Cooking is not for me. I find it to be time-consuming and dull. Eating, however, is one of my favorite pastimes. Fortunately I have found a lifestyle that allows me to never cook, always eat, and keep my body and bank account healthy enough. That lifestyle is graduate student forager.
As a graduate student forager I acquire the majority of my sustenance from free food at academic events. I have been tremendously successful as a graduate student. Not based on papers published or grants received, but in terms of free food consumed. However, soon I will finish my PhD, which means it is time for me to pass on my sacred knowledge.
How to succeed as a graduate student forager:
Step 1) Become a graduate student.
To become a graduate student, all you have to do is fill out some applications, get letters of recommendation, and resign to spend 6+ years fixated on an obscure research question. But to become a successful graduate student forager, you’ll have to put some thought into which kind of PhD to pursue. Not all programs are equal in terms of access to free food. Academic departments that produce economically fruitful research are richer and therefore can get better food. However, it’s also a matter of refinement and taste. Computer Science departments are well funded, but only order pizza and Asian noodles (not to be racist, but it’s because the students are mostly Asian). Art History departments, on the other hand, would do gourmet spreads, but could never afford them.
Also, during the summers, some academic departments become barren wastelands. Everyone is off doing fieldwork and consequently there are no lunch meetings, no seminars with receptions, no colloquia with happy hours. Finding a proper crudité platter is as difficult as gathering mongongo nuts in the Kalahari during the dry season. For year-round, abundant food, you should apply to an Economics department with close ties to the business school or an Engineering department that emphasizes smart design.
Lastly, private schools have greater resources than public schools. I don’t care how charming Eastern Idaho State is, if you are serious about graduate student foraging, you will choose somewhere like Harvard, Stanford, or the University of Chicago.
2) Choose a dissertation topic.
Like your general field, your specific dissertation topic has ramifications for your access to free food. Avoid projects that require months to years of off-campus research—for example studying adolescent growth in the Ecuadorian highlands or neutrinos at the CERN synchrotron. Off campus fieldwork means you’ll have to feed yourself. The major exception to this rule is large fieldwork projects, like archaeology digs, where you are fed every meal for the length of your research.
It is also advisable to choose an interdisciplinary subject. The more departments you associate with the better. I consider myself a human evolutionary biologist and anthropological-archaeological biogeochemist. As such, I have reason to engage with scholars in biological anthropology, social anthropology, archaeology, biology, earth sciences, and chemistry. So what if this engagement consists of me eating cheese and downing wine in the corner after a seminar? The point is I’m networking, broadening my perspectives, and eating dinner.
Attend enough events in other departments to become a familiar face, but not so many that you are asked to give seminars in those departments. Diversify your foraging. For example, on Fridays I alternate between Evolutionary Biology Pizza Happy Hour and Earth Sciences Pizza & Beer Hour. Like all sustainable diets, graduate student foraging is about balance.
3) Don’t be a picky eater.
You will not survive as a graduate student forager if you have taste aversions or dietary restrictions. You must eat what is available—whether it has meat, dairy, gluten, trans fats, or unidentified components. Expect 70% of your food intake to be cheese and carb (40% pizza, 30% cheese and crackers).
4) Date outside of your department and even outside of academia!
Most business and law students are douchebags and tools, respectively, but they have access to bountiful resources. You don’t have to date FOREVER, but I recommend courting some long enough to learn where/when/how to acquire their free food. This is how I know that there’s free coffee on the third floor of my university’s law library.
People with “real” jobs are nice to date too because they assume that all graduate students are starving and usually insist on paying. But people with “real” jobs are also annoying to date because they have to go to work at set times and can’t meet you for spontaneous froyo on a Tuesday afternoon.
5) Most importantly, become adept at cost/benefit analysis.
Let’s clarify two misconceptions about graduate student foraging. First, it’s not about lack of money; it’s about lack of time. With a PhD stipend, you can afford to buy food, but you don’t have the time. You need to attend lectures, grade student assignments, interpret your data, write, write, write, smoke pensively outside your building, make figures, clean up the lab before safety inspections, recover your samples that accidentally got sent to Cambridge, England, and organize department seminars. If you want to preserve a sliver of time for exercise or beers with friends, you do NOT have time to purchase and prepare food. Eating must be multitasked with learning, planning, networking, and other synergistic* activities.
