Myra Ann Houser is a doctoral candidate in African History at Howard University in Washington, DC. She blogs about the dissertation-writing process, current events, life in Washington, DC, and related issues at dumbinthedistrict.com  and tweets as @myramt .
In the hubbub of graduate school program searching and applications, there’s one thing that should happen during your (early) considerations: dropping the big F-Bomb- Finances.
Finances are important during graduate school, and they are perhaps more important now than ever. We’re a generation for whom student debt is an ever-present component of life, and a dismal economy and changing structure of higher education mean that employment prospects both in and outside of the academy are, shall we say, not ideal. Since every case is different, it’s hard to provide an across-the-board assessment of whether graduate training is a wise financial investment.
There are tips for frugal living, but the high cost of education means that eating rice and beans doesn’t make up for paying tuition or living on a tiny TA stipend. The following questions may help you to take stock of your individual situation and figure out whether and how funding a graduate education is wise. They may be more pertinent to those who are considering or just beginning graduate school, but I hope that my fellow current students will also chime in with some tips for making the F-Bomb a little less scary:
How much debt do I already have? How much am I willing to have?
Although it’s sad that current and future debt limits our ability to further educate ourselves, it often does. Common wisdom has been to “buy a car, not a house,” so to speak, when taking out student loans. Making the equivalent of two house payments every month upon graduation is not particularly appealing, and probably not particularly wise, so a strategy to keep that in check is good. People deal with this in different ways: working multiple jobs as undergraduates to avoid debt at that stage and feel comfortable with student loans in graduate school, funding graduate school through fellowships, grants, and employer assistance programs but never from one’s own pocket, and, more commonly, trying to keep borrowing in check at both stages. I was fortunate to have professors and family members who instructed me to never attend an unfunded program, and have been grateful for that solid advice, but with fellowships and assistanceships disappearing at a rapid rate, following that advice has been less doable for those entering school now than it was for my cohort even a few years ago.
What do I want to do when I graduate? What am I willing to do?
There’s a big difference between these two questions. Do you feel that you have to work in academia, and are you willing to shuffle through potential post-docs and adjunct positions on your way to a university job? Would you prefer to work in a more lucrative field like consulting? Some of you may be willing to do only one or the other, while some may be happy with whatever pays the bills. Questions about the ethics of university labor practices aside, if you feel strongly that you must be in the academy and that no other work will do, the line of temporary positions you may encounter will probably mean an even slower entry into the professional world than for those who move into other fields. Student loans and retirement plans, however, won’t wait around for that perfect position, and if you feel strongly about the need to take the long path, it might be worth having smaller amounts of them. If you’d prefer the longer path but are willing to work outside of your field, you might have more options for finding that paycheck and may feel comfortable paying a little more for that degree.
What’s the outlook in the field I want to work in?
This is a particularly sensitive question for those of us in the social sciences and humanities. We find ourselves in endless conversations about how we should be smart enough to make money rather than live the not-lucrative life of the mind, and as a result of defensiveness can wind up putting on blinders to the actual conditions around us (see: “at least I’ll be doing something I enjoy”). When PhDs in some fields can take close to a decade to attain, it’s nearly impossible to predict what the future job market will look like. A classic example would be one of my undergraduate professors, who spent seven years training as a Soviet specialist at a time when those were in demand, only to find the Wall crumbling as he graduated. After some despair, he remarketed himself as a post-Soviet specialist and found gainful employment. These things are unpredictable, but it’s probably worth noting that if a field seems overcrowded now, it may be even more so by the time you graduate. More debt + terrible outlook = extra depressing graduate school experience, sadly.
What lifestyle and family structure do I have, and what do I want?
Along the lines of point three—what am I willing to do for a career—is how I’m willing to live. I have friends who endured the academic and emotional rigors of graduate school well but struggled with not being able to buy that $2000 TV. Or bought it, since it seemed like a drop in the $20,000 tuition bucket, and then regretted it when loan interest caught up years later. Although there’s more to life than money, it is an important consideration. If you’re fine living simply and not taking many vacations, living on a student budget will be much simpler than if you’re accustomed to buying a new car each year. Living month-to-month is easier if you don’t desire children and plan to recoup lost income once you graduate.
These four questions are just the tip of the iceberg, but they are big ones. What do you ask yourself? Or what do you wish you’d known to ask prior to embarking on the grand grad adventure? Let us know in the comments below.