Careers in Academic Anthropology – Graduate School Route
Be warned that graduate school, the Ph.D. degree, and an academic career are not for everyone! Ph.D. degree programs are long and grueling, and after you finish you’re not guaranteed a job! Academic positions are scarce and difficult to find — and applying for them can be extremely competitive and intimidating, an experience not for the fainthearted.
If you’re an academic high-achiever, and the above Truth-in-Graduate-School warning doesn’t dissuade you, then proceed! Looking ahead: after you finish the Ph.D. degree, the process of looking for your first job will be critical! (Your career prospects in academia, not surprisingly, improve the longer you’re employed full time in it; and the first job is probably the most difficult to obtain.) Almost all academic positions nowadays require the Ph.D. degree, and finding them demands that you have a significant history of publication of your research findings beyond the Ph.D., as well as commitment to teaching in an academic department. Your Ph.D. dissertation will be an crucial tool in your job search — especially if you have transformed it into a book that will be, or better yet, has already been, published.
Here is some good advice if you seek a career in teaching, research or some combination, in the academic environment of a college or university.
1. Start planning early. Spring semester, sophomore year may not be too early. Plan your course and activity schedule for the next two years so that you get to know two or three professors. They might include your anthropology advisor. At least one or two should represent the topical field you are planning to pursue. Most importantly, they must come to know you well. Entrance to graduate school depends on strong letters of recommendation. Those in turn depend on convincing detail and experience.
Your references must know enough about you to write an informative, not merely a laudatory, letter. All reference letters say good things; the convincing ones back the superlatives with citation of experience and personal detail. Most students, even those most highly suited to graduate school, seek letters too late from faculty who know far to little about them to write the most effective and convincing case.
How do you secure this kind of familiarity from busy faculty? Take additional classes from one of your favorite professors. Introduce yourself early in the sequence. Use office hours to make your interests known (for instance, by asking your advisor to tailor courses he or she recommends to graduate school goals). Seek additional readings in standard courses. Volunteer for projects. Ask about research opportunities. Apprentice yourself to a scholarly project on which a favorite faculty member is working.
2. Establish a record of interest. Use field schools and/or Study Abroad to get actual experience in your area of interest. Graduate school is a long haul and a serious commitment by a department and by the matriculating student. Thus, graduate admissions committees try to screen students with serious, demonstrated interest in the field from those who might be unsure or perhaps shopping around. Having a history of demonstrated interest in anthropology, and having some experience with the demands of fieldwork, will strengthen your case. These also provide interesting material for the “statement of interest” you probably will be required to write as part of the admissions procedure.
Unlike some of the sciences and even the other social sciences, anthropology is fairly eclectic in the majors that it accepts for a graduate program in the discipline, from Biology to Religious Studies. Field or hands-on experience in any of these subjects is helpful.
3. Delay if you are unsure. Experience and convincing motivation count for a lot in graduate admissions. If, as you approach your senior year, you are not absolutely sure that you want to press on immediately to graduate school, then don’t. Take the Graduate Record Exams (GREs), but take a few years “off.” The delay most likely will not harm your admissions chances. And, if you use the time well, you can accumulate the kind of portfolio that may give you a significant edge.
What should you do, what kind of experience should you accumulate, if you suspect you may want to return to anthropology at the graduate level? Join the Peace Corps, or Vista. Go to work for an NGO with overseas projects. Teach English-as-a-second-language in a region that interests you. Work with an environmental consulting firm on human impact statements. About anything interesting along these lines can become a resource in your subsequent graduate school application.
4. Do your research. Which programs suit you? This is one of the hardest steps. There are over 100 graduate programs for the Ph.D. in Anthropology in the United States. You should apply to half a dozen or somewhat more. But which? Here are some aids which will help you narrow the list, and lessen the element of chance.
Applications are expensive and time consuming, for you and for admissions committees who read them. Do you homework; don’t waste them:
Ask your advisor for guidance. This is my first, second and third piece of advice on this subject.
Use the Guide to Departments and web searches to find the departments of the professors whose written work you have found most stimulating and relevant to your own professional aspirations. Read their program descriptions. Write for information packets. Write to the professor him- or herself.
