Everyone needs a Plan B

If you’re on the job market you need to have a Plan B and, whether you’re a grad student or a post-doc, be steadily working towards it. Not only is the job market tough but being a tenure-track assistant professor (which sounds like a great job) actually turns out not to be for everyone. Let me tell you a little bit about how I came to my own exit strategy.

Earlier this month I had a video interview with the Chronicle. This was part of an ongoing series they’re hosting on the many different ways of being an adjunct. There’s the adjunct who commutes to multiple positions, the adjunct who is on food stamps, the adjunct who made it to TT. Me? I’m the adjunct who is getting out of the game.

[brightcove vid=2219550239001&exp=1399136188&w=486&h=412]

In retrospect it might have been a wiser move, from a TT point of view, to skip being an adjunct altogether. In order to be competitive for a TT job you need peer-reviewed publications, a funding portfolio, and an active research project. Being an adjunct doesn’t help you do any of those things.

After my dissertation defense in 2009, my advisor asked me what I wanted to do next. I told her that it was just dawning on me that I could do anything I wanted. Maybe not become a poet or a body builder, but I did have a PhD from one of the best public universities in the country. You would think that should count for something! Turns out it does, just not in academia.

I started working on my Plan B in 2010. I had just lost my job as an instructor at a small liberal arts college as the state budget contracted in the recession. That year I was out of work for nine months and, as I watched my wife struggle with the many responsibilities of assistant professor hell, I reevaluated whether a TT job was right for me.

I was motivated by the website http://versatilephd.com/ and a book, So What are You Going to do With That? (which came with this sound advice: Q. Should I go to law school? A. Only if you really want to be a lawyer). I thought about the things I was good at and I how I could use those skills to get an actually existing job in the place where I was living. Preferably one that would fit my personality and wouldn’t suck my soul.

I’m good at teaching anthropology, but at adjunct rates that only pays about $3000 for a course and it’s a job with no future. If you’re good at it you can stay there indefinitely, but you’re not going to work your way up into a higher paying position (see paragraph 3 above). This can be problematic for a young person with three children. The job does have limited responsibilities and is fairly easy, so it does have that going for it.

Here are some of the different career paths I considered:

TEACH CC. I checked out some full-time community college jobs at my local CC. They had a sociology dept with anthro courses and a history dept with Native American courses, but for accreditation purposes they were only hiring people with sociology or history degrees. Minimum is 18 graduate credit hours to be qualified. I’ve got one Soc course from my grad student days, that means I’d have to take five more while I was an adjunct and then I could call myself a sociologist. Grad students: pay attention to this as you choose your course loads! Maybe think about picking up a Masters in something else along the way. As a CC instructor carrying a 5-5 teaching load plus tons of student advising comes standard, teaching summers may be required too.

TEACH HS. Next I scoped the job ads at the local school districts. A graduate education counts towards your years of seniority for pay purposes, so with a doctorate I would get paid at the same rate as some with ten years of teaching experience. However social studies teachers are not in high demand,  foreign language, math, and science is what’s needed. I could probably muster Spanish fluency if I put some effort into it and I would find great personal satisfaction in that too. Depending on how desperate your school district is this may require some formal retraining, or maybe not. Definitely requires putting up with teenagers for 8 hours a day, but then you can take the summers off for reals.

UNIVERSITY ADMIN. Profs are always bitching about how university administration keeps growing while departments stay the same. So why not jump ship and play for the other team? One way you can make this transition is to look for Assistant Dean level positions, these are typically for unglamorous jobs like Summer School or Continuing Education. Or college admissions/ recruiting is another place to start. Unlike adjuncting this is a field where you can move up through effort and hard work. Some of these jobs require a Master in Higher Ed Admin or Counseling, which are 36 credit hours. Soul sucking and tie wearing may be required.

NON-PROFIT/ LOCAL GOV’T. What better place for a dedicated person to make a difference in the world than by working in the non-profit field! There’s a great diversity of different organizations to work for, particularly if you look to small, local groups. Same thing goes for working for the city. However if you’re looking to get out of the academic life because of the long hours and low pay you won’t find anything different here. Some of these jobs may require a Master of Public Administration. On the plus side it’s not difficult to find MPA programs that provide funding. You can usually get one in 36 credit hours.

LIBRARIES. There are three tracks to a career in libraries, you have your public libraries, university libraries, and “other” including things like managing archives (digital or analog) or working for a law firm. I was immediately attracted to university libraries: you get to use your mind, work with faculty and students on research, but there’s no grading (unless you’re a teaching librarian that is). Librarians care about qualitative research, Open Access, and blogging. However, librarians endure precarious budgets and are frequently the target of cuts. Much of the field is becoming para-professional. The better library jobs require a Master of Information and Library Science, which take 36 credit hours to earn.

