Professionalization in Anthropology Graduate Programs

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Rachel Newcomb. 

Many of us find the transition from graduate school to the world of the gainfully employed to be a challenging one. One moment, you’re happily ensconced in a library carrel, surrounded by your beloved field notes and cranking away at your dissertation. The next moment, you’re lecturing to two hundred first year university students who may be in the room solely for a general education credit, and who could care less about your deep and abiding affection for kinship theory. Or maybe you’re sitting across the table from a nonprofit interviewer who wants to know whether your experience studying the effects of globalization on Ilongot gender roles will make you a good candidate to work with a team of social entrepreneurs promoting fair trade coffee in Indonesia.

How are graduate students trained to make the transition from the apprenticeship model of academia to settings that may be very different from our expectations?  Since receiving my PhD in 2004 from a research university, I have wondered how other graduate schools prepared students for Life After PhD. During my graduate school years, my professors were always generous with their knowledge whenever I approached them with questions about academia. Yet at that time, there was no formal instruction on what happened once the dissertation was defended, bound, and stored away on acid free paper in the university library.

Given that jobs at research universities are few and far between, what are contemporary graduate programs doing to prepare students for settings other than the research university? I sent out an email to fifteen different colleagues, at various stages of their professional careers and in both the United States and overseas, to learn more about their experiences.

One colleague, who received his PhD slightly over a decade ago from a university in the California state system, mentioned that while his program had prepared him for a job in a research university, it did not address the realities of teaching in any other setting. Further, there was no attention given to jobs outside academia, except among the archaeologists.  Another woman, who attended the same school several years later, said that by then, the university had amped up its efforts to professionalize students, offering classes on how to submit conference abstracts and write grants and cover letters. However, the emphasis was still on grooming students for jobs in research universities. For this colleague, the most helpful connection she made was with the Society for Applied Anthropology, which she cited as very useful in informing her about careers outside academia.

Many graduate programs are now offering more intensive training in academic professionalization. Lisa Wynn, who teaches in Australia at Macquarie University, directed me to this thorough blog post by Greg Downey on the academic job search, which also contains a link to a workshop that Wynn offers on academic publishing. In her research methods class, she requires the students to submit a paper to an academic journal, and she reports that many have published their first articles this way.

One friend, currently writing his dissertation at the University of South Florida, known for its strong applied emphasis, told me that his program offers seminars on job talks and grant writing. For those who want to go into applied careers, another student from USF described his school’s strong internship program, with internships in both non-profit and corporate settings. Those internships, he said, often lead to jobs for students following graduation.

Overall, most of my respondents felt that graduate students had to be both proactive and creative in figuring out how to professionalize themselves. Asking professors directly for help, creating informal groups for practice conference talks, and getting to know scholars from other disciplines seemed to be the most common ways that graduate students built stronger CVs and networked for positions. Many mentioned learning a great deal from post-docs they held in other departments, where they worked among colleagues in fields such as public health or population studies.  In those fields, one person commented that students were receiving more rigorous training in publishing, giving conference talks, and networking.

My respondents are not necessarily a representative sample. Most of them attended graduate programs without an applied emphasis. However, I would guess that the majority of cultural anthropology programs in the United States still assume that their students are going to become academics. While traditional anthropology programs seem to be doing more these days to prepare their students for academic jobs, in most non-applied programs there is still little guidance in how to get jobs that are not in academia.

How much did your graduate education emphasize professionalization for careers beyond academia?

An associate professor of anthropology at Rollins College, Rachel Newcomb is a regular contributor to Huffington Post and writes book reviews for The Washington Post.  Her books include an ethnography, “Women of Fes,” and a novel, “The Gift.” For more information, you can visit her website.

14 thoughts on “Professionalization in Anthropology Graduate Programs

  1. This is a good question, Rachel. Students often come to ask me about how to get a non-academic job when they graduate. The pathetic thing is that I don’t really know what to say. I mean, I got an academic job, so I have no idea. But I do know that several former undergraduate students have gotten interesting jobs ranging from museum curator to market researcher focusing on qualitative methods, so I’m thinking that I need to organise a yearly event for current anthro students where we invite alumni in to talk about what they do and how they got those jobs.

  2. Having a yearly event with alumni is an excellent idea – I didn’t even mention undergraduates in this blog post, but I believe our friend Sarah Pinto mentioned that her department brings in anthro grads to talk to current students. That’s great that some of your undergrads have gone on to those types of careers– I can see how anthropology feeds perfectly into them.

