COVID-19 is a Game Changer for Graduate Schools and Anthropology

Recent articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education and the Scientist both highlight the fact that graduate students are disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 crisis. Graduate students at Duke University have given their institution a list of demands that include dispensing with fees, standardized work conditions that don’t put them at risk, and many more. The challenges and concerns they illuminate are just as applicable to anthropology graduate students as well.


We need a new anthropology. It must practice what it theorizes.


This pandemic has brought into the light how graduate school education seems nothing more than a modern-day form of sharecropping that provides cheap labor and institutionalizes structural inequalities that position graduate students as “second-class citizens.”

Underneath all of this is a real question about the value, validity, and viability of graduate degrees. Why does PhD research take years, and must it take that long? Why is graduate education so expensive? Are the length and cost of graduate education related to what is being taught? Graduate education is now more a source of revenue that allows universities to pay high-profile scientists and scholars over six figures, generate profits from that research, and have all of it paid for through the exploitation of graduate students.

Today’s graduate programs are hamstrung by an archaic model. Once PhD programs were a direct pipeline into a college/university faculty research or teaching position. Today, one tenure-track job attracts almost 400 PhD applicants! Most PhDs eke out a meager existence as adjuncts. In such a declining market, because retired faculty are not being replaced, we must ask if a PhD pipeline is needed today?

Sadly, on the one hand, graduate students provide the cheap labor that fills the faculty gap with unlivable wages, all the while accruing massive student loans. On the other hand, senior faculty are now grant-writing machines generating the indirect costs that institutions rely on for unrestricted revenue.  In such a climate, what is the purpose of a PhD?

Twenty years ago, I questioned the relevance of a PhD degree. As an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Diplomacy Fellow in the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) policy bureau, I served as interim coordinator of the USAID Higher Education Council. On meeting faculty from agricultural programs, I asked about the value of recruiting “one” person from the Global South to complete a seven- to eight-year PhD program in the United States at a time when HIV-AIDS was devastating these countries, including university faculty. My audience of agricultural professors were clueless about the devastating impact of HIV-AIDS and never imagined it might affect their graduate recruitment.


The current graduate curriculum is still rooted in the words and experiences of white men.

Today, everyone is painfully aware of the impact of COVID-19.  No one can claim ignorance. We must all make adjustments, not just in the present, but also in the future. This is an opportunity for us to rethink anthropology and graduate education. Should anthropology, a discipline that has built its reputation on promoting cultural relativity, uncovering inequality, and studying the “Other” contribute to making our graduate students the “Other”?

We need a new anthropology. One that treats graduate students like junior colleagues rather than sharecroppers and pays them a junior colleague wage. It must practice what it theorizes. Perhaps COVID-19 has provided a call to action for a public anthropology with a relevant curriculum that contributes more directly to conducting research for public good. It also shouldn’t consume seven to nine years of our graduate students’ lives.

The new anthropology will also require a new set of methodological practices that take into account the new norm of social distancing and limited access that countries will surely adopt. Our standard ethnographic method of participant observation will need to be rethought, as will other methods that necessitate direct contact.

Is the discipline prepared for such shifts and processes of change? I doubt it. While we may study what Robert L. Bee described as the “patterns and processes of change,” anthropology is not very good at practicing change.

The current graduate curriculum is still rooted in the words and experiences of white men, with a just a smidgen of inclusion of white women scholars, and an occasional sprinkling of nonwhite perspectives. There is still a bias against “Native” anthropologists, and Black anthropologists, despite the latter being the largest nonwhite subgroup in anthropology.


Perhaps COVID-19 has provided a call to action for a public anthropology with a relevant curriculum that contributes more directly to conducting research for public good.


The lack of diversity in anthropology is criminal for a discipline that has made its reputation off of studying nonwhites. The under representation of Black and other nonwhites in anthropology and the fact that very few have achieved full professor status means it is very much a fractured discipline and secure in its identity and habitat as “public white space.”

In the aftermath of this pandemic, anthropology will be forced to rethink the value proposition of graduate programs, methodology, and ethnographic fieldwork, which has not been done in a long, long time.

The COVID-19 virus is the new sheriff in town and nothing will ever be the same again. We may even have to revise our theories on what makes us human. What will be anthropology’s new normal for graduate students, graduate curriculum, field methods, and ethnographic research? That remains to be seen, but immediate action is needed. Change has just knocked at the door; is anthropology ready to answer?

Irma McClaurin is an activist anthropologist, consultant, museum diversity specialist, and award-winning writer. The editor of Black Feminist Anthropology: Theory, Politics, Praxis and Poetics, McClaurin is a past president of Shaw University, was a senior faculty at the Federal Executive Institute, and held tenured positions at the University of Minnesota and University of Florida. She also is the founder of the Irma McClaurin Black Feminist Archive.

Cite as: McClaurin, Irma. 2020. “A Game Changer for Grad Schools and Anthropology.” Anthropology News website, June 3, 2020. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1413