Here at Savage Minds headquarters we regularly get emails from people seeking help finding an appropriate graduate program in Anthropology. Looking through our archives, I realize that while I’ve written about making long-term plans, and Rex has written about preparing your application for graduate school (twice, actually), we haven’t really addressed this important question. So here it goes…
Before you do anything else, you should answer the following question: why are you are going to graduate school in anthropology?
If the answer is that you want an academic career in anthropology, you might think twice about graduate school. I don’t have any statistics to back this up, but I think the percentage of current anthropology Ph.D.s who are likely to find tenure track jobs in an anthropology department isn’t much better than the percentage of people in college rock bands who go on to sign deals with major record labels. If rock ‘n roll is in your veins, nobody is going to dissuade you from trying to make a career of it, and if you feel the same way about anthropology I say “Go for it!” Otherwise, I’d suggest something else.
Of course, even within academia there are a range of choices. If signing a tenure track contract at Chicago is the pinnacle of the academic job market there are lots of decent options further down the slope: including teaching in another field or an interdisciplinary department (I’m in a program on “ethnic relations and culture”), teaching at a community college, or teaching outside of the U.S., etc. But even if you do get a job, know that academia almost everywhere is under attack from a range of neoliberal policies and budgetary cutbacks, so be ready for a rough ride.
Some of you might be interested in applied careers. Here I think there are a lot more options and I would be much more encouraging. There is a real demand for people with anthropology degrees in a variety of careers. The AAA has a page listing some of them, and I like this list from the counseling centre at the University of Manitoba, but I think the real list is nearly infinite. Basically anything you can do without an anthropology degree can be done better with an anthropology degree. Or at least I think so, and so (it seems) do many employers.
Knowing the answer to the first question will affect what you do next. I won’t spell out all the possible permutations, but suffice to say that if you want a job at one of the top anthropology programs in the US, you would be best off attending such a program. Sure, someone from a third tier university still has a shot at getting a job a the top programs, but know that the odds are stacked against you. Partially because the top universities are more likely to give you the funding, support, and training necessary to do top-quality work and partially because of the sometimes incestuous nature of the discipline. Still, there are many good reasons you might not simply choose a university based on its ranking. For instance, there might be supporting programs which you might wish to make use of at another university, such as a good film school, or medical school, or linguistics program, etc. This could be especially useful for those going into more applied programs.
One thing I tell international students looking to go to the US is that they are best off applying for a Ph.D. program. Many countries more clearly demarcate the M.A. and Ph.D. and so it is good to know that these programs are likely to be combined in the U.S. Rather than writing an M.A. thesis, you will be required to take the same courses as M.A. students and will receive your M.A. upon completion of your qualifying examinations (and/or submission of your dissertation research proposal). As such, it doesn’t really make sense to apply for an M.A. and doing so will often disqualify you from funding opportunities.
Now we get to the hard part. How to pick the program which is right for you? My response to this question is that if you don’t already know the answer you should give yourself six months to a year to do research on graduate programs. I know it sounds like a long time, but the truth is that it is a very difficult question and researching the answer requires doing a lot of reading. That’s because I think you are best off researching professors, not programs [but see note #1 below]. You need to find people who are doing work that you like, that excites you, that makes you want to give up seven to nine years of your life doing something similar. And the time will be well spent because knowing the answer to this question will not only help you pick good a graduate school, it will also help you prepare your application, making it more likely that you will be accepted to the program of your choice.
Of course, knowing you like the work of a particular professor doesn’t necessarily answer the question of which graduate program you should attend. Because the current job market is such a mess someone who does great work might be unemployed or might be teaching somewhere other than in a graduate program in anthropology. But you can write to that person and ask for advice. Perhaps you could study with their teacher, or one of their classmates, who are at a university better suited to your needs. It also sometimes happens that great programs get split up and the professors scatter to a number of other universities. To sort all this out you need to become a scholar of the recent history of academic anthropology. You should also attend AAA meetings and try to talk your way into some of the various parties being held by the graduate programs you are interested in (often in their hotel rooms after the meetings are over), or perhaps just visit the school and try to talk with some of the graduate students. The point is that if you aren’t simply choosing programs based on the name of the university, it is a difficult choice and requires some careful research. Take the time and do it right.
Finally, everyone should have a “Plan B” (and even “C”). It is sometimes possible to transfer to your first choice program after spending a year or two somewhere else. It is also possible that your second choice turns out to be better than you thought. But also be ready to do something else if a career in anthropology doesn’t turn out the way you wanted. A number of my friends dropped out of academia and while fellow academics treated this as a kind of death, they themselves seem much happier as a result. Sure, they miss it sometimes, but then they come to their senses.
1. Since I recommended choosing a gradate program based on how much you like the work being done by individual professors, I should add a word of warning: professors can get sick, they can loose their jobs, and they can move to other universities. While finding an individual professor is a good way to start the job hunt, be wary of picking a program because of just one faculty member. Best if there are a couple of professors you would be willing to work with at the same university. You are going to have to take courses with the rest of the faculty anyway, so you’d better like them.