No funding? Don't Go!! (on getting a PhD in anthropology)

Well, it’s that time of year when prospective grad students around the country are anxiously pacing around their mailboxes waiting for responses from all the PhD programs they applied to.  Many are wondering who accepted them, who rejected them, and, of course, if they got funding.  That’s the big question.  Getting a full-funding offer is the highest mark of acceptance and application success.  It’s like getting the golden seal of academic and departmental approval.  It means you’re in.

Getting accepted without a funding offer is a not-so-wonderful middle ground.  Like getting a happy-face sticker that says “Great Job!” when you really needed a paycheck.  It feels sort of like acceptance, but there’s something hollow about it.  A lot of people decide to enter PhD programs without funding, thinking that at least it gets them in the door.  If they happen to have piles of extra money on hand, or family support, or a full-time job, or maybe even a partner who is working, it might be a reasonable choice.  Might being a key word there.  But many people simply don’t have access to those kinds of financial resources.  In these post-economic crash, disintegration-of-the-university-as-we-knew-it times, I think more students need to seriously reconsider entering PhD programs without full funding.  Why?  Because it doesn’t make any sense to go into debt trying to get a PhD in anthropology (let alone plenty of other disciplines).  Sarah Kendzior said it best on twitter not too long ago:

Do not do a PhD program unless you are guaranteed full funding for every year. Use the system, don't let it use you.

If the funding isn’t there, don’t do it!* Don’t get used.  Look at your options.  If you have been “accepted,” but without funding, think long and hard about the decision.  Pay close attention to the numbers of people in debt, the academic job market (a PhD is geared toward producing academics, after all), and other factors like rent and cost of living.  More importantly, think about how you are going to cover your costs.  If you’re thinking that student loans are a good option, think again.  Take the time to read up about student loans, and why accepting them might be a very, very bad idea.  One glaring issue is a lack of basic consumer protections for borrowers:

Student debt is treated more harshly than any other type of debt in America. Unlike your mortgage, business, credit card or even gambling debts, student loan debt cannot be discharged in bankruptcy and there is no statute of limitations on the collections of student loan debt. As a result, more than 40 Million Americans are buried under approximately $1.2 Trillion worth of student debt and more than 7 Million of those people have defaulted on their student loans, causing major financial hardships from which there is almost no escape.

Here’s what the lack of consumer protections means: You can go out and spend $50,000 on credit cards and file for bankruptcy.  You can run a massive, corrupt corporation like Enron and file for bankruptcy.  You can buy a house that you can’t afford and you still have consumer protections.  You can even gamble away thousands of dollars and still get those protections.  But if you go to school and amass thousands of dollars in debt, no dice.  You are stuck with those loans, thanks in part to the wonderful lobbyists (like folks from Sallie Mae) who worked hard to...:

Sallie Mae’s lobbying efforts were recently described by The New York Times as “aggressive”i  spending $37,490,000 on lobbying from 1998 to 2012.ii  This year, Sallie Mae has already spent $1,230,000 on federal lobbying, working against several consumer protection bills, including the Private Student Loan Bankruptcy Fairness Act of 2013 and Fairness for Struggling Students Act of 2013.iii  Both pieces of legislation call for increased regulation of private banks with a history of bad lending practices.

Even if you do get a full-funding offer, take a close look at the numbers.  Look at the amount of the stipend, the time expectations coming from the department, and travel expenses related to doing fieldwork (this last one is huge).  As Karen Kelsky pointed out with her PhD debt survey a few months back, full-funding often isn’t enough.  This is definitely the case in anthropology, which, due to fieldwork requirements, certainly isn’t cheap.  One of the issues with fieldwork is that many of your costs back home can’t be covered by fieldwork grants.  And trust me, it’s not easy to keep up with your costs while you’re away doing fieldwork, unless you’re some sort of roaming free-spirit without any possessions, connections, bills, or previous obligations.  Even students with funding often end up taking out student loans to cover those “extra” expenses.  Again, this warrants a deep look into the pluses and minuses of student loans (see above).  These are the kinds of things you don’t hear too much about until you’re well into the thick of grad school.  Better to know sooner rather than later.

