A few questions for the anthropology grad students in the audience

Dear anthro grad students,

Remember when you first decided to study anthropology? Remember those anthro 101 classes and those profs and ethnographies and all of that good stuff that made you decide, “Hey, I’m gonna do this anthropology thing”?

Well, now that you’re in grad school, how’s it working out?


A few more questions:

1) What brought you into the discipline in the first place? What made you say to yourself: “Self, this is what I want to do with my life”?

2) And how’s everything looking now that you’re on this side of the whole process? Are you hopeful or pessimistic about your future in anthropology?

4) How are you faring with the whole publish or perish paradigm? Thoughts?

3) Of course there’s a number three…I know you have all learned to rapidly skim everything you lay your eyes upon because you have mountains of reading all the time, so I just wanted to see if you’re still paying attention. The question: What’s your take on conferences? Love ’em or hate ’em?

5) How about debt? Are you sinking or swimming?

6) Last question: what’s your prognosis for anthropology? What are YOU going to do with this discipline you have chosen? Are you aiming for tenure at a big R1? A teaching school? Are you planning on leaving academia? Joining the public sector? Taking up professional gambling? What’s next for you?

Enough questions. Anthropology is what we make of it. And I happen to be curious, despite some of the grim predictions about our field (and academia in general) that happen to be lurking out there, what we’re all going to do with this thing we call anthropology. So let’s hear it.


Ryan Anderson is a cultural and environmental anthropologist. His current research focuses on coastal conservation, sustainability, and development in the Californias. He also writes about politics, economics, and media. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

20 thoughts on “A few questions for the anthropology grad students in the audience

  1. Grad school is working out just fine thanks Ryan.

    The excellence of my lecturers and the first year medical anthropology class provided evidence for, and deeper understanding of nagging truths I’d witnessed in life. I dropped sociology partly for the department but mostly for the discipline. Anth and I were made for each other. Now that those lecturers are my mentors I feel very fortunate to have landed somewhere so supportive toward my success. Really, they are that cool!

    I first thought applied anthropology was where I wanted to take myself (having a do-gooder instinct and all), but quickly found its limitations while organising my grad research and dropped the idea for something more existential.

    My future? Well there are a lot of options. Many of them opened up by my studies but still others opened up by networks I gathered in the process. I suspect my future will be all about the people. Academia? I don’t know for all the reasons that have been already published before. Research? Definitely.

    Publish or perish. I’m studying part-time. I have the luxury to publish in the in between spaces and despite all the fuss about bigger, better, faster, more publishing, I’m interested in having a life and not taking it too seriously. This will probably take its toll on my career; I don’t care. I learned a long time ago that my and my family’s health and happiness is worth more than my career. I’m a single parent, balance is a survival mechanism.

    I love conferences (mostly), for the learning, the engagement, and the people. BUT presenters! please, presenting, is a part of your job, learn to do it well, know your audience and adjust accordingly. No names just a plea! Ideas are great, but I’d love it if the experience was to measure up its aura. I wish flying wasn’t by fossil fuel.

    Debt? I’m fine. I’m Australian. The situation is pretty reasonable here. Undergrad degrees are cheapish and the no interest government loans are indexed to inflation and only payable through the tax system when one earns a certain wage. Scholarships (I’ve received three this year) on top of our welfare system means that anyone who has the requisite academic potential and ability to work the bureaucracy can study and not be bankrupted. PhDs are government funded positions with scholarships usually. Shh don’t tell everyone.

    What am I going to do? I feel like there are so many exciting opportunities. I’ll be applying for anything with relevance to my interests. The situation with tenure is better in Australia than many places. I’ll be staying here. Think tanks, human rights organisations or a postdoc are appealing. My absolute, I’m paranoid I’ll fail, back up plan is cultural tourism market research (I’ll skip HTS). I gotta feed the kids.

  2. To preface this, I’m actually a historical archaeologist, but since at UNC, as at most schools, this is combined with anthropology (and I feel like I do anthropological archaeology anyways) I thought I’d throw my input in here too.

    1. I came here through history, through professors who had done archaeology. One suggested that I needed to do a fieldschool, the other suggested I transfer to a school with an Anth degree, since that would make it easier to get into grad school. Luckily, both worked out at UMass Boston, where I got my B.A. in Anthropology and then my M.A. in Historical Archaeology. While finishing my master’s thesis I worked 2 years full time for a CRM company, and decided that I at least wanted the option to apply for jobs that would be less frustrating, so that’s what led to me coming to UNC-Chapel Hill for my Ph.D. What I love about archaeology is that it is a constant puzzle, trying to figure out what is going on each site – a puzzle that is constantly evolving – you answer some questions and always come up with others. I also love being able to work outside. What I love about the anthropology side is looking at the interconnections between everyday things and how people interact with each other.

    2. I am hopeful about my career, but I also think that there are more (obvious?) non-academic options in archaeology than there are in anthropology – provided heritage management laws don’t get thrown out the window in the next few years as being too “inconvenient” for businesses. I’m not actually aiming for a tenure-track position, instead, I want something even more rare – a position with an archaeology lab associated with a university. I’m not super hopeful about that, but I know that with my Ph.D. I can at least apply to them. And then, although I am in turns terrified, I do think I will be at least able to find another decent full-time job in a CRM company if nothing else pans out. I do have to say that I am fairly non-plussed at the dismal job schools do at preparing their grad students for a non-academic career, especially when they have ALWAYS known that there are too many graduates for the number of tenure track jobs. This goes double for my cultural and medical anthropology classmates, who don’t seem have an obvious non-academic option at their disposal.

