I’ve served on more than 110 graduate committees in all four subfields and have chaired 21, so I am perfectly comfortable with the steps and rituals of graduate education, which have not changed much from what I went through some 40 years ago. But I suspect this comfort is really a signal of something wrong. Why am I reproducing a system that was invented in the 19th century? Why are we training graduate students to work in a world that no longer exists?
This brings me to the qualifying, comprehensive or preliminary exam. In ancient times (the 1970s), exams served as a screening device, and indeed it frightened some of us into prolonged efforts to divine what our elders considered important, and drove away many of the most creative and least conformist students in my class. I am sure the format of these exams or papers varies widely, but I have never seen any evidence at all that they produce better anthropologists. Instead, they continue to scare away and delay students who would be better off starting their dissertations as well as many who do not “fit the mold,” whatever that may be. These trials certainly don’t test the ability to manage a laboratory or field project, nor the ability to teach and publish, the tasks that occupy most of an anthropologist’s time. In my program at least, we very rarely flunk anyone who actually takes the exam. And while the oral portion always leads to interesting conversation, I am not sure the process actually helps students prepare for the real screening device—getting money to do their dissertation research.
What about that dissertation? I am the last person to remove theory from graduate education and the everyday work that drives us as anthropologists. But why do we expect theoretical expertise from a student’s first substantial research project? Most anthropologists don’t effectively engage with theory until much later in their careers, if ever. Of course students need to read the most relevant material and learn the theory and research skills they need for fieldwork, but most of their projects are empirical and practical. Furthermore, how is a novice to know what body of theory is going to be useful or relevant until they have actually done some research? This does not stop us from requiring their proposals to frame their conclusions before the research is done, while more experienced anthropologists know that the unexpected often hides behind the unexplained.
But no matter what stage of graduate school students find themselves in, specialization versus generalization is an ever-present issue in graduate training. We live in a world where both are necessary, and each of us has to find the right balance. A lot depends on the kinds of positions we end up in, and that is something increasingly difficult to anticipate. With the growth of the corporate university and the huge cadre of temp working non-tenure-track faculty, our students are likely to have several careers. A graduate program for this kind of world does not train students well if it overemphasizes either specialization or diversification.
There are many other things questionable about graduate education in anthropology, and just about zero evidence for what works best. As my theory students found out in another project, most large graduate departments have no record of what has happened to their PhD students after they get their hoods and diplomas. One of the most serious problems is that graduate school just takes too long—the fastest I have ever seen is five years and even that is a substantial investment of time. Are students supposed to delay having a home and family well into their 30s, enduring the poverty of assistantship or digging themselves a deep pit of debt? Too much of graduate school is taken up with fulfilling general requirements, or treading water waiting for requirements, exams, and grant opportunities. These burdens fall most heavily on students from unwealthy families and those entering graduate school some years after college.
How many of us can say that we are better anthropologists because we spent seven or eight years in graduate school instead of four or five? If we had skipped our comprehensive exam or wrote a joint dissertation with others? I still feel that my qualifying exams were important to my intellectual growth, but I no longer think they were the best possible route to becoming an anthropologist.
Rick Wilk is a distinguished professor at Indiana University.
Cite as: Wilk, Richard. 2017. “Is Graduate School Obsolete?” Anthropology News website, May 24, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.705