The first rule of graduate school is: you do not pay for graduate school.
Not if you’re in the Arts and Sciences, at least. Public Health? Sure. Law school? You’ll make it back. MBA? Why not!
But in the realm of A&S, it is foolish to pay for a PhD, for a couple of reasons:
1) The academic job market is dismal, and has been for years. It makes no sense to pay $60K+ for a not super marketable degree.
2) No PhD program worth its salt will make you pay. You want the tuition waiver, and you want the stipend. That’s standard. This usually comes as a package deal with some type of graduate teaching assistant-ship, hence the stipend.
Depending on the size of your stipend, your penny-pinching skills, and any other resources, it’s kinda, sorta possible for some people to make it through grad school without debt. Which is good, because as we already discussed, from an economic (and life stress) standpoint, the PhD is NOT worth significant debt.
You may be surprised to hear this, but the stipend for English graduate students is less than, say, engineering and chemistry grad students (have I shocked you yet?).
Life of a GTA
So, what do those teaching assistant duties entail? At most institutions, it means you teach. If you’re in the English program, there’s no “assistant” about it – you teach your university’s version of Composition 101 and 102.
At my institution, GTAs teach 2 classes each semester, and class sizes are capped at 24 students. We’re the sole instructors for the course (you can even find me on ratemyprofessors.com, ha), and hold the fates of freshmen GPAs in our hands. We do all the grading and plan all the lessons. On top of teaching, we’re also taking courses, or studying for our qualifying exam, or dissertating. And the universities get all of this for the low price of about $20,000 (actually, that’s really good for an English program. The Dean at our institution isn’t quite that generous).
To sum up, then, I’m doing more work for less money than I did teaching high school – and I have no regrets. It’s worth it because:
1) Teaching college students is a million zillion times better than teaching high school, because instructors don’t have to deal with pushy parents, and we can require the students to (at least start to) act like adults. It’s so, so wonderful to not have administration breathing down my neck, but trusting me to do my job.
2) I’m doing what I love. I get to teach, which I love, but I also get to challenge myself intellectually and grow as a scholar. When I was teaching high school, I was too busy trying not to drown to feed my own curiosity and keep up with the state of the field.
3) Most importantly, I have a chosen profession now and I’ve taken ownership of it. Grad school is the stepping stone to the job I want to have eventually; I have to trust the work I do will pay off. That keeps me content and motivated.