    4. Publish or perish. I do think it’s very important to publish, despite the fact that I have not yet done it. I strongly believe that archaeological/anthropological information needs to be disseminated so it can be shared and compared. However, we (or perhaps just I myself) seem to be obsessed with the whole theoretical side of things. I appreciate that some journals, like the SAA, have a technical reports section, for those of us who aren’t ready or don’t necessarily have the type of site for which you can draw far reaching conclusions. I find myself still a bit intimated by publishing, and wish that I had a class that would help me go from paper (or conference paper) to article, so I’d feel more confident with it. Guess that something to ask my advisor for help with 🙂 As far as needing to publish in order to get a tenure-track job – I think the degree to which it seems to be relied upon in making academic job decisions is way overblown. Yes, you do need to show that you can get material published, but I think you also need to show that you don’t just live in an ivory tower, and that needs to be valued just as highly. Professors who engage with the public and are great teachers are so important, not just for helping to expand minds, but also as ambassadors for everything that anthropology encompasses. I mean for heaven’s sake, most of what people STILL believe about anthropology is that people just go somewhere remote and live with a tribe. When it comes to archaeology, everyone wants to know if I am going to dig overseas. Why, when I love the history here in the U.S. and there is so much cool stuff, both historically and anciently?!?! Anthropology is useful and needed across such a wide spectrum of subjects and professions and more people need to know it.

    3. Conferences. I like them, but find that for me they are more about catching up with old friends and through that route, networking with some more people. I find that I can only go to a few papers per day – any more and my brain becomes overwhelmed and I’m not going to be able to retain anything. The other side is that they are SO expensive, even when close by, so that ends up being where all my extra money goes. It would nice to take an actual vacation – I’d love to go out of the country and visit some new places, but never feel I can justify the expense after everything else.

    5. Debt. I’m lucky, my parents helped pay for a lot of my undergrad. Grad school – I dickered to get enough from UMass to pay my bills, so I only took out loans one semester, and even that I regret because I didn’t know that I had to accept everything or nothing. Instead of the couple thousand that I needed, I had to take more like 10,000. PhD – I only cared about 3 schools, only applied to them, and if I hadn’t gotten a full ride, I simply would not have left my CRM job. It is not worth going so far into debt. When the dept wasn’t sure they would be able to pay my out of state tuition last spring, I told them I would leave if that was the case (UNC is very stingy about awarding students in-state tuition, I’ve already been rejected once despite now being a NC resident). All in all, that means I’m only about 20,000 in debt. Still depressing, given that it’s basically a down payment on a house, but a hell of a lot better than almost all of my friends who are getting their PhD.

    6. I think I covered that above. But just to get it all in one place. Although I don’t want a tenure-track job, I do hope to get a job in a laboratory associated with a university, so I can combine being in the field and working on multiple projects with the less hectic pace and more brain-stimulating world of academia. Should that not work out, I’m happy to go back to CRM though. I actually loved my job until I got dragged into inter-office politics, and that part made it unbearable – the project deadlines/budgets/clients are frustrating but not a deal-breaker for me.

  3. 1 – When I was but a wee lass, I decided archaeology was superior to paleontology because there were far more dead people to look at than dead dinosaurs, and I would be more likely to find a job. (Not kidding, that’s what I decided in second grade.) I love archaeology, I love being in the dirt, I love reading, I love teaching.

    … at this point, I’m not sure I’m cut out for the academia, though. Something about it is not clicking with me, now that I’m in grad school.

    2 – I’m highly pessimistic. Job prospects suck, daily living options terrify me, and I don’t have enough self-drive to push through this giant research rut. I feel like if I had some kind of tangible goal I would be find it in me to finish (and no, the degree isn’t enough anymore). Everyone recognizes that job prospects are zilch, that getting a professor position is akin to winning the lottery. I’ve possibly shot myself in the foot by going for the PhD, but as much as I love it, CRM is not where I ultimately want to go.

    3 – Conferences are everything. Seriously, if I didn’t have the conferences I’d forget why I’m doing this.

    4 – This is the part I hate most. Probably, probably all I want to do is teach. I teach very thoroughly. I’m not yet convinced that good teaching and good research can be accomplished at my speed. Research is not where my interests lie, and certainly not with the kinds of cranking out of anything, anything-at-all-to-please-get-me-tenure that pass for publications that I’ve seen.

    Perhaps I’d be less bitter towards this if there was a journal devoted to anthropological fails – this is technique that I’ve used and it’s not worked and this why, don’t do it. That would be much more useful than “I’ve tried this, and I’m sure it will work for someone” BS. Why yes, I do dabble in the hard sciences.

    5 – I’ve managed to be okay with debt. I had a scholarship, some savings, and my parents have been able to help me when the life-related snafus hit.

    6 – I just want to teach. I’ve always wanted to teach anthropology, nothing else. Not history, not english, not math or science. I’d love it if they taught anthropology in the high school setting, because at this point, I don’t think I would be here in grad school. I’d be teaching 16 year-olds the finer points of critical reading and cultural relativism.

  4. Not exactly an anthropology department graduate student, but I guess I fit the mold…

    1) I guess it was in high school: taking a Social Anthropology module in my IB program was really eye-opening to me with regard to what this discipline is and what it can do. It just seemed the only “correct” outlook on human social life I’ve ever encountered. (Theoretically, it still does; see below.)

    2) I’m probably not going to pursue an anthropological career any further than using it as a methodological and theoretical tool in finishing my PhD. The arrogance of the “ethnographic method” especially is a bit off-putting to me, as is the rejection of arguments based on quantitative data (unless, of course, they are made by other anthropologists)… I guess I still have a more idealistic (perhaps Lévi-Straussian?) vision of the discipline.

