Tag Archives: debt

Let’s Talk about Debt, Part 3: Debt & Regret

(Read Part 1 and Part 2)

The long and short of it is that the culture of debt in grad school supported my dumb decisions. The problem is both individual and systemic. Because the system gave active and vigorous windmill high-fives to my desire to avoid adulthood or cope with poverty and bad choices, there was no pushback on my decision to subsidize my very long and mostly pointless degree(s) over and over again with government money. I had to force myself to lift that rock and peer at the gross stuff, on my own, and because human beings like to avoid pain and embarrassment, it took me a long time to have the guts to do that. As in, years. And when I finally decided to leave, some still encouraged me to stick with it, just for a few more years.

But, now we’re there: we’re looking hard at our budget, we’re coming up with a plan to reduce our debt and be able to afford things like, ya know, FOOD, and it’s very painful. Ask yourself the last time you looked up your outstanding balance on student loans, or did the math on how much interest you pay on your credit card every month. It hurts.

It’s very easy to say yes to loans when you’re 22. You think, I will be done in 5 years. You think, This is an investment. And you think, as I mentioned before, that at some point you hit a threshold past which the amount of debt doesn’t really matter (a mountain is a mountain, right?).

But it does matter. Everest vs Mt. Hood matters. K2 versus McKinley fucking matters. There’s a world of difference between 60k and 20k in debt; between 120k and 70k. (Even if you don’t have debt going into grad school, how many grad students go debt-free during the average 8.2 years it takes to complete a PhD?)

Let’s say you only have student loan debt when you finish your degree (no credit card debt, even!), and you decide to aggressively pursue debt-free status. You are a very, very lucky PhD and you find a job in the midwest that pays 45k a year. You’re single and don’t have kids (or pets): bonus! You pull a Joe and share an apartment with a friend and are able to live on 25k a year, doing the rice and beans thing and keeping costs low. Putting 20k towards student loans, which doesn’t include interest and all that stuff, it will take this much of your life to repay the loan:

  • 20k in loans = 1 year
  • 40 k = 2 years
  • 60k = 3 years
  • 100k or more = 5+ years

Really, let’s reframe student loans as a prison sentence. The higher your debt, the longer your sentence. And 5 years might seem like nothing at 22, but I’m telling you that ten years later, 5 years seems like a big chunk of your life, and that’s if and only if you are able to put a huge amount towards loans every year. Most people – like me and my family – can’t approximate that.

So you might say Fuck it, I’ll just make my minimum payments for 25 years or whatever and just count on having to pay it. OK, yeah, that makes sense (if you ignore things like the massive amount of interest you’ll pay); but really, think about what you could be doing with that $400 or $500 (or $1000) per month. You could… save for retirement. Get your kids the braces they need or help pay for your Mom’s nursing home costs. Go on a honeymoon in San Francisco instead of camping. Get your dog the surgery for his hip instead of putting him to sleep. Invest in the stock market, or buy a kickass car. Fix the car you already have. That kind of money, month after month? It can be a life or death, eat or go hungry difference.

Loans are only an investment if they pay off. Going into tens of thousands of dollars in debt for an advanced degree that is highly unlikely to get you a job that pays more than an entry-level salary is idiotic. We are crazy for thinking this was the right thing to do. Because we end up on food stamps. Or we end up realizing we should have gone in a different direction in our careers and go back to school, again, for a different, practical degree (I know PhDs who are becoming librarians, midwives, doctors, high school teachers: they could have saved years of time, effort, and money without the scenic route through a PhD, although few will outright say that they regret the PhD). I’m starting to agree wholeheartedly with the boom-and-bust “higher ed bubble” theory because my decision to go to grad school parallels so closely the heartfelt and utterly misguided desires of folks who bought houses during the real estate bubble and ended up with homes worth less than the money owed on them. A PhD is worth so much less than the debt incurred to earn it. The PhD, in most cases, will cost you way more than it’s worth in debt and regret. But when you are inside the system, it’s surprisingly difficult to see the writing on the wall. People are so certain that they will regret quitting more than anything else that they stay on even when the thrill is gone. This is bonkers. Quitting is awesome. Quitting is freedom. Debt sucks. Debt is prison.

