“Cooling Out” the Victims of the Grad School Pyramid System

     Those who say “That’s life” should understand that there is nothing natural about a system that kills the spirit of large numbers of people by first putting them in a position where they need opportunity, then promising them virtually unlimited opportunity and finally making them losers. Jeff Schmidt. Disciplined Minds (Kindle Locations 3045-3047).


One of the best parts of Jeff Schmidt’s analysis of graduate school he borrows from Erving Goffman who in 1951 published an article about con men, and how they get their mark to go away by blaming themselves. What happens is this. A con man gets a mark to make a “pretend” bet on a fixed card game. The mark agrees, only because it is “just for fun,” and puts down $60. A group watches. The mark of course loses the “pretend bet” at which point the con man says that he has now won the $60. Someone in the audience agrees that the con man has won fair and square. A heated argument ensues with the observers, and the con man finally agrees to return $20, which those in the crowd agree is fair. The mark walks away $40 poorer, and perhaps even feels a bit of triumph at getting $20 back. Most importantly he does not even consider going to the police, because he has been “cooled out” by the process of he con. The con man and his confederates from the crowd of course split the $40.

But Schmidt is not writing about card games, he is writing about graduate school in general, and the qualifying exam in particular. He is looking at PhD programs which graduate 30 or 40 students for every 100 students admitted to the program, and asking how it is that the system gets those 60 or 70 to leave quietly, blaming themselves for their own personal “failure.” “I was just not meant to be a sociologist or anthropologist they tell themselves, and their family.” But is it really a personal failure when a 60-7)5 failure rate is engineered into a system?

So what does “cooling out” have to do with PhD. programs? Schmidt says the qualifying exam system works the same way as the con game, and solves the problem of too many disgruntled “marks” walking away blaming the system. The grad school con game is conducted, Schmidt says, at the level of the qualifying exam, a year or two into most PhD programs. The exam is a torture administered across several days, in which you write, and write, and write what you think an anonymous committee of professors wants you to write. Notably, you don’t write what you want to write about your discipline, or propose new solutions to old problems. Rather you try to tell the committee what they want to hear; the implicit question is, is the candidate aligned with what has happened in the department/discipline before, and are they ready to support that status quo. The exam is then “graded,” which means you pass or you don’t, without any explanation—it is all secret. In other words the qualifying examination is the ultimate expression of power, where those who have the power judge you the graduate student without external accountability. It is strictly thumbs up or down. Schmidt actually was able to penetrate one of the committees “grading” the tests, and found out that there was indeed favoritism played in how the exams were scored—personal relationships mattered as what was written. To keep the recipients quiet, and the pyramid scheme going, PhD programs issue a “terminal Master’s degree” for your troubles, after having derailed the student from the golden track to a doctorate.

…the colleges have become one of the pyramidal system’s main tools for cooling out people’s “unrealistic” career ambitions. They do it on a massive scale, yet by necessity conceal the fact that that is what they are doing. (Kindle Location 3053)

In other words, it is the “cooling out” that the con men pulled on their mark. Schmidt argues that cooling out is a built in part of the broader education system. Indeed, Schmidt’s best example is not of grad school, but the community college system which peddles the false consciousness of a “transfer” plan to a four year BA degree, a transfer which only a very low percentage will actually ever make—most estimates are in the 10-15% range.

The process of cooling out students’ high educational and career expectations begins, of course, long before college. Grades from high school teachers and advice from counselors have an effect, but it is easy to base your hopes and plans on the thought that these people are underestimating you. Their reactions to you have always been very subjective, after all, and so perhaps their professional assessments, too, contain errors of judgment due to misimpressions, personality conflicts, personal prejudices and so on. But then comes the big aptitude test, and a few weeks later when you open the envelope and look at your scores you feel like you really are looking at a true picture of yourself. SAT and ACT scores have a powerful impact on the self-images of students, and those whose self-images are hit hard lower their expectations. They may not even apply to the colleges that they most want to attend.  Kindle Locations 3055-3060).