    4) I’ve already published one article in a relatively well-known professional journal, and have ideas for a few more. I’ve also helped establish a journal myself (not sure if that counts here though). The paradigm itself, however, I find ridiculous, since it mostly just ends up producing Sturgeon’s Law.

    3) Never been to an academic conference, and I currently feel no great desire or need to do so.

    5) Fully funded, and will be until the end of my PhD. Not a single penny of debt.

    6) Anthropology I think has a future, just not as an academic discipline. Public dialogue and “plebeization” of anthropological arguments are a must. This is something I would probably enjoy doing (perhaps teaching anthropology at an IB / secondary school level). Academia itself, on the other hand, does not look especially appealing to me – it just doesn’t seem to attract the kind of people I like to associate with, for the most part… too much hypocrisy, competitiveness masked as altruism I guess (at least in social science!). I’m almost 90% sure I will not take up, or even seek, any sort of academic position after I finish my PhD. I’ll probably try to find another job based on my language skills (which, for various reasons, is not as fudgy as it may sound), augmented by my anthropological background as well, if required.

  5. Well, i’m a MA student, which kind of seems to be the bastard red-haired step-child of graduate students, *and* one in applied anthropology to boot, but here goes…

    1) Intro to Cultural Anthropology at my community college. i was fascinated. Then my prof said there were no job prospects but teaching, and while i loved it, i knew i needed to eat and keep a roof over my head. I left school and came back, ran into the same professor, and he told me that the tables had totally turned and there were jobs for anthropologists in the real world. i haven’t looked back since. He’s also the same one who encouraged me to go into grad school… more than any professors at my four-year institution.

    2) A little of both. Hopeful because i know how much i can bring to the table. Pessimistic because a) no one seems to realize it, and b) few people in my the discipline seem to care about anything outside academia. So i feel a little under siege no matter where i go.

    4) Not affected by it as a MA student. Which is kind of nice. My thesis is kicking my ample academic arse, but that’s just part of the ordeal, right? i *do* want to publish, probably once i get my thesis done, break some of it down into article length pieces, write articles on projects that i work on in my daily job.

    3) I’d love them more if i didn’t get brushed off so much. i find folks who are interested in my interests (online communities), i tell them what i’m doing, they love it, they ask me where i am, i tell them i’m a MA student, they ask if i’m going on for PhD, i say no… and they immediately lose interest. I mean, i can literally watch the light in their eyes die. It’s *incredibly* frustrating and disheartening to me. My profession is anthropology, same as theirs, and i’m still going to be in it even after i get my degree, and that includes authoring papers. i’m still doing the same stuff. Am i really that much of a waste of time?

    5) Sinking. Not as bad as some, but worse than others. Since MAs tend to be unfunded, it means a lot of loans, and it’s been a struggle lately for me to keep on top of my payments.

    6) i want to go into the “real world” and use anthropology to help businesses understand their online communities. If i decide to teach, it’ll be at the community college level where hopefully i can spark the same interest i got when at my community college.

    I think anthropology has a future, but it **has** to get out of the ivory tower and into the real world again. People used to know what anthropology was, back when Margaret Mead was appearing on 60 Minutes and other arenas where the public could see her and her work. That’s gone now, and when i go on job interviews and tell them i have degrees in Anthropology, i’m told either they don’t have monkeys for me to study, nothing to dig up, or (worse) no dinosaurs. The public has forgotten what we do, and unless we remind them what we do, we’re destined for obscurity.

  6. A brief bio to give context–I got my BA in East Asian studies, and then got a job to support my husband while he did his degree–a favor he was supposed to return, but decided never did.

    1) Choosing anthropology was a practical choice. I was working full time to support my family and couldn’t move, and the schools that had MAs in my undergrad (East Asian Studies) were too far away. The local school had anthropology as a major, and it allowed me to do what I wanted to do. However, once I became an anthropology major I drank deeply of the departmental kool-aid fell in love with anthropology in and of itself.

    2) I’m struggling; I have a lot of obstacles to scholarship like being a single mom, working full time and being far from my school. I know that I’m not the only one struggling with life taking away from school, that others have even worse problems and still persevere and that I’m lucky to have the opportunity for school at all. I’m certain I will at least finish my MA.

    4) It seems antiquated. It seems to me that with the changing in printing that anthropologists want to experiment with new ways of transmitting knowledge; ways that are reputable but aren’t subject to the ivory tower/financial gate-keeping that can go on with trade journals and university presses. However, counting books and articles is a time-honored and fairly strait forward (or at least, well understood) way of measuring scholarly success. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with measuring worth through publishing except that it discounts other contributions as worthless.

    3) (I didn’t catch this numbering trick the first time I read the question..) I love conferences, but am limited by budget and childcare how often I can actually attend.

    5) I am well over my head in debt-mostly due to school, but in part because of an ex-husband. I’m trying my best to finish school quickly, and not take on any more debt.

    6) At the moment, the future I see for me in anthropology is “expensive hobby”. I could see writing articles and going to conferences, but I have no idea how to turn my MA into a job. I can’t afford to do an internship, but maybe with some volunteer work and some papers I’ll find something. I originally planned to go on for a PhD, but my confidence of becoming a professor is low with the struggle I have getting just my MA done and the reportedly fierce competition for tenure track positions–and I can’t just keep continuing accruing debt for advanced degrees without knowing ahead of time that I’ll get paid back for my investment of time and money. I’ve got a kid to support and obligations to fulfill.

