Dear Prospective Student Self From 2008,
I know you have already read everything telling you what a bad idea it is to pursue a doctorate in anthropology, and have decided to go for it anyway. That was a good move, and this is the right place for you. I also know you’re a stressball at the moment, so let me give you some of the specifics about the UA School of Anthro program I know you’re aching for.
What is the grad student culture like? Just as you hoped, it is close and supportive. People are passionate about what they do. Not in the dorkilicious way you experienced in the Oberlin Classics Department, but in the grown-up, professional, “I am trying my best to do what I love for a living now and for the rest of my life” way. In my experience, this does not result in backstabbing or cattiness, as I’ve heard is the experience in some other places. To the contrary, people are gentle with each other, show up to each others’ events, and drink to each others’ success unreservedly. If you care about that (I know you do), and having a strong community is part of what matters to you being successful (it definitely is), this is a good program for you to be part of.
What about the professors? There are a lot of them and they vary in all kinds of ways, so this question is not as easy to answer as the first. It does matter that you share interests with them. However, I find that the some of the professors I am most supported by and committed to working with are not always those who share the most interests on paper. You should probably email the professors you are interested in, and ask if they could put you in touch with some of their students to get the skinny on what working with them is really like. That aside, I adore my adviser, I deeply like everyone on my committee, I have thoroughly enjoyed working for the professors who have been my bosses (and taught me in classes), and I have learned a huge amount from every one of them.
Will I be able to get a job if I go there? I sure hope so (though as of this letter, I’ve still got years to go – sorry to say, your hope of getting all the way through in six years was wildly unrealistic). You already know that it’s well ranked (it tied for 3rd with Berkeley, according to our department’s report of the 2010 NRC rankings), but programs are known for different things and we are best known for archaeology. However, anecdotal evidence (people I know and like graduating with academic jobs in hand) suggests that your chances are not terrible.
How about funding? As the head of the department told this year’s round of first years, they do try to help people cover their needs. But unless you’ve got an outside grant like the GRFP or the Javits, you should expect to be working half time and even that may not cover all your expenses (you will take out loans, but it will not be the end of the world). This is not NYU where they only admit people who they can completely fund down to housing stipends.
Anything else? Your plan to push yourself to get to know lots of people is a good one. Go with it. Also good is your plan to make a poster for your first conference. However, please remember to EAT BEFORE DRINKING when you go out after sessions with your new friends.