The Best Advice I Have to Give about Qualifying Exams

One of the disciplinary traditions of graduate study is the exam which allows a student to advance to candidacy. In theory, it’s not a bad idea: a little ritual to help indicate to your committee that you know the intellectual terrain well enough to get into your research and writing full time. In reality, the process tends to be obscure, and, for many students, can become an enormous source of anxiety. I benefited from a committee that provided a lot of structure for my exams, and so if you have a committee that isn’t particularly structuring (or even if you do), some of these practices might help. Qualifying exams are really just another test — and, if you’re lucky, they’ll be the last tests you ever take.

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Is it wrong to use an image from the Milgram experiments to talk about qualifying exams?

I’ve experienced two different forms of qualifying exams (or comprehensive exams, or whatever else they might be called): the timed exam and the open-ended exam (or the acute and the chronic). The first comes in a couple different varieties — sit in a room for a day or more and answer a question (or set of questions) or sit at home for several days and answer a set of questions. The second comes in a couple forms too — write a literature review of a set of texts or write a chapter or two of your dissertation (which are based on a set of predetermined readings). In each case, the exams are based on a collection of readings that have been determined by the student and the exam committee, with more or less direction.

I’m a big proponent of the ‘several questions over several days’ method of testing for a couple of reasons: short exams tend to be not very productive for the testee, and they tend to not be very good to read for the testers. The result is that they tend not to be especially indicative of what a person actually knows — just what they can cram into a one-day writing session. I’m also not a big fan of either of the open-ended options: they tend to drag out forever, leading to students taking a long time to advance to candidacy, in no small part because the implicit expectation is that they will in fact be ‘comprehensive’ (which is impossible). In both cases, students end up turning in exams that don’t do enough because they can’t — or which try to do too much without actually needing to. But that’s all neither here nor there — in any case, you have a reading list to generate…

Making the Reading List

Your reading list will be made of a certain number of readings as proscribed by your committee, and that list will be broken up into a set of smaller topical and thematic lists (usually 2-3). Usually, these lists are also keyed to a specific member of your examining committee, who is tied to the list (and your exam) by a shared speciality. So try this:

First, go through all the syllabuses from the graduate (and maybe undergraduate) classes that you’ve taken (you did keep them, didn’t you?), and come up with a list of all the topically and theoretically important stuff that you’ve already read. There might be additional stuff on these syllabuses that you haven’t read, but you should, and so this would be a time to do so.

Second, come up with a list of all the stuff you feel like you should know for your exams. This can be theoretical stuff, topical stuff, greatest hits from your discipline, historically important stuff for your specific field, etc. If you aren’t sure where to start, take a look at the Annual Reviews website and read through some review essays on topics related to your dissertation — they can be a great source of citations to mine. If you haven’t taken classes related to your dissertation topic, you can email professors who have taught relevant courses at your institution and other institutions and ask for syllabuses, which are also a good source to mine for citations.

In both cases, you don’t want your list to be too specific. I recommend to students that they should think about the classes that they’ll eventually teach and come up with syllabuses for them — they should be populated with texts that you would include on your reading lists. Most people don’t go through their careers teaching highly specialized courses, i.e. I don’t teach classes on sleep medicine in the 20th century; I teach classes on medical anthropology and the biology of everyday life. ‘Sleep medicine in the 20th century’ is too narrow for a exam list, but ‘medical anthropology’ of ‘the biology of everyday life’ would be good places to start.

Now, take the list of readings and sort them into thematic and topical clusters. Try and get each reading into two or more clusters, and try and make sure that each cluster has at least five readings in it. If a cluster doesn’t have enough in it, cut the cluster. If a reading can’t fit into at least two clusters, put it on a reserve list — don’t cut it, since it might be important, but put it into storage.

To make this a little more concrete, here’s a pretend dissertation to work with: nationalism in South Asian superhero comics, with fieldwork focusing on their creators and fans. (If you want to write this dissertation, let me know: I have a box of Indian comics waiting for the right graduate student.) So, to start with, our imaginary graduate student is going to have a few obvious clusters: South Asia as a topical region, theories of nationalism, and studies of popular culture, its creators and fans. There are going to be readings that fit into more than one of these clusters right off the list — readings about nationalism in South Asia, readings about popular culture in South Asia, and readings about nationalism and popular culture.

