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Author: Hanna Garth
Title: Lost and Delirious in the Anthropology Graduate Application Process: Negotiations of the Self in early Graduate Socialization
Publication Info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library

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Source: Lost and Delirious in the Anthropology Graduate Application Process: Negotiations of the Self in early Graduate Socialization
Hanna Garth

vol. 18, no. 1, 2010
Issue title: Graduate Student Socialization in Anthropology
PDF: Link to full PDF [169kb ]

Lost and Delirious in the Anthropology Graduate Application Process: Negotiations of the Self in early Graduate Socialization

Hanna Garth

Department of Anthropology, University of California, Los Angeles

While in the midst of my own graduate school application process, I found myself faced with many unknowns regarding the realities behind the process both for admissions committees and the applicants. I was not clear about the “right” way to go about applying, nor was I convinced that there was a “right way to apply.” While applying, a well-known anthropology professor told me that, “Once you get into the top bunch of applicants, it’s really just a crapshoot.” I found this view of the admissions process particularly intriguing. In this article, I attempt to unpack the experience of making it into the “top bunch of applicants” and the psychological repercussions of waiting out the “crapshoot” part of the process from the perspective of the applicant.

Through the analysis of the ethnographic data gathered, this paper illustrates the ways in which the application process functions as a preliminary process in professional socialization. After illustrating the various reasons students choose to pursue graduate education in anthropology and the many formative experiences that they feel prepare them for an anthropology PhD program, I show how applicants access and integrate particular uses of language and self-representation into their application. This paper also illustrates some of the complexities of the many emotional states experienced by the applicants during the application process—including very high anxiety levels, feelings of self-consciousness, and fears of rejection.

In the last sixty years the discipline has changed dramatically, and with it the graduate school experience and application process have changed too. The expansion of the U. S. university system with the GI Bill of Rights had a huge impact on anthropology; the GI Bill granted any honorably discharged veteran financial aid sufficient for nearly all the costs of attending university, thus opening university education to many who otherwise would not have had such educational opportunities (Price 2004:3). Anthropology courses, along will many other university classes, increased in demand. In his 1949 article, Melville Herskovits wrote of the changing times in anthropology. Between 1920 and 1940 the number of U. S. universities offering anthropology courses quadrupled, and the number of departments quintupled (Voegelin 1950:350). By 1949, Herskovits wrote, the incoming anthropology graduate student was increasingly likely to have had “some exposure” to anthropology as an undergraduate and to have majored in anthropology. This demand for undergraduate education facilitated an increase in the number of available graduate assistantships. At the time anthropology departments were faced with a new dilemma: how many graduate students should they accept in each cohort? Herskovits tells us that, as some programs grew beyond one hundred students, Ruth Benedict fretted over the increasing problems of job placement and retention within the discipline (1949:518). Two decades earlier, American anthropologists did virtually no work in Central or South America, and very little in Asia, Indonesia or Africa; American anthropologists worked almost exclusively on the “North American Indian.” Though anthropology has expanded in terms of the areas of inquiry that are generally accepted in the field, Benedict’s fears were quite valid and it does appear to still be true today that there are more graduate students trained in anthropology than jobs available within the academy (Browner 1999:135).

The 1960s brought an “explosion of new knowledge” and a subsequent surge in the need for university professors and teachers (Tucker and Sloan 1964:15). This new hunger for esoteric scholarship may have led to increasing numbers of applicants. Tucker and Sloan write that while most students were able to obtain funding in the 1960s, there was a lack of the “highly desirable” types of financial assistance, such as National Science Foundation fellowships (which allow students to pursue their graduate training virtually uninterrupted, without having to teach as a part of a graduate assistantship offer). Their study also showed that of the 600 recent applicants surveyed, 43 percent felt that financial assistance was the single most important factor influencing their selection; only 13 percent felt that the “most important factor was the reputation of the institution” (1964:16). At that time 87 percent of all applicants were accepted, and about half of these included financial offers.

While some things have certainly changed, there again appears to be a great “hunger for esoteric scholarship,” and funding still remains scarce for many. Although the discipline continues to expand, graduate acceptance rates do not appear to be as high as 87 percent, likely due to financial constraints. Coleman and Simpson outline how the “rapid expansion” of the discipline, coupled with the incorporation of “audit procedures” and “often dwindling resources” leaves anthropology faculty with little time to tend to “what is happening in anthropology” or to their students (Coleman and Simpson 2001:26). This rapid expansion could also be partially driven by institutional needs for graduate teaching assistants, as funding for more faculty declines in some situations.