  7. Almost done grad student in South Africa…

    1. I walked into my first anthropology lecture and fell in love. We had this funny old dude with mosquito bites on his head that spoke so passionately about what research he did I couldn’t help falling in love with the subject. So I loved the subject from day 1 (but frankly I also loved philosophy). In the end what swayed me was the three very strong, smart and supportive women anthropologist in our department that took an interest in me and my academic career. I’m not sure I ever had the conversation of ‘self this is where I want to stay?’. Every time I had a choice though I chose to stay and continue studying anthropology.

    2. The future…I think it looks good but the whole context of academia doesn’t look so good. But I am a very bastardised anthropologist that at times relate more closely with urbanists, human and social geographers than with other anthropologists. Its what I like (shrug).

    4. I published two articles from my MA. One in a local, low impact journal, one in an international journal. I will publish as long as I have something to say. If I don’t, I won’t.

    3. Not mad about conferences but I haven’t been to many. I usually get irritated with the old grey-beards and their own self-involvement. They have power to change systems but chose to keep them because it suits them.

    5. No debt. I was fully funded for my PhD, part funded for my MA and am lucky enough to have had my family pay for my undergrad studies. I also got a full-time (I guess tenured) position 3 months ago, so no money worries for the last 6 months of my PhD.

    6. I think teaching and research needs to be closely interlinked. Nothing irritates me more than academians saying that they are only researchers. You should not work in a university if you are not also teaching. I think the South African anthropological landscape differs a lot from the US (obviously). The only research intensive university if Cape Town and I am not moving there anytime soon. So in my neck of the woods there are four universities with Anthropology, I am working at one now and worked at another previously. All of the departments are doing well in terms of numbers of students at all levels.

  8. Great questions, Ryan, and it’s interesting to read everyone’s answers. For myself,

    1: What brought me in? I was a couple years out of undergrad, knew I wanted to be a narrative nonfiction writer, but I needed something to write about. I wanted to get deeper into behavioral economics as well as writing about human lives, so I googled “humans” and “economics.” Economic anthropology popped up, and I emailed the nearest professor I could find to ask what it was about. Tying qualitative, narrative meaning from your average person to the big questions is part of what keeps me in.

    2: How’s it looking now? I got my MA last year and I’m working, but looking at PhD program apps again. I vacillate every day between love of the profession and my colleagues, and cynicism about the future. Colleagues and professors tell me to jump back in, but some really outstanding unemployed PhD graduates are warning me to look at business or medical work instead.

    I do believe that neoliberal reform of the academy will probably continue in the first world over the next decade (maybe I’ll have a few more years if I work in my research country?). We need to push for fair adjunct and grad student contracts, but even a well paid and benefited temporary worker still takes on a lot of extra stress. I’m taking free courses at Coursera.org now, and I love it — but it’s really making me question the traditional academic model, at least at all but the most elite universities. I’d love to play with starting my own free courses online, but that’s probably a few years out. Ultimately, I’m still looking at how I can position myself and work with others to encourage financially viable spaces within our crazy cost-cutting world, in which the pursuit and sharing of ideas and stories about the world can flourish.

    4 (!): Publish or Perish? I just got my first small article into the closed-access publication process, and I’m very excited about that, but I know I’ve got a long way to go in writing well and impacting an audience. And with the heavy focus on academic-oriented peer review articles, I’m not sure how long I can benefit from the academic environment and still maintain a popular orientation. Anyone know a program that encourages and develops a popular voice, outside of MFA nonfiction programs?? Or colleagues similarly interested? I’d love to hear from you.

    3: Conferences? I hate the “fifteen minutes droning on reading a draft of an article” format, and can only stand it for my closest friends and maybe a superstar or two. I’d propose we have audiences vote for the most engaging presenters for special awards (coffee gift cert? room upgrade? drinks on us? free AAA membership for the next year?); within a few years, that kind of feedback might nudge us to write our publication drafts, but then excerpt the best parts to catch our listeners’ attention and present compelling ideas for discussion. This process might even make our papers better. And if our papers and presentations get more thoughtful and riveting, we might actually get fascinated journalists or public members who come to our conferences just to listen. That would be a revolution in our current status as a social science.

    5: How about debt? I’m doing okay; one small loan for undergrad, and a fellowship paid for my master’s. I’ll wait to matriculate for the PhD until I can get accepted and fully funded at a top program. Even if I’m choosing poverty by choosing anthropology, then at least it might be a comfortable sort!

    6: What am I doing with anthropology? Writing, writing, writing. Learning how to observe closely and think broad. Presenting, developing public speaking skills and engage an audience. Trying to teach myself how to get ideas across a la Ted Talks, Coursera, blogs, books, talk shows, and articles in the Atlantic. Stuff that gets read and watched. I don’t know how to remain grounded in the local while capturing a popular audience, and I know I can’t do it alone, but I’d like to join with you guys and try.

    “Wait, what kind of job?” You’re wondering. I don’t know. I’d like the commitment to write and produce seminars regularly, but enough time and money to experiment. Don’t we all? If I could find a think-tank, research program, or department that would give me the space to do this, I’d sign up immediately. Maybe a small liberal arts college, a new university abroad, an area studies program.

    As you suggest, maybe our odds are better with professional gambling. If so, maybe that’s where I’ll end up, listening to the people and games around me as I take mental fieldnotes in Vegas!

  9. 1. I already knew I wanted to become an academic from almost day one of undergrad. I was a philosophy major, and came to anthro because I took Michael Silverstein’s classes and was starstruck and awestruck. This, it seemed to me, was the right way to begin thinking about language, cognition, knowledge — and the social in general. Scholarship for me feels like a vocation, the philosophical, Socratic vocation; anthropology seemed to me the right place to pursue it.

