Sarah Kendior rips on graduate school

Wow. Sarah Kendzior has the most cynical, depressing take on grad school. She’s not entirely down on it and sees some virtue in advanced study, but also has some venom for the academic complex that is actually deserved.

Graduate students live in constant fear. Some of this fear is justified, like the fear of not finding a job. But the fear of unemployment leads to a host of other fears, and you end up with a climate of conformity, timidity, and sycophantic emulation. Intellectual inquiry is suppressed as “unmarketable”, interdisciplinary research is marked as disloyal, public engagement is decried as “unserious”, and critical views are written anonymously lest a search committee find them. I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by the Academic Jobs Wiki.

I don’t know about that. I know that there were people who had the fast-track to academic success because they’d mastered the drill of churning out grants and papers that were exercises in technique and throwing money at a problem, rather than actually thinking broadly, but there was still room for creative play in the lab. I think I was lucky to have mentors who thought public engagement was important — I think part of that was the fact of teaching, which keeps an academic grounded.

The cult mentality of academia not only curtails intellectual freedom, but hurts graduate students in a personal way. They internalize systemic failure as individual failure, in part because they have sacrificed their own beliefs and ideas to placate market values. The irony is that an academic market this corrupt and over-saturated has no values. Do not sacrifice your integrity to a lottery — even if you are among the few who can afford to buy tickets until you win.

I knew professors who believed in grad school as a winnowing process, where you make suffering the goal so only the strong survive. They were the minority, but the misery of being in their lab was deep.

Anthropology PhDs tend to wind up as contingent workers because they believe they have no other options. This is not true – anthropologists have many skills and could do many things – but there are two main reasons they think so. First, they are conditioned to see working outside of academia as failure. Second, their graduate training is not oriented not toward intellectual exploration, but to shoring up a dying discipline.

Of my graduate school cohort, maybe 5-10% ended up in academia. There is a tendency to see continuing to do whatever you’re doing, only on a slightly more elevated plane, as “success”. We’ve been working at the undergraduate level to make students aware that becoming a professor is only one narrow slice of the range of outcomes of training in STEM.

We also don’t have the idea of being in a “dying discipline” — biology is thriving, as well as any scientific field in the age of Republican anti-intellectualism can be said to be doing well. Kendzior is an anthropologist; I don’t feel that anthropology is dying so much as being under-appreciated.

Gillian Tett famously said that anthropology has committed intellectual suicide. Graduate students are taught to worship at its grave. The aversion to interdisciplinary work, to public engagement, to new subjects, to innovation in general, is wrapped up in the desire to affirm anthropology’s special relevance. Ironically, this is exactly what makes anthropology irrelevant to the larger world. No one outside the discipline cares about your jargon, your endless parenthetical citations, your paywalled portfolio, your quiet compliance. They care whether you have ideas and can communicate them. Anthropologists have so much to offer, but they hide it away.

I got a lot of bad advice in graduate school, but the most depressing was from a professor who said: “Don’t use up all your ideas before you’re on the tenure track.” I was assumed to have a finite number of ideas, and my job as a scholar was to withhold them, revealing them only when it benefited me professionally. The life of the mind was a life of pandering inhibition.

Jebus. That’s terrible advice. I had the benefit of a graduate advisor who seemed to reinvent himself every few years: from immunologist to neuroscientist to cytoplasmic signalling to lineage tracing developmental biologist to geneticist. It kept us on our toes, and there were times we wondered what, exactly, our lab did. I think he set a good example, and never seemed to run out of ideas.

I ignored this along with other advice – don’t get pregnant, don’t get pregnant (again), don’t study the internet, don’t study an authoritarian regime – and I am glad I did. Graduate students need to be their own mentors. They should worry less about pleasing people who disrespect them and more about doing good work.

Because in the end, that is what you are left with – your work. The more you own that, the better off you will be. In the immortal words of Whitney Houston: “No matter what they take from me, they can’t take away my dignity.” And in the equally immortal words of Whitney Houston: “Kiss my ass.” Both sentiments are helpful for navigating graduate school.

Heh. Yes. I got married and we had two kids while we were both in grad school — you’ll notice most of your academic mentors aren’t getting tenure until they’re in their 40s, and 20 year olds putting the real life thing on hold that long is unwise. Grad school, or your job whatever it may be, is not the whole of your life.

Academic training does not need to change so much as academic careerism. There is little sense in embracing careerism when hardly anyone has a career. But graduate school can still have value. Take advantage of your time in school to do something meaningful, and then share it with the world.

At least that section ends on a positive note. I agree. The whole point of education is to open your mind, not to get you a job, but to prepare you for any opportunity that comes around.


  1. Cuttlefish says

    At my program, we had a pool for how many grad students would come back after first semester, after first year, and would make it to Ph. D. Could easily have had a pool for how many marriages/relationships were ruined along the way. The reason was fairly clear: that was the experience of the faculty back when they did it. Far more divorces than lasting marriages, lots of “that’s the way it was for me, and I turned out fine”. News flash–if you think this is fine, you did not turn out fine.