But each of these clusters is going to be comprised of a bunch of smaller clusters, so, for example, the popular culture cluster can probably be broken down in relation to kinds of media (film, novels, newspapers, TV, comic books, music, etc.). It might also be broken down in relation to the topical approaches of the authors, so you might have clusters focusing on race, gender, sexuality, class, etc. The student might also have clusters around fandom and creator-oriented approaches.

Again, you should be able to sort readings into multiple clusters. For the first draft of your reading lists, it’s not bad to have the same reading appear more than once (as long as your committee knows that you’re doing and not try and artificially inflate your reading list). At this point, it’s worth going back to the Annual Reviews database and looking for reviews of each of these clusters, and again mining them for citations. At the end of this process, you should have a pretty significant list of readings.

Once you have your clusters in place, it’s time to check in with your examining committee. What they should be doing is offering suggestions on other readings to fit into each of the clusters — and they might want to remove some stuff as well. Committee members can be especially helpful in identifying recently published stuff that may not have made its way into Annual Review essays yet, and they might also know scholars working in your field that are under recognized.

These suggestions from your committee should move your lists to being pretty finalized, and at this point you should work on organizing your clusters into their master lists and removing redundancies. (But you might keep a master list of your clusters so you can see where readings crossover into other clusters, which may be helpful as you write your exams.) You might also find that your list topics change in this process — that our imaginary graduate student moves from lists on South Asia, nationalism, and popular culture, to ‘nationalism in South Asia,’ ‘ethnicity, gender, and religion in popular culture,’ and ‘theories of mediation.’ (Frankly, any of the starting points of these lists was too broad to begin with — they should narrow and deepen as you work on them.)

With your finalized lists in hand, it’s helpful to write introductions to each of the lists. These introductions should be short, say 4-7 pages, and will lay out what your interests are in the overall topic of the reading list as well as the individual clusters that comprise the list. These introductions are helpful first stabs at thinking systematically about how the clusters in the list work together and what continuities exist within and across them; they are also very helpful for you committee, who may use your introduction to come up with questions for your qualifying exams. These introductions also help to serve as a guide for you as you do your reading, which, as you get into it, might start to feel overwhelming. But, if you know why you’re reading what you’re reading, your introductions can focus your attention to key questions and concerns in the texts.

Remember that your reading list is a contract with your committee: you can’t be held responsible to know anything not on the list, so when it comes time to write your exams or discuss them during an oral defense, know that the exam limits your committee too — at least in terms of what they can choose to ask you about and expect you to meaningfully engage with. If someone asks you something about a text that’s not on your list, it’s okay to say ‘I don’t know, but I’ll look it up.’

Reading & Writing the Exams

When it comes to the actual reading, it’s helpful to break the texts into two groups: things you need to spend a lot of time with and things that you can read in a cursory fashion. The cursory stuff might be things that you can read the introduction and a chapter or two from just to get a sense of where the author is coming from, where the project fits into the literature, and what the project looks like. You probably shouldn’t spend more than a day with any of the cursory material. In terms of the more intensive stuff, you’ll want to plan on reading it in its entirety and taking careful notes, with the expectation that you might spend two or three days with it. Ultimately, what you want to be able to do is identify similarities and differences between the approaches taken by authors — to that end, you should work on grouping authors and texts so that when it comes time to write answers to the questions you’re given, you can summarize kinds of approaches and trends in the field (it’s also helpful to plot historical transformations and continuities in how topics have been thought about).

I can’t imagine what your committee will ask you by way of exam questions, but, generally speaking, what committees are looking for in an answer is that you can cite as much of the relevant reading list as possible in a meaningful way — which is often structured around how scholars have addressed a set of central concerns in the field. So, for example, I might ask our theoretical graduate student how nationalism has changed based upon transformations in forms of mass media from the late 19th to early 21st century. The student could then have a few approaches: by historical period, by media form (newspaper to radio to film to TV, etc.), by theoretical approach — or some admixture thereof. What I’m looking for when I’m reading an answer to a question like that is a thorough engagement with the ideas embedded in the texts on the reading list; a cursory citation doesn’t really count. That doesn’t mean it needs to be a full paragraph about a single book (especially the cursory stuff), but it might be a full paragraph about a shared approach or topic, built of sentences that each refer to a reading or two.

Qualifying exams aren’t usually a place to do creative writing; they’re really meant to demonstrate to your readers that you understand the fields you’re participating in and that you’re on your way to being an expert. If you can find a compelling way to approach your answer, that’s always more enjoyable than a dry recitation of a comprehensive body of literature. But a dry recitation is better than a wildly creative non-engagement (which may appear evasive to your readers). Exams aren’t fun, and they really aren’t meant to be; but handled well, they can be productive and give you a solid piece of writing that you can go back to when it comes time to write literature reviews for your dissertation or articles.