From this list I narrowed it down to becoming a HS Spanish teacher or a university librarian because both of those skills would make me a better anthropologist. If I chose to pursue either of these careers but then came back to academic anthropology I would be in a stronger position than when I left. One of my buddies left the TT rat race to be a general contractor and paint houses. He’s very happy and making better money, but if he goes back to academics that won’t have advanced him in the way that picking up a language or a Masters would.

I talked to friends who were librarians and high school teachers. Ultimately I opted for libraries because despite the risks I saw the greatest potential there for someone with a doctorate.

To learn more about professional librarians I started volunteering for my local public library and now I serve as chair of the Board of Trustees. This has, overall, been the best move in getting my foot in the proverbial door because it’s given me opportunities to see what the work is like and actually do some too. You also get to network with professionals.

After you spend some time brainstorming and researching your Plan B my advice is to find a way to volunteer in your second field while you adjunct.

Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson is Project Cataloger at The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia, and currently working on a CLIR ‘hidden collections’ grant to describe the museum’s collection of early 20th Century photography. He has a doctorate in anthropology from the University of North Carolina and a Masters in information science from the University of Tennessee.

18 thoughts on “Everyone needs a Plan B

  1. Thanks for this Matt. After reading it, I am wondering if maybe the “Plan B” should actually be “Plan A” for more and more of us coming out of anthropology. If there aren’t any good jobs in the academy, then why are we all still prepping ourselves to go there? Doesn’t really make sense. Seems like the sooner we look in other directions, the better. Maybe that could potentially be a way to take anthropology in some new directions as well. I am entering the last stage of finishing up my PhD–I am writing now. So I am looking at the job market in academia–adjunct positions, post-docs, all that. It’s not pretty. I don’t really see the point of continuing down this road in order to compete for jobs that really aren’t there anymore. Only about a quarter of jobs are tenure track these days. Teaching as an adjunct, as you point out, doesn’t get folks any closer. It’s a job, but not a good one. Three thousand per class is nothing. When I was about 25 I made some pretty good money as a bartender. Way more than I would today teaching as an adjunct. That was a long time ago. I was debt free. Now, 13 years later I have a BA, MA, and almost a PhD in anthropology. I am definitely not debt free. Yep, time to rethink things. One thing that comes up in my mind a lot: Maybe we need to start thinking a little differently about what anthropology can mean, and what can be done with it. The old publish-and-be-a-professor route is less and less viable. So maybe we need some news ideas, new way of putting anthropology to use. I think there are options, but they will require some creative thinking.

  2. Thanks Matt. You are helping me to think more broadly. Having been an adjunct for 11 years, with a full time job in the non-profit world, I have to rethink my strategy for the next 15 years of my career. Library Science has been an interest of mine for a long time – may look into it. Thanks for the wise words.

  3. Hi, Matt. I feel sad reading your post. I also feel I’m not alone, after all. I know it is impossible for every anthropologist to become a professor. Why do anthropology departments ignore that simple fact? I think the time has come for jobless anthropologists and for those who work in other fields besides anthropology to speak up on how anthropology departments should be educating and training their students. I think they should not treat anthropology as another comparative literature. Anthropology is so vast a field, yet there are so many unemployed and underemployed anthropologists. Why? Is it because anthropology departments don’t care if their students will have jobs in the future? Is it because their view of anthropology is myopic? Is it because the public does not know where to appropriate us? Is it because anthropology professors are too lazy to expand their ideas about anthropology or to expose outside of universities what anthropologists can do or should be doing?

    We have biological anthropologists, but can they handle jobs in biological laboratories? They do anthropometry and osteology, but can they do forensics or operate machines used in skeletal radiology. They study human variation and human genetics, but can they do even simple genetic tests or can they even draw blood samples? Collecting genetic samples in the field for human genome projects should be the job of biological anthropologists who are trained in ethnology and human variation, but molecular biologists and geneticists have been doing them mostly. Is it because biological anthropologists have limited or shallow knowledge of molecular biology and genetics?

