Here’s the baseline advice I tell my students: do not go into debt for graduate study. At least not a doctoral program in philosophy, theology, or literature. There might be a calculus in which taking on debt makes sense for a law degree, an MBA, etc. But in the fields we’re talking about, you should not be taking out loans to do a PhD.
In other words, if you do not get a “full ride” to a PhD program–that is, if you don’t get full tuition remission plus an assistantship (stipend)–then the Lord is telling you something. I really mean that. I’m sorry if that sounds harsh or callous. But if you’re trying to discern your future, and you’re admitted to a program but don’t receive funding (which probably only happens at lower tier schools anyway), that’s the Spirit speaking to you loudly and clearly. I’m not saying that will be easy news to receive. But take a breath, step back, and hear it for what it is.
Now, if you do get accepted to multiple places with funding (congratulations!), then the next thing you have to think about is cost of living, especially if you’re going to grad school with a family–which, by the way, is possible: Just for the record, we got married after my freshman year. (I’m not saying I recommend this–but we just celebrated our 20th anniversary last week.) We had our first child 2 years later while I was still an undergraduate. We had our second while I was doing my master’s degree. And we had two children while I was in my PhD program. It wasn’t easy, but it is possible.
Anyway, if you have the luxury of choosing between programs, you need to consider where you want to live, and how much it costs to live there (proximity to family support networks are also a legitimate concern when considering location). For example, imagine you get into Yale and Notre Dame; while the Eastern seaboard certainly has its attractions, a stipend goes a long way in South Bend, Indiana. Those are things to think about. Scholars are not immaterial minds: we, too, have bodies and need to consider material realities. While the academic life–especially grad school–requires a kind of vow of poverty, you can also make decisions to be the best possible steward of the resources provided.
Next time: Friends & family.