With this ethnography, in which I hope to “draw from and create meaningful social milieux” (Clifford 1986:6), my intent is to represent the realities of my interlocutors, without excluding the ways in which this project has been deeply self-reflexive. I do not claim that the stories written here are generalizable, timeless facts, or universal sentiments; rather they are a complex medley of the ethnographic moments in which the conversations took place, of the current happenings in academia and anthropology in particular, and of the individuals’ social histories and current life contexts. Because some interlocutors were reflecting on application processes that happened over two years ago, it is possible that events taking place between the time of their application and the time of the interview colored their responses. Still others had completed their applications a mere nine months before and had not started a PhD program at the time of the interview, although they had already heard from the schools to which they had applied. For these interlocutors, there are many uncertainties and unknowns that may or may not be dispelled after they begin their studies.

The data represented here is based on over 30 audio-recorded telephone or face-to-face interviews, as well as five questionnaires that were used in cases where verbal communication was not optimal. [1] The interviews were loosely structured; I attempted to follow a list of questions that I created based on my own experience and the analysis of some of the questionnaires. However many of the interviews expanded beyond these questions and together through the interview process we developed a fuller narrative of the interlocutors’ academic history and hopes for the future. I interviewed approximately fifteen anthropology applicants, eleven of whom had not yet entered their programs, and four who were in their first or second years. I networked with my colleagues within and outside of anthropology to select and contact these interlocutors. I also attempted to establish a diverse group of interlocutors. As such I had to make additional effort to interview men and individuals from a variety of institutions—this may have been the case either because most of my own network consists of women or because there are fewer male applicants.

I myself do not fully understand the ins and outs of the graduate application process. I have never served on an admissions committee, and at the time of the interviews I had not yet entered an anthropology program and thus could not fully grasp what it is like, nor feel out how successful my own fit would be. In some ways I have been a participant observer in this project: I am just as versed in the application process as most of my interlocutors, even though I did not actually go through the process with them, nor did I observe them beyond our conversations. I am thus in a position of equality with many of my interlocutors. I include my own application experience in this study. While I am sure that my own experience has impacted my perceptions and interpretations of others’ experiences, I have approached this project in a reflexive manner and have asked myself the same questions that I asked of my interlocutors.

About the applicants

The average age of the anthropology graduate program applicants that I interviewed was 24.9 at the time of the interview; the average age at the start of their PhD programs is 24.6 with a range from 21 to 27 years old. The average number of schools that they applied to in their most recent application process was 6.2 schools, with a range of 18 schools to two schools.

About half of the anthropology applicants interviewed had undergraduate majors in anthropology. Some double majored in other social sciences, the humanities, and the sciences as well. About a third of the interlocutors had an “individual” or “self-designed” major, many of which included anthropology classes, methods, or theoretical interests. About a third of the applicants had never taken a course that was listed as anthropology as an undergraduate, or had only taken one or two courses that they considered to be an anthropology course.

The Journey to Anthropology

In Myth and Meaning, Claude Levi-Strauss admits that he only found anthropology as a result of his desire to “get out of philosophy” (1978:9). Like Levi-Strauss, many students find their home in anthropology as a result of some or many discontents with the field that they were in previously.

I was very disheartened by the quantifying methods of psychology and the essentialist nature of biology, which led me to find a program that would integrate all these disciplines that I had been introduced to. Anthropology was one department where I could spread my wings as well as constrict myself. [Victor, August 29, 2007]

Another student said, “I found a lot of things I like in anthropology which I didn’t find in sociology, which seemed kind of quantitative and mechanical” (David, August 30, 2007).

While some students are pulled to anthropology because of their discontent with other fields, others find that anthropology or its teachers sparked their intellectual interests or fostered a sort of academic rebirth. Sam, for instance, writes that his undergraduate anthropology program fostered “an inward social spiral of professorial praise, redoubled confidence and certainty, improved academic work, and further academic reward; and I came more and more to like and want the scholarly life” (Sam, July 23, 2007).

Awards, fellowships and other forms of validation are also cited as influential factors in the application process:

My senior year I got to do an honors thesis, it was for people whose areas of interests were not really offered as a major. [Through this experience I became] interested in anthropology... I feel like that definitely made me feel confident about going to graduate school from an early age. [Kristina, August 23, 2007]

For some, there is a sense of accomplishment or initiation into the academy; a moment from which they felt wed to the discipline.