Take a couple of your favorite, sub-disciplinary journals (e.g., Evolutionary Anthropology, American Antiquity, Cultural Anthropology) and scan issues back a decade or so for authors who are doing the kind of work that you would like to do. Look them up in the “Guide” or on the web.
Read the AAA Section News found in the printed and web-based monthly Newsletter. It will give you a more up-to-date and informative account of research in a field, including “behind-the-scenes” accounts of interesting work.
Look for departments which have programs, subgroups or concentrations of faculty in your area. Again, the Guide and the web are your best sources. It is risky (but sometimes desirable) to go to a department on the strength of one professor with whom you identify strongly. He or she may move, or may prove personally or intellectually incompatible.
Be realistic. Apply to several programs, across a range of difficulty of securing admissions. Prestige, top-ten departments, the Chicagos and Berkeleys, have their attractions. Not least, their reputation enhances your job prospects once you have finished a degree. But for a variety of reasons, prestige often lingers long after a particular program has faded.
Depending on your field, you may get a better education and have a better chance of getting the kind of position you seek with a degree from any of the top thirty or forty programs in the country. Some of these are private; many are located in the larger, better state universities. You certainly will do better in a department known for its quality in your area of specialization.
To see a ranking of departments by a variety of measures (reputation of faculty and of graduate program, average time to degree, etc.) check out the most recent National Research Council ranking of graduate programs (available in the Reference section of Davis Library).
Visit if possible. This is best done after you application has received preliminary screening. You might be wasting a trip otherwise. But in close cases a personal interview might tip the balance in your favor. And, if you’ve a choice between more than one offer, you will be much better informed about the factors to be weighed if you’ve had a first-hand look.
If you do visit, be sure to have a thoughtful list of questions prepared in advance. Ask to speak with graduate students, in addition to faculty. Often they will be your most candid and informative sources.
5. Find a hard-hearted editor. Aside from letters of recommendation, admissions committees will look hard at your “statement of interest” and any other written work you submit or are required to submit. It would be an understatement to say that this form of writing is a delicate art, and the results often are ill-appraised by the writer him- or herself. Before you mail it out, submit your statement to the scrutiny of your advisor or another trusted professor or friend. Plead for candor in the evaluation and hope that you get it.
Few faculty would risk sending a manuscripts to a journal editor before they had it reviewed by a couple of close colleagues. It is a good professional habit. You should be equally prudent.
6. Manage your applications carefully. To be fully evaluated, your packet of admissions materials must be complete or vitually so. Missing documents are all too common, and may mean your file is never seen by a committee. It is your responsibility to see your file is complete.
Start early enough to allow for processing (e.g., of GRE results) and for mail delays. Keep careful records of what has and has not been done. Give your referees everything they need to write their reference letter in one, convenient packet with the deadline prominently displayed on a large sticky note. Follow-up a few days before the deadline with a “thank-you” note (a polite way to remind procrastinators who have let your materials get buried on their desk). A few days after the deadline, call the admissions secretary of the departments to which you have applied to ask if the file is complete.
If it is, be patient. You may be tempted to call the chair or a member of the admissions committee a few weeks later to ask if you have been admitted. Resist that urge. There is an exception. If you have been admitted to one program but wish to know about your admissions status in another before deciding, it is certainly reasonable to call the Chair of the committee and inquire.
7. Trust your (informed) intuitions and allow for some serendipity. You can reduce but not eliminate the uncertainties of gaining admission to the graduate program best for you. UNC – Chapel Hill for instance receives between 150 and 200 applications for approximately 10 positions in the entering class. At least 50 of these will be excellent prospects, leaving much to chance or to factors beyond your control (e.g., who already has students, what specialized funding may be available, balance among concentrations in admissions, etc.).
As well, much can change and happen in the 7-10 years (conservative counting) between initiating this process as a sophomore or junior and accepting your PhD at a commencement ceremony. The adventure is part of what makes this and later phases of a career in anthropology worthwhile.
It is worth emphasizing that excellent students will find a way to thrive and succeed in all kinds of contexts.