February 18th, 2010

College fund

Doctoral Students With Large Loans Finish Fastest. Those aren’t my words. Those are the words lifted from a recent study conducted over a year in the USA. I don’t think the situation in the States is so different from Canada that we would have any grounds on which to argue with the findings. Over 43,000 doctoral students who had received their degrees were the raw data for the research. I’m no scientist but that’s a sizable number. I do wonder what those earned doctorates are all doing now, though. Paying back their loans, I guess.

Some facts: according to the news report on this matter, “the study defined a “large loan” as one exceeding $50,000 for undergraduate and graduate study combined”.

The study also found—and this really interests me—that the exceptions to the findings were the social sciences, where students do not necessarily finish faster with larger loans. I’ll inspect that juicy detail in a moment.

Another important fact: the study “did not include data from students who drop out of programs, who make up more than half of all doctoral students.” Wow. I didn’t realize that that many doctoral students actually fade away, but my own experience certainly bears that out. Years ago I wrote my own comprehensive examinations with a class of about a dozen peers. I think I am the only one who went on to complete her doctorate. I don’t doubt that the rest of that group are living happily ever after with much fatter salaries, but I’m not complaining. A PhD is not everyone’s path to happiness and the sooner one realizes that – that is, before the excruciating comprehensive examination exercise takes its grip — the better. Another footnote here, I was lucky enough not to be carrying a large student loan at the time, and I don’t think anyone else was either, and so the research would not have been borne out by my small sample. But I digress.

Perhaps today so many students actually withdraw from their doctoral programs because of their debts. Someone definitely has to do that study. Anyhow, the theory goes, following the findings, that when you are flush with money, or “comfortable,” you take your time to finish. The opposite would obviously be true. You need to get through quickly in order to get into the workforce to start paying back the loan.

I don’t know, but I think if I were carrying that amount of debt I’d be paralyzed and incapable of making a cup of tea let alone finishing my dissertation. Over the years I have heard student leader after student leader in this country argue that the enormous amount of debt being carried by today’s graduate student is a severely inhibiting weight; that the burden of the debt severely delays progress in the degree; that it generates enormous program complications as it compels students to take leaves to make some money or seek counseling. I don’t doubt that some of that is true, and in the dean’s office I witness a fair bit of it. But the research study cited here dispels these notions. I doubt the researchers are arguing that we should be enhancing the debt load of our doctoral students, but the findings sure give me pause.

Where does the truth lie?

I always wrestle with the whole matter of whether student debt is as deleterious to program progress as I have often heard it being. I think it’s more complicated, as the study points out. I do think it’s insane how much debt today’s student does have to incur, however. It is staggering to imagine being so young and being that much in hock to earn a professional degree. Surely, this increasing element of the student experience generates a whole mindset abut credit and debt, producing an entire society dependent on the notion that it is ok, even sometimes the only way, to live one’s life. Why just yesterday the media were all over the fact that the average Canadian household owes about $96,000, and is behind at least 3 months in their credit card payments. No wonder VISA is the only card in play at the Olympics! They’re not only going for the gold: they have it all.

So what about those large debt-bearing tortoise-pacing social scientists? Maybe it’s that sociologists and political scientists, for example, are less certain about where their doctorate is going to take them once they graduate. The employment market doesn’t come quite so sharply into focus as it probably does for chemists and physicists. It is also worth noting that having a TA also slows you down, and I would hazard a guess that more social science grads are working as teaching assistants than in any other faculty. Of course, being a TA means being compensated for work, and the appeal of that extra cash just might keep students hanging in the game a little longer.

All speculation, of course. The fact is, sometimes research like this disarms some myths and provokes new considerations of just who is getting through their doctoral quickly, and why. Go figure.


Dr. Faye Murrin is Dean pro tempore of the School of Graduate Studies and Associate Professor in the Department of Biology. She completed her B.Sc. (Hons.) at Memorial University, her M.Sc. at Acadia University, and her Ph.D. at Queen's University. Her research interests have always been focused on fungi, in particular the cell biology of insect pathogenic fungi and, more recently, the ecology of mycorrhizal mushrooms in the boreal forest. Dr. Murrin has served in a number of positions on the Council of the Mycological Society of America and was awarded the title of MSA Fellow for her contributions. She was awarded the Women in Science and Engineering Lifetime Membership Award as founding co-director of the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) Summer Program. Dr. Murrin participates in public lectures and workshops, and is a Director on the board of Newfoundland Foray, Inc.

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