Building Intellectual and Professional Bridges

One of the questions we asked in our survey of post-adjuncting anthropologists who are now gainfully employed was ‘what steps did you take to make yourself a desirable job candidate?’ Overwhelmingly, respondents identified publishing as the key thing they did in order to land a tenure track job. Among other common responses were networking (especially in the form of attending more than one conference each year), and being willing to move to an ‘undesirable’ location (which is pretty subjective). For those who ended up being employed in a non-academic job, acquiring new skills was the most important thing respondents identified. And this was the case for some who landed in academic jobs as well – which isn’t something that we often talk about, but, it seems, many people do.

One of the responses I found most interesting was this one (which I’m excerpting a bit):

I’m currently TT in a Department of Sociology, Anthropology & Criminology–but I was hired via the Criminology portion. My ethnographic research was on police, and I was hired as part of a search for someone whose research focused on policing. I don’t know what steps I can say I took to make myself desirable–I feel pretty lucky. I didn’t have any real background in Crim, but my application caught the eye of the search committee just enough for them to imagine the creative possibilities of hiring an anthropologist to teach their policing classes.

Anthropologists are in a potentially beneficial position in the contemporary university in that they have the ability to cross disciplinary divides in relatively natural ways by studying people that are of interest to other disciplines. I know of a couple anthropologists who have been hired in Criminology departments, who work in North America and conducted fieldwork with police. There are a limited number of anthropologists who can find jobs in Criminology departments, but similar experiences were voiced by respondents who sought out training in epidemiology to be hired into Public Health and GIS to be hired into Geography. Sometimes – it seems – just a little more specialization in one’s skill set is enough to set applicants apart from the masses.

I often tell undergraduates who ask me about pursuing a Ph.D. in Anthropology to start by getting an M.A. in a more applied field – public health, social work, public policy, journalism, etc. My reasoning is in part based of the utility of the skills taught in those programs; but, more importantly, in the long run it can make people more desirable job candidates since they are clearly able to do more than just teach anthropology. I’m also pretty convinced that no one wants to go back for an M.A. after they get a Ph.D., so it’s better to get it out of the way first. It can also mean a job while conducting fieldwork or while writing up – which might be better than adjuncting. In any case, having skills outside of anthropology seems to help people on the job market – and it gives you something to fall back on if an academic job doesn’t come your way, as reported by some of our respondents.

Anthropologists are also regularly housed in (as above) Sociology and Criminology departments, and less regularly in History, and taking coursework in those areas might benefit job seekers after graduation. In my own case, I took courses with sociologists and that familiarized me with the way they conducted their research and the expectations they have of ethnographic work. It didn’t make me particularly interested in doing quantitative work myself, but hearing sociologists talk about numbers made me much more aware of disciplinary differences, and also taught me to be ecumenical about social science research. Being able to talk sociology might get Sociology departments more interested in an anthropologist for a given position, since most people appreciate colleagues who demonstrate the ability to talk shop – even if they have deep ontological differences.

At UC Santa Cruz, we allow students to receive Designated Emphases in disciplines other than those they are seeking a Ph.D. in; it usually means taking four to five classes, and shows up on transcripts as an official emphasis. If you’re starting or in a Ph.D. program, it’s worth looking at what your university offers that might be similar. And even if you don’t seek out an official emphasis, taking courses in sociology is especially useful, since there are many anthropology jobs in sociology departments for anthropologists (both as ethnographic researchers, but also as anthropologists). If your institution doesn’t support cross-disciplinary coursework, just reading recent work in sociology might help.

In any case, stretching beyond anthropology proper seems to be a technique worth considering, especially during graduate training. For those on the job market, it might also be worth thinking about how to acquire new skills – which might require more coursework, but might also be possible by developing a research partnership with colleagues in other fields. Because anthropology takes the epistemologies of others so seriously, we might be especially able to work in other contexts and alongside other specialists.