Writing this paper—the longest paper I had ever written, 30 pages—I can honestly say that the feeling was better than sex—I loved writing this paper, it was one of the greatest highs I had ever had and then when I won a prize for it, it just sealed the deal; I divorced my boring husband [her former major] and ran away with my lover—Anthro! [Carla, July 15, 2007]

While Carla’s example is certainly extreme, it does seem to be true that for many students, a moment of intellectual validation or the “revealing of the recursive process of initiation” (Sam, July 23, 2007), ignites their interest in the discipline and inspires pursuit of graduate study. Although my data is not conclusive on this point, I speculate that the applicant who had such validation is more confident during the application process.

Still other students come to anthropology from a deep desire to “be an academic” or “do research,” the particular discipline being less important: “I always knew I would get a PhD, [I was] just not sure under which department” (Victor, August 29, 2007).

Like Victor, many other informants “just never saw themselves doing anything else.” Noel had applied to PhD programs in another discipline twice before she decided to reevaluate her application and realized that she should apply to anthropology programs. She did finally gain admission to an anthropology PhD program on her third round of applications.

Half of the anthropology applicants that I interviewed had earned master’s degrees in addition to their bachelor’s degrees before applying. Many of these applicants express confidence in their own intellect and ability to succeed in the application process: “Since I had already done it [applied] before, I kinda knew what I was getting into, and going through the Masters gave me a good sense of what grad school was like” (Allison, August 19, 2007).

While only half of the students interviewed hold master’s degrees, only one student applied to PhD programs directly; most students work or have some sort of formative experience between college and when they apply for anthropology PhD programs. Some students reflect on this period as a type of graduate school preparation: they knew that they planned to apply to graduate schools and were looking to get the experiences that they thought graduate schools were looking for. One student lived abroad so she could be immersed in a language, which she felt would need to learn for her PhD anyway. Others worked as research assistants or traveled under fellowships such as the Fulbright. Several students who held jobs during this period expressed a yearning for intellectual stimulation, and one student stated that she was “constantly hungry for intellect.” Many said it was during their “boring” office jobs that they perused the web pages of their chosen anthropology departments, gathering the information that they needed to apply for graduate school; there were also some who could not research grad schools at work, but spent their free time at home doing research into the wee hours of the night.

Many of the applicants interviewed expressed feelings of wanting “more” than what their previous jobs and experiences had offered, yearnings for a deeper level of engagement with and analysis of life. Yet ironically, these same experiences that did not fulfill them completely were later articulated as crucial formative experiences and as a way of showing they had completed steps they viewed as necessary for admission to graduate school. They had lived in the “real world” and proven that they could survive, something that they generally view as crucial to getting into an anthropology PhD program.

Reflections on Writing the Applications

Writing the graduate school application is a process through which many of my interlocutors actually learn how to better articulate their research interests. The short length of the personal statement forces students to focus on their most important characteristics and academic interests.

I had a job during that time but it sort of took a backseat to applying; I spent so much time in coffee shops freaking out about my personal statement. It was huge, it’s really tough to get all of my interests, all of my hopes down, I was so nervous; I really wanted it to work out. [Allison, August 19, 2007]

Allison and others feel greatly constrained and anxious about their ability to fully articulate their past, present and future within the short space of the personal statement. Allison describes writing the application process as if she is actually putting herself on the line—as if admissions committees would be judging the whole of her being, and not merely her academic abilities, on the basis of her application.

Other students feel that they had to select which aspects of themselves they want to reveal, which some view as a strategy for positioning themselves. Personally, when I was writing my applications I had the impression that the essays, while in large part meant to be an honest story of my intellectual history and hopes for the future, were at the same time reminiscent of a “hoop jumping” exercise where I was to show that I knew the right kind of writing style, used my words carefully, and would fit into the program in a certain way—whether I believed this to be true or not. When my undergraduate mentors read my essays they warned me to be careful with my use of certain words, like “culture” or “postmodern,” so as not to misspeak or sound forced. Word choice was described to me as a crucial tool with which to show that I “knew what I was talking about,” knew anthropology, was not trying to fake my way in with mere internet-based knowledge, and was not too pedantic or egotistical. One of my advisors explicitly told me that I should make myself sound like I had broader interests so that I might “fit into several different slots,” implying that he knew that the programs I was applying to only sought one or two students for each “kind” of anthropology. This advice from my former professors was, to me, invaluable. However, other professors’ advice was often very vague and inexplicit, as if they did not want to divulge the secrets of admissions or did not want to be held accountable for their suggestions.

Some applicants, on the other hand, do not seek the advice of current anthropology professors while applying for graduate school. Many students, particularly those who had no anthropology background, are very apprehensive about approaching faculty for help, fearing that they would be wasting the faculty member’s time. In some cases this apprehension stops students outright from asking for help, while others contact professors despite their insecurities.