At some point we might want to think about how all of this debt is affecting the actual practice and meaning of anthropology.  Think about this: if we’re graduating a flood of students who are deep in debt, what kind of “anthropology” are we really producing in the end, and how does that bode for all of our big talk about “public engagement”?  Especially since the students of anthropology are one of the discipline’s primary public audiences.  Teaching is, after all, on the front lines of what many refer to as “public anthropology”.  It is one way we get the message out into the world.  But what message are we sending?  What does it mean for anthropology when our institutions are burying a huge percentage of our own in debilitating debt, while the rest of us just stand by and watch?

That’s a discussion for another post.  In the meantime, don’t get used.  Avoid debt at all costs.

*Note: Some folks might respond to this by saying something like “But if the only people who get PhD’s are those who have the money or resources, then graduate school is going to become little more than an elitist institution for the rich!” My response: It already is. Encouraging more people to go into debt isn’t going to change that.

Cross-posted on Savage Minds.

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Comment by M Izabel on August 11, 2014 at 9:38pm

Ryan, it is not the funding that is a problem.  The problem is the study to be  funded.  Try creating a program like Political Anthropology (Concentration: Graft and Corruption) or Medical Anthropology (Concentration: Social Medicine);  Funds will be all over.  In short,  don't take a PhD if Anthropology remains irrelevant and descriptive (not prescriptive) as far as solving social and cultural problems is concerned.  The problem of Liberia or Guinea is Ebola  not their feather headdresses and war dance costumes. Can Anthropology do something to eradicated Ebola? 

Comment by Erin B. Taylor on August 11, 2014 at 4:23pm

Hi all,

Thanks Ryan! Good to see the message getting out there. I agree fully: unless you have a massive bankroll, don't do a PhD without full funding plus money for extras like fieldwork. I also agree with Lee: even if you do have full funding, you should seriously consider whether it's worthwhile. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't.

When doing a PhD is a good idea

1: For fun. When I enrolled in my PhD program we all had to attend an initiation tutorial with other grad students in our faculty. The tutor, a psychologist I think, posed the question, "Now, students, why do we do a PhD?" I resonded, "For fun." She laughed nervously and replied, "No, we don't do it for fun. But why DO we do a PhD?" I turned to the woman next to me and said, "But I was serious!" And indeed I was. If you're not enjoying it, why do it? If you are really enthusiastic about your topic it should be fun as well as serious, difficult, personality-building, etc etc.

When doing a PhD is not a good idea

1. Because you think it will get you a better / academic job

2. Because you have no clue what you'd do otherwise

3. To make your parents / friends / the Flying Spaghetti Monster happy

4. To allay your own insecurities

5. For status

I think that's about it. One last word: to my U.S. friends especially, try looking for fully-funded programs outside of the U.S. You guys get ripped off more than anyone else. The rest of us have no clue as to why getting into debt seems like such a natural thing to do. From the outside, the U.S. looks more like the Land of the Suffering than the Land of the Free.

Finally: good luck!


Comment by Lee Drummond on March 31, 2014 at 12:14am


Ryan, All,

    I’d like to follow up my earlier Comment with a more down-to-earth consideration of the problem you pose:  Why do graduate work in anthropology without funding, since that will likely lead to financial and personal disaster? 

    First, what is the lay of the academic landscape out there?  I personally have no clue, but since you’re in the thick of it you most likely have a lot of personal experience in addition to knowing others in that meat grinder.  In addition to anecdotal knowledge – which in our imprecise field is almost as good as gold – are there any short-range longitudinal studies that track funded and unfunded graduate students through their programs and on into the hard, cruel world?  Might such studies reveal a significant difference in career paths depending on the relative prestige of graduate departments?  Are there figures, even crude approximations, of the percentage of new Ph.D.s who secure academic employment and, breaking that down, the type of employment (part-time, adjunct, visiting, tenure-track)? 

    Combining a pool of anecdotal knowledge with whatever survey information is available, does a big picture emerge of the community of young anthropologists?  Is that community differentiated between relatively successful funded students and relatively unsuccessful unfunded students? 