In other words, the system of education is a selection system that relies on “cooling out,” just like in the con game. It is hidden behind ideology, and an acquiescence by the powerless students. It patterns itself by class, race, gender, and other taken-for-granted assumptions about the excellence of the pre-existing system. Or, as Julie Withers told me, the metaphor I often heard growing up “the cream rises to the top,” is also about color—it’s indeed the white stuff that seemingly effortlessly and justly rises to the top! Funny how such ideologies do indeed work for getting the losers in the game to question themselves, rather than the overall fairness of the stratification system.

“Cooling out” after grad school, means that the system expects the victim to go quietly into the night, blaming themselves rather than a system designed to foil the expectations of the majority of the people it holds promises to. After all the qualifying exam, admissions process, etc., is “objective,” just like the SAT. The anonymous SAT does not reflect values of the test-makers, so why would the qualifying exams of grad school? Except of course this is not true. Tests inherently reflect the values of the status quo, and the need to reproduce the status quo which the existing system always wants to protect, especially against the potential usurpers making their way up through graduate school.

In other words, it is the same phenomenon used by the con man who cheated the mark out of $40. The system wears you down—you can take only so much insult, low grades, anonymous brick-brats, and criticism before admitting that maybe “they” are right. Maybe I am just not “up to snuff,” and the brown-nosers to your right and to your left are really just smarter than you.

Which brings me to what is Schmidt’s sardonic and perhaps unintended conclusion: Brown-nosing really works!


Schmidt, Jeff (2000). Disciplined Minds: A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul-Battering System that Shapes Their Lives. Kindle Edition

Goffman, Erving “On Cooling the Mark Out,” Psychiatry, vol. 15, no. 4 (November 1952), pp. 451-463.

Originally Published August 2015 at Ethnogrphy.com.

14 thoughts on ““Cooling Out” the Victims of the Grad School Pyramid System

  1. The analogy to the con game is not exact, in ways that might matter. For example, the qualifying exam is part of a system for reproducing academia, while the con game is a system for extracting resources while avoiding reproducing the system. To put it differently, academics are trying to produce new academics through techniques such as qualifying exams, but con artists are not trying to produce new con artists; the con artist doesn’t ask which marks figured out the con in order to mentor them into being better con artists, ultimately joining the ranks of professional con artists. Goffman’s notion of the ‘cooling out’ may be closer to what happens in each case: we often refer to the terminal M.A., for instance, as a consolation prize, the notion of a consolation prize itself capturing the paradox of winning while losing. In the end, the question might be: what’s the alternative? Graduate programs in many disciplines look more like auditions to me than con games. The practical dilemma is that the people being auditioned invest significant resources in getting themselves to the audition, and often don’t seem to appreciate the fact that only one person ultimately gets the role. You are focusing on how we handle the people who didn’t get the role: that’s important, but to start from the premise that auditions are scams is probably not valid or productive.

  2. Hi David,
    I agree that the analogy to the con game is not exact–con men are not reproducing themselves! But a system that routinely spits out 60-70% of students before graduation does indeed need a way to convince those who’ve left after 1-10 years that it is their fault and not that of the power guild which designed the system with this type of attrition rate in the first place. There is no reason attrition rates need to be this high. Schmidt points out that Medical Schools have an attrition rate that is much much lower, even though the training is rigorous, too.
    In this context, I think that Goffman’s concept of “cooling out” is indeed apt. The fact is that despite so many people floating away, there are many who blame themselves for not being cut out to be a PhD, lacking self-discipline, and so forth. The terminal MA is of course part of this process of “cooling out.”
    I do agree with your analogy of graduate school being a long audition. But then so is Medical School. What is it they do in the admissions process (their “audition”) that is so different from what is done for PhD programs. Might something be learned from that situation?