14 thoughts on “Building Intellectual and Professional Bridges

  1. Matthew, I have been finding your posts particularly interesting. This post in particular, especially with its reference to an anthropologist who studies police but is now TT after catching the eye of criminologists in his current department is of particular interest to me in light of my most recent comment on Ryan’s race post, especially because the racist-sexist bullying I have written about being subjected to (and retaliated against for speaking up about so that the department could cover up public bullying and clear hostile climate violations) was carried out primarily by two white male fellow grad students of whom one is an anthropologist of the police now TT in a Sociology/Anthropology/Criminology department. I think it is important to raise this fact to highlight how this post on building intellectual and professional bridges is also an ideal-type post which is not addressing the role (however implicit and dysconscious) race/gender/color–and racism/sexism/colorism play in the very professionalization processes you are recommending, as well as the ‘interest taking’, and thus hiring, they can result in.

    I raise the issue of who it was that was bullying me to directly address your statements about anthropologists being able to more easily cross disciplines, to be seen as good interdisciplinary hires, to be doing research that people in other departments find interesting, and to be in a position to talk to sociologists in particular. While all this must be true, there is a race/gender/class/color/sexuality dimension–and white (male) privilege reality–that also needs to be acknowledged.

    I was being racistly and sexistly bullied by unnamed now-TT anthropologist of the police precisely because I was in conversation with sociologists (as well as American studies and media studies scholars, and implicit bias researchers in psychology), given my work on whiteness and racialized beauty hierarchies in the US. This same anthropologist if the police supported (and still supports his white male anthropologist friend) racistly and sexistly bullying me by saying that I needed to “keep your ‘privilege’ critique at home” (and one of the specific forms of racist-sexist verbal abuse his white male friend used to justify telling me to shut up about race and gender privilege and inequality was telling me–not as a compliment–that I “think like a sociologist”); unnamed police anthropologist also made a point of telling me there is no real difference between being ‘pink’ and being black (a comment truly mindboggling come from an anthropologist of the police, given the realities of racial profiling, police brutality, racialized false conviction, racially disproportionate incarceration and death penalty sentencing, and all the other structural/institutional racism and implicit bias in US law enforcement and the US judicial system; of course the man knew the ‘pink’ comment was a crock of hooey, he just saw me as a race/gender subordinate who deserved to be his emotional punching bag for his anxieties over getting a job–yes, the very issue of professionalization you are discussing here–and his resentment over my having gone to an Ivy while he had gone to a state university, so he could tell me that going to Yale meant that I was so privileged that I no longer had to deal with racism and sexism such that I should not claim that he still had white male privilege which actually counts quite a lot in the academy, and so that he could tell me that white students on the academic job market are being oppressed by “nonwhites get jobs and fellowships thrown at them”.

    Your comment on anthropologists being interdisciplinary or well positioned to be perceived and hired as such may be generally true, but it is not race or class neutral. Likewise with the comment about anthropologists generally studying topics and people scholars in other disciplines find interesting. Because even when the topic is interdisciplinary and considered interesting to/in other fields, race/gender/color influence whether or not the anthropologist doing the research will be supported, embraced, hired for doing it. Some of us are both ‘presumed incompetent’ and expected to ‘know our place’ and ‘keep our privilege critiques at home’–especially for having been interdisciplinary in ways that the ‘white public space’ of anthropology does not like or reward.

    Additionally, it is worth having a discussion about what interdisciplinarity is appreciated, tolerated, and encouraged by a/one’s graduate program. Especially when it comes to race. (And no, for race-avoidant and deeply racist departments and individuals, the quantatative research of scholars in sociology and social psychology is not being race, while abstract, disembodied conversations with departments like rhetoric, which allow white male bullies to make disingenuous comments about race just being about ‘performance’ are. And yes, a truly disgusting position for an anthropologist of the police to embrace using as justification for public email bullying, “keep your ‘privilege’ critique at home” white male resentment, and racial terror tactics to cover up this documented bullying so as to apply for academic jobs.)

