All / Originally Posted on Skirt

Grad School: a Cost-Benefit Analysis

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Last night I went to a set of talks being held for British Academy Literature Week. The British Academy is a wonderful institution, and among their other works they present a series of fascinating talks on topics ranging from ancient relics to modern neuroscience. These are free and open to the public, and they are a great way of finding out about the state of contemporary research in all aspects of the humanities and social sciences. In short, these are exactly the kinds of things I love and I’m grateful to live near enough to make them a regular feature of my life.

The other thing about them is, they always have a free reception afterwards which is quite generously stocked with wine. Now, I know I’ve matriculated and all, but some grad student habits die hard. Free wine is definitely one of these.

In fairness, the British Academy does everything in its power to make the free wine easily accessible, with wait staff greeting you at the reception room door bearing trays of libations (including juice, if you’re so inclined), then circulating frequently throughout, sneakily topping up glasses. I can’t say how many times I was having an erudite discussion with my colleagues, only to look down and find that my formerly empty glass had been mysteriously refilled while I was engaged in conversation. (Or at least, I’m not going to say.) It’s almost like they’re trying to make everyone behave like free-wine-seeking missiles, otherwise known as graduate students. But seriously, I’m sure it’s all in the name of not only presenting information about current research, but encouraging discussion and debate amongst talk attendees. This is a mission I wholeheartedly support.

My free-wine-seeking capabilities are not unique, but an ingrained feature of all graduate students. (As I said, I’m not technically a grad student anymore, but this is a skill that takes a while to retrain, I think.) I don’t know how it happens precisely but somehow as soon as you get that graduate school acceptance letter some free-wine gene within you awakens. I was discussing this with some other grad students at the reception last night, along with other particularly grad-studenty things.

Among these was the topic of student loans. My friends were fellow Americans, who appreciate the sort of wince-inducingly large number a graduate student loan can tot up to. (Not to minimise the financial impact of loans on British students, who will soon start to feel this pinch, what with the increased fees and all.) My friends said they could probably have bought a gold-plated bathtub with the dollar amount of their student loans. I began to wonder what, in fact, I could purchase with the total amount of my student loans.

Now, before I do this, let me just say that it is an absolutely unfair comparison to look at what else I could have bought besides an education with my student loan money. It is pretty easy to take out student loans, but just try walking into a bank and asking for that same amount of money for, say, a super-yacht when you’re just a broke college grad. It won’t work. Obviously having graduate school qualifications also changes the salary range you can command, so looking at it as a comparison in the amount of revenue you could have earned in the years you took going to grad school is still not a true reflection of what your loans have bought you. And finally, I wouldn’t want to trade in the brilliant experiences I had in the course of my education just for a mere thing. Those experiences weren’t priceless–in fact the price is pretty firmly pinpointed–but I think what I gained is far more valuable than any material object you can name.

That said, student loans in a comparable range to mine comprise a LOT of cash.

With the current amount of money I owe on my student loans, including compound interest, I could pay for:

The handwritten letters of ‘former South Korean presidents and other renowned figures’
Gorbachev’s yearly salary circa 1990
Sewer repairs for the town of Temple, TX
A high-speed structural drying kit (whatever that is), complete with shiny trailer to haul it
The portion of 2009 program funding of Ballet Hispanico of New York, Inc. supplied by New York City
Valdosta State University’s 2011 estimate for employing a full-time porter instead of installing 114 programmable locks (they decided to go with the locks, by the way)
Psychiactric services for the year 2009/2010 to the Health and Human Services Agency of Mendocino County, CA

(I could pay for one of those things, not all of them. That would be an entirely new order of student loan magnitude.)

It is sometimes frightening to think about such a large amount of money. It’s a big responsibility to pay all of that back. But I think the rewards I got from taking that leap, accepting the knowledge that I was plunging into a a deep pool of grownup-ness by willingly taking on that debt, are more than worth the cash it took to give me that education. And I’d be remiss not to mention how grateful I am to my parents, who helped support me in many ways including fiscally, thus making my student loan debt smaller than it otherwise could have been. I am acutely aware that not everyone has that support–emotionally or financially.

Without those loans I can’t see another situation in which I would have decided to live overseas for five years, to spend an extended period in Cairo, and to expand my horizons in directions I didn’t even know existed. Preoccupied as us grad students can get by the sheer amount of debt we’re in, I think those numbers can also be a reminder of how incredibly fortunate we are to have such wonderfully rich experiences. I hope every grad student is able to look back with a real sense of fulfilment about the costs and benefits of their education.

Plus, we get the added bonus skill of always being the first to find the free wine.

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