    It’s time for anthropology to go interdisciplinary. Those who want to concentrate on biological anthropology should take courses in evolutionary anthropology (mostly about variation between human groups), molecular anthropology, biosocial anthropology, forensic anthropology in their departments and related, applicable courses they can find in chemistry, biology, radiology, pathology, genetics, anatomy, neuroscience, even criminonology, criminalistics, or criminal science for forensics. Biological anthropology professors should move away from primate studies and descriptive studies about neanderthals and other proto-humans. Let behavioral zoologists or ecologists and evolutionary biologists handle them. Most jobs are about solving problems of contemporary humans. Anthropology departments should not remain historical and descriptive in their treatment and teaching of biological anthropology.

    I can say the same thing about those who want to focus on political anthropology. Take courses from government, public administration, political science, international studies, foreign relations, criminology, criminal justice and force your departments to offer defense anthropology, military anthropology, criminal anthropology, legal anthropology, public anthropology if you want to be employable in the future. So many conflicts, criminal cases, and community problems that are culture-related, yet I don’t hear of anthropologists working in police departments. Do you think the Guantanamo abuse of prisoners would have happened had there been US military officials who were anthropologists running the prison camp?

    Medical anthropologists? They can do a lot of things, but unfortunately, their training is mostly descriptive not prescriptive. They should be working in hospitals that have integrative medicine programs. They should involve themselves in pharmacology and pathology. Yes, some do epidemiology, but again, it is descriptive. I doubt if they can handle clinical laboratory work that requires solid backgrounds in microbiology and biochemistry. Who would hire a person to work in a medical field if her only experience is doing a fieldwork and writing this: “Expressionists of the 21st Century: The Commodification and Commercialization of Expressed Breast Milk.” Articles like that make me want to yell: “Ask for a tuition refund or return the research grant.”

    Have you heard of medical anthropologists offering solutions to obesity? They can easily do comparative nutrition studies across cultures and use their findings to add a solution to the problem, but it seems they are more interested in making medicine abstract and postmodern. I’m still waiting for an article or research study by a medical anthropologist about the drug-addicted toddlers (from opium and heroin) of Afghanistan. Journalists have been writing about it. Where is anthropology in this issue?

    Give linguistic anthropology to linguistics that has sociolinguistics and ethnolinguistics as sub-disciplines. Let archaeologists do their own thing. History, which also studies prehistory, ancient history, cultural history, needs them more. Anthropologists can study contemporary materials, artifacts, and things in material anthropology or anthropology of materials. Anthropology departments should cluster the courses they offer according to specialization and allow their students to focus on what they want to specialize in anthropology. There are so much to learn in economic anthropology that should include statistics, econometrics, and mathematics, but why force anthropology of religion or myths and rituals to students who want to work for development banks or the World Bank in the future? “Interdisciplinarization” is the key. Let them study financial anthropology, management anthropology, economic anthropology, business anthropology, development anthropology, marketing anthropology and courses in economics, mathematics, management, accounting, development, finance, and even advertising.

    You will say this will dilute the discipline and cause academic identity crisis. Haven’t useless theories from humanities and philosophy diluted and ruined anthropology? Anthropology should be importing related, relevant methods from other disciplines. They can help in widening an anthropologist’s skills and employability. To begin the academic reform, anthropology departments should overhaul their curricula. Check these anthropology courses offered at Harvard: “Creole Pop Iconographies”, “The Woman and the Body”, and “Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food”. Taking courses in poetry and fiction is better than wasting time and money on these useless anthropology courses. At least poetry and fiction have markets in case one writes a novel or a poetry collection. Who reads ethnography of candies and candy wrappers? Come on.

    If we remain silent, either anthropology will succumb to its natural death or will be subsumed by humanities or by other social sciences. In some colleges and universities, anthropology has become part of sociology, behavioral studies, geography, human ecology departments. If we don’t speak up, anthropology professors will continue educating and training future unemployed and underemployed anthropologists. The cycle continues. Anthropology departments and professors should keep in mind that not all anthropology students have trust funds and not all of them are professorial material.

    Thanks for allowing me to rant.

  4. A quick comment in reply to the Virtual Patriot, who will be happy to hear that many medical anthropologists work outside of academia, including in hospitals, development organizations and NGOs, departments of public health and so on. In fact, it is arguable that “medical anthropology” as a subfield is the product of so many anthropologists working in such settings. The issue this raises is, at least, in part, that anthropologists outside of the academy are often isolated from their discipline, and we imagine they don’t exist — here in Washington, D.C. professional networks of anthropologists such as WAPA help to maintain links to the discipline, but we may be privileged to have such a large number of people in a variety of non-academic settings.

