How and why (not) to go to grad school (Happy National Anthropology Day!)

Today, Feb. 19, is National Anthropology Day.  Now, you may not have previously heard of this hallowed waypoint in the seasonal cycle, and the likelihood that you’ll see Hallmark picking up on this is close to zero, but nevertheless, here it is.

In honor of this most glorious occasion, I will be presenting a talk I’ve given many times before, in various forms, entitled ‘How and why (not) to go to grad school’, in this case, at a seminar sponsored by the Wayne State Anthropology Learning Community.  (By the way, in case you were wondering, learning communities, when well done, are more or less the best.  And ours is the best.)   Stop by if you’re around.

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I posted about this topic more than five years ago, when Glossographia was just a baby-blog, in ‘To grad or not to grad‘.  In reading over the old post, I still agree wholeheartedly with the general point.  To simply offer a blanket ‘just don’t go to grad school’, which many faculty do, is wrongheaded.  It’s insulting, and will likely convince the wrong students to avoid grad training, while failing to sway many who shouldn’t apply.  In place of unambiguous injunctions, we need fact-sharing and clear thinking. We should indeed be interrogating our students as to why they want to go to grad school.  We ought to be ensuring that they are aware of (and have clear paths laid for) other career options.  And we certainly shouldn’t be encouraging otherwise ambivalent students to pursue this path.  But advice, not platitudes, is called for.

In several less central respects, however, my position needs to be clarified from the one I advocated in 2009:

– I wasn’t clear enough that an unfunded MA may indeed make sense, if it’s the only graduate degree you want, and if you are pursuing it for clear professional reasons that do not include the PhD.  My original post  may read as assuming that if you are doing an MA, it is because you are eventually planning to do a PhD.  But the vast majority of MA students in anthropology never apply to doctoral programs, and they end up (largely) professionally successful.  Funding is still great, where available, but a targeted two-year masters without funding will likely be worth it in the long run, if you know what you want out of the degree.

– I didn’t emphasize as clearly as I should have the importance of planning, as much as two to three years before you apply to graduate school, to become the sort of applicant whose chances of success are greatest.  You can have a fancy GPA in the upper 3s, but if you don’t have a record of undergraduate research and multiple full-time faculty to support your application, you’re shooting yourself in the foot.  Identifying faculty to work with/study under, and projects to undertake, means that you can’t just decide six months before that you’re ready to apply, no matter how bright you (think you) are.

– Like many social scientists and humanists, I probably have some ‘science envy’, and put too much emphasis on the bad market in these fields.  In fact, I probably underemphasized (or was unaware of) just how bad things are in the natural sciences as well.    The programs are larger, there’s the expectation of one or more postdocs before a tenure-track job, and it’s just as terrifying.   Honestly maybe moreso: I do not look at my colleagues on the tenure track in the sciences with envy.

– I really didn’t talk enough (or at all) about the role of class and gender in ‘just don’t go’ advice.  I am  concerned that female students, given the pressures of impostor syndrome and stereotype threat, are more likely to take ‘just don’t go’ to heart, where less or equally capable male students may press on.  That doesn’t help anyone. The role of class, too, in dissuading working-class students from pursuing graduate work, seems to me deleterious to the profession.  Grad school is economically risky, but so too is post-degree unemployment, and I guarantee you that scarce post-BA internships and professional jobs get snapped up with people with social networks and cultural capital to back them up.  For academically-strong students whose family and community ties offer no meaningful employment support for someone with a BA, graduate school may be the least risky option.

Wayne State folks, hope to see you there.  Happy National Anthropology Day!

P.S. Finally, and this is just a minor complaint, but I object strenuously that no one seems to have noticed or commented on the fact that I used the verb ‘decimate’ in its etymologically-correct but practically-useless sense in my original post, to refer to the reduction of something by 1/10 (in this case, endowments).  Hmph!  Do you know how hard you have to work to find a context where you can use ‘decimate’ to mean what pedants think it always ought to mean? What fun is it being an anti-pedant when pedants don’t even notice your playful anti-pedantry?

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2 Comments

  1. Pingback: Around the Web Digest: Week of March 1 | Savage Minds

  2. Pingback: Around the Web Digest: Week of March 1 | DF Sandbox

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