Student Loans and Life Post-Graduate-School

Is Recycled Minds back from the dead? Am I? Or is student debt going to
bury me?
Picture: "Dance of Death" by Michael Wolgemut
Views from the ANThill
by douglas carl reeser on May 13, 2014

Back from the dead?


It's been a while since I or anyone else has written here for Recycled Minds - 6 months to be exact. And it's a shame really. We had a pretty good thing going, with a growing interest in guest contributions, and the inspiring evolution of our Picture Show, which was gaining the attention of artists and photographers from around the globe. The site was the product of organic growth combined with the labor of love, and since 2005 had gained a small but regular following.

Last fall, however, our core group of editors hit a series of transitions and life changes and Recycled Minds took a back seat to greater demands. I took a position 1500 miles away, while at the same time attempting to focus in on the completion of my dissertation. So while my writing here slowed down to a halt, I was reading and writing non-stop for months, first to get a draft done, and finally to complete what turned out to be a book-length manuscript about health care and the neoliberal State in Belize.

With a successful defense completed and graduation with a Ph.D. on the horizon, I have begun turning to a life post-graduate-school. And while I've taken this position as the director of a historic site in my home town, the most common question everyone asks is what I'm going to do now that I have a Ph.D. It's a confusing question, one that makes me feel like I'm not doing enough, or that I'm letting people down.

The reality is that I don't have all that many choices, partly because of the economic reality, and partly because of my own decisions. I taught university courses throughout my graduate school career, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Challenging, interesting, rewarding, and fun, teaching allowed me to keep a finger on the pulse of a younger generation, while devising ways to encourage them to think critically about the world around them.

However, teaching is no longer a shoe-in career for those with a doctoral degree. Spots that do open up are ultra competitive, with most openings receiving easily 150 or more applications - at least in my field of anthropology. There is a good bet I could land a teaching spot somewhere in the U.S., but that would likely require a move to a distant part of the country, to a town or city that I see no future in. That's the part where my own personal decision has come in to play, and I've decided that's not a path I want to pursue. Either way, there is no guarantee that I would land a position.

Instead, as with so many of my colleagues, I could turn to adjuncting, wherein I would take a class or two at multiple universities or colleges in a certain region. The plight of adjuncts has been well documented (see this article from Inside Higher Education as an example), and there is no certainty in my being able to make ends meet through a role in the contingent labor force, searching for new classes to teach every semester.

In reality, there probably isn't any position out there in which I can make ends meet, even with my doctorate degree. While my graduate education was funded through assistantships and teaching positions from my university, I still had to take out student loans throughout my years of grad school. Loans allowed me to conduct research and write, and to attend and present at professional conferences, all of which are critical for strong resumes in the academic marketplace.

I took a year after completing my classwork attempting to secure grant funding for my Ph.D. research. I also taught during this time, and I continued to take out student loans, stashing them in my savings as a back-up to ensure that I could do my research. Despite many attempts, numerous rewrites and resubmissions, I only secured minimal funding for my research, and so set out to Belize, living on the loans I had taken out during the years prior.

Having accrued a considerable amount of student debt, I came back from the field, and began teaching again. After a semester, I took my current position, all the while paying tuition as a student to meet the continuous enrollment requirements until I finished my dissertation. This new position pays enough to meet my minimal living requirements, but comes nowhere near close to covering payments on my student loans.

Earlier this month, the day before I successfully defended my dissertation, I received an email from one of the loan companies attempting to collect from me. It read:
We want to remind you that your payment of $10667.56 is due.  
If you want to pay an additional amount on specific loans, you can also do so through Account Access. For example, you can pay more on loans you have with higher interest rates or higher balances—just be sure to pay at least the minimum amount due for each of your individual loans.
This must be some kind of cruel joke. Ten thousand dollars?!?! I was still paying tuition, still enrolled as a graduate student, and my loans were in recollection. In these circumstances, an email like this could be seen as harassment. Sadly, this is only one of the handful of companies looking to collect, all doing so while I remained enrolled in graduate school.

And so, what am I going to do now that I'm a doctor? I wonder if it really matters. Non-payment on my loans has ruined my credit, and even my credit cards are being cancelled (even though I have maintained a perfect history with those banks). A regular paycheck would be eligible for wage deductions to pay off my loans, and as it is, I earn below the official poverty level already. Still, this isn't meant to be a complaint. I made the decisions in the first place, and I have been able to carve out a nice life living minimally.

But the student loans...

So what am I going to do? Well, this position is helpful, as I am employed as a contractor, so while I get paid for my services, I do not collect a W-2. In other words, I don't receive a paycheck that can be docked by the loan companies. That allows me to keep what little money I do earn in my own pocket. And really, the position is pretty cool. I have plans to start a small library based on local history, and am working on research that documents the historical significance of this site and the surrounding community. I am putting together a lecture series and other events, including classes, workshops, music, arts, and performance events. I'm also aiming to write some grants for the site. All of these things are in line with my anthropological background, and the diversity inherent in the position keeps it interesting and fun.

I also want to keep writing. I'll work on projects related to my dissertation research, whether it be in book form or a number or academic articles. I also want to continue writing here on Recycled Minds, documenting a different kind of life post-graduate-school - one in defiance of the banks and outside of academia and the mainstream. If you've made it this far in the article, thanks for reading! And be sure to check back sometimes - I'll try to keep things interesting, and work to bring some life back to Recycled Minds.
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  1. Anonymous7:41 PM

    Are your loans Stafford or PLUS loans? As in, are they through the government instead of through a private company? (sometimes government loans are handed off to private companies, but still protected under government programs). I ask because I have a huge amount of student loan debt from my graduate school, which was a PLUS loan, and because I make so little compared to my overall debt, I applied for Income Based Repayment (IBR) and it literally put my monthly payments down to $0.

    Keep in mind your interest will continue to compound, however after 30 years, I believe, the amount is forgiven if you have not yet paid it off. Just something to consider!

    1. I want to start a recycle program that funds student loan debt. I need help applying for grants. I want to get every person I can involved, hit me back on Facebook. Maybe we can work together and not only pay off our debts but create a shift in the social paradigm so that the banks never profit from student loans again and show congress how to get things done

  2. I want to get every person I can involved, hit me back on Facebook. Maybe we can work together and not only pay off our debts but create a shift in the social paradigm so that the banks never profit from student loans again and show congress how to get things done


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