    As for the Harvard course on Chocolate, please note that it is being taught in the Department of Africa and African American Studies by Carla Martin, whose PhD is from that department. The Harvard Gazette’s description of the course focuses on the ways in which she uses this mundane topic to develop student insights into the history and economics of slavery, contemporary scientific manipulation of “taste” and consumer choice, etc. It may not be an anthropology course, but it also doesn’t sound any more “useless” than any other social science course that might help a budding anthropologist develop skills and insights that could be translated into a career in market research, among other fields.

  5. Here’s her background from her department’s website. You can also check the list of anthropology courses at Harvard by going to the website of the Department of Anthropology.

    “Carla Martin
    Ph.D. in African Studies, with a primary field in Anthropology
    Class of 2012
    Carla D. Martin is a Harvard College Fellow in the Department of African and African American Studies. A social anthropologist with interdisciplinary interests that include history, ethnomusicology, and linguistics, she received her Ph.D. in African and African American Studies from Harvard University in 2012. Her current research projects focus on language, music, and digital media in the former Portuguese colonies and the politics of cacao and chocolate in Africa and North America.”

    I don’t think medical anthropologists working in hospitals are the norm. Can you direct me to a hospital that is not connected to a university or a faculty of medicine hiring anthropologists to do a clinical/hospital jobs not a teaching job? The last time I checked, I only saw social worker positions.

    When my Vietnamese friend was dying from breast cancer at UCI Douglas Hospital (and that’s a university hospital), I saw social workers and comfort care physicians talking to her family but not medical anthropologists even though her family’s cultural practices related to end of life decisions, death, and grieving were obvious. Moments like that make me ask: where are the anthropologists?

  6. A tip from someone who had no Plan B when he failed to get tenure: Don’t look for a job as an anthropologist. Look for a job that you can be good at.

    How do you figure that out? If you haven’t already, get yourself a copy of the latest edition of _What Color is Your Parachute_ (http://www.amazon.co.jp/What-Color-Your-Parachute-2013/dp/1607741474). Check out the Gallup StrengthsFinder program (used to be free, now may cost a few bucks). Check out a few gurus; personally I like Seth Godin and Daniel Pink.

    But whatever you do, don’t get trapped in that box your degrees put you in. The boxes aren’t what employers are looking for.

  7. @Virtual: I’m not a medical anthropologist, but I know of many who have worked in hospital settings in areas that range from clinical work (there was a volume published on just topic 30 years ago, edited by Chrisman and Maretzki) to organizational research and “organizational culture.” A former student of a friend of mine is on a multi-year NIH post-doc in medical ethics at a V.A. hospital. My own first exposure to anything like medical anthropology was a classmate in graduate school who was working at Michael Reese Hospital on what we would now call “cultural competence”. A second area that was suggested to me yesterday by a friend who read these posts here is nursing. Apparently many nurses are now doing doctorates in a variety of fields, for professional development purposes, and (medical) anthropology is one of the disciplines in which they are doing PhD work. They may continue working as nurses, but hopefully bring insights from anthropology to their work, and contribute to the field in publications, conferences, etc. As I suggested, perhaps not clearly enough, anthropologists in such settings are often seem to be doing work that could be characterized in broader, generic social science terms, so that their narrow field of expertise or training is not obvious, and they don’t show up on the usual career radars, or they have “cross-trained” in a field such as nursing, and don’t wear a badge that says “anthropologist” in their work.

    I don’t think medical anthropologists working in hospitals is the norm either, and hope that nothing i wrote implies that. On the other hand, doctors working in hospitals is not the norm either, since most physicians work primarily in non-hospital settings. Doesn’t mean that they cannot work in hospitals, though….

  8. @Virtual. Please forgive one additional note on this topic. A friend just recommended to me the directory of medical anthropologists published online by the Society for Medical Anthropology, and it is a fascinating picture of career options. The very first person listed under “A” works at the Mayo Clinic on drug testing and patient safety issues, and within a few minutes I read brief bios of people who work in a wide range of hospitals and medical centers in non-teaching positions on a variety of subjects. Check it out.

  9. Barbara, my post is not about the employability of one or two anthropologists.

    “On the other hand, doctors working in hospitals is not the norm either, since most physicians work primarily in non-hospital settings.”

    Really? The fact that all medical doctors start as salaried residents in hospitals, your attempt at semantics won’t work.