Let’s Fund Every Graduate Student for 7 Years

Several years ago, I had an incidental conversation with a senior colleague, Ken George, who was at the time the chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He had come up with an idea to fund graduate students for seven years, and not through some enormous endowment, but through state funded education. It’s been a decade, and to my knowledge, no university has tried out a scheme similar to what George devised. So I want to put this idea out into the world and see if any institution will take me up on it — it’s a worthy experiment, and one that might radically change the way we train graduate students, how students experience graduate study, and the integration of undergraduates and graduate students on the contemporary campus.

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My memory of the conversation with George was that he reasoned that the average time to Ph.D. for an Anthropology student was seven years. So, to be a competitive program, Madison would need to fund all of its incoming students for at least that long. The kernel of the idea he pitched to me was that students would receive teaching  or research assistantships for years 1-3, then receive a fourth year that was fully funded — so they could conduct research unfettered and without the need of securing external funding — and then return to the university for years five-seven, during which they would serve as primary instructors for their own classes. The funding they would receive in years five through seven would be reduced to pay the university back for the research year. There were probably more details to the plan, but these are the parts that have stuck with me — including George’s mention that he had discussed the plan with a university financial officer who told him it was feasible. And, after almost a decade of teaching at state universities, I think it might be the necessary future to address many of the concerns faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates face.

During their instructor years, I’m assuming that graduate students are teaching two to three classes per year (probably three), basically a reduced tenure-track teaching load and not-totally-abusive adjuncting teaching load. Like faculty, most of the graduate student’s commitment during the school year would be to teaching, but he or she would also have time to write up the research from year four — and work on other professionalization matters. More importantly, they would receive a living wage, which would support them for three years and also provide them with security of employment so they could spend their summers writing and not seeking a new job.

I don’t want to be evasive, but I also don’t know the math. I’ve tried to puzzle out how this all might work, but every institution is different and what they pay instructors who are ABD vs. Ph.D. varies, as well as the cost of health benefits. But the basic idea is this: income should be consistent over the 7 year period, adjusting for inflation. So whatever one is paid in year four — the research year — should be the same as what one is paid in year five. It’s probably not going to be great — it might be the equivalent of $20,000 each year — but it should be reliable.

But if you just want some numbers to think about, consider that it might cost a university $40,000 per year per graduate student (including stipend and benefits), and that three, 20-student classes generate about $60,000 per year (assuming students pay a relatively cheap $1000 per class). Now, most graduate students don’t cost that much, and most undergrads pay more than that per class, so even if the margins are tight, the university would still be operating with a profit, which can go towards facilities, administrators, and all the other gears that need to be greased to make a university run.

One thing I’m always asked when I bring this proposal up is: what does a department do about a student who takes the fourth year funds and then never returns? Again, I don’t know that there’s one universal bureaucratic right answer, but basically the funds would be converted into a tuition fee and the student would need to pay it back. Likewise, if a student decided not to stay for the full seven years — say she or he gets a tenure track job somewhere — she or he could pay the prorated remaining balance from year four off. So, if a student takes a job at the end of year six, she would need to pay one year’s worth of the forward funding back to the university for year four (about $7,000). Students could also decline the research year and just proceed to the instructorship or pay off the research year with an external grant. It shouldn’t be a form of entrapment, but rather the kind of security that provides at least partial liberation from base anxieties (like paying rent and buying groceries).

The big challenge I see is having classes for the returning graduate students to teach. Given a modest graduate program of six graduate students, this would mean that during any given year (not adjusting for attrition), the department would have 18 instructors teaching a total of 54 new classes. Some of these courses might be in the major, but most of them would need to be channeled elsewhere. And this is the crux of the proposition as I see it — where does all this labor go?

My best guess is to create a new requirement for every major on campus, namely a two part writing or communication class that’s major-specific and taken during year one or two of an undergraduate career. For example, in an anthropology department, majors would be required to take a two term sequence in Reading Anthropology and Writing Anthropology. The first would teach them how to identify theses, supporting arguments, the use of evidence, basic genres of social scientific writing, etc. The second course would focus more squarely on getting students to write as novice anthropologists, with all of the expected generic conventions in place. Both of the courses would help them in their major, and benefit them overall with more intensive critical reading and writing training that could be applied in other courses they take, in and out of their major.

