Is Graduate School Obsolete?

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?

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?
I regularly taught our department’s core course in contemporary anthropological theory, and one year I had the students survey the reading lists for theory courses at other universities to see if canonical readings appeared on many lists. They didn’t. So why have a “theory” course at all? Students already work with advisors on their exam reading lists, and they will probably learn more by meeting with other students to discuss what they read; their professors are probably out of date anyway. My experience in graduate school was that discussion and debate with other students (in all the subfields) taught me much more than any class; I suspect this is true in even the best programs.

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.

The unexpected often hides behind the unexplained.
It is also time that we acknowledge that the world and the research landscape are too complex for a single anthropologist working for one or two years to make a substantial contribution. Biological and archaeological anthropologists have long recognized that big issues require big teams. But in sociocultural anthropology we still expect an individual quest and original work (whatever that means). How can this possibly train students for the teamwork that is now essential in most field research? Even when students are working as part of a larger project, we continue to treat the dissertation as the work of an individual, written from a single vantage point. Isn’t it ethnocentric to always focus on the individual, and doesn’t this teach students to put their own advancement over the quality of their work? Even when students substitute published papers for the chapters of a dissertation, we usually want them single authored or at least senior authored.

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


Rick and Matthew: This is, indeed, an important conversation. A couple of thoughts come to mind in terms of an addition to this very interesting discussion. First, I don’t think that many grad programs do a very good job of preparing their students for the real world of academia (here I am thinking of teaching-oriented institutions with heavy teaching loads that make up the vast majority of universities in the country). Second, and perhaps even more importantly, there seems to be very little training on non-academic jobs for which anthropologists are well suited. I really do like the idea that part of any graduate education at the doctoral level should provide folks with substantive experiences that they can trade on in the academic or non-academic job market. I used the latter part of my doctoral program almost like a post-doc where I was teaching and publishing (and I was able to teach across the sub-disciplines at the intro level). As an academic administrator I am very willing to unshackle my imagination to explore new and better possibilities for our students.

I am really concerned that young scholars may take our rhetoric about teaching across disciplinary lines as serious advice, and get turned down for tenure and promotion as a consequence. I have very recently seen this happen to a friend.

This is a conversation that is absolutely worth having, especially in an era when most graduate programs primarily serve the financial demands of an institution and not the intellectual and professional desires of students (or faculty for that matter). These don’t need to be separate ends, but with enrollment-driven decisions being made at every level, they seem to be bifurcating ones. I’m convinced that what we need are better models to think about what we’re doing with and in graduate education, and in how graduate training articulates with the needs of undergraduate education as well. It seems to me that the question is not so much ‘is graduate school obsolete?’ as ‘can we find better models for graduate training and education?’

I’ve spent the last several years trying to slowly hack graduate education for students, the results of which make up my ongoing blog ( The conclusion that I’ve reached is that graduate training is both a problem of content and form; it’s not just that there’s not a lot of agreement on a canon or that there’s no stable set of theory to engage with (which, are problems in their own ways), but that the semester- or quarter-based structure of the academic year don’t allow for the kind of prolonged intellectual engagement that scholarship demands. And, that the three-years-to-expertise model captured in qualifying exams is both unnecessarily anxiety-inducing, and, for most students, pro forma. And all of the other things you rightly mention. We need to think seriously about why graduate training occurs in lockstep with undergraduate education, and how we might uncouple these curricula (or at least their timing). We also need to think seriously about how graduate students move from being students to being professionals (which, ostensibly, rituals like qualifying exams and dissertation defenses are meant to do, but neither of which is actually sufficient in the current professional context).

What we need are models of graduate education that work backwards to create the kinds of professional academics we want to populate the world with. For years, I’ve been trying to pitch a more apprenticeship-oriented model of graduate education ( — if you have to be in school for 7 years, you should at least graduate with a very full CV and diverse set of experiences. But that isn’t the only possible model, and it would be great for AN and the AAA to foster a conversation on best practices and rethinking graduate training altogether. And for faculty, students, and administrators to unshackle their imaginations in thinking about possible institutional forms and outcomes.

Thanks for your comment – I completely agree. The question is, how do we get there? Who will have the courage to bell the cat? How about a symposium/roundtable for the 2018 AAA meetings?

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