I’m in my early thirties and I have two daughters, a house, two Master’s degrees and a ton of worthless graduate credit hours. I have dreams for my daughters that may never be fulfilled. I have dreams for my own life that will be on hold indefinitely, and may go completely unfulfilled because the next decade or more of my existence is dedicated to paying for mistakes I made when I was young and willfully ignorant.

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What Lauren Learned About Identity & Work via a Craft Disaster (aka “Do it, start it, FUCK THIS IT’S NOT WORKING!”)

It’s time for me to ‘fess up: I did not do the Pinterest challenge assigned to me by Renee, the winner of the Pin Us To It prize at our 4K giveaway.

Now, I bet some of our newer readers, brought here by our connections to other post-academic blogs, are thinking “WTF is this Pinning shit?” So before I launch into a discussion of my crafting experience, let me say this about Mama Nervosa: it’s a non-niche blog. We don’t just write about being ex-grad students, or just write about being feminists, or just write about being Moms, or just write about secretly reading super goofy quasi-pornographic YA lit in sixth grade. We write about all of our experiences, and some of those experiences include stuff that’s very typically feminine or maternal. We simply aren’t interested in fracturing our identities into separate blogs or saying that how we feel about ourselves as brainy feminist women has nothing to do with being mothers or crafting disaster-ers. I’ll try to make some connections between this craft experience and some of the stuff I’ve been thinking as I quit grad school towards the end of the post, so stay with me!

From our inception as a blog, we’ve been preoccupied with Pinterest and lifestyle blogs because they’re such an integral part of the online mommying world (read this recent article from Jezebel for a taste of it). Jen is pretty ok with Pinterest: she recognizes its flaws, but overall, her experience with Pinterest is positive. I… let’s just say I feel differently. Continue reading

Let’s Talk About Debt, Part 2: The Catch 22 of Grad School Economics

The impossibility of the Grad School Economy really hit home for me last summer (2011). We’d just moved to a bigger place after squashing into a 2-bedroom apartment for years. Like the woman in the Grad School to Welfare article, we live outside our university town because it is more affordable. My daughters were 3 years old and 18 months old at the time, and I was gearing up to take my comprehensive exams in the fall. Because summers in the past have been terribly tight (more on that in a minute), I took a job as a part-time writing tutor at my University. We could only afford half-time childcare for the girls, which meant they spent the mornings at school and I either tutored or worked towards comps during that time: this meant commuting between their schools, my school, and our house all between the hours of 7:30 am and 12:30 pm. So, my schedule looked something like this:

7:30 Leave with both girls and all my school stuff to take Kid 2 to infant daycare in nearby town.

7:50 Drop off Kid 2, drive Kid 1 to hippie daycare for preschoolers in university town.

8:15 Arrive at writing center, check email, tutor anxious grad students on mind-bending dissertations about standardized outcomes language in nursing or African-American porter unions or bio-mathematics.

10:30 Finish tutoring, get out comps stuff and start getting head into game. Read articles, look up references, start taking notes/drafting.

12:00 I just got into a writing rhythm, but I have to pack up and race to hippie daycare because I’m already running late.

12:20 Drive to nearby town to pick up Kid 2 as fast as possible, because if they fall asleep in the car on the way home, then they won’t nap, and if they won’t nap then I am SOL in terms of work time.

12:40 Drive home with the radio blaring to keep kids awake. They scream in my face.

1:00 Shovel food into their gaping maws as fast as possible, nurse one or both to sleep. Get comps stuff out, find where I’d left off, and start drafting or note-taking, while feeding myself with my non-dominant hand.

2:15 Shit! Someone is setting off firecrackers. Please don’t wake up please don’t wake up. If they wake up, I am ruined. RUINED.

3:15 They slept and I got a paragraph of summary written. Now it’s time to be a Mom, fix dinner, clean up, do bath time, and do bedtime.

8:45 They’re asleep! Now I have to decide if I’m going to work some more, have sex with my very neglected husband (oh yeah, that guy), or go to sleep.

9:15 Sleep wins.

