This is a post about numbers.

  1. The other day I was thinking about conferences.  Let’s say you’re in a panel with 10 people, and each person pays a total of $500 dollars to get there.  This includes conference fees, airfare, hotel, and so on.  So that’s a grand total of $5000 dollars so everyone can write a paper, fly across the country, walk into a room, present their paper for 12-15 minutes and maybe have a group conversation for another 20 minutes or so.  It’s a lot of money.  Granted, conferences are about a lot more than just going to present.  They are about going to other presentations, making connections, seeing friends, etc.  But I think there are times when it might make sense to take that collective $5000, round up 10 people who want to collaborate, find a cheap central place to meet—and then do something.  Like write a book.  Create and actually start implementing a project.  Whatever.  Again, conferences have their place.  But I think sometimes it’s also good to look at what we’re doing—and what we want to do—and know when it’s the moment to do something a little different.  Imagine what 10 people with a common goal could really do if given some serious time to really put their heads together.

  2. I saw this chart the other day.  It showed the number of PhDs produced every year compared with the number of jobs that are actually available each year.  The ratio was something like 35,000 to 3,000.  These are not good odds. 

  3. Ok, so you need to do interviews for your long-awaited year of fieldwork.  How many people should you interview?  Maybe 70?  Or 90?  Or 175?  How do you determine this number?  Is your number based upon the size of your study population?  The number of contacts you expect to be able to establish?  The various numbers of interviews you have seen in grant applications you read that were actually funded?  Seriously, where do you get your numbers?  And think about this: is more really better?  Are there cases in which it would better—and more methodologically sound—to base you dissertation on interviews with a total of 25 people, or 15, or even 12?  Why not?

  4. When you’re doing fieldwork, what percentage of time are you actually doing fieldwork?  Think about all of the logistical things you have to do to get to the field, and all the stuff you have to do while you’re in the field.  You know, like getting your documents in order, fixing your vehicle, figuring out where to live, washing your clothes, finding things like toothpaste, and so on.  What percentage of the time are you really sitting there being the ethnographer writing notes like Stephen Tyler on the cover of Writing Culture?  Really digging in.  50 percent?  15 percent?  More?  Or Less?

  5. During my fieldwork there was one person I tried to interview for about 8 months before I was finally successful.  The interview lasted 29 minutes and 48 seconds.

  6. Now let’s talk about funding your fieldwork.  Everyone wants to get a grant.  A lot of time goes into writing them.  Now, think about the total amount of time you put into writing a grant.  Let’s say you work on a grant for a year, and you average 5 hours per week (of really working on it).  And, after that year, let’s say you get a grant for $10,000.  That would be about $38.46 per hour of work (this does not account for the work time of your adviser or anyone who helps you edit etc).  If you work on this grant for an average of 10 hours per week, that would be $19.23 per hour.  If you average 20 hours per week, that translates to about $9.62 per hour.  At what point does it make more sense to work slinging drinks in the local bar to fund your fieldwork?

  7. How much money do undergraduate students spend on the average introductory textbook?  Let’s say it’s about 100 bucks.  And let’s say there are 300 undergrads in one particular department.  That’s $30,000.  Multiply that by 5 years.  Now we’re at $150,000.  Imagine what one department could do with 150 grand, a heap of political will, and all of the potential of open access publishing.

  8. There are about 38 million students in debt these days.  Think about that.  Check out 9 charts about the student loan crisis.

  9. You finally get your PhD, and you end up with 50 grand in total debt for all of your college education.  Your interest rate is 6.8 percent.  Your loan payment term is 25 years.  Let’s say you were in college for a total of 12 years.  That means you incurred an average of $4,166.67 per year.  Your monthly loan payment is $347.04.  Your cumulative payments will be $104,108.90 after those 25 years.  The total interest paid will be $54,108.90.

  10. A.L. Kroeber committed himself to anthropology around 1899—1900.  He defended his 28 page dissertation in 1901.  What’s the average time to degree these days?  And how many pages is the average dissertation in anthropology?  Do PhDs take longer now—and use up more words—because they’re better?


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.

16 thoughts on “Numbers

  1. #3. The magic number is 30, right?

    #4. Don’t forget convalescing from illness and injury. Some fieldworkers spend part of their year at embassy and consulate functions, taking in and/or out of country vacations, and dancing the night away. Or so I have been told.

    #6. A stint of fieldwork funded with a grant goes on an academic CV as a stint of fieldwork as well as a successful grant proposal. A stint of fieldwork fielded with funds earned through tending bar only goes on an academic CV as a stint of fieldwork. Fieldwork funded with an external grant vs. fieldwork funded with an internal grant is somewhat similar.

  2. #4 it depends on your field work and where and how you do all the other activities. If you are living in and with the people you are studying, all those ‘not work’ activities may be as valuable as any interview. Buying a tooth brush, washing clothes, figuring out where and how to live may engage you in conversations you would not otherwise have had and you may begin learning through more direct experience some of the realities and subtleties of everyday a life.

