Help me see if going to CS grad school (masters or PhD) could work despite a large debt load
May 16, 2011 5:58 PM   Subscribe

Help me see if going to CS grad school (masters or PhD) could work despite a large debt load

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I graduated a couple of years ago, and have a pretty good, well paying job (luckily!) in my field, Computer Science (as an analyst dealing with distributed systems). Ideally, I'd like to get more into the nitty gritty of things, and I think that grad school would help with this and be a lot of fun.

However, I have a fairly high debt load at about $150k total. The good and bad of it is that as long as I am working as an engineer, I am able to service this (my parents pay $700 a month, I pay $700 a month...this is about all I imagine they can pay).

I do not know how I could make grad school work. My grades were high from a elite university and in CS the vast majority of PhDs are funded, but I do not know how I could live on $30k a year while paying $700 a month in loans. I should add that $1200 a month of loans are in my parents name and only $200 a month are in my name, meaning that there are no forbearance options on their loans, only on mine (of which I believe ~1/3 is subsidized, and 2/3 is not).

Ideally I'd want to leave grad school without a a substantially increased debt load... is there any way I'd be able to make either work? Something I thought about for a masters, for example, would be to find a program that would cover tuition via scholarship (does this really exist at the masters level?), go into forbearance on my loans, then take out loans to cover ~600 a month in loan payments. So I'd be taking on $7200 in new loans a year, which might be acceptable depending. That doesn't take into account cost of living, though, which would balloon things even more... (unless there are ways to get that covered?)

I'd really be more interested in a PhD than a masters, but I understand the realities of life.

I want to go to grad school in order to be able to transition into more technical, more research oriented roles. I currently work in R&D but it's more D than R, and I feel that transitioning into more technical roles will be an uphill battle, despite strong credentials. Obviously not impossible if I can't make grad school work economically, but I want to see if anyone can think of a reasonable way to make this work.

posted by anonymous to Education (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Unless you have other expenses or dependents, the math doesn't add up for me...

1) If you're working as an engineer, is there some reason you can't contribute significantly more than $700/month to paying off your loans?

2) For a fully-funded PhD in CS, assume $24k-$30k/year, depending on departmental funding and outside fellowships. Live cheaply, and keep paying off your UG loans from your stipend. ($700/month would definitely hurt, and my quality of life would take a hit, but I think it would be possible on my grad student stipend). Think roommates, cooking for yourself ....

So, how badly do you want this?
posted by Metasyntactic at 6:13 PM on May 16, 2011

I want to go to grad school in order to be able to transition into more technical, more research oriented roles. I currently work in R&D but it's more D than R, and I feel that transitioning into more technical roles will be an uphill battle, despite strong credentials.

Why not work for a while, see how much of an uphill battle it really is and, in the meantime, try to find a way to get your employer to pay for it? Grad school will still be there in couple of years and you may be in a better financial position at that point to consider it.

Right now, based on the financial numbers you are giving, paying for even the living expenses for the next two years would be financial suicide.

The majority of my friends who either went to grad school immediately (and paid for at least part of it) or didn't work for very long regretted that decision, while the friends of mine that waited until they were 30 had their employers help them with tuition and working it around their jobs. The more valuable you are to your employer, the more likely you can have your cake and eat it too.
posted by dflemingecon at 6:13 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Setting aside $700/month as a grad student making $30k is possible if you live frugally and if you're not in a place with a really high cost of living. Also, as a CS PhD student doing distributed systems, you'll have no trouble finding a summer internship. Those pay a lot better than research stipends --- around $6000-$7000/month before taxes.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 6:16 PM on May 16, 2011

Yeah, if you are making good money now then it seems like you should be able to pay lot more than $700/month. Have you run the numbers on how quickly you could pay them off if you throw another $500 at them each month? Or a thousand, even better. If you do the math and see that you could pay it all of in X years then it might give you the motivation you need. It would just be so much better if you could start grad school debt free.