Other than being completely crazy-making, the Catch 22 of this economy flummoxed me:

  • If I wanted more time to write, then I needed to have more money to pay for childcare.
  • If I needed more money for childcare, then I needed to spend more time working on a job that paid.
  • If I spent more time working at a job that paid (tutoring, nannying, adjuncting 1-2 sections at a local CC, all of which I’ve done as a grad student), then I had no time to write.
  • If I spent more time writing during “free” time (evenings and weekends), then my marriage collapsed like a dying star and I became a stranger to my children.

We know firsthand how painful and terrifying it can be to go broke. We went broke in 2010, the first summer after our second baby was born. I was too exhausted and clueless and desperate to calculate the full cost of childcare for two children. The pregnancy was a surprise, and I wanted to prove that I could balance family and school, so I was bound and determined to have a sitter for the girls and get some work done (any work, progress is progress, right?). But my summer income is zero: my TAship was a 10-month contract, and July and August are always tight. By the time I realized that there was simply no way for us to afford childcare for two young kids relying solely on my husband’s salary, it was too late to regroup and come up with an alternative plan. I pulled both girls out of childcare and spent that summer as a stay-at-home-mom, letting go of all work time to take care of my family and painstakingly attend to our budget. We made it, but it was extremely stressful, and I lost a lot of momentum towards comping, which was what I felt I needed to do so I could get to the part where I made actual money.

But after that, we prioritized money over grad school progress to avoid repeating that experience: I tutored in the summer, and taught anywhere from 1 to 3 additional courses each semester (in contrast to my usual one). My husband got a promotion at his not-beloved-but-solid job; he also works a second, part-time job every other weekend.

Focusing on income cost me dearly as I struggled to prepare for comps in 2010-2012. I deferred again in Fall 2010, and again in Spring 2011. Last summer, I was determined to comp in September, but Grad School Economics made that impossible. My adviser was skeptical that I would be ready to comp in the spring (2012). I was absolutely determined to make it work, and I took drastic measures to sprint my way towards comps readiness: I hired a cleaning lady, put my kids in daycare full-time, and started writing nights and weekends. I wrote and wrote and wrote, often immediately scrapping what I’d just spent weeks on. I was still floundering with topics and focus: maybe I was just not academically ready to comp at this time, but I didn’t really have the time to come to that realization, nor did I have the time to concentrate and solve that problem. I was out of time: I needed to comp as soon as fucking possible. I was dug in and furiously working away in a not-very-productive manner, but I knew that our family could not sustain this life for long, so I thought if I really hammered at it and got through comps, I could slow back down after that, maybe even work a part-time job while I dissertated and the girls got into school, whatever. I needed to get over this ENORMOUS mountain.

But at my first meeting with my adviser in the spring semester of 2012, it became clear that I was nowhere near ready for comps and had miles to go before I slept. I’d lost my way and would have to work harder, for longer, to reorient myself and get back on track. I was not up for that. It felt impossible to continue in this way, so I quit.

(To be continued!)

Let’s Talk About Debt, Part 1: the Real World Economy versus the Grad School Economy

Lauren Does Math and Has a Brainsplosion

I sat down to work on our family budget yesterday and it was… unpleasant.

I am not a math person. I’m not a person who thinks well in this way. I worked extremely hard to get an A in basic college algebra. It takes considerable effort and a lot of repetition for me to do math right, and even then, my brain trends towards the unrealistically optimistic. I’m a “round up” kind of gal. I had been working on a budget for awhile, here and there, using estimations of biweekly payments, etc etc — estimations that I thought were very conservative. But, I was off by about $600, which is a lot of money to “find” in an already dramatically scaled back “Lauren quit grad school and ruined our lives” plan.

I’m not the only one facing the harsh reality of the real world economy, versus the grad school economy. A much-circulated Chronicle article about PhDs on food stamps makes it clear that whether you finish or not, the transition from grad school economics to real world economics is devastating to a lot of people. And if you have the stomach to read the comments, you’ll note that many of them are a variation on the theme of “They got what they deserved” or “How could they be so stupid?” or “What part of ‘loan’ did they not understand?”