  3. MTB: re: #6, That’s a good point. I guess we could also how much time and effort we are willing to spend for a line on our CV. And #3: so 30 is the magic number? We should broadcast this news to all graduate students stat.

    Nancy: that’s a good way of looking at things. I agree that all of those other activities are an important part of the whole fieldwork experience. Being there matters in more way than one.

  4. #10 (Average pages in a dissertation). Research by Marcus Beck at the University of Minnesota answered this question for his institution (relying upon an open dataset, I would note.) History and Anthropology have the longest dissertations at UMN and I think that this fact generalizes. I quickly tried to emulate his approach for my own department and found (basically) that a slightly short dissertation in the IU Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology is about 275, a slightly long one is about 321, and a happy medium one is about 295 under current conditions. (Meaning we were basically just like UMN Anthropology.) To find the original study and online commentary on it, search on “marcus beck how long is an average dissertation”. I advocate re-examining the scale of ethnographic dissertations in light of current conditions (1) in publishing, (2) in research practice, (3) regarding time to degree, and (4) relative to the job market.

    A very thoughtful post.

  5. The Science on Google+ community has started a series called “Posterside Hangouts” where people present short papers 5-10 minutes using the Google+ hangout feature (if you’re not familiar with it, it is software that allows for video chatting/conferencing between a variety of parties). I believe that the video of the presentations is then posted on YouTube.

    Programs like this might be a way for people to get their work out there without the expense of attending a conference.

    Personally, I suspect that $500.00 to attend a conference is on the low side, at least for major national conferences like the AAA’s and SAA’s.

  6. Thanks Jason. I think a re-exam of the scale of ethnographic dissertations might not be a bad idea.

    Jeff: that might indeed be a good route for some to look into. As for the 500 dollar estimate, ya, that was quite low.

  7. I thought about getting a PHD but at my age it would take me to the age of ninety two working full time to get the money back that I would be forced to spend. Some things do not make sense. How much smarter would the decree make me. How much would it aid me in the field. Would it allow me to sell my “smarts” better. Guess not, so I did not bother.

  8. Anyone who gets into the PhD game without an awareness of these over-arching facts is (in effect) ripped off by the system –however, many people do play the game fully aware of what the issues and options are.

    In general, when I’ve spoken to professors, they’re made quite uncomfortable by my familiarity with the economic reality underpinning the situation, although I’m often mentioning it just in order to reassure them that I don’t have any unrealistic expectations (neither of the degree, nor of what will come after I have the degree).

    Mainstream publications (including _The Economist_) have now published a long series of exposés on this issue, and there are many country-specific studies. “[B]y 1970 America was producing just under a third of the world’s university students… Since then America’s annual output of PhDs has doubled, to 64,000. Other countries are catching up. Between 1998 and 2006 the number of
    doctorates handed out in all OECD countries grew by 40%…” [Econ., Dec. 16, 2010]

    In terms of the fundamental questions of Neoliberal economics, the education sector faces problems of “debt and deleveraging” that are familiar from other facets of the public sector, and perhaps a few in the private sector. Within anthropology, you may rarely hear words like “deleveraging” (and, indeed, the word “Neoliberal” is rarely used as anything more than an insult) –however, it’s a substantive issue, given substantive attention in other fields.

  9. Great tip to use the google+ hangout feature. There are several great thinkers who are doing things in my community. One way we are organizing around areas of interest is through Trade School Indianapolis, where we barter for knowledge. Next month we are going to implement a project here based on the principles of the Blue Economy and the only payment is our time, commitment, and a promise to give each other a high five. It would be great to learn if there are any other people out there researching urban communities rebuilding themselves from an insider perspective.

  10. Precisely why I am avoiding grad school like the plague. Every so often, as I talk to my friends who do want to continue their education I think, “maybe it’s just that they’re more motivated/more dedicated to their field.” Yeah… while this may be true, there are at least a dozen logical reasons to be done when I’ve finished my bachelor’s in May–most of them financial. I can definitely pick up the information I want a lot cheaper through self-education. I may not get the big bucks or the fancy job, but it’s hard to argue with demonstrated expertise.

  11. Yeah… while this may be true, there are at least a dozen logical reasons to be done when I’ve finished my bachelor’s in May–most of them financial. I can definitely pick up the information I want a lot cheaper through self-education.

    There really are things you can learn in graduate school that you can’t teach yourself. If your primary motivation is knowledge rather than profession, you can skip the conferences.

    I understand that there is the issue of lifetime earnings, but it isn’t like we can be sure what the job market is going to look like over the next half century. Not going to graduate school is not going to guarantee prosperity and going may or may not hinder it.

  12. I’ve no doubt that grad school has benefits, but for my purposes I think picking things up as I go is best. I don’t think a Masters or even a PhD is going to be a guarantee of any job in the future–there are too few of those sorts of jobs with lots of people competing for them and not enough people filling the hands on sort of positions. I have a lot of friends that are having difficulty getting jobs with their masters degrees–and meanwhile college loan payments are coming hard and fast. Again, no doubt grad school is great for some… just not for me.

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