Alcohol use and abuse is a noted problem for undergraduate students, but in my experience, it becomes an accepted and expected part of the culture in grad school. In grad school, alcohol is worryingly intertwined with academic activities in a way that can be exclusive and damaging. We should re-evaluate the role that alcohol plays in grad school meetings and events to increase inclusion and create a culture that is less dependent on drinking.
Often academic events like seminars, workshops and lectures will provide food and drink afterward. This is a time-honored tradition (and, unfortunately, all-too-often a necessary meal for broke graduate students), but this practice inevitably associates these academic activities with wine. Participants are expected to enjoy a drink while discussing the lecture and meeting with the speaker.
Academic conferences also lean heavily on alcohol. Many organizations will offer happy hours — events where students can network and make connections over drinks. Such networking is often critical when students enter the job market and can even be a fun and useful social bonding experience. But by situating these gatherings at a bar during happy hour, groups inherently associate bonding and job prospects with alcohol. Other aspects of academic conferences are similarly entangled with alcohol culture — like daily wine hours and drink tickets for conference dinners — creating an undercurrent of alcohol consumption that runs through the entire event. Obviously conferences and lectures aren’t only attended by graduate students, but many of these social events are specifically targeting that demographic.
Tying interesting or necessary academic events and opportunities to alcohol excludes many who choose not to drink. A grad student may fall into this category for many reasons: some may be pregnant, others choose not to drink out of adherence to religious tenets or because they have struggled with addiction or for medical reasons. And some simply do not enjoy drinking alcohol. I personally suffer chronic migraines, and for me and many like me, alcohol is a migraine trigger. For those abstaining from alcohol, participation at these events is often cursory when it’s even possible.
The drinking culture also has the potential to foster exclusive professional relationships. While intentional favoritism is unlikely, it’s easy to see how career-improving opportunities may be offered to those who have established relationships, which can deepen over drinks. When I interviewed for my position at the graduate school here at Brown, the other candidates and I were offered the opportunity to go out for drinks with the students of the department. While the professors assured us this was optional, happy hour provided an extra opportunity to pitch myself to the department that not all candidates could take advantage of. While non-alcoholic beverages can often be found at bars and happy hours and at trivia nights and post-conference meet-ups, the point is that such events often put people who do not drink in a position where an event is centered around the substance.
It can also be exhausting to constantly explain why you’re not drinking, especially to strangers. Your history with alcohol, its effects on your medications, your current health and well being — none of this is the business of anyone with whom you do not want to share. And yet people seem unable to accept a “no, thanks” to a beer without getting some sort of explanation in return.
Surface-level solutions to the entrenched entanglement between alcohol and academia are easy. Many scholars have recognized this issue and have proposed hosting events that aren’t centered around drinking. At the International Congress on Medieval Studies, groups hosted a conference gathering based on donut consumption instead of beer. I have proposed centering activities around table-top games. For lectures and other non-conference related academic activities, we can make changes as simple as offering drink selections other than alcohol or water.
The problem is that the answer to the alcohol culture of graduate school isn’t surface-level — that is, it’s not enough to make these small, easy changes. Academia has a problematic association with alcohol, where drinking — and often drinking to excess — is the established culture for many, and it is expected of participants. Moreover, the sweeping presence of alcohol at academic functions has set a precedent for gradute students, who mirror cultural practices of drinking to deal with many of the common complaints associated with graduate school — including stress, long hours, emotional fatigue and mental health issues. Such a practice suggests that the noted alcohol dependency among faculty influences a similar dependency among grad students, which is expressed through and exacerbated by self-medication.
I’m of two minds about this, ultimately. On many occasions I seek out the social lubricant of alcohol in settings that pique my social anxiety, like academic conferences and mingling after a public lecture. I would miss alcohol if it were gone from these settings; though I wonder how much of my reluctance is caused by having come to expect it in these contexts. But re-evaluating the role that alcohol plays in grad school social events doesn’t mean that spirits must disappear completely. We, as a community, can become less reliant on the old standby and more inclusive of people who cannot or do not drink without getting rid of alcohol entirely.
So we must start planning events around activities unrelated to alcohol and with alcohol alternatives in mind. But we should also take steps to start disentangling graduate school — and maybe academia altogether — from alcohol culture by fostering honest conversations and removing the expectation that alcohol will be served at all academic events. The relationship between alcohol and academia was established centuries ago, so it will necessarily take some time to enact these changes. But by disentangling academic and social activities from alcohol consumption, we work to be more inclusive.
E.L. Meszaros GS can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org