I had minimal help other than maybe one professor outside of anthropology; at [my school] the professors just weren’t that way, they didn’t like help students with stuff like that. I mean it was hard enough to get them to write recommendations, I would not have asked for more than that. [Carrie, August, 23, 2007]

Those who do not have as much guidance from mentors must turn to other sources to figure out which programs they will apply to. About a third of the applicants that I interviewed use some sort of ranking of graduate anthropology programs, some on the internet—including rankings from The National Association of Graduate-Professional Students from 2001 or the National Research Council from 1995—as their starting point for finding programs. For the most part these students do not feel that they had anyone to look to for advice about where to apply while they were looking at schools. “My search was based upon [an Anthropological Society’s] website, I just went through all the schools that they ranked” (Kristina, August 23, 2007). Another student referred to these rankings as ridiculous, saying that she now understood that they were “total BS.” However, some students use these rankings as starting points for their research. “I used some rankings from 1995 put out by the National Research Council, I just found them online; they were a starting point, from there I looked up those schools to see if they had any professors I would be interested in working with” (David, August 20, 2007).

Some students seek faculty mentors as part of a vision of entering into a particular academic genealogical network, in which their advisors are reinscribing the same lineages that may have mattered to them when they applied. Such applicants find institutions by researching where their professors, favorite anthropologists and other idols currently work and where they had gotten their degrees. One applicant explained that he “traced the educational lineage” of his favorite living idols, applying to the institution of the original “grandfather” of these “anthropological lines” (Martin, August 26, 2007). Clearly, a student thinking of his or her graduate advisors as idols reestablishes a deeply hierarchical relationship between faculty and graduate students.

I applied where there were people that I had read; I mean if they worked on what I wanted to explore and if they had contributed to the foundation of my intellectual curiosity then I applied there, or I applied to [the institution] because an anthropologist that I grew up reading did her PhD there. [Victor, August 24, 2007]

Several students rely very heavily on the advice of their undergraduate or master’s professors, and many only apply to institutions where their mentors think they should go or where their mentors have good connections or key contacts. A few students state that they thought that within anthropology personal connections are essential not only for graduate admissions, but for fellowships and even for employment later on. These students apply to institutions where they believe that their professors’ recommendations and connections would get them admission, and they trust their professors to look out for them by matching them with appropriate mentors. Some of these students express a very high level of confidence, implying that because their trusted previous professors had “set this up” it would inevitably work out well. “Well one of my recommenders works there, so she is tight with the department and she can hook everything up” (Holly, August 3, 2007). Applicants seemed to feel that at least to some extent the negotiation of their entrance into the academic world is more about who they studied with, and who they know, than about what they know or what they are.

For me, the graduate application process, particularly the waiting period, was a whirlwind of emotions because it put me in a type of liminal state—I would no longer work in the same capacity that I had at the time, but I knew so little about what my future could possibly be like. Some days I felt entirely confident that I would get in everywhere, and other days I completely put it out of my mind and focused on enjoying the last of pre–grad school life. In applying to anthropology graduate programs, rejection is something that applicants inevitably face. Many of my interlocutors said that they expected wide rejection, and some were actually surprised to get admitted anywhere. “I was so sure that I wouldn’t get in because I didn’t come from an anthropological background. I mean that I had not studied anthropology as an undergraduate” (Victor, August 24, 2007).

Like Victor, many applicants have vague ideas about what they conceive to be the “minimum qualifications” necessary to get into graduate school, but without concrete ideas about what these necessary steps are, most applicants feel very apprehensive about their backgrounds and their ability to get in to graduate school. That said, they had all achieved some level of confidence in their abilities, sufficient to embark on graduate school applications. It was the details of the application process that leave so many feeling uncertain.

Still others do not expect to experience rejection and are genuinely surprised to not gain admission to certain programs. For instance, one of my interlocutors stated at the start of an interview that she had been admitted to a program that she viewed as one of the most prestigious, but had declined their offer. Later in the same interview, she revealed that in fact she had not been admitted to the aforementioned institution. For many applicants rejection can be a huge “blow to the ego,” making them question whether or not anthropology is the field for them, even making them question their own self-worth. Another interlocutor confessed to me that when she tells people where she applied, she leaves out certain very prestigious schools so that she does not have to admit that she was rejected. She is uncomfortable explaining this to her peers in anthropology, but even more so to those outside of the field who may not understand how “impossible it is to get into those places.” Whereas in other fields applicants may have an indication of why they did not gain admission—for instance, a low MCAT score may be a clear reason for medical school rejection—in anthropology, the applicant does not usually know why they were not admitted. Not all applicants experience this blow to the ego, but applicants who feel that they have an awareness of academic hierarchies, or who say that prestige is important to them, may be more likely to feel self-conscious about being rejected from institutions they consider to be prestigious.