  3. Tony: Since I am a physician, and an academic physician at that, I can respond better to your question about medical school. The major difference that I see is that there is a physician shortage that is rather artificially maintained, and has been maintained for a century, at least. (Medical school admissions have been tightly and centrally controlled for many years to insure that the demand always at least slightly exceeds the supply, originally to insure higher incomes, basically.) Medical schools work hard to retain students and graduate them as MDs to meet a high demand — the focus is not on who is best, but insuring that every graduate meets the minimum threshold for competence. As the old joke goes: what do you call the person who graduates last in their medical school class? “Doctor.” PhDs in most fields are over-produced, and so compete not only for the few professional/academic positions that will be open, but also compete as graduate students for top rankings that get you the fellowship support, research grants, strong recommendations, etc. Thus my audition analogy. Graduate program departments shift the responsibility to students, as you say. My wife is the social science PhD — when she was admitted to the top anthropology department in the country in the early 1970s, her admissions letter from that department warned that there were increasingly few jobs, no one was guaranteed a job, and many would not even complete their PhD — so if they wanted to enter the PhD program anyway, it was their choice with no promises. She went, and finished (and has always had an academic job), but she has the impression that only half or fewer of her classmates ever finished a PhD, and some of those did not get academic jobs. Again, grad students who were all the top undergraduates in their college programs, stellar academic records as college anthropology majors, many with Peace Corps or other cross-cultural experience, etc., and they couldn’t finish a PhD.

    As I asked in my original note, what’s the option to this problem, which is at least half a century old in the experience of current PhDs? The problem, as I understand it from your essay, is the morally suspect “cooling off” that shifts blame to the student him/herself, away from a system that attracts too many would-be stars and rewards only a fraction of them. Is simple honesty the solution?: that was the approach tried by my wife’s graduate program, awkwardly and unconvincingly. Would it be better to select fewer people for PhD programs, and work harder to insure that they finished and got jobs? Then the “cooling out” gets shifted to the college level, where undergraduates who have pinned their hopes on an academic careers have to be assuaged somehow, as is the case now with medical school admissions — pre-med students who are not accepted at any medical school typically try off-shore medical schools, historically some have tried osteopathic medical schools (but they are also getting harder to get into), now many go into PA programs, or they try graduate school in a biological science in hopes of a second round of med school admissions in a year or two, and by then their original college is no longer in the blame loop…

    Anyway, sorry for the long ramble — it’s a difficult issue, but one that intrigued me in some ways because my profession is a little different: we experience high demand (except in a couple of subfields), and so we work hard to supply it, and vanishingly few students fail. We’re insulated from the problem of ‘cooling out’ for undergraduates who didn’t get admitted, and we don’t have to offer any consolation prizes. PhD programs are really different, and my second-hand experience with them suggests that they have exactly the fascinating qualities that you describe, but, again, the solutions are elusive…

  4. While the term “cooling out” does have a very unfortunate connotation in regard to con men, it is a very important function of graduate school and should not be derided. Most graduate programs get way more applications than they will admit, and many of these are folks whose paper credentials do not predict success. Honestly, the first step in the “cooling out” of graduate school aspirations is the simple rejection letter. In regard to cooling out those admitted… One assumption that many make is that getting admitted into graduate school means that you should expect to be successful there. However, as someone who has been involved in graduate education for 20 years or so, I will tell you that is a false assumption. Graduate education is a very different beast than undergraduate. This means that the available measures we use at graduate school admissions (grades, scores, essays, letters of recommendation) are quite imperfect in predicting who will be the most successful graduate student in the end. It is not that unusual for the most successful student (both in school and in their later career) to be the person who had paper credentials on the lower end of those admitted since the personality, motivation and learning style that work best in graduate school can be quite different from those that drove the most successful undergraduate career. There is no kindness in not “cooling out” students at the lower end of their graduate school class. The big question is when to do this. The first semester of graduate school is likely too early since a motivated and committed student who struggles early on can end up wildly successful if they are motivated and self aware enough to change their behavior to that necessary for success. However, fourth year or later is definitely way too late as folks should not be spending their youth in graduate school if they are not going to benefit from it. Thus, I personally think a decision make shortly after the second year is ideal. The student can walk away with a masters degree then that they can hopefully benefit from without spending long years with little return.

