Potatoes-Picking & Other Tips to Help Fund your PhD

Originally published in MIT's The Tech Blogs on April 23, 2012

I hate throwing a bucket of cold water on the fast-approaching end of semester and happy anticipations of well-deserved rest and exciting career prospects for those graduating, but the reality of soaring student loans and education costs in general and apparent governmental indifference or incapacity in the face of the problem – very recently documented by Salon writer Alexander Zaitchik – prompted me to share the link (here below). I assume this issue will resonate with many in the MIT community and those who support it.

In her autobiography Extraordinary, Ordinary People – A Memoir of Family, Condoleezza Rice recounts how her parents eventually sold their house to complete payment of her graduate studies: “But losing the house was a bitter pill for Mother and a source of deep embarrassment for my dad. For me it was more evidence that my parents’ investment in me – skating, piano, St. Mary’s Academy – had cost them dearly in terms of their own financial security.” She also cites help from ‘Aunt Theresa’ and her “grandfather’s small trust to help me with down payment.”

Writing in her own autobiography, My Family, The Jacksons, MJ’s mother Katherine Jackson explains how the household managed to make every cent go towards the purchase of instruments and studio time for their nine children by saving on everything, in all other areas than music. “Sometimes, however, there wasn’t a payday to bail us out. From time to time Joe [MJ's Father] was laid off. We could have gone on welfare, but I would rather have scrubbed floors and Joe would rather have picked potatoes – which is exactly what he did when he as out of work. We’d eat potatoes every which day: baked, stewed, fried, and boiled.”

Whether you consider yourself ordinary or extraordinary, the fact is, not everyone has an Aunt Theresa…

In the end, career-wise, things went great for both Mike and Condi. But a question that financial lawmakers and those above them who regulate the student loans market and education industry may well ponder is: is it reasonable to expect the average graduating American student to rely on parental help to finance his/her studies and pay back his/her debts; and likewise, is it reasonable to expect those parents to scrub floors, pick potatoes, or sell their house to do so?