There’s another basic math problem, which is that the number of graduate students in any particular program might be out of proportion to the number of undergraduates enrolled in the department’s major. One way to handle this would be to have graduate students from cognate programs teach at the undergraduate level in departments with excessive majors. So, for example, biological anthropology Ph.D. students might teach the Reading and Writing Biology courses in the Biology department, freeing up graduate students there to do the laboratory work they are needed for by faculty in Biology.

The tougher question is what to do about majors like Computer Science, where conventions of communication vary significantly from other disciplines. But courses could be offered to train graduate students in the necessary skills, and there might be significant monetary incentives to lure them into teaching in these programs. Each institution would need to figure out what the roadblocks are and address them with local resources — or, potentially, start new interdisciplinary Ph.D. programs to meet the needs produced by new requirements.

In any case, the course content should be determined by the instructor to reflect her or his areas of confidence and strength, but assignments across iterations of the same class should be similar so as to ensure that standards are being met. Teaching critical reading and writing skills to undergraduates also benefits instructors, whose own reading and writing skills tend to further develop through teaching. And such intensive teaching helps graduate students gain confidence and skills in one of the primary skills they’ll need in their future as educators.

There are some significant reputation dividends to be gained with a program like this for departments and universities: the university can brand itself as especially dedicated to undergraduate reading and writing skills, and in a landscape where graduate training seems precarious if not exploitative, the university can cast itself as ethical and intensely focused on the professional development and economic security of its graduate students.

If you convince your department or dean to experiment with a 7-year funding plan, let me know. And if you can think of any thing I missed, let me know that too…

Asking for Letters of Recommendation (for Undergraduates)

These are the general criteria I have for writing letters for undergraduate students, particularly for graduate school. I assume most other professors have similar standards, so I’m listing my criteria here so that students can plan appropriately. If students don’t meet these criteria, it’s very unlikely that I’ll write a letter of recommendation on their behalf.

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1) A student must have taken at least two classes with me, and preferably more. If you only take one class with a professor, all they can write about is your performance in that one class. What’s more compelling to readers of your application is seeing consistency or trajectory — i.e. either that you are a solid, high achieving student across classes, or that you are maturing as a student and are improving in your achievements.

2) A student must write an original research paper in at least one of the classes taken with me. It’s fine to write about your performance on tests, quizzes and your general classroom behavior and achievements, but what’s even more important is the ability of a letter writer to speak to your ability to conduct original research and write a compelling, well argued research paper — since that’s what you’re going to have to do in graduate school.

3) I have to recognize your face and name. This might seem incidental, but if you’ve done 1 & 2, then it’s most likely the case that you’ll already meet this criteria. If, however, you’ve taken a number of classes with me, never spoken in class, met with me outside of class, or distinguished yourself in some way in my memory, something has gone wrong. If I know your name in class, I’ll probably remember it a few years later.

If you meet all those criteria, please don’t ask to come see me in my office just to ask me to write a letter of recommendation; an email will suffice. Please also take the time to read this guide on applying to graduate school, and plan on sending me your personal statement and the list of schools you’re considering. if I suggest other schools, take my suggestions seriously and at least look at the programs I mention.

A few other things to keep in mind as you prepare to ask people for letters of recommendation:

First, don’t ask graduate student teaching assistants for letters of recommendation. Their letters don’t carry the weight that faculty letters do, and, frankly, it’s not part of their job to recommend you.

Second: try and get letters from faculty who are in some way related to the kind of program you’re applying to. This can sometimes be difficult to manage, especially if you’re changing disciplines. But if a reader recognizes the name of a letter writer, that letter is going to prove much more effective in getting you into the program.

Finally, if you have weak or uncertain letters — i.e. you don’t meet the above requirements but are still getting letters from people — don’t waste your money on applying to Ph.D. programs, just target M.A. programs (which weak letters can probably get you into, as long as you have a solid GPA and personal statement).

If you’re thinking about graduate school and you don’t meet the above criteria for anyone you might ask for a letter from, the best option is to apply for post-baccalaureate enrollment at your alma mater and to take a few more classes with professors you previously worked with. This can give you the chance to work closely with professors, and to impress them of your readiness for graduate study.

Graduate school is a big commitment — time-wise, emotionally and monetarily — and preparing for it socially and academically will make a big difference in your ability to get into the programs you’re interested in.