Also I think you'd get so much more out of it if you had some more years of experience.
posted by dawkins_7 at 6:24 PM on May 16, 2011

If I were you, I'd keep working where you are for another two or three years and pay as much as you humanly can into that debt. Maybe even consider living as you would as a grad student - i.e. on 25,000 or so, and putting everything else into the loans.

In a few years, your payments should be a lot lower than 700 a month, and going to grad school will hurt less.

But I agree with others that you could live on a grad stipend AND pay 700 a month if you were willing to eat ramen, have roommates, and give up all luxuries. Sadly, that's what most grad students have to do.
posted by lollusc at 6:24 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have a masters in CS and I don't recommend getting one. I don't think it actually makes you any more marketable and it costs money (an opposing view: a friend of mine got a masters in CS at a big, impressive school because his undergraduate degree was at a small, undistinguished university and he figured that having "Masters in Computer Science - AwesomeTech, USA" would make him look better. You say you went to a great undergraduate school, so that's out).

I'm not saying that a PhD does make sense, but, IMHO, a masters does not.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 6:39 PM on May 16, 2011

It sounds like the main constraint is the school debt currently in your parents' names.

I'd check to see if you can get Stafford and Grad PLUS loans on top of any tuition/stipend funding you might receive for grad school -- if you can take out new federal loans in your name, you could use that money to gradually "refinance" the debt in your parents' names. The balance transferred to your name could then qualify for in-school forbearance. Once you finish, consolidate your loans and go into an income-based repayment plan.

My answer to another AskMe similar to yours has more info and links on how this might work.
posted by Jacqueline at 7:13 PM on May 16, 2011

It sounds like the main constraint is the school debt currently in your parents' names.

There, FTFY.

A Masters in CS is not a ticket to a larger paycheck, or a more research-focused job. A PhD may be a ticket to the latter (but not usually the former). I'm also not saying that a PhD makes sense, but a MS in CS does not. It is not worth the expense, no matter who pays for it. (And dude, you're an adult, without getting into the undergrad debate, your parents really shouldn't be paying for postgraduate education).

If you are gainfully employed in your chosen field, especially in CS, and have a $1400/month loan burden, going into further debt for education is asinine. Keep working, pay off your student debt as soon as you can, and get a few more years of experience and products shipped under your belt... you'll be more valuable with a few projects shipped than you will be with an MS.

You'll get more into the nitty-gritty of CS work with experience, not schooling. Right now, you're the young guy who's a few years out of school. Soon you'll be the invaluable guy who knows how to get things done. And at your next job interview, the most important question is going to be "What did you ship?". You'll have a better answer if you spend the next few years in the workplace instead of academia.
posted by toxic at 8:26 PM on May 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

What do you expect to be able to do with a PhD that you aren't doing now?

Is it realistic to get a job in what you want to do with a PhD?

How much more will that PhD-enabled job pay compared to what you have now?

Without those details, it's unrealistic that the PhD-enabled job (providing you can secure one) will pay off the non-funded cost of earning that PhD and paying off existing debt. Given that you have existing debt, odds are - without knowing details - you don't have the profile to get a funded PhD.
posted by porpoise at 9:57 PM on May 16, 2011

I do not know how I could live on $30k a year while paying $700 a month in loans.

Really? This is your problem. As long as you're not living in NYC (insane rents), you should be able to pay off ALL of the 1400/month yourself and still be able to pay rent and eat with $30K/year. I suspect you have lifestyle assumptions which don't really match your heavy debt...
posted by beerbajay at 1:20 AM on May 17, 2011

what part of CS are you interested in... There are a few programs that'll pay for grad school and give you a stipend while you are in school... I did one, it's focus is Computer security, i had my school paid for, and in return, i had to work for the gov't for two years... pretty good deal...
posted by fozzie33 at 4:50 AM on May 17, 2011