    I took considerably more time than the average person to finish our program, and finished with an intact marriage, and two kids who have turned out to be wonderful adults. Financially and in most terms of academic success, I am on the low end of the scale. In terms of happiness and the things that matter? Richer than Trump pretends to be. I’m sure you can be successful on all those fronts… but you would not know it from our department.

  2. Reginald Selkirk says

    interdisciplinary research is marked as disloyal

    This was certainly not the case when/where I was in grad school. Interdisciplinary was encouraged. The school even set up graduate programs independent of the faculty departments in order to facilitate students being able to work in different departments or between departments.

  3. jrkrideau says

    @ 2. Reginald Selkirk
    I suspect there are very wide cultural differences between departments, even in the same discipline across universities.

    In my department the faculty seemed to figure if they were stupid enough to accept you then they expected you to graduate. On of my advisors did his grad work at a university where it was explicitly stated that the department only expected 25% or so to graduate!

    It was a long time ago, but I clearly don’t remember any obstacles to interdisciplinary work. I don’t remember it being encouraged or discouraged. But then, I was in Psychology which is a pretty broad church of its own. Demarcation lines between bits of it and other disciplines are often very blurry. In some cases what you called yourself might depend on which name got you in the door or paid better.

    I also don’t remember an all-pervasive sense of fear in the department.

    As for anthropology hitting a dead end, maybe it just takes some imagination. If you are running out of bushmen or New Guinea primitive cultures perhaps one should branch out. Gabriella Coleman has done fascinating work on “intersection of the cultures of hacking and politics (

    I did appreciate her line about her fellow grad students girding their loins and stocking up on anti-malarial medicines for fieldwork in places like New Guinea while she was packing to head to San Francisco for her fieldwork.

  4. multitool says

    Graduate school in neuroscience proved unworkable for me, and I dropped out rather than go bankrupt.

    The principle block was that if you have trouble with one required class, you can’t re-take it or fix it in any way, or get any help, so graduating becomes no longer possible.

    The whole parade trips over one pebble and crashes in a ditch.

  5. Bill Buckner says

    This is horrible. Grad school is supposed to be fun. The only fear is supposed to be the qualifier exam.

    I thoroughly enjoyed grad school. I feel bad for anyone for whom it was anything less than one of the best times of their life. (I’d say it was the best time of my life, but my bride might read this post, so… second best.)

  6. ravensneo says

    As all my colleagues do in medicine, I did post-graduate work (residency and fellowship) totaling 6 years after med school. Not really the same in terms of worrying about job security, but during my fellowship there was lots of academic pressure. I was actually told by my fellowship director that choosing a clinical career in my subspecialty was UNETHICAL. I ignored her and question her ethics!

  7. psilotum says

    Which reminds me of a science inside joke (or observation):

    How to Interpret the List of Authors in a Multi-author Paper.
    1st Author: runs a large, productive lab. Research interests determined the general topic of investigation; wrote grants and did some writing on the paper.
    2nd Author: runs a large lab at a different institution; buddy of the first author. Made some comments on the paper or maybe contributed some supplementary data towards the end of the process.
    3rd Author: postdoc in the first author’s lab. Came up with the original idea for the research, wrote grants, acquired materials, built equipment, did the lab work, collected and analyzed the data, put together the figures and tables, wrote the paper.
    4th-Nth Authors: a motley assortment of the first two authors’ colleagues, grad students, undergrad students, friends, spouses, significant others and lab techs. Skimmed through a later version of the paper or washed some glassware. At best.

  8. says

    I have a draft talking about how bad grad school is, so I’m comparing notes. Quite honestly, our accounts are completely different. When Kendzior says

    critical views are written anonymously

    I have no idea what practice is being referred to. The scientists I know love taking credit. Also,

    Academics justify the paywall system by saying the public is not interested in academic research. I argue that the public has had no opportunity to decide for themselves, since access to research has always been blocked. But I have faith in the ability of non-academics to understand and appreciate academic work.

    This just doesn’t generalize to physics. The public has access, but the papers are too difficult to read. And it’s hard to believe that the public particularly needs to understand most physics research, when I can’t even understand most of it myself.

    In general, Kendzior seems to be complaining that careerism is valued over doing something meaningful. I would instead complain that scientists value their scientific ideals over their working conditions. I guess this could come down to differences between fields.

  9. anat says

    psilotum, that’s not the most common order of authors. Usually the postdoc that did all the work is first and the PI who heads the lab is last. There is a stage in one’s career where first authorship is important, then comes the stage when last authorship is more important. If one is very successful, a PI gets to a stage where they can say ‘oh, just bury my name in the middle’ thus letting both a postdoc and a rising future-PI have their time in the sun.

    When the paper comes from a collaboration of 2 (or more) labs it gets more complicated, but still, the various postdocs are at the beginning, sometimes with ‘equal contribution’ and the various PIs at the end (and there is endless jockeying for the exact order, with the common compromise that the first author is not from the lab of the last author).

  10. psilotum says

    anat: It probably varies quite a bit depending on the field, department and PI (probably there’s some generational differences between cohorts of PIs, too). The postdoc-third pattern may not be dominant, but it’s way too common, and weirdly, exactly specific in how it gets repeated. Your author order sounds more sensible :)

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