So You’ve Got a BA in Anthropology…

ImageEvery year, graduating seniors are struck with bouts of anxiety when it comes time to think about what to do after graduating. I’m never entirely sure how to address this anxiety — when I graduated with a BA in English Literature in 1998, I went to work as a substitute teacher for a year, first in Ohio then Michigan, which was fun but not ultimately what I wanted to do — but here’s what I tell most students:

1) Most importantly, stay busy. Many students take time off after graduating, but it’s pretty important, both psychologically and professionally, to stay active. It can be really tempting to grant yourself a short vacation upon graduating, but unless you have a job lined up, a short vacation can often become a long one as you go through the process of looking for a job when you return to being active. And it doesn’t have to be your career — a job at your local coffee shop will do nicely, as will some weekly volunteering — but it does need to be something to get you out of the house and provide you with a bit of structure. After 17 or more years of having a life governed by school, a little bit of structure can be a very important thing in fighting off malaise and anxiety.

2) Find a volunteering gig. Idealist.org is a pretty good place to look for both volunteer and intern positions by area; InterAction seems to favor international opportunities. Ronald Hicks maintains a good list of more general internship opportunities for anthropology majors, but it might mean sorting through websites or relocating for a position.Your alma mater probably has a career center of some sort that can help you both with volunteering and an eventual job, and your home department might be able to help with volunteer positions as well.

It might not seem too important to spend 4-10 hours each week volunteering or interning, but: most of the other people in any volunteering gig are usually volunteers themselves, and they have contacts. If they know you through your volunteering, they might be impressed enough to connect you with people who have jobs available or even offer you a job that they have. Or, a volunteer organization might sometimes offer you a job, if you’re a dedicated and thoughtful person and they have a job to offer. Volunteering is really playing the long game: it might not get you something in the first couple of months, but it might turn into something great over time.

3) Start looking for a career. There are many, many job websites on the internet, and I can’t really recommend one over the other. But know that there are plenty of employers that are interested in the kinds of work that anthropology BAs can do; UC Berkeley and the American Anthropological Association both have overviews of kinds of career paths anthropology graduates have followed after graduation. If none of that sounds appealing, there are many programs to teach English abroad, like JET — just google ‘teach english [place you want to live]’ and see what comes up. Some programs seem sketchier than others, so it’s worth sussing them out a bit, but they all seem to pay equally poorly in exchange for you spending a couple of years abroad. There are also opportunities like Teach for America and the Peace Corps. Teach for America gets you teaching in exchange for teaching credentials, whereas Peace Corps volunteers can be asked to do any number of things based on their skills in exchange for pay. Really, there’s no shortage of low-paid, idealistic work for Anthropology BAs to do… But these are the programs that I’ve known former students to have worked with, and they’ve generally benefited from their experiences.

Remember two things: your first job probably won’t be your last job, so don’t despair if you hate it — it’s experience and at the worst lets you know what you don’t want to do in the future. And, secondly, every job is a step towards a career. As you winnow out the things you don’t want to do, as you build professional contacts and skills, you’ll be moving towards being employable in better and (hopefully) better paid positions. This might mean you’re perpetually on the job market, but that’s okay — ultimately, this is about finding a career that you tolerate if not enjoy.

4) Consider a practical Master’s degree. If everything isn’t working out on the job front, take a look at Master’s programs that can help you land a better class of job — M.A.s like Public Policy, Public Health, Social Work, and Education. Many of these programs are 1-2 years long and will cost you a fair amount of money, so look locally and benefit from paying in-state tuition. (Often the degree granting institution doesn’t matter as much as the content of the education, which is usually pretty similar from one institution to another, since it’s a much more practically focused curriculum.) They may require letters of recommendation, but letters from faculty and employers can work; and, some employers will help to offset the cost of your education if you come back to work for them for a while. Or, if you want to go on to get a Ph.D., this can be a way to get fresh letters of recommendation and training that might help you be employed on the other side of your Ph.D.

5) Or you can pursue a Ph.D.

Life after university can be tough and existential crisis-provoking — I only made matters worse by spending my free time reading Borges and Burroughs at my local city park when I should have been reading something more uplifting. Staying busy is essential, as is thinking about the kind of future you want, and working towards it. Faculty aren’t always the best people to talk to about this kind of stuff — we all chose a Ph.D. over other opportunities, after all — but talking to faculty early and doing volunteer work or internships prior to graduation can definitely reduce stress levels after commencement…

Picking & Working with a Dissertation Adviser

So you’ve gotten into graduate school and now you need to figure out how to compose a committee and select an adviser.