also, if there are jobs out there that have both loan forgiveness and will help pay for grad school... just something you might consider.
posted by fozzie33 at 4:51 AM on May 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Graduate school loan deferment:
Deferment: You can receive a deferment for certain defined periods. A deferment is a temporary suspension of loan payments for specific situations such as reenrollment in school, unemployment, or economic hardship. For a list of deferments, click here. You don’t have to pay interest on the loan during deferment if you have a subsidized Direct or FFEL, Stafford Loan or a Federal Perkins Loan. If you have an unsubsidized Direct or FFEL Stafford Loan, you’re responsible for the interest during deferment. If you don’t pay the interest as it accrues (accumulates), it will be capitalized (added to the loan principal), and the amount you have to pay in the future will be higher. You have to apply for a deferment to your loan servicer (the organization that handles your loan), and you must continue to make payments until you’ve been notified your deferment has been granted. Otherwise, you could become delinquent or go into default.
Another way of getting around this is to work for a large research institution, such as a national laboratory or research contractor and work out a way to do your Ph.D. while you're still employed-- this may give you a chance to pay down your debt to a more manageable level while doing your coursework.

Also think about accelerating your payment schedule.
posted by deanc at 5:23 AM on May 17, 2011

Ah, shoot, I didn't read the part about $1200/month in loans being in your parents' name. Sorry.
posted by deanc at 5:25 AM on May 17, 2011

A Masters in CS is not a ticket to a larger paycheck, or a more research-focused job.

I had good grades from a very small but well-regarded school. I found it impossible to get a decent job when I graduated, so went on for a (funded) masters. This was an enormous help for my career. Heck, my current employer never would have hired me without that.

Getting a PhD has been a miserable uphill battle though. I really wish I had gone to school later so I had more perspective on what I could reasonably accomplish. I really don't recommend getting a PhD unless you have very specific plans for what you want to do with it.
posted by miyabo at 5:54 AM on May 17, 2011

Oh, and to actually answer the question: I think you should try to get an MS while working. It's not THAT hard (many programs cater to part-time students), and is vastly better financially than TAing through grad school (and probably better than most research funding).
posted by miyabo at 7:49 AM on May 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

$1400 a month seems a little high for $150,000 in loans. What are the terms of the loan? You can probably reduce your overall monthy payments by consolidating all your loans into one loan at a lower interest rate.
Rates are pretty low these days, and since you have so much debt in loans, a .5% or 1% decrease in your overall interest rates could save you a couple hundred dollars a month. Additionally, by consolidating, you get a new loan contract and you can extend the life of your loans by as much as several years, which would spread out your payments even more.

I work with a lot of engineers and computer programmers, and almost all of them with masters got their graduate degrees through night school. This allowed them to take about one class a semester and still work 40 hours a week. It may take twice a long to get the degree, but by the time you graduate, you won't be as swamped with loans.

Also, I was a little confused by your reason for wanting to go to grad school, which, as you stated, was so you could learn more of the nitty-gritty things in your field.
Masters degrees are for people who want either the prestige, an increase in their salary, an increase in their available job pool, or to get their PhD. A masters degree is not really for learning the nitty-gritty things. Unfortunately, I don't know if it's the same for PhDs.

Take for example the user above who said they couldn't get a job until they got their masters. They got their masters to increase their available job pool. There is no shortage of CS jobs out there, but if you don't live in a city and you can't move for whatever reason, then it might be difficult getting a job,so getting a masters degree might be a solution.

Also, if your bachelors degree was in CS, and you want to get a masters in CS, you can't really expect to learn a whole bunch of new material. Some of the classes you will need to take will only be repeats of your undergrad classes, except maybe a little harder. Some classes will be on advanced topics, but it might not be in topics you're interested in, or it might not be applicable to your future job prospects. Basically, you'll be better off taking a course or two, of your choosing, at a community college or even through a graduate school that allows non-enrolled students to take classes.

If you're looking to learn, just keep in mind that a good job can be just as educational as college courses, if not more. I know I've definitely learned more computer science material in the past two years at my job than I ever did in college. If you're willing to move to the city, you'll have tons of job opportunities to pick from, so you can choose to be a little picky. Plus, city jobs will generally offer more competitive wages and you won't have to pay tuition. That's better than any grad school, right?
posted by nikkorizz at 3:53 AM on May 19, 2011

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