Even aside from fear of rejection, the majority of my interlocutors feel that the application process was very stressful and time consuming; many felt that they “did not know what they were doing.”

It was really overwhelming and I felt very unsure of the process, and no matter how many people I asked, ‘Am I doing this right?’ It doesn’t matter I was still very unsure and apprehensive. It was horrible waiting, I was so nervous. It was my last semester of college, and you know how they wait forever to tell you and I was like “Oh I graduate in three weeks and I have no idea where I am going to be living next year,” kind of thing, freaking out. [Carla, August 3, 2007]

One student reflected:

It helps to know, from the beginning, that it is a fundamentally irrational process, that it is impossible to make fully informed decisions, and that the outcomes can well be explained as outcomes of certain symbolic and ritual processes and not too much in terms of the applicants' intrinsic qualities. [Sam, July 23, 2007]

Many applicants stated that they looked to funding offers to gauge how interested programs were in having them attend. “Once they came through with this funding offer I knew this was where I really belonged, I had heard that they were really bad about funding and so I felt like the fact that they gave me so much meant that they really wanted me” (Martin, August 26, 2007).

Other students feel that well-funded programs are important for graduate socialization with their peers, with the idea that if everyone is funded, students will be less competitive for funding. “I was looking for good funding, so that I didn’t have to spend all my time chasing funding, and it was important to me that people weren’t competing for funding” (Dana, August 19, 2007).

On the other hand, those who did not receive funding offers also felt that this was indicative of their academic abilities and how much the school wanted them. “I didn’t come here with funding... I felt bad about it, like that I wasn’t good enough, I was good enough to get in but not good enough to get funding” (Carla, August 3, 2007).

Funding is an aspect of the graduate experience whose effects are much greater than financial; for some applicants funding also has certain psychological implications. Many students see funding as an indication of their intellectual ability: the more money they get, the better graduate students admissions committees see them to be. It is something students use to weigh themselves against their peers, something students compete over, and these factors could certainly have great influences on graduate socialization.

Access to Resources

Feelings of gratitude were expressed throughout the interviews. Many students feel very thankful to be admitted to a PhD program at all: “I had read [my mentor’s] work and she is brilliant. I never actually thought that I would be studying under her so when I got the opportunity I fainted like a 19th century heroine because it was like a dream come true” (Victor, August 29, 2007). Many students say that they were genuinely surprised that their prospective mentors treated them with respect and possibly perceived them as colleagues; many felt very intimidated by the faculty that they wanted to work with, as evidenced by the fact that some students were afraid to “waste” faculty members’ time with emails.

One student reflected on the knowledge/power imbalance between the applicant and the institution:

One is relegated to a symbolic state of ignorance as an incoming student... and there is no dialogue between students and potential programs, since a thoroughly undemocratic system of professorial power and selection seems to be presupposed by the structure of the application process. One writes one’s application (which supposedly reveals one’s internal “talent,” “preparedness,” and general suitability of character for the program) and then a shadowy admissions committee makes its choices in an unknown, undocumented manner. And all this is not merely my personal opinion; one professor has since told me that “there’s no difference [in merit] between those we admit and those we don’t.” ...The applicant is put in a position of little power and less knowledge. And surely the application process raises other haunting questions: of social benefit or its lack; of the inwards [sic] bent of theoretical circles where, in terms of social benefit, a tacit “trickle-down theory of knowledge” seems to be in effect; of the doubtful ultimate significance of the complex semiotic system of academic prestige. [Sam, July 23, 2007]

Sam’s feeling is shared by many of the other applicants interviewed here: a feeling of being completely in the dark about how the admissions process works and what goes on at the institutional and departmental levels. This leaves the applicant feeling intimidated by these “shadowy” committees and powerless before their undisclosed selection methods. Sam also reflects on whether the hierarchical admissions process is indicative of power relationships between students and faculty during graduate school and throughout an academic career.

For many this power imbalance elicits feelings of intimidation. Yet despite being intimidated, most students reveal that they are very excited to be in graduate school, talking about it as if they expect a deeply transformative process whereby the student will be transformed into a respected anthropologist, absorbing virtuous and valorous qualities from their peers and mentors. A few students feel that institutional fit is a natural, almost whimsical phenomenon; they feel that the institutions that admit them will inevitably be a good fit for them, both because they were inclined to apply there and the school admitted them. On the other hand former professors told some students that they “belonged” at a certain institution. Students seem to think that their “way of being” was in line with the institution, that their particular theoretical interests, their way of articulating themselves, or the particular academic environment was “perfect for them.” While it is hard to understand exactly why students cling to these myths of belonging, I would speculate that the idea of belonging and finding the right fit is comforting during a time of so much uncertainty about how students’ lives will change during the transition to graduate school.