  5. David,
    I’m not sure what the alternative to the current “multi-year audition” should be for training PhDs, and by implication future professors and researchers. Schmidt points to the medical school admissions process as an alternative. As someone who has been through this process, you probably have a better idea than I do about the advantages and disadvantages of selecting at the most appropriate undergrads, and then sticking with most of them (i.e. 95% or so who graduate) until they get their MD degree after four years. I suspect that there is a fundamentally different relationship between the physicians-to-be and their supervising faculty. The advantage (I wold suspect) is that for four years faculty and students are “on the same side” in wanting to see students learn and succeed. There is no assumption that the professor will be culling 30-70% of the herd sometime during the period of training.

    I would suspect that the disadvantage of this system is that as Melinda writes, an undergraduate record is not necessarily a good indicator of who will be the best physician–this probably becomes more apparent during med school. Your thoughts?

  6. Tony: I hope you enjoyed your Asia trip, despite the accident. (Although that may sound like the old joke about asking ‘apart from that Mrs Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?’) I’ll try to offer a quick response before I start my morning crush…

    Another old joke is that medicine is not brain surgery — a joke, of course, because brain surgery is medicine… Anyway, the point is that virtually everyone admitted to medical school is perfectly capable of practicing some good form of medicine — most specialties are not so difficult to master, and medical school admissions are pretty good at selecting applicants who have shown the right combination of ability to memorize large amounts of information, some minimal level of competence in biological science, and interest in patient care (which can be extremely boring). The more complex ordering comes with selecting a specialty residency, and that’s where some kind of consolation prize or ‘cooling out’ strategy occasionally comes into play. The informal hierarchy of specialties puts surgery at the top (and neurosurgery at the pinnacle of surgery), family practice at or near the bottom along with psychiatry. Competition for entry into the high status specialties and the high status residencies can be tough — the residency match has helped, but there are always disappointments. My impression is that we were a little more brutal in the past: if you weren’t cut out for specialty training in this or that specialty, we just told you that and you tried another specialty — the consolation prize is that no one ended up driving a taxi because they couldn’t find anything at all. You may have dreamed of being a surgeon, but being an internist isn’t too bad. Surgery was the worst, in the old days. The pyramid system was quite explicit. You were told from the start that each year one, two, or three surgical residents would be cut from the program; in the final year of 6 or 7 years, the remaining person became the chief resident. That has changed now, so that everyone starting a surgical residency can finish it, but it also means that the number of residents admitted into the residency is lowered, so that the program doesn’t over-produce.

    In any case, your sense that everyone — faculty, students, administrators — is working to achieve the success of all medical students is largely accurate, at least by comparison to PhD programs. That doesn’t mean that judgments aren’t being made about which students are the best or most brilliant, or most skilled, or most compassionate — and placement in residency positions can reflect that. But it means that by the time you arrive as new first year student we have already decided that you are going to be a physician, and our job as faculty is to make sure that happens.

    Finally, and I base my question on my wife’s experience over the years as a social science faculty member, I wonder how explicit any targets may be in PhD programs? As far as I can tell, undergraduate records are not especially good at predicting who will meet the high standards PhD programs often impose, but I also have the impression that if every student met those high standards the PhD department would be pleased. My wife complains about her dean obsessing over completion rates for graduate students: the administration seems to want everyone to finish, and department faculty seem happy for that to happen. Where is the gap between good intentions and the reality? Perhaps part of the problem is that PhD faculty are often deeply involved in their own work, and do not mentor/train graduate students in the way we do in medicine. I don’t know. But throwing every PhD student into the deep and and seeing who can swim to safety allows the PhD program to blame the student if s/he drowns — I take it that the Goffmanesque ‘cooling off’ notion applies when we tell that student that they cannot get back in the pool, but they’d be welcome to clean it.

  7. Melinda,
    You make many good points–and I will concede that using a term from a con game is a rhetorical flourish!

    But, I stlil think that there is a problem where in many disciplines, only 30-40% of those who are admitted eventually graduate, such as occurs often in the humanities and social sciences (less so in the natural sciences). The fact of the matter is that the administrators and faculty designed this system, not the students who are rewarded with that “terminal master’s” or the somewhat obsolete “PhC” degree.

    The most callous excuse used to cool out grad students is that “no faculty wants to work with you” because you do not have a research project which meshes with the faculties’ own research goals. This is particularly problematic in the social sciences and humanities where a book length dissertation is now expected as a dissertation.