    Building intellectual and professional bridges is not merely a matter of what an individual does (or doesn’t do), but is also a consequence of subject position and what one looks like–and is thus assumed to be (or not).

  2. Correction: the word ‘race’ at the end of this clause should be ‘encouraged’:
    “And no, for race-avoidant and deeply racist departments and individuals, the quantatative research of scholars in sociology and social psychology is not being race”…

  3. @DWP:

    Thinking about privilege in relation to academic work is definitely important. My approach throughout my thinking about professionalization (and you can see the whole plan here: is to promote a plan for people to pursue without the trappings of privilege — i.e. anyone can do the things I outline. It might be easier for some than for others, but these steps are meant to promote people through their own work and not through any privilege associated with their background, social relations, etc.

  4. Thanks for the response, Matthew. Respectfully, however, I feel it is substantially underestimating cum sidestepping the effect race/gender/color has on professionalization (especially in anthropology) and thus has on employability. It affects everything, right down to who can say and research what, and in what way, such that some will be rewarded while others are retaliated against.

    The reference to the expectation for black women to be mammies–as well as not speaking up ‘too much’ about race/gender/color privilege–discussed in the Inside Higher Ed review is a concrete example. The same behavior from different bodies/subjects/people gets interpreted in very different ways, thus affecting ‘professionalization’ practices, choices, opportunities, and outcomes.

  5. Dear Michael,

    I applaud what you are doing but hear only the sound of one hand clapping. Seth has demanded passionately that teachers just do their job and teach—ignoring the fact that to have that job, just to teach the way a teacher should, is a privilege increasingly rare in today’s academic marketplace. DWP has pointed out that while all young academics confront an increasingly bitter struggle in the academic marketplace, some face stiffer hurdles simply to be considered as plausible candidates. I offer a third perspective.

    To anyone who is striving to succeed in today’s academic marketplace, I would say, pay very close attention to what Michael is saying. First, however, I would pause and ask, Why am I doing this to myself? What are my basic skills? I am smart, a quick learner; I can think and write. I know stuff that others don’t. I may even be a pretty good teacher or coach. Do I need this job to make the most, for myself or for others, of what I have to offer?

    I can say from personal experience, no. It was, I admit, being booted out of the academy that forced me to think in other directions and wind up through a series of happy accidents with a career in advertising and now translation and writing. Because I am not greedy, making more money is not an obsession, and I certainly have more time to read, write and think than academic colleagues whose days are consumed with classes, committees, and grading. Is my way your way? Probably not. The turning points in my critical path will not be yours. Yours will be different. But before you head down that path toward academic martyrdom and adjunct purgatory, do ask yourself, Why am I doing this?

  6. @John: Thanks so much for the comment. I always appreciate your long duree’, outside-the-academy perspective. I would respond by saying that having realized that academic anthropology is in fact ‘just a job’ in the end, and not the antiracist project I naively thought it to be when I graduated college and decided to go to grad school in anthropology, I don’t think the abuse is justified. For antiracist activism and teaching, yes: for just a job where I look the other away at dehumanization and abuse which should be antithetical to the practice, discipline, and profession/professionalization of anthropology/anthropologists, no. There’s just no excuse for that, especially not for just a job that doesn’t really change the structural inequality that is the condition of possibility for this professionalization conversation.

  7. Ya, I think your advice about moving beyond anthropology is really good. I like the idea of getting an MA in a more applied field. I also like the idea of doing more cross-disciplinary learning in grad school–a good way of expanding not only knowledge but also dialog.

