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.