Many programs will assign you to a first year adviser, who may or may not share interests with you; his or her job is to serve as a contact person, to help you navigate the world of graduate school, and to serve as a sounding board as you start to develop your thoughts on your future dissertation and committee. Most programs fully expect you to stop working with your first year adviser as soon as you start assembling your committee — although you might not. Don’t feel like your doing something wrong by not continuing to work with this person.

Picking a Committee and Adviser

Most programs expect you to pick 2-3 members of the department to serve on your committee, as well as 1-2 people from outside of your department. I tend to think that the way you should approach this is by just considering all of these people to be committee members, and you’ll select one of them to be your adviser. Many people approach things the opposite way, selecting an adviser, and then building a committee around that person. I make this suggestion because there’s always the possibility that your adviser will leave — for another job, retirement, illness or death — and you want to make sure that the other people on your committee are suitable advisers as well, and not just people that you picked to fill in topical gaps in your committee. So, from these 2-3 people you have to choose from, here are some things to consider:

1) How much contact do you need with your adviser? Some advisers are very hands on, while others can be quite hands off — and people fall all along that continuum. Do you want to see your adviser every week, every month or every year? It’s not always obvious at the outset what kinds of contact expectations an adviser will have, so ask students that your committee members work with to see what kinds of expectations the faculty have about contact and what that contact looks like (e.g. meetings, phone calls, emails, meals).

2) What’s your work style like? Do you write fast or slow? It’s good to work with people on your committee who have similar work styles. If you’re a very slow writer but everyone on your committee works very quickly, there’s bound to be tensions between you and them (they might think you’re lazy or easily distracted). Or, if you’re very fast and they’re all slow, that can pose a similar problem (they might think you aren’t careful enough). It can be fine to work with an adviser who works differently than you do, but make sure that you have someone on your committee who can serve as an advocate for your work style.

3) Would you want to be stuck on an airplane next to this person? Would you be willing to go to this person’s house for dinner? Members of your committee — and your adviser especially — will be writing letters of recommendation for you for the decade after you defend your Ph.D., whether for jobs or tenure and promotion. So you’ll need to be in regular contact with them, which may mean meeting for meals at professional meetings. If you have a hard time having small talk with a committee member, you might do better to seek someone else out. And if you’re too intimidated by someone to watch them eat ice cream or sloppy noodles, again, they may not be long for your committee.

Maintaining a Relationship

Your relationship with your adviser is really a professional one — since they’ll be writing letters of recommendation for you and mediating your relationship with the rest of your department (when it comes to reporting on your ongoing standing in the program), you want to make sure that you treat him or her with a reasonable about of respect and can interact with him or her naturally (i.e. not quivering out of being intimidated). First and foremost, know what your adviser’s expectations are: how quickly do they think you should get through the program? what do they expect a dissertation to look like and include? how much do they expect you to do (in terms of publications, conference talks, etc.) before you graduate? You can talk about this stuff with potential advisers, but also be sure to talk to students who work with individual faculty to get a sense of their experiences. Sometimes the experiences of students can be significantly different from what an adviser will tell you.

Beyond that, if your adviser sets a deadline, be sure to meet it, even if the work isn’t perfect. But try and make it as solid as possible. And know that you have two meltdown opportunities: once while you prepare for your qualifying exams and once during your dissertation writing; your adviser is not your therapist, after all.

Changing your Adviser or Committee

Like any relationship, sometimes things don’t work out between an advisee and an adviser. And if things aren’t working for you, they probably aren’t working for your adviser either, so breaking it off with them might be best for everyone. You can sometimes shuffle your present adviser into a committee role; and sometimes you need to eject them entirely. There’s no really easy way to go about this, but here are some general tips:

1) Talk to who you want to replace your current adviser, and make sure that he or she is willing to step into the role. If not, then see who is. Once you have that person lined up, they can help with the transition from your current adviser to your future adviser.

2) Talk with the graduate program director and let him or her know about your intentions. This way, if things go south — for whatever reason — they’ve already been primed on the situation and can advocate for you. They might also be able to have a conversation with your current adviser to iron things out and make your transition smooth.

3) Yes, it may be a little awkward for a while, but it’s probably more awkward for you than for your former adviser. Eventually, things should work themselves out. But always remember that your education and professionalization is about what’s best for you, and if that means ejecting someone from your committee altogether, that’s just what you need to do. And if you can’t expect your former adviser to write you a solid letter of recommendation, then you need to trust your instincts and set him or her free.