And it’s true, it’s insane that we all fell for it and made chronically bad choices when it comes to economics. But, here’s the thing: everyone else was doing it. First of all, insane willingness to take on debt has staggeringly obvious precedence in every facet of American life from the housing bubble to the net bubble to the national debt. PhDs aren’t the only ones being blithering idiots in a culture predicated on getting what you want right now and paying for it, literally and figuratively, later on.

But beyond that, I think in grad school there is a special economic culture; or at least, I felt like I was part of a strange little world in which there were different economic expectations and rules. The sort of unspoken rule I — and many of my peers — operated on went along the lines of, “If I’m going to be paying this debt off for the rest of my life, the amount of debt I’m in really doesn’t matter.” Continue reading

4 Roads Not Travelled: What I Should Have Done Instead of Going to Grad School

Every day, someone finds our blog by googling about quitting grad school. This is awesome: welcome. I hope our writing has been helpful to you. I also thought it might be wise to have a landing strip for folks googling  “Should I go to grad school?”

My answer is: No. Don’t go to grad school. If you want a “yes” or a “maybe,” talk to someone else. I think more people, including advisers and professors, should actively discourage people from grad school. Even the smart students. That’s what I want to do with this post. I wish someone had said this to me, given me pause, made me reconsider. There were a lot of yeasayers when it came to grad school. I want to be a naysayer.

Don’t go to grad school.

I’m about two weeks away from being done with grad school. I go through phases where I feel profoundly bitter about my lousy decision-making, and I’m right smack in the middle of one right now. Bitterness is a common post-grad school emotion: for example, after leaving grad school, my husband changed his Facebook info to “Studied: Bitterness. Degree: MA in unemployable bullshittology.”

So yeah, take this with a grain of bitter salt. This is from my perspective, bla bla bla disclaimer.

I generally pride myself on being a smart person, someone who can see the big picture, weigh pros and cons, and come up with solutions to problems. I like being decisive, and I like being right. Hell, that’s one of the reasons I thought I was a good candidate for grad school.

A very quick sum-up of my grad school experience: I enrolled in a PhD program in American Studies, an interdisciplinary field, immediately after graduating from college in 2004. I quickly became disenchanted for a variety of reasons I won’t get into now. In 2007, I decided to leave that program with an MA and considered many, many, many other paths before applying to (get ready for it) another PhD program, this time in literacy education. It was a much better program and I learned a lot, but even so, after five years, I am now leaving that PhD at the comps stage. All told, I’ve been in grad school for eight years, and will leave with 2 Master’s degrees and a boatload of mostly useless credit hours.

Grad school has been an exercise in wishy-washy hemming and hawing, and pretty much every decision I made from the type of degree to pursue to the courses I took was wrong. It has been a comedy of errors, and sometimes I can laugh about it (really, most of the time I can), but right now I’m thinking about what I should have done instead of going to grad school.

Become a High School English Teacher

I was an Education major in college and came within an inch of finalizing my teaching license by the time I graduated. I student-taught 9th and 12th grade in a suburban high school, which was a fantastic experience. I should have earned my license and become a teacher.

I had good reasons for not wanting to become a high school teacher by the time I wrapped up my BS Ed degree. No Child Left Behind was just rolling in like a tsunami and I could see the impact it would have on classroom teaching practices, school budgets, and teacher life. I did not want to experience that. At 23, I didn’t feel quite ready to sign up for my lifetime career, and I wanted a chance to get out of Oklahoma. I was having a ball in my upper division, honors courses and wanted more of that. I was newly engaged and my partner also wanted to go to grad school. So, there were reasons.

That being said, I could have, maybe even should have, finished up that teaching license so that HS teaching would have been an option at any time when grad school started sucking (which it did almost immediately). While there are serious drawbacks to HS teaching, I love working with teenagers, especially goofy, immature, at-risk college freshmen. They are essentially high school students. I love teaching books, writing together, and the buzz of the classroom. I would have been happy in high school.

I could have taught for several years before having kids, and might have been able to arrange a part-time schedule when they arrived, or at the very least have paid off my student loan debt and put aside some money before they showed up. I can’t quite quantify for you the benefits of having earned money for most of my adult life, versus having borrowed my way into crushing debt. Even a few years of teaching experience would have been invaluable in terms of understanding what I truly wanted in a job and a graduate degree, so it would have helped me make better choices if and when I did pursue graduate studies. I still might pursue this avenue: ten years later, I am securing my teaching licenses in Oklahoma and Iowa so that I’m never more than a few bureaucratic steps away from being eligible to teach in public schools.