Many of the applicants interviewed here feel that there exists an unofficial (and sometimes official) hierarchy of anthropology programs in the United States, which, according to Lang, “represents a complex institutional mechanism influencing the type of higher education available to various groups in American society” (1983:442). Many display an awareness of this institutional mechanism, some expressing deep frustration with the inevitable educational inequalities that come out of such a mechanism, others maintaining that this is just one of many obstacles for the graduate applicant to overcome. Students feel they had to relinquish aspects of themselves to this mechanism, for instance by asking for recommendation letters from more famous professors or from alumni of the schools they were applying to, rather than from their favorite professors or those who had helped them most as undergraduates. They express frustration with their perceived obligations to conform to a certain ideal of anthropology applicants, even if that meant sacrificing what meant most to them, or breaking ties of loyalty. Some interviewees feel that these barriers are intentional and necessary, ensuring that anthropology consists only of the dedicated crème de la crème. Others suggest that this mechanism is a hindrance to anthropology, since by not making the discipline more easily accessible we limit our ability to attract a diverse body of scholars. “It has been suggested that this hierarchy reinforces existing status distinctions, creating a structure that fails to use the nations full spectrum of talent” (Lang 1987:442, cf. Kerr 1978, Parsons and Platt 1973, Trow 1976). It is those students who understand or have been told of these ways of conforming to the institutional mechanism that have an advantage over those who do not.

Access to higher education in general in the U. S. is seen as something that is easier for the wealthy and elite, as Lang states, and is certainly so in the case of graduate admissions.

For those students whose social background provides them with a thorough knowledge of the culture of higher education, the academic hierarchy mirrors a careful sponsorship of talent and eventual acquisition of appropriate and indelible credentials for use in the occupational setting. Educational and family milieus enhance the early preparation of students who have distinct advantages at the start of the competition. [Lang 1987:462]

Some of the applicants expressed concern about this issue, which they viewed as unfair.

I didn’t have access to an academic community all of my life, like my mom can’t help me in any way, but [students who come from upper class or more educated familial backgrounds] can just tell their parents they are interested in anthropology and they will like have their anthropologist friend over for dinner. [Ruth, August 10, 2007]

While this student may have an exaggerated view of the lives of upper class applicants, she clearly feels that the system in place favors the advantaged. Another applicant who admitted feeling that she was privileged at least in terms of familial access to academia, expressed sympathy for those who were not in her position. “I guess it’s hard for people who are coming from different backgrounds—like if you come from a strong anthro background then your undergrad professors help you out, like if you did a thesis or something it’s gonna help you—but I don’t know any other way to do it” (Kristina, August 23, 2007). Here Kristina expresses the ways in which the quality of undergraduate mentoring can be advantageous for applicants. These two interlocutors hint at what Lang elaborates, speculating that

It is often difficult for working class students to form close ties with faculty members, they may not cultivate the necessary personal ties and project the subtle attitudes that teachers identify with and perhaps see as important in pursuing successful graduate study... social class position in the academic hierarchy may also be the product of two related components: financial constraints and personal choice. Students with less than adequate or modest family resources are not able to afford the direct and indirect expenses of attending elite and usually expensive graduate institutions. [Lang 1987:457]

Lang also notes that “upper-middle-class social science students are predicted to attend higher ranked schools than working class students” (1987:449).

Another student expressed how her rich undergraduate mentoring experience made the application process go very smoothly for her:

I felt like I had really good support from my profs so I didn’t need to spend so much time figuring the basics about how to apply. I sat down with two of my professors and asked where they suggested that I apply, they know what kind of student I am and what my grades are like, so they know what sorts of schools should I apply to; we sat down and talked and they gave me lists of schools and people and things to think about and I had read some of them already and I went and read some more of them and I was able to sort of sort it out from there. They really only had maybe ten schools that they thought were a good match for me and I ended up applying to about five of them, so there wasn’t an overwhelming number of options to being with, it was pretty easy. [Jo, August 2007]

In general, the social status and academic background of the applicant are seen as factors that impact the application process. Yet while some express discontent with the way in which the application process creates and recreates social and academic hierarchies, others feel that these hierarchies are necessary, either for lack of a better alternative, or because barriers are indeed necessary parts of graduate education. The following interlocutor strongly denied that hierarchies are inherently bad:

