The Cardinal Rule of Doing a PhD. Doing it Debt Free

By Alexander O’Hara

It’s ten years now since I got my PhD at the age of 27 from the University of St Andrews in Scotland. One of the criteria for me when I decided to pursue a PhD was that I wouldn’t do it unless I got full funding. I wasn’t going to get into debt to get a PhD.

A cardinal rule is not to get into significant debt to get your PhD. By significant debt I mean anything over $20,000. In my opinion, it is not worth starting your working life in negative equity.

I initially applied for funding from a private foundation, the Carnegie Trust, which had been established by the Scottish steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, of Carnegie Hall fame, for students at Scottish Universities. The criteria for applying was that you had to have your first degree from a Scottish University and that you had to have a First Class Honours in your degree. You had to write a research proposal and get two good references from your Professors.

The competition for these scholarships was intense and my application wasn’t successful the first time I applied even though I satisfied all the criteria. However, I reapplied the following year after doing a research Master’s at Oxford University and this time my application was successful.

Because doctoral funding wasn’t available at Oxford, I decided not to continue my doctoral studies there and returned to St Andrews to do my doctorate fully funded for three years. This scholarship paid the University fees and also a stipend so that I had enough to finance my living costs for the duration of the three years.

The lesson from this is that you can reapply to the same funding body even if your first application was unsuccessful. If you revise your research proposal and put yourself in a position that makes you more appealing to the funding body then there is nothing stopping you from reapplying the next year.

I had a good friend at Oxford who was £40,000 in debt after getting his PhD in History (about $60,000). And even though he got his doctorate from Oxford, he couldn’t get an academic position and ended up working in a café to cover his expenses. This is sadly not uncommon.

The financial cost of getting a PhD is very high. According to the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the average cost of a doctorate degree at a public university in the United States is about $48,400 each year. Private university tuition rose to about $60,000 annually. A typical doctoral program takes five full-time years to complete, bringing the total cost to $242,000-$300,000.

Even those students who are fully funded can end up with large amounts of student debt, especially in the United States where PhD debt of excess of $40,000 is not uncommon. In an increasingly competitive job market more and more students are signing up to do PhDs worldwide and this is a growing market as lifelong learning becomes an economic imperative.

Having boundary criteria from the start can be helpful in determining whether you should or should not pursue a PhD. Not getting into debt should be one of the main criteria.