  3. It’s kind of unrelated but I have a question that’s been burning up and I can’t find an answer to online. I’m currently a last year undergrad in Anthropology, fully intending on going to grad school. I’ve been reading up a lot on the sad state of academia, adjuncts’ plight, the loss of tenured jobs, etc.

    So, what’s the viewpoint anthropologists have on recent PhD’s accepting positions abroad (that is, outside the U.S.)? I once overheard a Master’s student (who was also crying, mind you) say to her friend that her Master’s advisor told her that she “would never come back” to the US if she accepted the PhD program she was considering of accepting in Canada, and it sounded like he meant that if you’re not in American anthropology from the start, then there’s no room for you here.

    Why don’t more recent graduates go abroad than slave away here as adjuncts? I am absolutely not advocating them to do that if they don’t want to, the greater problem is fixing academia here so people can stay and find gainful employment as academics. But what’s the deal with that? Are anthropologists from outside the Western world (also excluding the UK here) not taken seriously? Or is finding employment in foreign universities more difficult because of networking?

  4. That’s a great question – I hope others will weigh in on it here… I have several good friends from graduate school who moved abroad (Australia, New Zealand, and Europe) and loved it so much that they have no desire to come back. And in some ways, academic life overseas may be more humane. (Parental leave for six months or even a year, for example.)

    I guess some people may have a prejudice that if it’s not happening in the US, it’s not relevant, but I don’t think that’s necessarily true – these friends are active scholars and have never had issues getting their articles and books published by US-based journals and US publishers. They still attend US conferences as well. I don’t know if they have an interest in moving back here, though, so that would be another issue – whether returning to the States is possible or if working abroad somehow marginalizes you. Personally, I wouldn’t think so, but I guess we need to hear from those who have actually been in such situations.

  5. I can’t comment directly, since after I moved overseas I found non-academic employment. But I know several academics from the US and UK who found academic posts in Japan. The problem these days is that with a shrinking birth rate, aging population, and stagnant economy, the opportunities aren’t as numerous or remunerative as they used to be. China may be a different story, since academia there since a growing middle class is generating strong demand for higher education. The general rule is that there is no general rule; but I would suggest that, unless you have particular interests and contacts (in the country where you did fieldwork, for example), look for places like China instead of Japan or Europe, where the lifestyle is very nice if you’re in but the future may be less bright.

    Just random thoughts from a now sixty-nine year old man who was lucky to be born when he was.

  6. I’m still in the thick of it–that is, juggling the dissertation, kinship theory 101, and applying for The Next Big Thing–but as of yet, I have received the most invaluable feedback and generous advice from our alumni. Some of my advisers have been out of the job loop for 40 some years, and even those younger professors who applied for jobs five to ten years ago (before the economic crisis) did not have some of the same challenges that recent grads face today. Also, I’ve found that alumni are more forthright about the realities of the academic job market (e.g., How much do lecturers actually make?) and more in touch with the non-academic job circuit.
    Thank you alumni!

  7. Hey all, thanks so much for your responses!

    Rachel-I totally understand what you mean by more humane. I would pretty much move anywhere outside the US, and the prospect of practicing and teaching anthropology someplace where it’s at least a little bit more valued and respected than the US sounds great to me…I hope to be accepted to a program that is highly active in terms of public engagement, because 1-that’s important to me as a person, even now, and 2-I think that means greater opportunities at networking (including meeting alumni, like you said).

    [also your blog is awesome!]

    And John, I would definitely consider China. Let’s see how the marketplace will be in a couple of years!

  8. Two things:
    During my M.A. degree, everyone was required to take a class called “The Uses of Anthropology” which had three purposes. 1. To familiarize people with the kinds of work being done outside of academia. Other than readings, we also had regular visitors by previous M.A. graduates working in commerce, advertising, heritage sites/museums, ngos and government agencies. 2. To help people plan out and implement their required internship. In some cases this would be excellent hands on working experience which looks great on a resume; for others it was essentially a research assistantship (which was my own experience, and also my own choice). 3. To help professionalize our CVs, our job interviewing and job finding skills…as well as develop a five year career plan and interview two anthropologists practicing in the field we plan to engage with. Most of my classmates went on to find jobs after finishing their M.A. I decided I wanted to be closer to my fieldsite and moved to Hong Kong for a Ph.D.

