Is Graduate School a Cult?

June 28, 2004

Several years ago, the professional career counselor Margaret Newhouse wrote an essay for The Chronicle called "Deprogramming From the Academic Cult." Newhouse argued that graduate school in the humanities indoctrinates its students into believing that they are failures if they do not remain inside the ivory tower, even if there are no suitable academic jobs for them. Career counselors, she argued, have to find ways to persuade unemployed Ph.D.'s to believe that the outside world is not evil and that they are not apostates if they do something besides teaching and research.

Although I am currently a tenure-track professor of English, I realize that nothing but luck distinguishes me from thousands of other highly-qualified Ph.D.'s in the humanities who will never have full-time academic jobs and, as a result, are symbolically dead to the academy. Even after several years, many former graduate students grapple with feelings of shame and failure that, to outsiders, seem completely irrational.

For all its claims to the contrary, graduate education does not seem to enhance the mental freedom of many students, some of whom are psychologically damaged by the experience. As Newhouse suggested -- perhaps more rhetorically than seriously -- graduate school these days seems to have a lot in common with mind-control cults.

It's not difficult for a casual researcher to gain entry into the bizarre world of cults and anti-cult activists. A quick Internet search will inevitably lead one to Steven Alan Hassan's online Freedom of Mind Center. Hassan was a member of the Unification Church, and he has become "America's leading expert on cults."

For anyone who has been in graduate school, numerous portions of Hassan's outline of the mind-control practices of cults will seem weirdly familiar. Reading through it, your initial tendency may be to laugh out loud. But proceed down the list and the parallels between cults and the experiences of many graduate students can become mildly disturbing.

Hassan calls his outline the "BITE Model," which stands for behavior, information, thought, and emotional control. Let's review a few of the traits of each category and see if any of them sound familiar.

  • Behavior control: "major time commitment required for indoctrination sessions and group rituals"; "need to ask permission for major decisions"; "need to report thoughts, feelings, and activities to superiors."
  • Information control: "access to non-cult sources of information minimized or discouraged (keep members so busy they don't have time to think)" and "extensive use of cult-generated information (newsletters, magazines, journals, audio tapes, videotapes, etc.)."
  • Thought control: "need to internalize the group's doctrine as 'Truth' (black and white thinking; good vs. evil; us vs. them, inside vs. outside)" and "no critical questions about leader, doctrine, or policy seen as legitimate."
  • Emotional control: "excessive use of guilt (identity guilt: not living up to your potential; social guilt; historical guilt)"; "phobia indoctrination (irrational fears of ever leaving the group or even questioning the leader's authority; cannot visualize a positive, fulfilled future without being in the group; shunning of leave takers; never a legitimate reason to leave"; and "from the group's perspective, people who leave are 'weak,' 'undisciplined.'"

Are you experiencing some shock of recognition? I was particularly startled when I learned that recent college graduates are one of the groups most frequently targeted by cult recruiters.

In any case, I don't mean to claim seriously that the average graduate program in the humanities is a mind-control cult like the Raeleans (though many academics also aspire to clone themselves). You could just as easily apply Hassan's outline to the Marine Corps, the Mormons, or Microsoft.

Nevertheless, understanding the varied social experiences of graduate school (student culture as well as formal instruction), as a kind of cult helps to explain why so many people cannot be dissuaded from staying in school -- or working, year after year, as underpaid adjuncts -- when it is manifestly against their interests to do so, when they sincerely want to get out the academy but feel impeded by irrational fears.

And hey, maybe treating graduate school as a kind of cult from which one needs help to escape might give rise to some unconventional new positions for all the unemployed Ph.D.'s.

Let's say a mother finds an application to Duke University's Ph.D. program in English under her daughter's mattress. Obviously the mother is devastated. If she does nothing, in a year her daughter will be dressed in black and sneering in obscure jargon at the Thanksgiving turkey and Aunt Sally's cranberry Jell-O mold. Where can a concerned parent turn for help?

To serve this need, former academics could reinvent themselves as counselors; they could coordinate interventions with the friends and loved ones of people who are flirting with graduate school, or who have been enrolled for several years but lack the will to leave, or who are trapped in dead-end adjunct positions. These "academic exit counselors" could foster the kind of loving, supportive environments that "academic captives" need to return to a normal life.

Of course, in some cases, tough love may be the only solution. And former graduate students and adjuncts could put together a traveling program for kids who still have time to turn themselves around. They could even make a documentary. It could be a nerdy version of Scared Straight: "You fancy-ass punks think you're so smart? You think you know something about hegemony? I got a Ph.D., 50 grand in student loans, and I clocked 20 years as an adjunct. Now I'm here to tell the truth to suckers like you."

Maybe thinking of graduate school as a "cult" is silly. What's the difference between indoctrination and professionalization, anyway?

Still the semantic game seems worth playing when I talk with idealistic, vulnerable humanities majors who are about to complete their B.A.'s and have no idea what they are going to do with their lives. They have been flattered and encouraged by faculty members whom they respect, and who believe (as cult members do) that they are doing a good thing by recruiting young people for graduate school: "You're too smart to go into business, my child."

These students are reassured by the possibility of continuing life as they know it. They think it's easy to leave graduate school if they don't like it or the job market improves; they do not yet understand how their minds will be changed by the experience, how leaving grad school after two or more years can be at least as hard as leaving a cult. Undergraduate humanities majors need to know that they have other options. There are jobs out there for smart, creative people that don't expect you to sell your soul.

Thomas H. Benton is the pseudonym of an assistant professor of English at a Midwestern liberal-arts college. He writes occasionally about academic culture and the tenure track and welcomes reader mail directed to his attention at