    2. I’m hopeful about my own future in anthro — if I weren’t, I’d do something else. It seems strange to me that anyone would be otherwise.

    3. I’m okay with it. I don’t know how you can be a scholar if you don’t research, and why should you research if you don’t write. Insofar as evaluation of research is quantitative — numbers of pieces of writing — that seems to be wrong; I hope it is not (mostly) quantitative. I’m six years into my program now, finishing fieldwork in two months; I’ve yet to write, let alone publish, a single word. I hope I can learn to write well and often.

    4. Conferences, at least the big ones, like AAA, are for drinking, full stop. Fifteen minute presentations are a terrible means of conveying research. They’re just advertising. But getting wasted with fellow anthros is always fun.

    5. Lucky boy: no debt.

    6. R1 or bust. That’s the only thing I really want to do with my life.

  10. I’m really glad this topic popped up and I enjoyed reading the responses so far.
    1. Since no one said that before, I’ll be the first – Indiana Jones brought me to the discipline in the first place. As a young person I was interested in archaeology but until I found out how ‘real’ archaeologists work mine was only a romanticised vision of the profession. Then I migrated to another country and decided it was time to choose my calling. I’ve always been interested in watching people and understanding their ways, add passion for travelling and the choice of discipline became obvious. Anthropology seemed to have all the attractive components, so I went for it.
    2. I’m finishing my MA (Anthropology) in UK and am quite pessimistic. There is little I can do with my degree at this point. As someone mentioned earlier MA is a “bastard red-haired step-child of graduate students” and I couldn’t agree more. For some reason education to such satisfactory level is not enough nowadays. There are too many graduates and not enough relevant job posts. What should we do then if even a PhD guarantees nothing anymore? I also feel for all the undergrads who chose anthropology and can’t, for various reasons, progress to a postgraduate level. Should they (we) forget about academia, teaching and professional research? I’m sorry but it all looks bleak to me right now.
    4. (I’ll follow this order for I wouldn’t want to confuse anyone) I published in a student journal and it was fun experience. To publish nowadays is not that challenging anymore. There are also other ways to send your message across, like blogging, setting up a magazine or a dedicated website. On the other hand, not everyone will have a chance to publish in a renowned journal but I agree that this opportunity should be for exemplary and carefully selected papers.
    3. I like the conferences, though never attended anything as big as AAA etc. They can be really uplifting, sometimes geeky, sometimes sombre but never boring, at least not the ones I attend.
    5. I’m in debt. I had to fund myself throughout the duration of my degrees. The government aid is scarce. The competition for scholarships is offputtingly high. My only hope is Jubilee Debt Coalition!
    6. For me personally it’s either teaching and research (academic path) or any form of political engagement. Anthropology showed me that things are rarely what they seem but can always change. I don’t like where humanity is heading and if I can do something about it I will try, both teaching and activism are the way to go. I also think anthropology should be taught at a high school level across the world. That would not only create much needed opportunities for non-doctoral anthropologists but would help people embrace (understand) globalization, greater mobility and multiculturalism. Development of new branches of anthropology (Digital Anth for example) seems to indicate the growing need to engage critical thinking and anthro methods in understanding of our culture. Yes, I think anthropology has a bright future.

  11. Okay, Ryan, I’m speaking as a dropout of a graduate program in humanities. I decided to quit after realizing that my planned thesis, “The Poetics of Suffering in the Twentieth Century Asian Literature,” could not really lessen or lighten the suffering of Asians. That realization came to mind after incurring eighty-thousand student loans. What an expensive intellectual adventure! I wasted two years too.

    Now that I know I am employable with my culinary skills, I’m entertaining the idea of going back to Anthropology, maybe MA or MPhil then PhD or DPhil. This time I want to focus on the holistic anthropology of food. If I have to study, genetics, microbiology, ethnobotany, herbology, politics of food, economics of consumption, it’s better. I think I am ready to suffer for this. Knowing that my work will have a wider impact will definitely help me achieve the goal, but beforehand, I need a scholarship and a program that will accept me. That’s the plan for next year.

    I believe there are other jobs anthropologists should aim besides teaching in colleges and universities. The good thing with anthropology is that one can easily make his own expertise and himself an expert.

    Instead of studying songs and dances and other trivial, insignificant things, one can study mining and conservation, for example. Mining companies and environmental departments are hiring people who can do environmental impact assessment and mediate between mining companies and affected communities. These jobs can be corporate positions. An Idealist anthropologist can definitely manage risk or formulate strict policies.

    We need more anthropologists who are experts in Autism, bullying, cyber crimes, illegal drugs, government housing, pharmaceutical marketing. These are the areas where government funds are pouring in. The idea is to mold yourself as an expert at something that is important, relevant, and pressing.

  12. Heck, I’ll speak as graduate student who changed field after doing his undergrad in anthropology.

    I decided to major in anthropology after having done courses in [equivalent for american highschool]. Wasn’t all that obvious of a decision, other than I had up to then really enjoyed the classes and took as many credits as I could in it. Once at university, the intro course to methodology in the 4 field discipline struck a nerve, and only then I realized I was at the right place. My 2 years (I zipped through with summer classes) was really a desconstructing experience in un-learning. As semesters went on it felt the more I learned new (to me) theories and accumulated knowledge, the less convictions I had about anything.I was attracted to courses in medical anthropology, economic antropology and finally did a class in the anthropology of developement. At that point, I sort of got sumberged in all the critical and negative analysis of what went on as “developement” and “progress” that I felt pretty depressed about things.

