Let’s Design New Possibilities for Graduate Training in Anthropology

From the Series: Academic Precarity in American Anthropology: A Forum

Photo by Tim Sackton, licensed under CC BY SA.

Over the last ten years, since the financial implosion of the Great Recession, there has been intense interest in rethinking graduate training and the overabundance of doctoral students that leads to impoverished work conditions (in the form of low wages for self-exploitation), low placement rates in tenure-track academic jobs, and a calling into question of the value of the PhD as a credential. Again and again, the same recommendations are made: more attention to professionalization, more engagement with alt-ac domains and those who work in them, more calls for solidarity across university employees, more calls for actually teaching methods in doctoral programs. Yet, despite these appeals, very little seems to have been accomplished by way of advancing those laudable goals. What those of us in power in PhD-granting institutions need is incentive to change our ways, and we need practical proposals to spur our institutional imaginations. In that spirit, I offer the following suggestions.

First, let’s empower the American Anthropological Association (AAA) to censure academic departments for unethical practices—say, for admitting more graduate students than they should, particularly in the context of job scarcity. Then, with the oversight of the AAA, every PhD-granting department in the United States would be tracked for the next ten years to determine their rate of placement for PhD awardees. This metric need not be limited to tenure-track academic placements, but it should track the placement of new PhDs in full-time, salaried careers. At the end of that ten-year period, programs that place less than an agreed-upon percentage—say, 70 percent—of their graduates will be asked to stop admitting students into their PhD program. Departments that refuse to comply will be censured by the AAA and placed on a publicly available list of shame.

Such an initiative might actually get departments to rethink what’s happening in their training of graduate students. Right now, there’s no clear incentive for faculty, departments, graduate schools, or university administrations to do anything differently from what they’ve been doing for the last generation (if not century). Not to sound too much like an economist, but incentives can be usefully employed to shape people’s behaviors, and right now the only incentive most universities have in maintaining PhD programs is that they get a steady stream of cheap, self-exploiting labor. Censure may be a weak disincentive, but it also might be enough to draw attention to departments that are systematically participating in the production of the precariat.

Departments that have been censured could still admit students. They could also seek to have the censure removed by increasing their placement rate. But students would apply and be admitted to such programs with some awareness of the situation they are getting into. A censure process could also lead to some surprises with respect to reputation, as departments that actively prepare their students for careers—academic and not—might see their desirability grow, whereas departments that willfully ignore the realities of the job market might see their esteem gradually diminish.

Some might see such a proposal as elitist, with the expectation that censure would be disproportionately applied to less prestigious departments that do not have the benefit of widely distributed alumni who promote students from their alma maters through fellowships, funding, publishing, and job placements. Hence, my recommendation for a ten-year period of data gathering and preparation, during which time departments can reconfigure their requirements, activate their alumni networks, and begin the necessary work of supporting their students’ diverse needs. Such a timeframe should also allow for the development of training grants, partnerships with possible employers, and the specialization of programs.

If a department depends on graduate student labor—for teaching and research support through assistantships; for field or laboratory work in archaeological or biological tracks—then it might consider replacing its PhD program with a three-year, research-focused master’s of science degree. Modest funding for a seven- to nine-year PhD track could be converted into full funding for a three-year master’s program, which would be desirable for many students (and universities). A master’s degree might also be enough education and training for most students. After four or more years of undergraduate education, another three years of graduate work—particularly if it is research-based and geared toward providing skills to students so that they can conduct research in diverse professional settings—would produce professionals capable of working in the many careers that benefit from an anthropological education. Students who excel in these programs might go on to PhD programs but they would not need to, since the master’s degree would provide them with enough training for a wide variety of careers, including teaching at the community- and junior-college level.

Whatever solutions are proposed need to address two constituencies: students and faculty. What do graduate students want? The list might include mentorship from faculty, camaraderie with fellow students, research experience, a valuable credential, a realistic chance at finding gainful employment, connections to a network of professionals in their field. They might also want rigorous training and intellectual stimulation. But starting with the assumption that students primarily want rigor and intellectual stimulation elides what students hope to get out of their training in favor of what faculty wish students would want, substituting the means for the end. Nothing is more toxic than the “life of the mind” discourse around graduate training and faculty jobs; it obscures how, first and foremost, we live in a capitalist system in which being a student or a teacher is a job. It can be a pleasurable, curiosity-filled job, with perks like a flexible schedule and with its own particular stresses, but it is still a job. Treating graduate education as a foray into unfettered intellectualism ignores this fundamental political-economic fact.

And what do faculty want? The list might include small classes, intellectual engagement, the reproduction of genealogies of thought, research support, labor from teaching assistants. The problem of the precariat is tied directly to these faculty wants, and until we have models of graduate training that meet these desires while also meeting the wants of students, there will be no adequate solution to it. Faculty might want to blame administrators for the need to enroll more graduate students—and for the creation of new, potentially useless degrees in an effort to capture ever more tuition money—but faculty members are complicit by admitting students into programs that do not produce desirable outcomes. Why do faculty support these programs? In addition to playing along with administrators, it’s because faculty want small classes, as well as the social reproduction, intellectual engagement, and cheap labor afforded by graduate students. And why shouldn’t they? As enrollments increase at the undergraduate level (particularly at state schools), with more grading, more lecturing, less engagement with students, and less time for research and writing, admitting graduate students does ensure that there are still some small classes to teach. It seems to make generative interactions between faculty and students possible. But until faculty are frank about the motivations that compel them to make the decisions that they do regarding graduate student enrollment, no solution to the structural problem of precarity will be at hand.

The ideas I have proposed above need not be the only alternatives to current arrangements, but we need to talk about and design models that meet the needs and desires that actual students, faculty, administrators, and employers have. Universities have become dependent on cheap labor. We might like it to be otherwise—and it should be—but until we elect to shrink the pool of available labor, wages will continue to be low. Faculty like working with graduate students, but this contact need not come in the form that it currently does to be rewarding. Small seminars rather than large, alienating lectures are something that many faculty appreciate about working at PhD-granting institutions, and robust three-year master’s programs would keep these opportunities intact. Students want skills and credentials—and they want careers. They also want the opportunity to work closely with faculty and with other students in environments that are as free from stress and exploitation as possible. There are ways to meet all of these needs. The current system of doctoral training in the United States is not one of them.