    If such a difference exists, then your exhortation, “Don’t Go!”, should probably be heeded – at least by individuals who are anxious to avoid a life of crushing debt and struggle. 

    However – and this is just another hypothetical – it may be that academic success, as measured by tenure-track employment, is about as elusive for funded students as for unfunded students.  In short, will young anthropologists find themselves in pretty much the same (rocky) boat regardless of their graduate school histories?  In that unhappy event, the idea I floated in my last Comment may warrant reconsidering: An anthropologist is a driven, not to say obsessed and rather twisted individual with an unhealthy disregard for the exigencies of a “normal” life.  There are any number of examples of just this sort of person in anthropology’s brief but colorful history.  I think in particular of George Catlin and Curt Nimuendajú (an impoverished, self-educated German who traveled to Brazil and spent a lifetime among its Amerindians, in the process producing a tremendously impressive body of ethnography). 

    With these considerations in mind, we need to revisit your thesis:  A rational person should not seek to become an anthropologist without having secured graduate school funding.  But what if anthropologists, by their very nature, are not rational persons?   

    Just something to ponder.   


Comment by Lee Drummond on March 23, 2014 at 9:43pm


    These are sobering, not to say depressing, thoughts.  Either the current crop of cultural / social anthropologists indenture themselves to a System which they can only criticize in circumspect ways or (for those already members of the “elite”) they continue to enjoy a privileged position in society more or less equivalent to those “ethnographers” whose colonial masters sent them out to document the ways and days of the abject “savage” subjects of the regime.  And what original thoughts can those toadies possibly conceive? 

    Putting the dilemma in this way, however, does not engage what is probably the most important issue facing contemporary anthropology:  Even for those relatively few who manage to navigate the shoals of indentured poverty and secure something like secure academic employment, are they then ready to turn the powerful (?) lens of analysis they have acquired on the pressing issues of today?   Or do they remain enthralled to the esoteric matters of graduate school, and expend their careers debating tweedledee and tweedledum  issues (“connectivism,” “agency,” “alterity,” “the ontological turn”) which matter not a whit to folks in what we like to call the “real world”?  In short, does their “success” merely shore up the walls of an ivory tower erected by generations of their predecessors to ensure that, as Nietzsche said of philosophers who came before him, “nothing real escaped their grasp alive”? 

    I would guess that the answer to the dilemma you so cogently pose – Why go to graduate school if it will destroy you? – lies, like just about everything, in a hit-or-miss proposition that gives little solace to anyone (least of all those who’ve staked their futures on it).  Folks, it’s Big Casino.  Chances are that you’ll bust out, lose everything, and spend the rest of  your life as a hopeless drudge.  But maybe, just maybe, you’ll draw just the right hand at just the right time, push everything out on the felt, and. . . win!  Big Casino. 

    Yet here’s the catch: maybe not in your lifetime.  It’s a high stakes game that stretches out indefinitely, but whata’ya got to lose except any chance of future well-being?  And, let’s be frank, in a world filled with daily atrocities the success or failure of a few academic careers doesn’t count for much.  Others before you have played that long-odds hand: Copernicus, Bruno, Mendelev, Proust, Nietzsche, van Gogh, Kafka, Melville, on and on, and wound up losing to a crummy two pair against their own pocket aces.  It happens.  That’s the breaks.   

    But, and here’s a supremely important point, if you’re prepared to risk it all, to go for it (and if you’ve got the smarts of an Amarillo Slim – who somehow never got a graduate degree in anthropology) then you’re going to want to play for Big Casino.  Will you advance the cause of a post-interpretive, hyper-reflexive anthropology whose cultural / social engagement can be measured by the minuscule circulation figures of the American Anthropologist?  Or, just perhaps, will you contribute to a body of significant cultural analyses of the complex and truly awful pickle our species has created for itself?  Big Casino. 

   But enough – too much – of my soapbox rant.  You make an excellent point: Trying to become an anthropologist is a risky business with often grim consequences, thanks in part to the good folks at SallieMae.  The powerful who run things in any society are not eager to have their actions and beliefs put under the harsh scrutiny of an anthropological lens. In short, you’ve got to have a screw loose to pursue a career in anthropology.  


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