    After I graduated I took a year off to backpack around, and when I came back I felt like I wanted to more than simply criticize (and was in no way motivated by business), and hope to do something I could see as meaningful, and jumped into a masters in international development and humanitarian assistance (management side). Hopefully my background in anthropology will help me keep my eyes open and not repeat the errors of the past.

    Still reading articles in anthropology, and visiting blogs such as this (great) one. Maybe one day I’ll go back to anthro, maybe not.

    #my 2 unsolicitated cents.

  13. Wow, thanks for posting all of these great comments everyone. It’s really cool to read all of these different perspectives about grad school. And, it’s probably only fair that I answer my own questions too. But in the mean time, keep the comments coming, since I think it’s really valuable to get these insights into grad school life in anthropology. Anyway, here are my answers:

    1) For me what really brought me in was archaeology–that’s where I first started in anthropology. I took a whole slew of archaeology courses at a local community college before transferring to a UC, and I was hooked. And it was specifically *local* archaeology that really drew me in to anthropology. Suddenly, the local landscape that I thought I knew looked completely different once I started learning more about California history and archaeology. My second draw was primatology, which I was absolutely fascinated with (and still am) as an undergrad. Interestingly, I ended up in socio-cultural anthropology after attending UC Santa Cruz, but remain pretty dedicated to the four field philosophy.

    2) Things are looking ok from where I stand right now. I’m interested to see where things go with anthropology, and my main plan is to remain open to various possibilities. All of the talk about the terrible job market can get pretty disconcerting, but what are we going to do? Just lay down and quit? No…that won’t work. So I’ll find a way to make thing work one way or another.

    4) At heart, I think that the idea of publishing and communicating ideas is really important–so I think we should all write and disseminate our ideas, findings, and results. Also, I understand why publishing articles in peer-reviewed journals matters. I get it. But in my opinion we should not just run headlong into the current system just because that’s the way things are. I think we need to keep publishing our work, but we also need to rethink how, where, and why we publish. In the end, I have yet to publish, but have several ideas in the works–I am mostly trying to work on the ideas but also really think how I want to go about this whole publishing thing. I love writing–absolutely–so that’s not the issue.

    3) First, apologies for my little games with switching the order of the numbers. Thanks for putting up with my nonsense. Anyway, I am kind of divided about conferences. My first trips to the main big conferences in anthropology were a few years ago, and I had some pretty mixed experiences about them. Mostly because they aren’t cheap, and it’s not always fun to fly across the country to present a paper to 6 people you already know. Also, I think I would prefer a conference that is more of a roundtable discussion than the standard 12 minute run-through-your-ideas sort of thing. On the other hand, in 2011 I had a really GREAT experience at a smaller conference that was put on purely by grad students, so that gives me some hope about the possibilities with these things.

    5) About debt: I am definitely in debt, and that might be one of the most worrisome aspects of grad life. I am ready to get done so I can hopefully reverse this trend. Granted, my debt load isn’t the worst I have heard of, but it’s definitely not great. Sometimes it’s a bit hard to enjoy grad life and things like fieldwork with mega-debt looming in the background, if you know what I mean.

    6) If I had it my way I would end up at a smaller liberal arts school or program that places a lot of value on teaching. One of my absolute favorite aspects of my PhD program has been the chance to get to teach my own classes. A pretty amazing experience. So, I’d really like to end up teaching, because I think it matters–as much as anything else we call “anthropology”. So my long term goal is to teach and write and work on my own ideas and projects–but we’ll see what happens. You never know…and that’s why I am going to remain open to as many options as possible, for a variety of reasons.

    Again, thanks for all the great comments, and keep em coming. This has turned into a really fascinating comment thread, and I appreciate everyone’s willingness to share their views and stories.

  14. 1) I was working as a preschool teacher, realizing that my career there was going nowhere. Meanwhile I had been reading a lot of anthropology related books, and decided to take a class. After that class I decided that I wanted to go to school for anthropology, and very soon I realized that I wanted to be an anthropologist – get the PhD and everything. Anthropology is my passion, and I hope I can make a decent living doing it.

    2) I have mixed feelings. I think there’s still a lot of opportunity in the field, but I think it’s closing down fast. I’m hoping that it doesn’t close down before I get my PhD and can find my way into a tenure track position. But, I also feel pretty confident that even if I don’t find a tenure track position, I’ll be able to find a job and I’ll do well for myself – it just might not be my ideal situation.

    4) I’m working my ass off this year to get something published. I’ve got a couple of pretty sure publications in the works, and a few gambles. If everything works out, I should have a decent body of publications on my CV by this time next year. I’m always looking for new ideas, new places to publish, competitions, CFPs, etc. It’s a lot of work, but it’s what I’ve signed up to do – we’ll see how it goes…

    3) I’ve enjoyed most of the conferences I’ve gone to. It’s a chance to encounter new ideas, and I always come away from them with a lot to think about, and something to write about. That said, I haven’t been to any of the really big conferences (i.e. AAA) – I really like the size and feel of the SfAA and the SCA conferences. Plus, the two kind of balance one another in terms of theory vs. applied.

    5) Sinking. It’s growing by the minute, but there’s nothing I can do about it right now. It’s all from undergrad, since I’ve been fully funded through my MAA, and for the next three years at least of my PhD. All I can do is keep going, try to keep it to a manageable level, and hope I get a decent job after my PhD so I can start paying it off. Also, living on a grad student salary is challenging – next year’s going to be the most difficult, and I’m trying to figure out how I can cut down my expenses before the year starts. It’s hard though, because a lot of my expenses are basic needs – housing, food, car, bills, etc. I’ve always managed before, but it’s never been fun.