I don’t know any other way to do [the application process] I mean I think you have to be proactive and that was definitely a learning experience for me . . . I think that the [application] process should be a little bit difficult because honestly [graduate school] is a difficult process overall; it’s a difficult field and if you don’t have the initiative and the motivation to figure out on your own what needs to happen then you’re probably not the kind of person who will excel in this kind of work, that may sound harsh but that’s my attitude because I think we already have too many people in these PhD programs and there aren’t enough jobs and so I think a little bit of self selection or “selecting out” is not a bad thing, because there are plenty of people who can help you if you seek them out. [Kristina, August 23, 2007]

Here Kristina counters the claim that unequal access to mentoring and advice is unfair. While she would admit that the advantage of good mentoring and access to a community of academics does sustain hierarchies, she feels that these are inevitable and necessary aspects of the application process. She expresses that certain qualities that are necessary for one to be a successful applicant are also the qualities that one will need to be a successful anthropologist. These qualities include being proactive, taking initiative, being motivated to “figure it out” on your own, all of which she views as essential characteristics of a successful anthropologist both in the field and in academic circles.

Community and Implications for Socialization

Given the social nature of anthropology, it is quite ironic that most of the applicants interviewed did not meet or socialize with other anthropology applicants while they were applying, some never meeting other students until they start their programs. Not knowing much about the other applicants leads many students to make unwarranted assumptions about their future peers. One could view these unknowns about future peers as parallel to the experience of fieldwork, when the anthropologist begins knowing little more than stereotypes and assumptions and must move beyond these to really get to know the research participants. “I didn’t try to [meet other applicants] and also didn’t want to make any contact with any students because partly it’s futile and partly I tend to get psychotic and competitive and just self-destructive when I am around people” (Victor, August 30, 2007).

Victor was quite stressed about the application process in general, and for him the additional anxiety of feeling intimidated by his peers was too much for him to take on. When Victor did finally socialize with the other students in his cohort, he reflected that, “they were intimidating with their masters and their extensive fieldwork and really really brilliant resumes” (August 30, 2007). Like Victor, many of my interlocutors have the impression that the other students admitted to their programs had to be “better” than them in some way, whether by better understanding how to apply, having more experience in the field or with theory, or just having more life experience in general. This phenomenon could be due to the fact that there is no “right way” to apply for graduate school, but many applicants are aware that there are many “wrong ways” to apply. Fear of rejection and fear of the unknown future, heightened by the lack of a formula to follow, may lead many to feel anxious about their applications. One student, who I felt had a great deal of knowledge of the discipline and seemed to know a lot about what she wanted and how to apply, repeatedly stated that she was not nearly as prepared as her peers and that other people seemed to know everything and have much greater access to resources, particularly to anthropology faculty, than she did while applying.

I felt like the other people applying knew so much more about anthropology than I did, and that I was coming at it from the outside, there were people who seemed to have gone over every single graduate school handbook for every single school, I definitely didn’t feel like I knew more than anybody. [Dana, August 19, 2007]

Victor’s apprehension about approaching his peers and the intimidation expressed here by Dana are sentiments that are also expressed to varying degrees by most of the other interlocutors. These feelings are generally exacerbated by the general anxiety that many students have during the application process, which likely stems from the fact that there are so many unknowns and uncertainties about what the future will hold. Certainly some of this anxiety will dissipate when students begin their studies and get to know their peers, but to a certain extent self-consciousness about students’ abilities and intellect will remain throughout graduate school.

While many students feel highly intimidated by their peers both before entering and upon beginning their programs, they also tend to express a deep desire for community and friendships as well as “intellectual” stimulation and deep conversations with their peers. All of the interlocutors who are currently in their first or second years said that when they were applying, they did not really understand the importance of their peers, but now see the graduate student community as an essential part of their education. When asked about community one student stated that it

was very very important—I think it was up there with the faculty interests in terms of importance—because that was what I was unsure about like, “do I want to give up my friends and this community that I am really happy with?” So that was important to me; I wanted to be happy, and also I didn’t know how serious I was gonna be about academics until I got here—it was like “I want to do this, it makes me happy” but it wasn’t like aiming for the top... it was like I want to be happy and have a community. [Kristina, August 23, 2007]

None of my interlocutors expressed any ideas about the far off future when their cohort would be the anthropologists that students looked up to or the possibility that socialization could change the environment in their future departments. Those interviewed in their first or second years reflect, in fact, that their peers and the broader graduate community are essential to their ability to flourish in their programs. While most do not feel that their peers were a top concern during the application process, some state that they are quite intimidated and many did reflect on how accomplished and “interesting” their future peers appeared to be. It seems that if anything applicants are interested in “getting to know” their peers personally, something that for the most part is not done until the few weeks before their semesters begin, and yet most still do not seem to feel that their peers will greatly impact their academic and intellectual development.

