically three out of every four graduate students who successfully navigate the trials and tribulations of graduate education and earn the Ph.D. will become gainfully employed as an adjunct. Yet another generation of promising young minds will be pushed into a life of underemployment, misery and hardship, barely scraping by, and attempting to live the “life of the mind” while under the weight of debt. Many would be better off taking a loan of $50,000 and going to a casino and placing a bet on the roulette wheel. At least that debt can be discharged through bankruptcy proceedings.

    The study of history is suffering because of structural economic impediments inherent in the current system. Our state government no longer treat affordable higher education as a public good. It is now a luxury purchase for the well to do. It is no longer possible for an intelligent working class kid such as myself to attend the University of Illinois. Tuition was $311 a semester back then when the minimum wage was $3.15 and then $3.35 an hour. Today, tuition for an income freshman is over $15,000 for the year. Median family income hasn’t increased over this time. Graduate programs have seen comparable rates of inflation and cuts in funding. (This phenomenon is not confined to undergraduate or graduate programs. Three years ago, the third year University of Virginia law school students protested paying $40,000 a year tuition to an administration that seemed not to care about the higher rates of unemployment their graduates were receiving.)

    So unless you are wealthy, are a member of the few select elite programs, or are the child of an academic, the deck is stacked against you. As L.D. Burnett wrote a couple of years ago concerning the A.H.A., the job market is not for the “faint of heart.”

    • Brian: I agree with everything you forward and say in this comment. As for the job market, it’s not just about heart—which implies that those who choose to avoid it are somehow lacking in courage—but also about calculated risk and, frankly, irrationality. After certain job requirement minimums (degrees, experiences, rec letters), it’s utterly subjective and circumstantial. – TL

  4. A few thoughts from the outside on the L.D.Burnett/T.Lacy exchange.

    I don’t know whether those doing intellectual history take longer on average to finish. If that is the case, it seems to me somewhat unlikely that the difficulty (for lack of a better word) or complexity of the work is the reason.

    First, if you do intellectual history you might do archival research, but then again, you might not. You might sit at your desk w tons of books from the library. In which case you don’t need to spend time honing or learning archival research skills, or traveling that much. (Granted, you may have to spend time digging in libraries.) Also, if you do U.S. (or British for that matter) intellectual history most of what you will be reading prob. is in English (which, all other things equal, prob. saves time if English is the language you’re most comfortable with). A lot will depend, istm, on the project: a big, ambitious, sweeping intellectual hist. project wd presumably take a long time; a narrowly focused study of one writer will prob. not take as long.

    As to this — “Because the issues we study are complex, our work requires extra reading in philosophy and theory, plus a greater intellectual maturity to grasp, or see, the deeper issues” — virtually all historians study complicated issues, I wd think. Intellectual hist. does require a lot of reading in philosophy and theory, but all dissertations need to make an argument, so regardless of historical field or time period, one wd need to spend some time thinking about that.

    I think it wd be a bit odd for an intellectual historian working on 20th cent. to complain about his/her burdens compared to those of, for ex., someone who is scrabbling around a dusty, perhaps not all that well-organized archive in a provincial city reading manuscripts in late-medieval French or Spanish, Italian, Polish, fill in the blank (not to mention, e.g., Chinese or Arabic).

    • LFC: Your last paragraph is spot on. Then again, students in programs that require travel abroad for archival work are usually prepped on that from the start. In American history, it seems to me that travel expenses for archived material are often minimized or not necessarily explicitly discussed at the start. But that might be because of the varieties of opportunities and holdings across America. It’s difficult to standardize. I confess that this is my impression—science ain’t in it. – TL

  5. LFC’s response pretty much summarizes my thinking on how the claims of special/additional time requirements for USIH might sound to historians from other subdisciplines. I think we could all say to each other, “You got problems? Cry me a river,” and just call it a day.

    As to putting up barriers — the barrier to which I was referring was a barrier of discouragement. If the amount of time required for good historical work all depends on the relative preparedness of the individual person and the relative complexity of the individual project, then there’s no use making sweeping claims (or hypotheses) about the special difficulties of the whole field, claims which could serve to scare off some who might otherwise be willing to give intellectual history a try.

    And, as you seem to acknowledge in one of your comments above, it’s not out of the question for someone to read the claims you’re making as feeding into a kind of disciplinary elitism. That’s completely not your intention, I know, but the hint is there, and that too might discourage some people from giving intellectual history a try — either because they don’t see themselves as having the chops for “elite” intellectual work, or because they don’t wish to identify with, or be identified with, elitism, whether that is how the field sees itself or how other people see it.

    Given the history of the field, along with its nomenclature, dealing with at least the perception of elitism, if not its actual presence/influence, is one of the hazards of the job, at least for now. I think that’s changing. I hope it is, anyhow, and I know you do too. But that wasn’t coming through to me in the comments you sketched out above. I do recognize it was a quick take. But I don’t think it was a good one.

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