So much of graduate school — and the rest of your professional life — is managing and maintaining relationships with people, and for the first few years there’s no more important relationships than your committee, who will really see you through the worst of your academic training (your qualifying exams, your dissertation, your first publications, etc.). Make sure you surround yourself with supportive people, and many of the anxieties associated with this stuff won’t be nearly as bad.

Questions? Comments? Experiences? Post them in the comments and we’ll continue the conversation.

So You’re Applying to Graduate School (in Anthropology)

Applying to graduate school can seem daunting, but if you take it step by step it doesn’t need to be so. But this means starting the process early — like a year before you plan on applying — and making sure that you treat it like a job. After all, if you get into a program and finish your Ph.D., it will be your career (given that you can get a job somewhere). There’s four things to keep in mind: first, most admissions are done by committee, and not by individual faculty (although individual faculty can have strong votes); if you don’t get in a program one year, you might get in the next, if the graduate admissions committee has changed significantly. Second, the difference between undergraduate and graduate eduction is profound. Plan on working 60-80 hour weeks throughout graduate school (for very little money), and only focusing on school. And third: applications to graduate programs go up when the economy is bad, and there’s less funding for graduate students overall, which makes it especially difficult to get admitted to programs these days. Finally: there are very few jobs for anthropologists in universities; plan on keeping your options open for your career, since anthropologists can get work in any number of non-university settings.

If you’re undaunted, here are the most important things in the application process:

1) Make sure you’re applying to the right programs. Sometimes people will recommend programs to you based on reputation alone, and reputation usually lags by about a decade, since faculty move around and retire with some regularity. But take the time to see what faculty are there, and which of them are of interest to you. And then take the time to read 2-3 articles — or maybe a book — from each of those faculty. (If this sounds like too much work, then don’t apply to grad school; this is the tip of the iceberg.) And be sure to read the recent stuff: you don’t want to tell an interested faculty member that the piece of theirs you found the most interesting is one they published 20 years ago. If you can’t find at least 3 faculty that you find of interest, don’t apply to the program. Someone might leave for another job or retire, you might have personality conflicts with someone, or someone might just be over committed. You need to make sure you have enough faculty to work with in case any of these — or other unexpected events — come up. The more people that share your interests at a particular program, the more likely it is that it’s the right place for you.

2) Make sure you’re applying to enough programs. I tell people to apply to no fewer than eight programs, and as many as twelve. Part of this is because there’s a lot of competition to get into grad school these days, and you really want to hedge your bets. The other part is that it’s always good to have options. If only 25% of the schools you apply to admit you, if you’ve applied to eight programs, at least you have two programs to decide between. And until you get admitted and visit campus, everything will seem rather abstract; after visiting a couple campuses and meeting faculty and grad students, you’ll have a much better sense of each of the programs and where you want to be. Yes, it’s a huge investment — probably $1000-$1500 in application, GRE and transcript fees — but it’s an investment in your future career.

Also, be regionally diverse. Pick a couple programs on each coast, some in the Midwest and in the South. Different U.S. regions — and states — are experiencing the current recession differently, and where one state might be losing funding, another might be having funding returned to it. Most universities are in college towns anyway, so other than the weather, there’s often little difference from one university town to another…

3) Get in touch with faculty. After you’ve read a few articles from each of the faculty you’re interested in working with, send them each an email. There’s two reasons for this: first, to introduce yourself and your proposed project, and secondly, to see what kind of feedback you get from faculty. When you email people, send a brief description of your project — no longer than a paragraph — and rather than asking them if they’d be interested in working with you, ask how the project might change shape under their advising. If faculty don’t respond or respond negatively (e.g. they aren’t interested in the project), cross those faculty off your list of potential people to work with. And if they have suggestions, take them seriously and plan to incorporate them into your personal statement. If people make suggestions that don’t work for you — for whatever reason — again, cut them from your list. This should help you get a good sense of who you might want to eventually work with and what programs are right for you.

4) Get in touch with graduate students in the program. Most programs have lists of active graduate students, and you can cull that list for people with interests that match your own; you can also ask the faculty that you email for names of students they work with that you might get in touch with. Ask students about their experiences in the program, with faculty, in the city the program is located in, etc. Grad students are your best informants — both via email, and when you visit campus. And be sure to email students at various points in their careers — first or second year students, and students who are writing their dissertations — since programs can look quite different depending on where a student is in the process.