In general, it seems that prospective graduate students begin the process of application with highly individualistic views of themselves in the discipline. There was little discussion of the potential intellectual contributions of peers, or of what the applicants could contribute to their cohorts or the experience of others. It is not until after students are admitted and visiting schools that they start to think about becoming a part of an academic community and what their own role in that community might be.


Most of the applicants that I interviewed struggle to represent themselves as complex, experienced, and authentic individuals worthy of being admitted to a particular PhD program. They generally try to represent themselves as mature, competent, budding intellectuals while taking great care not to sound pompous or egotistical, and this seems to generally be a successful approach. For some applicants there are elements of performativity involved in the application process; they feel compelled to represent themselves in a particular manner, and they usually come to this conclusion based on the advice of their mentors.

The application process is greatly beneficial for some; it helps them to better conceptualize and articulate research interests and how their background could be beneficial to their future research goals. Applicants feel pressure to show that they will fit in with department political and social organization, while at the same time there is a strong inclination to distinguish themselves and show how their interests are distinct from other applicants. This process of learning how to articulate their intellectual niche helps to alleviate anxiety around the decision to go to graduate school by building self-confidence and reinforcing their scholarly interests.

For others the process is intensely stressful, and aside from getting into graduate school, they see nothing beneficial in it: it is just a hurdle to pass. Many of these students feel that there should be more explicit information about how the admissions process works, how to select a school and how details of things like funding work. Some students experience feelings of uncertainty and frustration with other aspects of the application process as well. Many experience awkward interactions with potential mentors, some of whom never responded at all when students contacted them. Some have received more rejections than acceptances. For the most part, feelings of nervousness, powerlessness and being self-conscious color the experience at least at some point during the application process. These feelings likely spill over into the first part of graduate school, though the feelings may dissipate for some as time goes by.

One reason that students conceptualize the application process as this ominous barrier set up by a mysterious admissions committee is precisely because the applicants know so little about how the admissions process works. All applicants enter the process with imperfect information; one cannot be certain that the impressions gathered from the rumor mill or endless websites are in any way related to what it is actually like to study at these places. Just the same, one cannot be certain that their chosen mentors will be perfect matches, or even good ones; one can only do his or her best to gather information. Social positions, personalities, and academic histories among other things may predict how much access applicants have to “inside” information on the application process; inevitably there is unequal access to resources and information.

In many situations these feelings of apprehension surrounding the unknown could be remedied with therapeutic discussions with peers that are undergoing similar processes. Ironically, there appears to be an overwhelming lack of effort to socialize with other applicants and find people who could empathize with the emotions surrounding graduate application. This lack of socialization is likely due to the logistical difficulties of being spread across the country and the competitive element of the application process.

I imagine that the emotional state of the incoming graduate student is similar to that of an anthropologist before going to the field for the first time. We feel an intense mixture of excitement and fear; the many unknowns that we face are intimidating; we do not know who we will encounter in our journey nor whether we will find good leaders and contacts; we are about to embark on a new life; we nervously hope that this is the right thing for us; and one of our only assurances that we are right is when we have successfully completed the application. It is one of the many rites of passage we go through as academics. The process of writing the applications is in many ways similar to the ethnographic project. The student, an “outsider” must attempt to learn about a process that is foreign to them and access to the selection process is not accessible to them. The student must learn, on some level, the social organization and politics of the departments to which they are applying. Students must “use their words carefully” to speak the same dialect as admissions committees and show that they are (to some extent) “insiders” or at the very least worthy of trust. While this process reflects the ethnographic process overall, it is also reminiscent of symbolic and ritual processes. It has a highly standardized structure which is best understood from within, and it is the student who figures out this standardized structure and accomplishes this ritual task. However, students may have to relinquish some of themselves, things that did not fit in the personal statement or that they deliberately did not say. If they successfully complete the task they will be admitted into the community. The application process is one of the first steps in professional socialization.


I would like to thank all of the applicants who shared their experiences with me. I would also like to thank Carole Browner, Kate Goldfarb, Eli Thorkelson and Christel Miller for their editorial comments.


1. For the anonymity of the interlocutors, I use pseudonyms throughout this paper and try not to disclose any other identifying information about them or about the institutions that they come from or have applied to.

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