*synergistic is an academia buzz word that means socializing with other academics
Second, the challenge is not a scarcity of resources, but an over-abundance of foraging opportunities. In a given day there are plenty of free food events: climate breakfast, microbiology pastries, TA staff meeting with burritos, department lunch talk with pizza, women in science coffee hour, women in business happy hour, museum exhibit opening with champagne reception, evening lecture with meze reception, dinner with the speaker, and law school bar crawl. You cannot and should not attend them all. Remember, you’re so busy you hardly have time to smoke pensively outside your building!
Choosing whether to attend a free food event or not requires quick and accurate assessment of the event’s costs and benefits. You don’t need to dig out your TI-89 from your bedroom in your parents’ house, but you will need to qualitatively weigh the following parameters: food quality, time required, relevance to your professional development, appropriateness of your presence, and awkwardness of conversations.
Here are reviews for some common free food options:
My department’s weekly lunch talk ★★★★
Unappetizing, but routine and necessary. The content is ostensibly relevant and my attendance is expected. The pizza, from Dial-A-Pizza, is indigestible grease on cardboard, but the beverage options include Polar seltzer—the most fun drink that is no-cal, nonalcoholic, and sugar free. The other good news is that this week’s talk is about gender roles among ring-tailed lemurs!
I try to sit in the corner with like-minded peers, but those seats are taken so I’m next to a professor emeritus.
Me: “Hi. How are you?”
He knows he should know me, but doesn’t remember who I am.
Professor emeritus: “Fine enough.”
Silence… I must produce small talk so he doesn’t ask about my research.
Me: “I can’t believe it’s still snowing!”
Professor emeritus: “So how is your research going?”
Me: “Oh yeah, it’s coming along. I’m starting to see some patterns, but need to collect some more data. Definitely coming along though…”
My advisor sits down on my other side. Code red! I must distract him from asking me about whatever work I owe him.
Me: “So how about this snow?!”
Advisor: “Have you finished the article revisions?”
Me: “Oh, almost. There are a few more things, but I’ll definitely get it to you this afternoon.”
I have not started the article revisions. I will manically start and finish them after this cool hour of learning about lemur gender and eating (inedible) pizza.
Dinner with the visiting speaker ★★★
Major time investment, but high nutritional and professional rewards. I get to eat three courses at a nice restaurant and drink enough to be pleasantly buzzed. It’s top-notch networking and can be genuinely fun. The conversation is like…
Speaker: “I understand the site has its problems, but I think we have an in situ transition between Mesolith and Neolithic lifestyles here. There’s clear continuity in the technological behavior.”
My naysaying professor: “But you don’t have stratified deposits. You don’t have chronological control!”
My peacekeeping professor: “But we can’t just ignore the site. The lithics are compelling. Compelling indeed…”
I love having archaeological debates over duck confit and pinot noir with my professors and our distinguished guest. However, dinner with visiting speakers takes 2-3 hours and there is no excusing yourself early. Use sparingly.
Random bbq under a white tent ★★
A crap shoot. Sometimes I get a burger and gourmet slaw. Other times I get asked to put down the coleslaw tongs and exit the tent.
Political Ecology discussion group ★★
Good while it lasts, but not sustainable. Small clubs like this have a generous food budget because they promote interdisciplinary synergy. As the group discusses a topical article, I get to enjoy a lunch of pad thai, Indian food, or fancy sandwiches.
Group leader: “Okay everyone, thanks for coming. So before we deconstruct the article, I just want to unpack the author’s biases…”
Oh! My sandwich has goat cheese!
Social Anthro student: “…well I feel like the author has misappropriated Weber in order to politicize the body…”
And this chocolate-chocolate chip cookie is excellent.
The trouble is I don’t know what political ecology is and after about four weeks the club expects me to contribute to the discussion. Then I need to migrate to another group, like Astrobiology journal club.
Graduate Student Council Meetings ★
The inefficiency and irrelevance crushes my soul, and the pizza is from Dial-A-Pizza.
Council President: “So I would like to take a vote on if we can have a discussion about a possible revision to bylaw 10.1.3, which states that only the Secretary is responsible for our media presence, because it is unclear whether media presence includes Instagram, and if it was appropriate for me to post pictures from the graduate council boat ride from the council account…”
Council Vice-President: “Everyone in favor of having a discussion about the proposed revision please raise your hands.”
I think, “my god! I would pay to not eat here,” and then realize that I can do that. I exit the meeting, cross the street, and buy myself a burrito from Qdoba. Graduate student foragers have standards. That’s what separates us from the freegans.