    6) My goal is a tenure track position at a research university. I think the field is heading in a lot of really interesting directions, and I want to be a part of that as much as possible. Hopefully, tenure is not a thing of the past by the time I leave my program.

  15. 1. I had a sort of “Ah-HAH!” moment when I was in my undergrad. After growing up in the theater with a family of writers and then going into the culinary arts, I started taking anthropology classes on a whim. Somewhere in there, it struck me that everything I had been writing and doing for the past several years was a form of anthropology. When I realized there was a whole anthropology of food field of study, everything just seemed to fall into place. I guess I was anthropologist for a long time without realizing it.

    2. I think I’m mostly stubborn and logical about being an anthropologist. I know going on for my phd is going to be a long and difficult (and costly!) process. I know I could easily stop here with my masters and that wouldn’t make me any less of an anthropologist. But I love the research and learning so much, I can’t even begin to imagine not eventually going on for more. It might take me a bit to find the right program and the right mentors to complete my doctorate, but I’m not going to stop looking or thinking or trying.

    4. I’m just starting getting into the publishing side of things. I have a book review that will be coming out in one of the up-coming “Food & Foodway” issues. As a writer, I love the idea of publishing, but I also really believe in creating opportunities when there are none. So besides starting to clean up papers to submit around, I also began my own website which functions both as a research hub (collecting sources and information I find over time) and a public space where I can work out my own material.

    3. Sly trick there with the numbers! I grew up at conferences, mostly volunteering, so I actually have a deep love for them. I do really prefer working them rather just attending – I like being useful! – but I think there’s always something to be gained and networking can really be a lot of fun!

    I have been thinking that it would be interesting to create a grad student anthropology conference where active grad students could meet together to share trials and tribulations, defend working theses, and begin to discuss where we would all like to see research going and begin to develop future projects together.

    5. I am SINKING. But, having worked for years in a job I was miserable in, I prefer to sink and be happy than swim and be miserable. So it’s an optimistic sinking?

    6. I think anthropology is and always be a relevant and exciting field. Maybe people don’t line up to read new ethnographies like they used to, but I think that potential is still there and we all have the opportunity to bring something to the conversation. I know I don’t want to teach (I’m much more of the research type), but I’m not sure exactly where I want to go. I think I’ll just see what happens when I get there!

  16. I finished my masters a couple of years ago and am starting a PhD in the fall.

    1) What brought you into the discipline in the first place? What made you say to yourself: “Self, this is what I want to do with my life”?
    For me, it was the IB module that someone else spoke of. I’ll also be the first one to say Paul Farmer. I knew I didn’t want to be his carbon copy but I sure as hell admire(d) him. So when I got to undergrad I knew I wanted to do anthropology. I looked back twice since then, and the first time I did it was on a frantic call home in tears telling my parents I wanted out. They told me to cut the shit, take a night off, and get back to work in the morning. I’ve had their financial and emotional support since day one, which has made everything incredible easier (more on that later)

    2) And how’s everything looking now that you’re on this side of the whole process? Are you hopeful or pessimistic about your future in anthropology?
    I’m excited, but I’m probably blinded by the “omg first day of school” giggles than anything else. I have however been active in coming to departmental events and being in touch with my future advisors, casually reading through readings I requested from them.

    4) How are you faring with the whole publish or perish paradigm? Thoughts?
    I haven’t published a word, and from my friends who have recently secured jobs, I don’t think I’ll have to worry about it until I’m in my 3rd year, but that might be naive. In any case, I’m pumping one or two things out in the next year.

    3) Of course there’s a number three…I know you have all learned to rapidly skim everything you lay your eyes upon because you have mountains of reading all the time, so I just wanted to see if you’re still paying attention. The question: What’s your take on conferences? Love ‘em or hate ‘em?
    I love conferences because I am very good at networking, and I have had teachers who seem to be relatively popular in anthropology. Thus, when I shake hands with someone, give my 10 seconds about my project and say I went to X for undergrad and Y for masters, 95% of the time they will say “oh so you must have studied with Z” and I say “omggggg Z is so cool yes! So back to me…” and it works out well. I also like free bougie food and alcohol, and conferences often have free bougie food and alcohol. When they don’t, I don’t mind paying for drinking with peoples whose brains I love, which is, like someone else said, the highlight of conferences. I do like the rapid fire exchange too.

    5) How about debt? Are you sinking or swimming?
    I am a fortunate bastard. My parents paid for all of my undergrad after my scholarships ran out and I took no loans. I got a full ride to my MA and worked my ass off before I arrived such that I didn’t need much parental support to live, I took no loans. I have a very luxurious 5-year funded package that has allotments for things like books. I also only drink Pellegrino when I go out which is like every day. Just kidding, but I very much am grateful for my financial situation.

    6) Last question: what’s your prognosis for anthropology? What are YOU going to do with this discipline you have chosen? Are you aiming for tenure at a big R1? A teaching school? Are you planning on leaving academia? Joining the public sector? Taking up professional gambling? What’s next for you?
    I’m going to write something that changes how the discipline thinks about the themes in m project, that’s for sure. Tenure at R1 or bust. I have a back-up career that is more lucrative than anthropology so I don’t mind if I bust. But I’m young and optimistic. Run this questionnaire in a year.

    I like this, and wish Savageminds would do something similar on a regular basis. Like “Oh hey professors thinking about retiring, what do you think about anthropology?” But I think that could also rear the ugly head of prestige politics which have not been good for SM lately.

  17. @Mynameisrequired:

    “I like this, and wish Savageminds would do something similar on a regular basis. Like ‘Oh hey professors thinking about retiring, what do you think about anthropology?'”

