Skip to content

A potential grad student I met with a few weeks ago said, I'm a first generation college student, so I know there are probably a lot of questions I'm not thinking to ask. Maybe you can tell me the answer to one of them without me asking it.

Did you ask us about our mental and emotional support of grad students? We don't believe in lone ethnographer pull yourself up by the bootstraps anthropology. It's dangerous for your health, and it's bad for scholarship.

Grad school can be a very lonely place. Most students go from being the smartest kid in their class without even trying to being completely average. We don't pit our students against each other, but it is still very hard to ramp up your game that fast, especially at such a young, vulnerable, and largely untested age.

Furthermore, college inculcates or at least perpetuates anxiety and depression in those susceptible by default---our goal as instructors being to train students to develop compassion and critical thinking skills. We all but tell students to care a lot about everything, worry a lot, and try to save the world. It's a recipe for disaster.

Finally, anthropology studies how families and communities and health systems and such work among peoples of the world. What about among us? Why are we so good as parsing it out there and so bad at seeing how we perpetuate poor emotional and mental health within our own systems and departments?

Unsure we're so troubled? Just a few data points then. US teen and young adults suicide rates have been rising the past few decades, according to an October 2019 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. My colleagues and I studied work-life balance among anthropologists a few years ago and found, unsurprisingly, that grad students have lower sense of balance and higher stress than professional by a wide margin and across all categories.

Finally, so many of us have experienced the emotional toll personally way too much and seen the damage firsthand. A grad student from a cohort a year or so after me who shared my same adviser took his own life during graduate school. Just a few weeks ago, a teenage boy at my children's high school did the same.

I imagine students feel like they are making themselves look weak or unstable if they ask about mental and emotional support, so I am happy to bring it up. We do our best to support our students. We are there to help guide you, not torture you. We will be watching for warning signs and trying to reassure students that the sadness associated with academic stress is temporary. We try to keep students working with each other, not in competition, and to support each other. We do our best to provide funding so you don't have to worry about that too. We keep our doors open and are there to talk and have plenty of tissues. It's fine. It's normal. Use them.

If you have anxiety or depression in grad school, you're not alone, you're in the majority. And we should be helping you with those needs as much as training you in theory and methods, or we are not giving you sufficient training to prepare you for a successful future.

If I were more pragmatic, I'd wait until after November 12 to write on this topic. But then two weeks of recruiting potential grad students would be gone without them having the benefit of this watershed information (and two weeks of considering paying for the GRE).

I personally have never been a fan of the GREs, ever since I took all sorts of courses to do well on them to get myself into graduate school and still did poorly on the math portion. It was so frustrating to pay for and take all those GRE prep courses and still do poorly. When I was applying to grad school, I visited my dream program and was told I was a good prospect but would need a better math score to get into their program. The problem was that I was leaving for a month-long study abroad in Ecuador in a few days and would have to take it down there to have the chance.

Taking the GRE in Ecuador was memorably absurd. The test was at 8AM, so I had to navigate my way in Guayaquil to a downtown building I had never heard of. The test was in a room that reeked of gasoline, which made me woozy. And, this next bit may sound a bit unseemly, but I feel the need to be real here---I hadn't been able to go to the bathroom (#2) at the house where I was staying, but by the middle of testing, I really had to go. Fortunately, the math had come first, so I was able to focus on that, then started on the verbal but had to go to the bathroom so badly that I just answered B on the rest of the questions and bolted out of there. Because of the algorithms the GRE uses, my verbal score was only 10 points lower than the previous time I'd taken it.

I got into my dream PhD program, but they did not offer me funding. Everyone in the program including my adviser said they should not admit doctoral students without funding. You should not go through a doctoral program without funding. That was a bitter pill. I dropped out after a month and wound my way through two other programs before finishing up. But that is another story.

The GRE was a hot mess for me, a white guy willing to pay to take it multiple times. It is absurd that I could answer B and get a decent score in one case and try my butt off at other times and perform poorly. It is not a good indicator of one's capacity to do well in graduate school.

If we want to enhance the diversity of our discipline, and we at Alabama do---we want a diverse anthropological lens to have a better sense of the diversity that we attempt to study. We also want to resemble the diversity that we promote. If we want to enhance the diversity of our discipline of anthropology, then we need to remove structural impediments that are biased toward people who can afford to pay multiple times for the GRE, have the institutional knowledge to get waivers, and have been socialized to test well.

In advance of the final vote at the level of the Graduate School on November 12, I am pleased to say that the Department of Anthropology at the University of Alabama voted unanimously to apply to eliminate the GRE as a criterion for admission to our MA program except where an applicant's GPA for the last 60 hours of undergrad is below 3.0. The GPA and the courses one has taken are better quick indicators of a student's capacity to succeed in graduate school. Our proposal was unanimously approved by the College of Arts & Sciences graduate committee this past week.

We applied only for the MA program, because our direct-to-PhD program is new and entails 5 years of guaranteed funding. We are more selective for that and may extend the elimination of the GRE for that too when we have more experience with it. Generally, our PhD applicants have an MA already, and the Graduate School does not require GRE scores for applicants who have already successfully completed a graduate degree (or are finishing up an MA and heading into a PhD program).

As part of our application to eliminate the GRE, we had to list other similar programs that do not use the GRE. At the time, I listed UNC Charlotte, because they have a MA/MPH in Applied Medical Anthropology and Public Health, which is similar to a program we are introducing and that I will tell you about in a future post. I listed UMass Amherst because of the caliber of anthropology students they send us. And I listed George Mason, because it seems like a comparable program. All three of those anthropology programs are ahead of the rest of us in not requiring the GRE.

I'm motivated to write this post this morning because I've just seen that three other programs have made similar endeavors, including the one I alluded to in my personal story above!

We did have to tweak our application process for the Graduate School to replace the GRE with something, but the exercise was useful. Rather than add some other structural burden, we are simply being more explicit about what we are looking for in the Personal Statement. As soon as it is official, we will update our website. In the meantime, dearest potential applicants, here's what you need to know:

  • Your personal statement should outline one personal and one professional goal.
  • It should tell us why anthropology is the discipline you think can help you achieve those goals.
  • It should indicate why our department is suited to train you toward those goals (indicating that you have explored our website and/or been in touch with our faculty).
  • And it should name at least two faculty members you think could serve as good mentors for you (meaning you will likely have multiple advocates in our admissions meeting and half your committee already constituted).

As usual, if you have questions, email me, call me (205-348-4162), or tweet me. You can learn more about our department via our website. We also have a Facebook page and Twitter and Instagram accounts, so please follow us!