Grad School, Self-Care

Are You Being Exploited by Your Grad Program?

Confession time–right after I wrote this, I was afraid to hit “publish”.

But why?

For awhile, I couldn’t answer that question. Why should I be afraid of sharing something that made such an impact on my life? And a positive one at that! Eventually, I realized it’s probably because this topic is just controversial and no one really wants to talk about it. And what does it have to do with being frugal?

Just about everything.

Student loans, dismal academic job prospects, putting your life on hold for potentially a decade until you earn that degree…

You might remember last year when I broke up with my PhD, moved to a different state, and got a new job (and since then, I’ve moved up to an even better one). I still work in research, but in a different capacity and with way more growth potential than I had before. I didn’t take my decision lightly, and it involved A LOT of planning and reflection to decide what direction I wanted my career to go. For a little while, I had no idea what to do, which was pretty frightening.

But how did I arrive at this decision?

Easy–I felt as though my life as a doctoral student was going nowhere.

There are some spectacular graduate programs out there and there are some amazing people coming out of such programs who are incredible assets to the community. They are doing valuable things for humanity and are genuinely improving the world.

However, there are also many graduate programs that do more harm than good. Obviously, this extends beyond the social sciences, but I feel it is especially true in this case (maybe because that’s where my own experience comes from). You may in fact belong to a good program, one of quality and integrity that cares about what kinds of students are awarded degrees. Not everyone is this fortunate, though. Increasingly more grad students are realizing that their programs more resemble abusive spouses rather than institutions of higher learning, causing them to rethink their entire career plan.

This begs the question…

How bad is bad enough?

Are YOu Being Exploited by Your Grad Program

I don’t consider myself a very popular person, so I have no doubt that this post may also not be a popular topic with some people. However, it is a very real concern for many graduate students all over the country and it’s worth talking about.

To be perfectly blunt–I earned my Master’s degree from an excellent university and I can tell the difference between a good graduate program and a bad one.

Seriously, I am planning on giving money to Georgia State’s anthropology program because I have never felt more inspired by both professors and students in any school I’ve ever attended. I also feel that, as an applied program, they prepare their students to enter the workforce with the skills, experience, and confidence they need to be successful. I can say, without a doubt, that I wouldn’t be where I am today without the knowledge I gained there. As you might be able to tell from the theme of this blog–that is a BIG deal!

This is why, when I was pursuing my PhD, and I began to feel the exact opposite of what I felt while working toward my Master’s, I knew something was wrong.

Do you wonder why you felt like an academic superstar at the beginning of your program, but now your best is no longer adequate? I’m not talking about stagnant potential or slacking off–I’m talking about giving 110% and being completely disregarded by your mentors. If you’ve been consistently on top of your game and still feel like your entire life and career is collapsing around you, you’re probably being exploited by your grad program.

Is it coincidence that many grad students begin experiencing symptoms that mirror emotional abuse and intimate partner violence such as anxiety, depression, increased use of drugs or alcohol, antisocial behavior, and gaslighting?

If you’ve become overwhelmed with a sense of dread and impending doom rather than feeling like you’re growing as an intellectual, then you might be feeling the effects of academic exploitation. I consider myself lucky that I recognized my own situation before I fell further into the rabbit hole. Like I said, not everyone does or will experience this, but it’s important to know the difference between being challenged and being exploited. There are way too many grad students out there taking on tens of thousands of dollars worth of debt, developing anxiety, and relying on antidepressants to carry them through to graduation when they wouldn’t otherwise.

So, what is normal and what is NOT normal?

1) You don’t have to tolerate exploitation as part of your job training. 

You work long hours with very little compensation or funding (and let’s be honest, you may be conned into working for free). You put up with stressed out faulty and staff, some of whom treat you as subhuman, expendable pawns.

But wait–you say–this sounds like what medical students and residents endure. They work long hours for modest pay and deal with hellish attendings…

So often, I hear this comparison and it still has yet to convince me that being treated like garbage is a badge of honor. True, medical students don’t get paid, but residents do, and they make way more as a resident than you’ll ever see as a PhD student. A resident physician’s salary may even be the base pay of some of your tenure-track faculty. However, after a physician finishes residency and enters into regular practice, they will be adequately compensated. Plus, I would hope my doctor did have to deal with a blunt attending who didn’t sugar-coat the fact that someone can die if a resident is careless with their medical decisions. This isn’t to say there aren’t some insane attendings (I’ve worked with some of them), but we’re talking about taking ultimate responsibility for a patient’s life, not digging a shovel test or formatting an archaeological survey report improperly.

2) You also don’t have to tolerate abuse, regardless of whether or not you’re a student.

You are not “paying your dues” to academia by tolerating mental, emotional, and even physical abuse at the hands of your superiors. One of my former supervisors was notorious for such outrageous behavior. In addition to continually making inappropriate comments to women (e.g. asking the women if they were all on their periods at the same time. No, we weren’t–everyone just hated him that much), the man put his fist through the wall.


This is not normal. I look back now and I am completely disgusted. I think to myself, no wonder he’s worked in the same position all these years, there’s NO WAY he would ever survive outside of the insulated environment of a university. The reason being that quite a few academic institutions are notorious for covering up incidents like this. Who wants to pay thousands of dollars just to work alongside a predator?