5) Your personal statement should be no more than 2 single-spaced, 12 point font pages. No faculty member is going to read more than 2 pages, unless they’re already hooked by pages 1-2. And if they are, then you can only lose them by going on for too long. And if they aren’t into pages 1-2, they aren’t going to read page 3… Your personal statement should have a robust description of your proposed project, what has brought you to the project and your relevant skills, and a good explanation for why you want to be in the program you’re applying to (with reference to faculty and their interests). Your personal statement should not start with an anecdote about how you found anthropology and how it changed your life; you’re applying to a graduate program in anthropology, after all, and the readers will be assuming that you know what you’re getting into. You should also not start with some anecdote about what you read this past summer — it should start with you (it’s a personal statement, after all).

Any good project description includes both empirical and theoretical content. You need to be able to describe a compelling project and demonstrate how it’s in conversation with contemporary debates in the discipline; what does it add to our collective knowledge? No one expects you to work on the exact project that you propose, but they do want to see what your general area of interest is and that you have a sense of how to develop a dissertation project and all that it will entail. You should also be sure to explain any language or area training that has prepared you for this proposed project; if you don’t have language or area specialties, be sure to explain how you’ll be acquiring them before your research starts.

It’s also very important to demonstrate to faculty that you’re a good fit for the program. The best way to do this is to identify faculty in the department who you’re interested in working with, and clearly demonstrating to the reader that you are deeply knowledgeable of their work. I often see personal statements where prospective students do nothing more than identify faculty based on their keywords listed on departmental websites; that’s lazy at best and insulting at worst. Since you’ve already read a bunch of faculty work, you should be able to write a paragraph or two about how your project fits in with their interests.

Your personal statement is the most important part of your application; more important than your GRE scores, your GPA, your letters or recommendation, and anything else that might be asked for. Start drafting it early, and revise it carefully. A compelling and well-researched personal statement can overcome a bad GPA or mediocre GRE scores — it happens all the time.

Here are some things to avoid:

1) Don’t plan on getting into a Ph.D. program straight out of undergrad. A lot of people think that if they take time away from school that getting back into it will be hard. But since grad school is such a different beast than undergrad, there’s going to be an adjustment for everyone. And since grad school is much more like a job than undergrad, people who come in straight from undergrad often have a much harder time acclimating to the changes than people who have been in the workforce. And, finally, some work experience will only improve your application and help you develop a meaningful dissertation project that moves beyond the sometimes insular concerns of the academy.

2) Don’t apply to programs just because they’re in an area that you want to be in. If you have a full time job that you plan on keeping while you’re in grad school, you might not be ready for grad school — or you might just look for Master’s programs in your area. Ph.D. programs are full time jobs, and you need to make sure you’re ready for them, both socially and financially. And, if you really feel like you can only live in certain parts of the country for a Ph.D. program, you might think about other career paths — getting into grad schools in an area of your choice can be hard; getting a job there is even more unlikely. Plus, living in highly desirable places for grad school (the coasts, major metropolitan areas) is a surefire way to come out of grad school with tons of student loan debt. Cost of living is something to consider, especially when any stipend or pay you’ll be receiving through your grad program is unlikely to be more than a couple thousand dollars a month.

3) Don’t plan on working with a bunch of very senior or very junior faculty; any good committee has a mix of faculty at various points in their careers. Junior faculty are usually stressed out from tenure-related concerns; very senior faculty are usually working towards retirement. Associate professors, on the other hand, are right in the middle of their careers, and should be ready for working with students. But, really, all faculty have significant publication, research and teaching burdens. There’s also the question of social networks, which is a big part of graduate school: pick faculty who circulate in different social circles (e.g. they have different research topics, come from different programs), since getting a job can be very dependent on social contacts. Lots of redundancy cuts down on the breadth of any social network. So people working with a diverse committee of people at various stages throughout their career is one way to ensure a bigger social network.

4) Don’t put all your eggs in the graduate school basket. At the same time that you apply to graduate school, apply to jobs (or plan on staying in your current job). In some cases, you might find that your options for graduate school aren’t very appealing; in other cases, you might decide that you don’t want to live a graduate student life of poverty. And, if you don’t get admitted anywhere, it’s good to have something to fall back on. When you get around to applying to grad school again, more life experience will only make you a better student in the long run.

That’s it — although I’m probably forgetting something. If you have questions, comments or contradictory experiences, let me know in the comments and we’ll continue the conversation.