Want to Finish a Doctoral Program Debt-Free? Go Into Science

Data from the National Science Foundation shows more doctorate recipients are finishing with no debt.

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More than half of all doctorate recipients in 2012 graduated without accumulating a single dollar of student debt. While that number is consistent with recent years, more students in science and engineering fields are graduating debt-free than 10 years ago.

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Since 2002, the percentage of doctoral students in science fields who graduate without taking on any debt has grown in life science fields, physical science fields and engineering, while decreasing in social science, humanities and education fields, according to a recent report from the National Science Foundation.

In 2002, 74 percent of physical science doctorate recipients graduated without debt. By 2012, that percentage grew to 78 percent. In engineering, 73 percent of 2002 graduates left without debt, compared with 76 percent in 2012. By comparison, the percentage of doctorate recipients in social sciences who graduated without debt dropped from 50 percent in 2002 to 47 percent in 2012. In education, the percentage of those leaving debt-free dropped from 61 percent in 2002 to 48 percent in 2012.

"It's an interesting phenomenon, and I'm surprised when I look at the numbers, given how much I've read about the debt, that so many of the folks who get degrees are not in debt," says Mark Fiegener, a project officer at the NSF. "But those that do take on debt are taking on bigger loads. So that's the story – it's getting more expensive for everybody."

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Fiegener says some of the reason for that could be that more funding for research and grants goes to science and engineering fields. So while more science and engineering doctoral students are finishing their programs for free, more in the humanities and social sciences are taking out debt, often in larger amounts.

The proportion of doctoral recipients in non-science-and-engineering fields graduating with more than $30,000 in debt has been steadily on the rise, while the proportion of those in science and engineering fields has remained stable, or in some cases declined.

Overall, the mean amount of debt doctorate recipients graduated with in 2012 was $14,479. For some science-related fields, such as those in the physical sciences – including chemistry, computer science, math and physics – the mean debt upon graduation was as low as $6,276. By comparison, social science doctorate recipients racked up the highest mean amount of debt at $24,851, followed by education doctorate recipients, at $23,761.

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"In the mean, it's surprising how many students, particularly in the sciences, get out with no debt. And that's the point, that's what you hope for," Fiegener says. "You pay for your degree through fellowships and teaching assistantships and RA's and things. That's the dream."

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