“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.


How are the Minds of PhD Students “Disciplined” by Graduate School?

Thinking about getting a PhD? Disciplined Minds by Jeff Schmidt is the book to read. Already getting a PhD, ditto. Already have a PhD?   You should also read this book, even though it was published way back in 2000, and relies on data from the 1980s and 1990s. It applies to today as well—little has changed. What is more, it gives an insight not only to how graduate schools seeks to shape and discipline a conservative cadre of future professors, the principles can also be applied to the pursuit of tenure for people who have made it that far. Academic winnowing works the same way at the graduate school, tenure track level, and for that matter for adjunct hiring as well. All should read Schmidt’s book as a warning about the nature of “professional socialization.” Hint: It’s not about critical thinking and high quality independent academics.

Disciplined Minds is specifically about how PhD programs select for scientists (and others) who are disciplined to the pre-existing norms of the disciplines. The pinnacle of academic achievement he writes is not about how good the students is, or how smart, but how disciplined to reproducing the the previous group of academics. Academia does it by administering a system which selects conservative people willing to reproduce the status quo. This is done through a series of examinations, particularly the “qualifying exams” that are designed to select for people who

….have an intuitive feeling for the values, attitude, outlook and approach that the tests favor-they have internalized the spirit of the tests.

(Kindle Locations 2937-2938).

Values, attitude, outlook and approach are what is sought in graduate school admissions tests like the GRE, MCAT, and LSAT and for PhD students the equivalent is the qualifying exams. And what the examiners are looking for are students who have internalized the spirit of the department and the discipline. Notably, this is different than getting general smartness, brilliance, or teaching well.

When the issue is how “good” the student is, there is no criticism of what the examiners are looking for and nothing is exposed about the true nature of the field that the selection system functions to reproduce. (Kindle Locations 1911-1913).

What the tests seek is to replicate pre-existing power relations, meaning graduate school is conservative in its very nature—it seeks to reproduce the examiners, even when the examiners are left-wing professors voting urging change for other people’s institution.

Generally speaking, the greater the power, whether corporate or state or even oppositional, the more eager professionals are to subordinate themselves to it. (Kindle Locations 3208-3209).

In the case of the physics PhD education Schmidt put himself through, they are seeking students willing to subordinate themselves to the funders of Physics experiments, which are the people in the US Defense Department and industry who fund grants to professors and universities.

When the professional leaves unchallenged the moral authority of his employer to dictate the political content of his work, he surrenders his social existence, his control over the mark he makes on the world. (Kindle Locations 3222-3223).

Lest Sociologists and Anthropologists think they are immune to such pressures, I would urge them to look carefully at the funding decisions that underpin administrative decisions to fund new positions as Assistant Professors and graduate students.

Schmidt’s book obviously made a big impression on me. I urge you to read it! I will also be posting now and then about other parts of Schmidt’s argument soon.