    So my second point is regarding international Ph.D.s and teaching. I knew in my heart that it was career suicide (at least for an American career), but to be honest the feedback I received was 50/50. For instance my M.A. advisor, who I think was hoping I’d stay as his doctoral student, never ever told me I was making a mistake…he was disappointed but also very supportive…I still consider him a good friend. Another close friend was the first American to complete a Ph.D. from Tsinghua University’s Planning and Architectural Department in the early 90s. He’s now a Prof. at UW-Seattle and well respected in the field. I have my heart set on teaching abroad and perhaps someday when my weary bones are aching for home I’ll try to beg UM-Missoula to let me come back and teach…perhaps even pro-bono ;-p

    But just a word of caution at least regarding Hong Kong (in particular) and China from my own experience and understanding. Hong Kong is certainly not inoculated to the publish or perish epidemic. But on top of that, there are heavy work loads, advising responsibilities (the University system is encouraging a ridiculously unsustainable Ph.D. to M.A./M.Phil. ratio as well…some departments even 10/1), and extracurricular activities. But worst of all I know very very few people in Hong Kong who were able to negotiate tenure into their contract, and yet you are expected to apply for research grants which for the most part could only be implemented during summer breaks. The perks are that the bulk of the students are top notch (both undergrad and grad), the pay is lucrative, medical might as well be free, and we get visitors of the most esteemed variety.

    China’s anthropology is a fledgling as the discipline was suppressed from 1949-81 for being bourgeois…there are only 3 full departments (Zhongshan, Shandong, and Xiamen Universities…Yunnan recently closed)…but there could be more on the way. There are numerous Anthropological Research Centers housed within Sociology or Ethnology Departments…which is where most cultural and social anthropology is done in China. Archaeology has its own department, typically within a School/College of History. Biological Anthropology would probably be found mostly in colleges of medicine or biology. Linguistic research centers also tend to be developed within Ethnology Departments. Many of these places are now hiring, particularly those with Ph.D.s from overseas anthro departments. The best setup I’ve seen so far is at Chongqing University, where the pay is quite good (considering the standard of living), work load is small, lots of opportunities for funding, plenty of time for fieldwork…but lets be honest the range of research questions that could be turned into a full project for those interested in taking a position in China will be limited by the political milieu…that’s just the nature of the game. What I find discouraging (and confusing) is the fact that, at least as of yet, there is not a strong interest in encouraging Chinese scholars to go abroad and conduct ethnographic research from a Chinese perspective on say gun culture in America. But I have faith that will change…and I look forward to reading that particular ethnography.

  9. An interesting blog post from April by Adam Kotsko which was picked up by a couple of days ago on creating a “shadow résumé” while in graduate school. A wonderful idea in principle, if one is able to reshuffle the pieces of an already overcrowded life (which is a useful skill to cultivate for a hoped-for future career in academia, in any case).

    Basically, I worked on a freelance basis in the “civilian” sphere during grad school (and beyond, as it turned out). This had several benefits. First, the work was better-paying and less time-intensive than adjuncting would have been — and I could work from home for the most part, meaning it didn’t really interfere with my classes, etc. Second, and perhaps most crucially, it gave me a plausible resume for the “civilian” world, one from which I could omit my overeduction while not thereby creating a huge inexplicable hole in my employment record. Finally, it created a “lower bound” for my stress levels, because I felt like I had alternatives — it wasn’t a choice between a tenure-track job and Starbucks.

  10. “How much did your graduate education emphasize professionalization for careers beyond academia?”

    This question is directly relevant to the following post on media engagement(s). The ‘white public space’ of most anthropology programs, especially in extremely hostile/abusive/non-diverse programs, is not conducive to being a Black anthropologist who is also deeply critical of structural racism and white supremacy (especially pre-tenure) and is a ‘public intellectual’ constantly enmeshed in media engagements on such topics. This is apiece with anthropologist Elizabeth Chin’s comments on the expectation that non-White anthropologists study non-Whites/themselves while Whites get to study everyone. Not all students are being professionalized similarly or equally–because of issues of race, gender, color, and the expectations that come therewith. The issue of differential preparation and professionalization is not simply a matter of differences between schools, applied v. non-applied programs.

    It would be nice if we could be more forthcoming on the ‘conditional acceptance’ involved in much anthropological professionalization.

  11. @discusswhiteprivilege: Sigh. We have such a long way to go. I’m aware in writing any of this that professionalization is not a neutral topic, nor is “media engagement” – there is not a level playing field upon which graduates are magically launched into careers that materialize before their eyes, nor is there a neutral public sphere that accepts everyone equally, regardless of race or uncomfortable truths they may be bringing to light. We have a long way to go even in the most basic ways – that is my main point here – the structure of academia still seems to be preparing everyone for nonexistent academic jobs, let alone helping people consider how they might get a job outside academia, let alone considering the issues minority applicants might face in the job market…

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