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Grad School- How bad is the financial burden?

March 17th, 2007 at 02:06 pm

Mr. Bean had his wisdom teeth our yesterday. They should have come out, oh- say 15 years ago, but for various reasons they didn't. One reason for delaying extraction was that when he was employed full-time (before returning to graduate school), his dental insurance did not cover a major portion of the extraction fees and the out-of-pocket expense was ~ $600. Under our new insurance from the University, our only expense will be a $75 co-pay plus whatever the prescription co-pays work out to be.

So, in between making milkshakes and dosing out pain medication, I've been thinking about the financial benefits we've experienced from returning to school full time.

It is typical that doctoral students are given full tuition remission plus a monthly stipend for 9 months of the year. Summer funding (for the remaining 3 months) is contingent on academic unit and student performance.

I've stated before that by returning to graduate school, we cut our household income by ~70%, but this doesn't give a complete picture of the situation. I’ve listed some of the financial benefits / drawbacks that come to mind. This list is financial only- I can’t even begin to comprehend on how to quantify the psychological problems challenges grad school can bring! Also, it might not apply to graduate students who don’t receive tuition remission, and the health benefits also vary by university.

Benefits:
• Increased earning power after degree attainment
• Lower cost health insurance (medical, dental, and vision)
• On campus access to pharmacy and basic health care (except dental and vision)
• Access to University Facilities (ie, I can join the University gym: including aerobic classes, weights, and pool for $41 / semester)
• Student ticket prices for cultural and sporting events, both on and off campus
• Lower clothing costs (ie fewer instances for the need to dress professionally)
• Undergraduate student loans can be deferred while in graduate school
• Fewer transportation costs (We live close enough to campus that we can walk or bike. I usually bike—something I probably wouldn’t do if I needed to dress professionally)
• Lower housing cost (our former jobs were in an urban high COLA city)
• Societal expectations are lessened (ie pressure to buy a house, go on vacations, etc are lessened but not absent)
• Ease in finding odd jobs. A few years from now when I have my PhD, people might find it odd if I were working as a personal chef or babysitter. However, because I’m currently a student, this is perfectly within societal norms and people are willing to hire me.

Drawbacks:
• Lost income while attending school (most doctoral programs take ~5 years)
• Lost income while in post doc ( as if 5 years wasn’t long enough, PhDs in the sciences are often need a post doc to have a good chance at the best jobs)
• No guarantee that earning power is better after achieving PhD than if you did fabulous work for the 5 years and had various promotions. However, the type of job is likely to be different as a doctoral program teaches very different skills that cannot always be learned on the job.
• No employer sponsored retirement savings program while in PhD program, unlikely as a post doc
• No Medical savings plan
• Uncertainty over funding, especially summer funding
• Delay in being able to purchase our first home
• For married or partnered students, if both partners are not able to graduate at the same time, one partner may need to move ahead- thus adding in additional housing costs, or stay with partner still in school and employment search

What else? I’m sure I’m missing things.

8 Responses to “Grad School- How bad is the financial burden?”

  1. Carolina Bound Says:

    It seems to me that the only reason to get a PhD is to qualify for a position in a very specific field. In general society, it is not that much of a benefit for the cost.... Of course, there can be personal fulfillment reasons as well. But if you don't find work in your field, it can actually be a detriment, something you have to downplay if you seek employment in areas where you're seen as "overqualified."

    I've seen more than a few PhD's looking for work in some of the libraries I've worked in, and they were never considered seriously. It was sad; some of them really just needed a job.

  2. threebeansalad Says:

    Good point, Carolina Bound. I would whole-heartedly agree that a degree is by no means a guarantee to a good position. A lot of people enter graduate school blindly. IMHO, if you're not sure about your career objectives, don't get a PhD! I believe to succeed in a PhD program, you need to be truly passionate and motivated by the research. Doctoral programs are not at all like undergraduate, and I spend the majority of the day working on research, not studying (in fact, you don't even take classes for the last 3 years). However, in my field, if you graduate from a good program with a strong publication record, the market is very hot right now. I'm keeping my fingers crossed it will stay this way.

  3. cherylyates Says:

    Dear threebean,

    I have a few personal stories, perhaps bordering on "sour grapes"--but the potential of pursuing a doctorate has been a recurring dream for me, as well.

    I've always enjoyed reading your blog, due to its being well-written and to the fact that it has reminded me back to my graduate school days--when I was working on a masters in health promotion and, alas, my partner was in the 6th through 9th years of trying to complete his PHD in bio-mechanics.

    After finally completing studies at one of the most prestigious degree programs in his field, JM spent two years teaching/post doc. I have to say, the energy level of all those years was, initially, invigorating, but by the second year of full-time employment in academia, the stress level was almost absurd---the moving several times across the country/overseas, the politics, pressure towards tenure and relatively modest pay compared to the corporate field. He ultimately veared off in a completely different direction....his education was far from wasted, its true, but the angst may have been too costly. It certainly contributed to the end of our relationship.

