The Brooking Institute’s Hamilton Project (because after Hamilton everything has to be named after Hamilton) has a new website examining the relationship between career path and college major — in other words, it shows you what people who major in one field do for a living. The site and its accompanying interactive data visualizer and reports affirms what I have spent the last three years telling undergraduate majors in my role as undergraduate advisor, so I wanted to take a second here and discuss what you can actually do with your major. What the data actually say.
Here is the standard speech I give students: There is no strong connection between your college major and occupation (at least for anthropology and most other majors). The purpose of an undergraduate degree is to give you general skills which will enable you to be a citizen of your country and the world. These same generalized capacities you need for citizenship are what you need for the job market. There is no point learning how to mechanically follow orders, since that just means you can be replaced by a robot. What’s key is the ability to learn quickly is key, since companies don’t really believe in training any more. You will be paid best if you can build or maintain the lives of the privileged. You will be paid poorly if you work for the poor or disadvantaged. The answer to the question “what can I do with this major” is not a fake list of job choices. It is ask “what do you want?” If you are waiting for your college professors to hand you a high-paid job, that’s not going to happen. And this is not our fault: it isn’t the educational sector that keeps blowing up the economy so the rich can get richer. College is not about choosing a major off a menu so that you can chose a job off a menu. College is about figuring out what you want to do and then seeing how possible that is in the world we live in today.
Now, the Hamilton Project doesn’t deal with the more philosophical liberal arts-end of my spiel to students. But it does underline one central point: There is no such thing as ‘anthropology job’ for anthropology majors. Take a look at this chart:
The most common jobs for anthropology majors are: law, management, teaching, and ‘postsecondary teachers’ which I think means ‘professors and adjuncts’. The body of the graph sorts these occupations by income, with the most lucrative on the left. But check out the bar on the left which measures how common each job is: 6.5% of majors are postsecondary teachers, 4.8% teach elementary and middle school, 4.1% are managers, and 3.8% are in law. In other words: even the most common job for anthropologists do not account for 93.5% of occupations for anthro majors. The top four occupations account for less than 20% of occupations. In other words: you can do anything with an anthropology major. But getting an anthropology major doesn’t give you skills for any job in particular. Except maybe being an anthropology professor.
The Hamilton Project uses the same ACS data data I’ve been using to advise students. When I tell them the most likely thing that will happen is that they will be a high school teacher or a paralegal, they are often depressed. Partially this is because they have this idea that they’ll be issued a bullwhip and fedora along with their BA. But also this is because of the false and inaccurate statements made to them by the university. Universities today are increasingly telling their students that undergraduate degrees are vocational degrees. When asked to pick a major, students are given flyers listed ‘jobs you can do with an anthropology major’. These jobs are typically glamorous and involve a lot of international travel and helping people (aid work is popular). But there is no evidence — no evidence — that these job menu advertisements have anything to do with reality.
No one should tell an anthropology student that it is likely that they will go into a life of highly-paid, benevolent international travel if they get a BA in anthropology. Statements like this are 1) baseless 2) encourage students to imagine undergraduate education as vocational, not liberal 3) discourages imagination rather then encouraging it by giving students a list of possible futures rather than asking them to imagine their own futures 4) discourages students from studying what they care about (and thus cultivating a personal project that could get them an actual good job) and encourages them to study something which they believe (wrongly) has good job prospects.
Colleges and other groups — like the American Anthropological Association — do not concoct these job menu fantasies to help students. They do it to help themselves. They are the result of academic departments and associations trying to remain relevant as they compete with other disciplines for majors and enrollments. It is not too much to say that fantasy job menus constitute a sort of bait-and-switch by which future elementary school teachers are told they are going to work for the World Bank or Google.
The good news is that you can do whatever you want with an anthropology degree — but you have to know what you want, and then go out and get it. And the job may not be about making as much money as possible (although, to be honest, given the state of the world today that would probably be a good idea). Like most majors, anthropology is a welcoming discipline that will let you find your own way.
The bad news is that anthropology does not live to a life of adventure and excitement. In fact, most majors don’t. The world today is not a good place, and the prospects of well-paid, rewarding employment are not that great for most Americans. We owe it to our students to be honest with them about this fact, rather than subtly suggesting to them that declaring a major will somehow teleport them to an alternate economy of Endless Fulfillment. And if, on being told their future will be uncertain no matter what they chose, they get curious and start thinking about social stratification, politics, income and education, then… they might really be anthropology majors after all.