It’s really a matter of perspective. Does how you are treated reflect the nature of your job? Is there danger associated with your job that requires harsh response to prevent major accidents? Or is your superior just another asshole who also doesn’t get paid well, so they have to take out their insecurities on students? This is worth some serious consideration.

3) Your financial security is worth more than ANY degree. 


Have you ever fallen apart in your adviser’s office because funding has run out and you’re relying on your unstable grad student job to make ends meet, only for your adviser to suggest you take out MORE student loans as if that were a viable solution? I have. And that was the final straw.

I once told a friend, who was an international PhD student at another R1 university, that many people actually pay tuition while earning their graduate degree.

Their response: WHY??

After this, it dawned on me that a good grad program will invest in their students. Grad students who are constantly in financial turmoil are not going to produce quality work and, therefore, will not boost the reputation of their department and institution. Some programs may only accept one grad student per year so that they are able to fully fund their students for the duration of their degree program. If a program is accepting more students than they can fund adequately, its students are not assets–they are cash cows.

4) Your enthusiasm and work ethic should not be squandered to the point of burnout. 

Have you been consistently at the top of your game, received high marks, engaged in discussion, showed up on time for your commitments, put in exceptional effort, and essentially become a model graduate student only to be completely slighted for no apparent reason?

Is funding allocated equitably across the board, or is there no rhyme or reason to how the department distributes funding? Do you publish articles and earn prestigious grants only to have your funding cut while some students receive funding past their allowance even though they’re behind? This isn’t sour grapes–this is what you work for. This is thousands of dollars worth of tuition at stake. This is you not being able to finish the program because you can’t afford to live.

Has your adviser ghosted you to the point where you begin to wonder whether they’ve died or you’ve been kicked out of the program and no one’s bothered to tell you (Office Space style)?

Has any of this finally caused you to miss a deadline for the first time in your academic career and you’ve come to the stark realization that your timeline has been thrown completely off and, for some reason, all of this is still YOUR fault? Congratulations! You’ve been academically gaslighted.

So, if this is the case, what do you do?

You have to be FEARLESS.

I realize this is exponentially easier said than done. But you might as well have some conviction and stand for something, whether it’s throwing deuces or powering through to the end with your eyes on the prize. Many people, who have themselves been abused and broken by the academy, are much like domestic abusers. Abuse begets abuse, and it’s up to YOU to end that vicious cycle, whether it means getting out or becoming a future academic and mentor of integrity.

But so many students tolerate such exploitation and abuse because they simply don’t know better. They’ve been told that this is “the way it is” and they’re working their tails off to achieve that degree. But let me offer a dose of truth…

Outside of academia, YOU ARE A HUMAN.

I’ve never been one to accept unhealthy situations just because no one else had the gumption to say otherwise. Eventually, after so much academic turmoil, I began to hate what I did. I began to hate the very thing that had become my passion and resent the degree I was working toward.

And here was my breaking point (that is, the one after my adviser told me to take out more student loans). 

My financial and mental well-being were hanging in the balance. And then one fateful night, an unlucky grad student made the mistake of sending out a snarky email blast on the department list-serv.

I was at the end of my rope, completely fed up with academia, and the last thing I wanted to read in my email was a message droning on about, “OMG this grad club officer shouldn’t have said X, Y, and Z because I’m offended by semantics and I have agency and (some obscure Engels reference about disenfranchisement inserted here).” 


This was obviously the wrong night for me to be checking my email. So what did I do? I wasn’t even involved in said list-serv dispute, but I hauled off and straight up called this grad student psychotic.

In writing. For everyone to see.

Have you ever wondered what happens when you ACTUALLY stop giving a damn?

THIS. And it felt GOOD.

Of course, this set off another tyrade about the stigma of mental health (because anthropology), but that was nothing new. And it was certainly nothing compared to the number of subtle fist-bumps I received from a number of other students just for losing my shit on the internet.

Then it occurred to me–are there other students in the department like me? Are there students who are tired of dealing with petty drama that doesn’t matter while their financial and personal lives are collapsing? Am I not so crazy after all?

Once I knew I was leaving my job at the university, I wrote a long, detailed letter to Human Resources to officially document every terrible incident I’d witnessed in the presence of that one particular boss I had. I even included dates and how the department “responded” to each incident. I knew nothing would come of it, and to my knowledge nothing ever did. But I was able to look at myself in the mirror because I had spoken up and did what I could to alert the university to what was happening.

If your mental health was deteriorating due to your job, hopefully you would be encouraged to find a different one. Why should graduate school be any different?

Grad school shouldn’t be easy–it should challenge you to grow intellectually. It should not result in astronomical debt, alcoholism, anxiety, or clinical depression.

There are places, academic or not, where your enthusiasm and talents are valued and your knowledge and experience are assets. If you have a mentor that is on your side and committed to helping you grow into a successful professional, then that is the ideal situation. If not, then you might have to ask yourself some very difficult questions.

However, this is not the end of the world (although it might feel like it at first). If you come to the conclusion that your graduate program is doing more harm than good, then it might just be the beginning of a new chapter of your life. New chapters are frightening, but all new adventures can be frightening. I’m going to channel some Sheryl Sandberg on this one because, sometimes, other people just say it better than you ever could–if you find yourself in this situation, feeling conflicted and afraid, maybe you should take a moment to ask yourself, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”

Stay strong, friends!

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