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Even a PhD Couldn't Keep This Man Off Food Stamps

Tony Yang is getting beaten to a pulp.

He's not wanted by mobsters nor is he another Cybercrime bully. The former University of California doctoral student (c/o '09) just says that's what it feels like each quarter when he wraps up an adjunct teaching gig and goes home without a permanent job offer. 

"It can be very tough on the pysche," he told the Chronicle of Higher Education. "The darkest moment had to be when I finished my dissertation. I turned it in and there (was) no job ... So when I graduated, the first thing I had to do was file for unemployment."

As a kid, his family supplemented their income with food stamps. Decades later, he found himself in the same position, applying for welfare to get by when his doctoral degree wasn't enough to bring home a steady paycheck.

[Related: Is A College Degree Worth It?]

After the recession took hold in 2007, the rate of PhD holders who've filed for government assistance more than tripled to 33,655 by 2010, according to data collected by Austin Nichols, a senior researcher with the Chronicle's Urban Institute.

Other graduates of continuing education weren't far behind. Of the nation's 22 million master's degree holders, nearly 360,000 applied for food stamps by 2010 – also triple the rate before the recession.

And it's not just an anemic job market that's stunted graduate students' personal economies. They're chipping away at record-breaking student debt loads, while many rely on temporary teaching stints that often don't last longer than a semester.

"Others are trying to raise families or pay for their children's college expenses on the low and fluctuating pay they receive as professors off the tenure track, a group that now makes up 70 percent of faculties," the Chronicle's Stacy Patton writes. "Many bounce on and off unemployment or welfare during semester breaks. And some adjuncts have found themselves trying to make ends meet by waiting tables or bagging groceries alongside their students."

Like Yang, who holds a PhD in History from the University of California, many graduates are delaying marriage until they can afford the walk down the aisle.

[Related: Nine Dangerous Things You Were Taught In School]

"That's terribly frustrating, because your life is on hold until the economy picks up," he said. "If I have to get psychologically beaten up every quarter, I'm just not gonna care at some point. And there are many who don't care."

As it stands, today's twenty-somethings are toting around an average of $45,000 in debt, which PNC Financial Services estimates will nearly double to $80,000 by the time they hit their thirties.

Ginger Dean, founder of personal finance blog Girls Just Wanna Have Funds, was on track to get her PhD in psychology. Then she took a look at the $120,000 price sticker, did a little math and decided against it.

"While I was accepted to a few programs, shelling out $80-$120k in extra student loans for a $5k annual difference in pay wasn’t worth it for me," she said. "I also had to consider the years I would spend in school (4-7) and the lost opportunity for full time income during that time as well as the harsh reality that the increase in salary and total amount paid in student loans isn’t worth the “prestige” of having a doctorate."

Yang knows the feeling.

"The joke is, yeah you have prestige," Yang said. "But you can't eat prestige."