    One solution is found in the natural sciences (and occasionally the social sciences) where faculty require three published articles for the PhD to be awarded. This means that the student and graduate advisor are in effect “on the same team” when preparing papers. David in his post above about faculty, students, and administrators are all on the same team pushing students toward graduation in four years perhaps reflects a somewhat more humane model. Can this be adopted for the PhD? I think it has some lessons to be applied, and is relevant to thinking about the problem.

    Another advantage of the natural sciences (and medical school) is that there are strong traditions that a non-tenure track position in industry or elsewhere are not “failures.” In other words, it is ok for a student to accept a position in professional practice. Anthropology in particular has moved toward this in the last few decades as the “excess” PhD. do other things which take advantage of a PhD education in anthropology. Among them are jobs in product development, international development, journalism, and a range of other professional options. Indeed, President Obama’s mother Ann Dunham was a PhD anthropologist who had a career in international development.

    Anyway, those are a few of my thoughts….

  8. Well, I will concede that I do work in the natural sciences, and there are very strong employment prospects for folks with the MS degree, so maybe my perspective is alittle different. You are also completely correct that the incentives for faculty are different as we are quite invested in our graduate students as their scholarship for their degree and ours for promotion/reputation is so intermeshed. However, I would argue that this is not completely positive. It creates perverse incentives for faculty to not “cool out” some students because they can get the research accomplished, even though intellectually the student will never be able to drive an independent research agenda. There are a lot of bitter science Ph.D.s (just read science career blogs) who find themselves either unemployable or stuck in poor jobs because they do not have the skills they need for success as a Ph.D. (although they very well may have been excellent at something else if they were cooled out early).
    I think the question that you need to ask yourself is “when should “cooling out” be applied in your field? If employment prospects for Ph.D.s are poor, then increasing completion rates is not necessarily “good” for the students in Ph.D. programs who will be even less employable at graduation than they are now. It is unethical to give a degree after five plus years then “cool out” the graduates who have spent their youth in graduate school to take jobs that are not needed for their training (like the Ph.D. in history who applied to our recent search for an administrative assistant). In that case, the other choices are to cool more folks out at the application process which is certainly possible but I honestly am not convinced that would be good for the profession knowing the issues with application credentials… That leaves cooling out around the 2-3 year of graduate school after students were given the chance to really show what they are capable of ……

  9. Hi Melinda and David,
    Travels around Asia are almost over. It has been quite a summer!

    One problem I note with the “cooling out” problem is that it seems different in the social sciences, as opposed to the natural sciences and of course Medicine. For some odd reason, the MA degree in a social science is viewed as a “consolation prize” particularly at the Research I universities. But in reality, this seems to me at least, not to be a case. I know plenty of people in the Social Sciences who use the skills and approaches developed during graduate school to lead satisfying and lucrative careers. The MA students I have mentored (I don’t mentor PhD students–no such animal at Chico State) have all done well. Some have “used” their degree to get an actual promotion. For example, a student who wrote a really good thesis about foster care is now employed as a director for a program to assist youth transitioning out of foster care. Others have a more general application to their degrees, usually in government or consulting. Not a single one though flipping burgers, urban legends to the contrary.

    BTW, I have a terminal Master’s degree degree in Biology. I “used” it very little in my employment career, but the disciplined type of thinking I was socialized into by memorizing Biochemistry formulas is something that is part of my understanding of the world, and therefore I think “useful” in its own way.


  10. Hi, Tony, and forgive the late reply — I have also been traveling, though nothing as exotic as your trip!

    You write “For some odd reason, the MA degree in a social science is viewed as a “consolation prize” particularly at the Research I universities. But in reality, this seems to me at least, not to be a case. ”

    But you go on to describe exactly how an M.A. in a social science is, in fact, a prize, one that can be put to good use in a variety of settings. Perhaps the confusion is my original use of the “consolation” part of the phrase: it implies something not really very good. But that’s not necessary the case at all. It simply is part of that “cooling out” that you so nicely describe: graduate students may be more likely to accept the outcome of their apparent failure, and may be more willing to blame their themselves, if they get a prize to console them.

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