Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts
Wheaton College


Alumni Update: Ashley Smith ‘08 Tracking a PhD

Posted on April 25, 2011


Ashley Smith 2008 is studying toward her Ph.D. in Anthropology at Cornell University.  After completing her BA in Anthropology at Wheaton, Ashley spent a year in Quebec, Canada on a Fulbright conducing research on Abenaki identity in preparation for her doctoral fieldwork.  She talked to Donna Kerner at the American Anthropological Association meetings in New Orleans about why she decided to pursue her Ph.D. and why she chose Cornell. 

What do you think motivated you to go on for the Ph.D.?

“I found in the course of my undergraduate studies at Wheaton that I loved doing fieldwork and I loved the project that I conducted for my senior honors thesis in Anthropology.  However, at some point I reached the really scary moment of wondering whether I would be able to find a job in Anthropology and I didn’t think I could afford to go to graduate school.  A key informant in my research who is Native American and teaching at Harvard asked me where I was planning to go to graduate school and when I confessed that I didn’t think I would be able to afford it, she told me that many graduate programs actually pay YOU to go on for a Ph.D.  I was a Teaching Assistant for the Department at the time and realized how much I loved teaching and that pretty much made up my mind.”

You took some time off between completing your B.A. at Wheaton and going on to graduate school.  Was that helpful?

“I wasn’t ready to go to graduate school right away.  I think I was scared of making that kind of commitment and honestly, I think I felt the idea of doing a Ph.D. was kind of intimidating.  So I applied for both Teach for America and the Fulbright and ultimately took the year on my Fulbright to make up my mind.”


Why did you choose Cornell?

“The key informant I mentioned before (teaching at Harvard) became an important mentor.  She received her Ph.D. from Cornell.  I was looking for some specific things in a graduate program:  a good level of financial aid for graduate students, one that was flexible about disciplinary boundaries, and one where graduate students could organize a self-directed program.  In the end my choice was easy because not only did Cornell provide me with a substantial scholarship, but it was geographically close to my field site and that was really important to me so that I could continue to conduct research while I am also completing my academic requirements.  I also visited the programs I was interested in before I made my final choice.  My visit to Cornell was actually pretty terrifying.  I was hosted by a first-year graduate student who was taking the Pro-seminar and all of the students in the seminar came back to the house where I was staying and continued the seminar throughout the evening.  It was a scary, but exciting experience.”

What was your first year like as a graduate student?

“I think that the department understands that in the kind of self-directed program we are enrolled in that it is easy for first year graduate students to get lost or feel overwhelmed so they organize a lot of events in the fall semester to draw us in such as potlucks and a colloquium series.  I also found two graduate student organizations, the Anthropology Graduate Student Association and the Indigenous Graduate Student Association to be good places to get to know people.   I spend a lot of time in the American Indian Program.   I found it is very important to begin social networking immediately because if you don’t talk to students who are ahead of you in the program you don’t learn the ins and outs of how to succeed in graduate school.  You can’t know what your own cohort is going to be like and you need to find allies who can help you navigate courses, the faculty, and other types of opportunities.  For example, you need to learn how to read strategically since every professor assigns way more reading for each topic that you can manage to get through.  Reading groups can be helpful for that.  I also found that volunteering to help out with organizing a social event early on connects you to students and faculty in the program.”

What other tips can you provide to Anthropology majors who are thinking of going to graduate school?

“I think it is really important to give yourself some time off, especially the summer before you begin.  I wouldn’t advise taking too much time off because you don’t want to lose the routine of being a student, but some time off is critical.  I took your advice and went to visit the programs I was considering and interviewed the graduate students in the program to see what they liked and didn’t like about the department.  Finally, be alert because you never know where help is going to come from.”

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