  8. A couple of possible models.

    A. Gabriella Coleman, whose book Coding Freedom Rex has recommended. She ignored her advisors’ warnings that a non-traditional subject would hurt her career as an anthropologist and recognized that her research on hackers associated with the free software movement dealt with people on one side of one of the most important legal/political collisions of modern times—hackers and free software v an increasingly stringent, corporate-backed intellectual property regime. She now holds the Wolfe Chair in Scientific & Technological Literacy at McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

    B. Michael Griffith, Sinologist and currently Director of Ethnography for Ogilvy Greater China. An example of what can be achieved by stepping through academia instead of getting stuck there. I just wrote a review of his new book for Amazon:

    Anyone who reads Michael Griffith’s Consumers and Individuals in China expecting to find the rule-bound marching morons of Confucian or Maoist stereotypes or the soulless search for niche markets presented “scientifically” is in for a big surprise. The book begins with a profound critique of both these intellectual postures and goes on to develop an argument rooted in post-structuralist social theory that is ethnographically focused on culture as a fluid and changing environment within which individuals must struggle to position themselves. The method is daring, yet simple. Talk to Chinese individuals with whose lives you are familiar and take seriously what they say as they tease out the ambiguities, conflicts and contradictions with which they wrestle. Do not explain away what they say. Do not swallow unthinkingly the stereotypes that the language they use may suggest. Listen and think about what you are hearing and what it might mean to someone who is living those lives, rural, urban, immigrant, young, old, entrepreneur, punk-styled beautician, nervous intellectual, retired factory worker….whatever the situation in which you find them. Listen and reflect on what they say in light of critical theory that suggests new questions unasked by other Sinologists and treat what these Chinese individuals say as part of the conversation instead of just grist for the theorist’s mill.

  9. Generally, I think these are excellent suggestions. Being able to engage with other disciplines is an asset for many academic seekers these days. More and more institutions are also posting cluster hires and joint positions, and people with the ability to bridge disciplines are sought for these. It is also true that anthropology departments have been folded into sociology departments at some schools (usually liberal arts colleges). As a sociologist, and an ethnographer whose work overlaps quite a bit with anthropology, I would like to quibble with the portrayal of sociology in this post as largely quantitative. That is indeed true in some departments, but certainly not all, and many of the best-known sociologists do ethnographic, historical, or other varieties of qualitative research. My point here is that in attempting to engage with other disciplines, it’s also a good idea to be aware of their complexities.

  10. Consider, for example, MIT Media Lab Director Joi Ito’s thinking:

    There are nine or so principles to work in a world like this:

    1. Resilience instead of strength, which means you want to yield and allow failure and you bounce back instead of trying to resist failure.

    2. You pull instead of push. That means you pull the resources from the network as you need them, as opposed to centrally stocking them and controlling them.

    3. You want to take risk instead of focusing on safety.

    4. You want to focus on the system instead of objects.

    5. You want to have good compasses not maps.

    6. You want to work on practice instead of theory. Because sometimes you don’t why it works, but what is important is that it is working, not that you have some theory around it.

    7. It disobedience instead of compliance. You don’t get a Nobel Prize for doing what you are told. Too much of school is about obedience, we should really be celebrating disobedience.

    8. It’s the crowd instead of experts.

    9. It’s a focus on learning instead of education.

    We’re still working on it, but that is where our thinking is headed.

  11. Not everyone can follow this advice given the ways in which those constructed as ‘threatening’ and pathological racial others get punished for disobedience. This advice is dangerous for some of us. Subject position matters, as well as what kind of people you are working with.

  12. Is there a Noble Prize for Anthropology?

    Sarcasm aside, I would again question how transferable–in its entirety–the advice above is to professionalizing one’s career as an anthropologist, given the ways in which the sciences have different institutional standing and practices. I’m not saying none of this advice is useful, but to be more critical about how, why, and to whom it may be useful, or more and less useful.

    No, they don’t give a Noble in Anthropology. If they did, would Rick Scott and the rest be labeling the discipline a useful degree? We won’t be winning the Noble in Literature for our writing. At best an anthropologist may win for genetics or the peace prize (but because of running a non-academic organization like Partners in Health). But really, mentioning the Noble as if it is the kind of carrot applicable to this conversation about professionalizing oneself to get a TT anthropology job does strike me as, for lack of a better word, interesting. And raises the question about the source of the advice and the system of rewards so attached.

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