    Here are the data the influenced my post:

    A report published in Forbes Magazine in 2012

    (From the 2009 and 2010 American Community Survey of the Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) at Georgetown University

    The Ten Worst College Majors/The Least Valuable Majors

    No. 1: Anthropology And Archeology
    Unemployment rate for *recent grads: 10.5%
    Median earnings for recent grads: $28,000

    Unemployment rate for *experienced grads: 6.2%
    Median earnings for experienced grads: $47,000

    *Recent college graduates are ages 22 to 26, and experienced workers are ages 30 to 54

    No. 10: English Language And Literature
    Unemployment rate for recent grads: 9.2%
    Median earnings for recent grads: $32,000

    Unemployment rate for experienced grads: 6.2%
    Median earnings for experienced grads: $52,000


    Is it really better to take literature than anthropology as far as future job and income is concerned? Anthropology departments and professors, take note.

    Only $28,000? I guess that will prove Ryan’s statement about bartending being more lucrative. That’s just sad.

  10. *Here are the data that influenced my post:

    My post is not also about anthropology graduates with PhD’s. I don’t think one should take a PhD so he’ll get any job, unless he wants to work in the academe or move up in his career.

    I see too many anthropologists changing their careers and being paid less because they have no formal training related to their new jobs.

    People are gainfully employed because of their relevant skills. If you are only good in doing fieldwork and writing ethnography, I don’t think there are many jobs waiting for you outside the academe.

    Now imagine you have enough training in finance or marketing. You will have a lot of job opportunities and your anthropology background will enhance your employability, let’s say, in a financial firm that handles Asian or African accounts.

    Yes, “interdisciplinarization” of anthropology is the key.

  11. @Virtual. Again, check the Society for Medical Anthropology website and directory. They list dozens of anthropologists working in hospitals, not one or two. And my comment about doctors and hospitals is correct. Residencies are part of training, and are comparable to fieldwork for anthropologists. The fact that all physicians go through residency training — which occupies, as you know, only a few years of a physician’s career — doesn’t contravene the fact that most physicians do not practice in hospitals. Not that most physicians have never practiced in a hospital. Jeez.

    Finally, and I will make this my final post on the subject, your salary figures are irrelevant. We’re talking about anthropologists with PhDs, not undergraduate degrees. The PhD is the professional degree in medical anthropology, so there is no point to be made in dragging out salary figures for recent college graduates.

  12. Maybe we need a common definition of “norm”.


    Something that is usual, typical, or standard.”

    Thus, it is usual/typical/standard for doctors to work in hospitals. Is it for medical anthropologists?

    Yes, I checked the directory. They are obviously connected to universities and doing research.

    I’m talking about clinical/hospital/medical jobs for anthropologists that are not related to teaching or research. Social workers are typically/usually hired by hospitals not to do research or teach medical students. They do family counseling and patient advocacy, which I think medical anthropologists can do better.

    Yes, Matt’s post is about anthropologists with PhD’s. If anthropologists with BA/MA are typically/usually hired by financial, government, medical, industrial companies, offices, departments, do you think there will be a lot of anthropologists wasting their time, money, and effort getting PhD’s thinking it’s the only way to have stable jobs in the academe?

    I don’t get why you find making anthropology students skilled and employable not a matter of concern. . .

  13. I think that Ryan’s statement about Plan B being “Plan A” is spot on. Why? Let’s be blunt about the fact that there are more people graduating with PhDs than there are tenure track jobs. Its clear from just hearing the numbers of adjuncts currently working in the university world that problems exist in the academic realm. The Chronicle of Higher Education provided a statement recently that that at least 70% of faculty in US institutions are adjuncts. This is a worrying number. Surely it’s important to clarify the range of skills acquired or sharpened during graduate school so that they can be redeployed upon finishing their program? Yes, anthropology is a fun subject but we all have to earn a living and pay off those student loans!

  14. @Anthea:

    Ya, at some point we’re going to have to start thinking about things differently. If we’re all going after the same limited jobs, then things obviously aren’t going to pan out for a lot of people. I don’t really see the point.

    I think you’re right that some of these changes should be reflected in graduate school training. At present, it seems that most programs train students to go into academia. So training focuses on methods and theory, of course, but also on a form of professionalization that’s very limited to academia (writing academic papers, grants, presenting at conferences, etc). Seems to me that it would be a good idea to shift the training around and start focusing on writing and communication as key elements of an anthropology that can move a bit beyond the academy as well. That’s not going to happen as long as students are only trained to write/communicate within the system.

    I still think anthropology has a lot to offer through its core methods and approaches. But I think a lot of us limit our possibilities when we only try to get ourselves into academia. I think there are other options. I hope so at least. Maybe we have to make them.

    One other HUGE factor here though is the issue of debt. All of this becomes a much bigger problem when grads (like me) are coming out of programs with 50, 60, 70, or more thousand dollars of debt.

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