anthropology grad student, questions not to ask a grad student, grad student life
Photo courtesy of John Atherton

I’m nearing the end of my first term of graduate studies! In honour of the new discipline (anthropology), I’ve been conducting my own research on graduate student life. I’m using the most robust of methods: participant observation. It seems to me that grad life is hard.

The graduate student recipe looks something like this: Take 1 year of coursework; add 1 year of writing comprehensives; spice it up with a year of field work; pour in 2 years of synthesizing and writing up data; sprinkle a pinch of imposter syndrome, anxiety, doubt, and sleep deprivation, and you’ve got yourself a PhD student.

One thing I’ve noticed is that certain questions elicit shade throwing, eye rolling, groans, and sighs. I suspect that if you’re an anthropologist it’s because you’re more comfortable asking the questions than being the subject of study. Here are a few questions you probably shouldn’t ask a graduate student:

1. What is your research about?

Typical Response: Who cares?
You would think that grad students, committed to spending years of studying this particular topic, would be excited to have someone take an interest in their research. However, I suspect that years of people looking at them with a face that says WHAT are you on about? has turned them into jaded characters. After 5-6ish years, they probably don’t even care what their research is about.

So before you ask a grad student about their research you should be prepared to 1) Spend a lot of time trying to understand what they actually are on about or 2) Be lied to.

2. How long before you finish your thesis/ dissertation?

It's too diffoucault

Typical Response: *Throws shade*

Master’s students may be a little more gracious about this question, but for PhD students? It’s a can of worms. In anthropology, they’re trying to synthesize at least 8 months of field experiences into a coherent paper. Some people take six months, others spend two years on it. Asking when it will be finished is like asking a newlywed when she’s going to have kids. It implies it should have been done already, so what you’re actually asking is for someone to slap you.

3. What are you doing here, aren’t you in field research?

i'm a sociologist

Typical Response: I am in field research. Die.

The “field” is not always some “exotic”, faraway location. In fact, a lot of students are being encouraged to do more research close to home (and perhaps stepping on the toes of sociologists). Just because your friend in anthropology is always around does not mean they’re not immersed in the field; asking them about it is a reminder that many old-hat anthropologists see their research site as inadequate.

4. What are you going to do with that?

Typical Response: Whatever I damn well please.

Another related question: “You know there are no jobs in academia, right?” As it turns out, Microsoft is the second biggest employer of anthropologists after the government. Google has on-staff anthropologists. Marketing companies are hiring anthropologists all over the place because ethnography and “voice of the consumer” research is hot shit right now. But sharing these facts, that studying anthropology does actually make you quite employable in this “real world” you seem to speak so highly about (and yet are desperate to get out of – just Google “quit my job to travel”), is just me playing into this idea that being in the “real world” makes you a better person.

Maybe people just like to study for the hell of increasing their knowledge and producing it themselves. You should ask yourself why you don’t think that is a worthy pursuit.

5. How busy can you be?

Typical Response: Really effing busy, doucheface.

Every year is different in graduate school, but I don’t think you’ll find one who’s just chilling and doing nothing. Last week, I barely left my room for 5 days. I am ahead now but the work is never ending. There’s always something that you could be doing, and because (at least in the early years – see point # 1) grad students are probably quite interested in what they’re studying, they end up doing it. Whereas a lot of jobs can be left at the desk when you choose to go home, you’re immersed in studying, reading, thinking, marking, whatever.

That said, being a student has its cushy moments. Personally, I don’t like feeling responsible to other people, which is why I didn’t find the working world rewarding. But I’m okay with being in charge of my own learning and for that reason I really like being a student again.

6. Why do you think it takes so long for people to finish their dissertations?

when in doubt use foucault, anthropology phd, anthropology study, anthropology professor quote
Quote courtesy of a classmate, meme created by me

Typical Response: Ha ha ha ha!

I actually did ask this with all the genuineness in the world. The student I asked laughed really hard, but gave me a genuine answer. She said that generally by the time you get to writing the dissertation you haven’t written anything properly in 3 years. Getting back into that mode takes longer than most people expect.

7. Have you published anything yet?

Typical Response: Screw you.

Unless you’re looking to hire this particular grad student for an academic job, it just sounds like you’re trying to one-up them. Or undermining their work. Unless they have dozens of publications, in which case you’re talking to a magical f*cking unicorn.

6 thoughts on “7 Things You Don’t Ask an Anthropology Graduate Student”

  1. This arrogant, dismissive, and ignorant snark turns so many people off of anthropology. We always ‘know better’ and wag our fingers at other people . . . and then we behave like teenagers while doing it. Pathetic.

    1. I was mostly exaggerating for effect, Rob. Let’s not take silly people seriously! 🙂 Interesting you say ‘we’ though – are you guilty of it too?

  2. This actually just made me smile. I can remember having people ask genuinely interested questions about my fieldwork/write-up and think I had answered them with equal engagement only to be taken to task by my partner for “talking down” and “acting cynical”… But the reality is that talking about a big research project while you are in the midst of it to anyone who isn’t also immersed in some aspect (site, theory, method) of the same issues is inevitably alienating. Advise to academic job seekers. If you are lucky enough to get an interview, do NOT, ever, try to present your research as a sample class. Even when the committee asks you to do this. It is (1) impossible and (2)–see above–alienating: instead, use an ANECDOTE, the more vivid and visceral the better, from your fieldwork to illustrate a really traditional anthropological point (ethnocentrism, holism, mode-of-production, kinship, marriage rules, exchange/gift giving, culture shock, rite of passage, etc.).

    1. I really like that idea of giving an anecdote. It certainly would help people relate to what your research is about and take away what they find most interesting about it. Thanks for that, Steven!

      1. Enjoyable. Thanks for a smile, but you need to make a list on answers people give you when you just mention you study anthropology. Most people say to me, “So, you like dinosaurs”.

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