Earned a Master’s in a Traditional Humanities Discipline

I did not understand the differences between an MA and a PhD at all before deciding to go to grad school, and this led to some extremely bad decision-making. Retrospectively, I can’t emphasize enough the value of an MA, even if you drink the kool-aid and go on to a PhD (don’t do it!).

An MA provides a breadth of knowledge that is essential to teach at the college level, as well as make decisions about dissertation research. There’s no way I could have been competitive for English or History faculty positions at 4-year schools with the scattershot coursework I took in my interdisciplinary humanities PhD program. I did not have a solid grounding in any area or field because my program let me design my own very special and unique “plan of study” (ha) and didn’t require me to have a certain number of hours in a single discipline. Ergo, my Am Studies MA is a patchwork of English, History, Comm Studies, and Anthropology courses, and I am not qualified to teach any of these at the college level.

I can and do teach at a community college, which I adore. I wish I’d known that this was an option: I could have done Master’s work in English and likely landed a teaching gig I’d have enjoyed, without all this unnecessary extra coursework. But, because I don’t have a ton of graduate course hours in English, I’m not always eligible to apply for CC English positions, because they want that breadth of graduate coursework (MA-level courses in Brit Lit, Am Lit, etc). By definition, the “Master’s Degree” is the teacher’s degree. I currently teach developmental reading and writing, and I like this very much, but I am disappointed that there are limitations to the jobs I can apply for because of my crappy coursework.

I could have earned a traditional MA and had that intellectual experience I was seeking after college, figured out that PhD students are wackadoodles, and then left. I could have gone on to do just about anything without sinking myself further into debt. I would be exactly as competitive for jobs as I am now, with two truncated PhDs. That extra coursework is doing nothing for me in terms of job apps. The only thing my additional years of coursework has brought me is more teaching experience, but I could have been doing that anyway (profitably!).

A traditional MA would still have been beneficial if I’d moved on to a PhD. Another drawback to leapfrogging all that MA coursework is that PhD course reqs are geared towards specialization and research, not establishing a broad knowledge base. Thus, I was really hamstrung when it came to conceiving of a decent research project. I had to read, on my own, the entire back history of any field I was interested in, because I had not sat through the coursework that would have provided it. This was especially true in my Education PhD: I just didn’t have the background to dream up a good research topic in a field where I’d mostly taken courses on how to do research. I needed that interim step.

Found a Professional Master’s Program

I toyed with going into counseling or social work. I could have done an education-focused MA in student development or athletic services. In fact, my adviser is eager for me to switch to a Reading MA because it would be “right up my alley.” Any of these programs would have been interesting and challenging, and would have the benefit of actual applicability to a job I might have enjoyed, with the possibility of making more money as well. I knew absolutely nothing about professional Master’s programs when I wrapped up my college career. I wish, wish, wish I’d been less embarrassed to talk to my education profs about my interest in pursuing grad school (I felt guilty that I didn’t want to go right into teaching) so MAYBE someone could have floated one of these great options in my direction. I wish I’d done more research.

Opened up a dozen credit cards and spent a year bumming around in Europe with my husband.

I went to college in those days when credit card companies would set up tables in the south oval and give you free shit if you got a card. I wish we’d opened up a ton and racked up tens of thousands of dollars in debt traveling in Britain, Germany, France. I wish we’d bought unnecessarily elaborate travel gear and taken a hundred thousand photos. I wish we’d lived for two weeks in some ritzy hotel in Rome, smoked a ton of pot in Amsterdam, and bought ridiculously expensive Eiffel Tower souvenirs for everyone in my family. I wish we’d had our luggage stolen and slept in iffy hostels and skinny dipped in the Adriatic.

Wannabe Rick Steveses

I would have accrued less debt and wasted less time than I have in grad school, and my God, the memories! I don’t know if, between a family and student loan debt, I will ever, in my life, be able to afford international travel. It would have been foolish and irresponsible, sure, but so was grad school: at least this would have had bucket list payoff.