    And then there is the story of my best friend who achieved a PHD at age 27, so brilliant was she. Though she loved academia, her field held so few openings, that much of her 20 year career has been spent downplaying her smarts and taking corporate jobs intermittently. As Carolina Bound mentions, the doctorate is often a liability on the resume.

    ....I realize it is a very personal decision with many levels of fullfillment involved...I will always remember my graduate school advisor telling her students, if you don't absolutely need the doctorate, it isn't worth the price in terms of personal, temporal and financial expense.

    ...having said all that....if that's where your heart is, you'll never be satisfied until....good luck!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    ....

  4. threebeansalad Says:

    Cheryl- thanks for the compliment regarding my writing. You make many great points. My list was intended to show some of the benefits / drawbacks aside from take home pay of being a FT time student. As you wrote, the decision process of whether to even attend graduate school (be it law, business, PhD, etc) is much more complex.

  5. baselle Says:

    I've had to downplay my PhD for a number of reasons in my working life, but I joke that I do use it every day because if someone is trying to snow me I have the confidence to know that the problem isn't with me. Someone will have to explain it more clearly - or stop snowing me.

    All of your benefits and drawbacks are generally rooted in the time you are in school. You have to look at your chances beyond it. Are you planning to take out loans for grad school? If you are, know that if things go sour, student loans cannot be erased in bankruptcy, and that could be a real drag in your future. Funding for grad school is like buying a home. Only a home can be foreclosed - you lose money, but life can go on. Student loans are forever.

    I've forgotten - Do you and Mr. Bean have children or plan on having children? PhD programs (and the subsequent postdoc) are infamous for not being family friendly particularly. They say they are, but when you are finishing up w/the dissertation, 70-80 hrs/week is the norm. And with a publish or perish climate, your ability to get a tenured job depends on the seminar you give and your list of publications, not with how well you raise the twinkle in your eye.

    And after grad school and the postdoc, what are your chances for getting a tenured job? Real chances based on turnover - you replacing a professor who died - not stories that grad students tell each other. (20 years ago science PhD students needed the postdoc, not often needed the postdoc. I can't imagine it being better now. Smile) How respected is your major professor in the field? How long are his coattails?

    Actually, I'm glad I got a PhD. I enjoyed the work and the challenges very much, and it stretched my intellect and life. I also didn't take out loans for it, and when the stress and the depression got to be too much during the second postdoc, I could leave. Just don't assume that the PhD will help you with your earning power. Smile

  6. daylily Says:

    Threebean... Thanks for the list. I too enjoy reading your blog. I yearn to go back to school for a PhD but it is not likely that I will do so. I deeply admire people who do it. I have two master's degrees but somehow that just doesn't cut it with me. I realize the downside of going back to school and that having a PhD doesn't mean I'll be able to get a better job. It just means that I'll be satisfying a dream that I've always had and that I'll get to work in academia and that I'll probably earn less than in the corporate world. It's hard to sell DH on that especially when we are less than 10 years away from having our mortgage paid off and if everything goes well we could potentially both retire early. On the flip side, would I necessarily want to retire early if I were in academia? Perhaps I just want to retire early because I can't stand the corporate world.
    Anyway, wishing you and Mr Bean continued success.

  7. livingalmostlarge Says:

    Also a doctoral student in sciences. Anyway it sucks. I'm thinking of quitting now because there are so many issues. I'm no longer loving it. And I'm not young. In fact I worked and loved it, was in grad school 2 years then transferred and had to start again. Starting again has been misery and I no longer love it. It could be due to the fact that I hate my school now. It's a better school, but it still sucks.

    I am right now weighing doing other things with my life. And I'm married to a fellow phd who finished but we put him first. Mistake? Possible lead to the death of my graduate work. But do I care? I am not sure.

    Downside to phd is the years lost of enjoying life. Instead all you care about is work, thesis finishing, passing qualifying, and not having children. When others are having kids, enjoying life. I am 27 years old and tired of it.

    I finished college at 20 and worked for quite a few years before going back. So I'm not young and inexperienced. But I think I may have given up too much.

  8. threebeansalad Says:

    I re-worded something in my post to make a clarification. I'm not debating the financial benefits of school to help me determine if I should return-- because that ship has already sailed! I'm (hopefully) about 1-year away from defending my dissertation. Lest any would-be PhDs read the comments and turn away from pursuing a higher degree, just be aware that the road isn't all roses. My experience, however, has been mostly positive and I am happy with my decision to pursue a PhD and with the progress that I've made. Making the right match with an adviser is key to having a good experience. Mr. Bean's experience hasn't been as positive, but we'll let him have his own blog to broadcast that all over the internet if he so chooses!

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