In the United States, student loans have been a fact of life for years, but in Britain they are a relatively recent phenomenon. In both countries, the process can have subtle and not-so-subtle effects on a student's career path — especially when you consider the final debt load versus the salary potential of the course being studied.

Some US analysts say that many students who go on to postgraduate courses opt for law or business administration rather than science because of the greater salary potential. And in medicine, similar concerns have led to a dearth of physician scientists — those who focus on research rather than clinical care. Postgraduates with such dual skills must choose between practice, where higher salaries can dig them out of debt, and research, where they will be mired in loan repayments for longer.

In the United States, there have been some attempts to redress the situation — for example, there are some loan-repayment programmes for MD/PhDs who choose research over practice. Meanwhile, in Britain, one graduate has protested about the size of his loan by pushing a peanut with his nose seven miles through the streets of London, from Goldsmith College to 10 Downing Street. Although different in dramatic appeal, both attempts at loan forgiveness have limited efficacy. The US schemes tend to target specialized areas of research, usually leaving basic-science loans unforgiven. As for the peanut pusher, Prime Minister Tony Blair has already said that he will not write off Mark McGowan's £15,000 (US$24,000) debt.

Perhaps what is needed is an increase in broad loan-forgiveness programmes for people going into research areas where there is a deficit of skilled workers. Or maybe debt-beleaguered graduate students on both sides of the Atlantic could orchestrate a mass peanut push in the hope of achieving such a change.