    Hmmm…that’s not a bad idea. Thanks for your comment!

  18. I wish you would do a similar set of questions for those who have completed the Ph.D and are actually on the job market – or the group of people commenting here when they encounter the job market – the mixture of naivete and arrogance in these comments from grad students frightens me – no wonder HTS is recruiting again

  19. 1) What brought you into the discipline in the first place? What made you say to yourself: “Self, this is what I want to do with my life”?

    As an undergraduate, I fumbled around in the social sciences and humanities looking for a discipline that would help me understand and respond to the political issues that were shaping the world around me. I eventually landed in history and eventually decided on a dual history/anthropology major. The latter discipline, with all of its methodological inventiveness and theoretical sophistication, seemed inspiring, and I was lucky to attend a small liberal arts college where I was able to collaborate closely with faculty members on a research project examining social problems of deep importance to me. At the time, an advanced degree seemed like the logical next step. Basically, I, like many of my peers, naively thought that pursuing anthropology would somehow allow me to impact the social issues near and dear to me.

    2) And how’s everything looking now that you’re on this side of the whole process? Are you hopeful or pessimistic about your future in anthropology?

    I’m barely even considering a future in academic anthropology. While I was warned about the dire state of the job market and the grim future of academic anthropology, I went ahead and applied to graduate school anyway. People like me–young, white, male, and middle-class–have a hard time imagining that things won’t turn out well, so the prospect of a difficult job market just wasn’t going to put me off. During my fourth year, the reality of academic life–which didn’t seem very attractive given what I’d seen in my department during the previous years–coupled with the increasingly unlikely prospect of a tenure-track job at the end of it all led me to take a leave of absence and complete a professional degree. While I was doing fine in anthropology–I had obtained a number of research grants, including several major ones for dissertation fieldwork–I wasn’t deriving any satisfaction from it and just felt like I should branch out. I’ve returned to finish up my PhD, but this is mainly for credentialing purposes. My professional degree has allowed me to establish an alternative career path in applied research which is already paying the bills and allows me to interact with a lot of interesting social scientists from a variety of disciplines outside the academy while working on problems that are often directly related to the formulation of public policy.

    While there’s much I value about my anthropological education, the fact of the matter is that there was simply no applied training available to me, and my peers give me the sense that this is case in almost all top-tier (or wannabe top tier) graduate programs. I don’t fault the faculty members in my department for this, as they all trained in elite programs that focused solely on producing the next generation of scholars, but folks really start need to thinking–even in the most basic ways–about how to prepare their students for careers outside of the academy. Case in point: methods. The methods training (if you can call it that) that I received consisted largely of a discussion of the epistemological pitfalls of the discipline (i.e., the limits of what ethnography allows one to know), an important, but not exactly new problem; the nuts and bolts of method were decidedly uninteresting and something that it was assumed everyone would just “figure out” in the field. While I’m not suggesting that anthropology should adopt the more conventionally scientific approach adhered to by other social science disciplines, it would have been helpful to think more carefully about the types of methods necessary for answering particular research questions and learning about oh, I don’t know, something like different approaches to data analysis and interpretation from people who were presumably well-versed in such matters. Folks in disciplines like sociology and political science learn methods in very different ways and are typically much more easily able to convey their work to non-academic audiences than anthropologists are–again, I’m not suggesting that anthropology become something else for the sake of practicality, but we have to do a better job of thinking about how the central issues of our discipline converge with the problems that people need to solve in various applied/practicing careers rather than just telling ourselves that we already do this in one way or another.

    In short, while I will complete the PhD in the next couple of years, I’m not really looking at the academic job market. Friends of mine who have gone on the job market in the past few years are doing okay; I’d say about 40% have found tenure-track or post-doc positions, while the other 60% are, in the best case scenarios, doing stints as visiting assistant professors for a couple years and, in the worst case scenarios, applying for unemployment benefits.

    4) How are you faring with the whole publish or perish paradigm? Thoughts?
    I co-authored an article with my undergraduate mentor fairly early on in my graduate career. Since then, nothing. I’ll probably try to publish 1-2 articles based on my dissertation research because I’m deeply intellectually-invested in that project, but there’s no real reason for me to feel like I have to get anything in print at this stage.

    3) Of course there’s a number three…I know you have all learned to rapidly skim everything you lay your eyes upon because you have mountains of reading all the time, so I just wanted to see if you’re still paying attention. The question: What’s your take on conferences? Love ‘em or hate ‘em?

    I’ve presented at a number of conferences both big and small and can’t say I’ve derived anything valuable from the experience other than a vacation. I’ve found that a number of “important” scholars possess neither minimal social skills nor any sense of humility. Why should I waste my time groveling before these people? That said, it’s not like I’ve been to every anthropological conference, and there is a large non-anthropological conference that I attend ever year where I’ve developed a supportive network that has helped me out a lot with professional development issues.

    5) How about debt? Are you sinking or swimming?
    I have about 13,000 in debt and don’t expect to accumulate any more; this is unfortunate, but relative to many of my peers I think I’m doing okay.

    6) Last question: what’s your prognosis for anthropology? What are YOU going to do with this discipline you have chosen? Are you aiming for tenure at a big R1? A teaching school? Are you planning on leaving academia? Joining the public sector? Taking up professional gambling? What’s next for you?

    As I said before, I have already begun to establish a career in applied anthropology (though I don’t always identify as an anthropologist, depends on the job), and barring any surprises, that’s the direction I’ll continue in. Right now I’m doing independent consulting, but I can also see myself working for a research firm at some point.

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