So You’re Applying to Graduate School (in Anthropology)

Applying to graduate school can seem daunting, but if you take it step by step it doesn’t need to be so. But this means starting the process early — like a year before you plan on applying — and making sure that you treat it like a job. After all, if you get into a program and finish your Ph.D., it will be your career (given that you can get a job somewhere). There’s four things to keep in mind: first, most admissions are done by committee, and not by individual faculty (although individual faculty can have strong votes); if you don’t get in a program one year, you might get in the next, if the graduate admissions committee has changed significantly. Second, the difference between undergraduate and graduate eduction is profound. Plan on working 60-80 hour weeks throughout graduate school (for very little money), and only focusing on school. And third: applications to graduate programs go up when the economy is bad, and there’s less funding for graduate students overall, which makes it especially difficult to get admitted to programs these days. Finally: there are very few jobs for anthropologists in universities; plan on keeping your options open for your career, since anthropologists can get work in any number of non-university settings.

If you’re undaunted, here are the most important things in the application process:

1) Make sure you’re applying to the right programs. Sometimes people will recommend programs to you based on reputation alone, and reputation usually lags by about a decade, since faculty move around and retire with some regularity. But take the time to see what faculty are there, and which of them are of interest to you. And then take the time to read 2-3 articles — or maybe a book — from each of those faculty. (If this sounds like too much work, then don’t apply to grad school; this is the tip of the iceberg.) And be sure to read the recent stuff: you don’t want to tell an interested faculty member that the piece of theirs you found the most interesting is one they published 20 years ago. If you can’t find at least 3 faculty that you find of interest, don’t apply to the program. Someone might leave for another job or retire, you might have personality conflicts with someone, or someone might just be over committed. You need to make sure you have enough faculty to work with in case any of these — or other unexpected events — come up. The more people that share your interests at a particular program, the more likely it is that it’s the right place for you.

2) Make sure you’re applying to enough programs. I tell people to apply to no fewer than eight programs, and as many as twelve. Part of this is because there’s a lot of competition to get into grad school these days, and you really want to hedge your bets. The other part is that it’s always good to have options. If only 25% of the schools you apply to admit you, if you’ve applied to eight programs, at least you have two programs to decide between. And until you get admitted and visit campus, everything will seem rather abstract; after visiting a couple campuses and meeting faculty and grad students, you’ll have a much better sense of each of the programs and where you want to be. Yes, it’s a huge investment — probably $1000-$1500 in application, GRE and transcript fees — but it’s an investment in your future career.

Also, be regionally diverse. Pick a couple programs on each coast, some in the Midwest and in the South. Different U.S. regions — and states — are experiencing the current recession differently, and where one state might be losing funding, another might be having funding returned to it. Most universities are in college towns anyway, so other than the weather, there’s often little difference from one university town to another…

3) Get in touch with faculty. After you’ve read a few articles from each of the faculty you’re interested in working with, send them each an email. There’s two reasons for this: first, to introduce yourself and your proposed project, and secondly, to see what kind of feedback you get from faculty. When you email people, send a brief description of your project — no longer than a paragraph — and rather than asking them if they’d be interested in working with you, ask how the project might change shape under their advising. If faculty don’t respond or respond negatively (e.g. they aren’t interested in the project), cross those faculty off your list of potential people to work with. And if they have suggestions, take them seriously and plan to incorporate them into your personal statement. If people make suggestions that don’t work for you — for whatever reason — again, cut them from your list. This should help you get a good sense of who you might want to eventually work with and what programs are right for you.

4) Get in touch with graduate students in the program. Most programs have lists of active graduate students, and you can cull that list for people with interests that match your own; you can also ask the faculty that you email for names of students they work with that you might get in touch with. Ask students about their experiences in the program, with faculty, in the city the program is located in, etc. Grad students are your best informants — both via email, and when you visit campus. And be sure to email students at various points in their careers — first or second year students, and students who are writing their dissertations — since programs can look quite different depending on where a student is in the process.

5) Your personal statement should be no more than 2 single-spaced, 12 point font pages. No faculty member is going to read more than 2 pages, unless they’re already hooked by pages 1-2. And if they are, then you can only lose them by going on for too long. And if they aren’t into pages 1-2, they aren’t going to read page 3… Your personal statement should have a robust description of your proposed project, what has brought you to the project and your relevant skills, and a good explanation for why you want to be in the program you’re applying to (with reference to faculty and their interests). Your personal statement should not start with an anecdote about how you found anthropology and how it changed your life; you’re applying to a graduate program in anthropology, after all, and the readers will be assuming that you know what you’re getting into. You should also not start with some anecdote about what you read this past summer — it should start with you (it’s a personal statement, after all).

Any good project description includes both empirical and theoretical content. You need to be able to describe a compelling project and demonstrate how it’s in conversation with contemporary debates in the discipline; what does it add to our collective knowledge? No one expects you to work on the exact project that you propose, but they do want to see what your general area of interest is and that you have a sense of how to develop a dissertation project and all that it will entail. You should also be sure to explain any language or area training that has prepared you for this proposed project; if you don’t have language or area specialties, be sure to explain how you’ll be acquiring them before your research starts.

It’s also very important to demonstrate to faculty that you’re a good fit for the program. The best way to do this is to identify faculty in the department who you’re interested in working with, and clearly demonstrating to the reader that you are deeply knowledgeable of their work. I often see personal statements where prospective students do nothing more than identify faculty based on their keywords listed on departmental websites; that’s lazy at best and insulting at worst. Since you’ve already read a bunch of faculty work, you should be able to write a paragraph or two about how your project fits in with their interests.

Your personal statement is the most important part of your application; more important than your GRE scores, your GPA, your letters or recommendation, and anything else that might be asked for. Start drafting it early, and revise it carefully. A compelling and well-researched personal statement can overcome a bad GPA or mediocre GRE scores — it happens all the time.

Here are some things to avoid:

1) Don’t plan on getting into a Ph.D. program straight out of undergrad. A lot of people think that if they take time away from school that getting back into it will be hard. But since grad school is such a different beast than undergrad, there’s going to be an adjustment for everyone. And since grad school is much more like a job than undergrad, people who come in straight from undergrad often have a much harder time acclimating to the changes than people who have been in the workforce. And, finally, some work experience will only improve your application and help you develop a meaningful dissertation project that moves beyond the sometimes insular concerns of the academy.

2) Don’t apply to programs just because they’re in an area that you want to be in. If you have a full time job that you plan on keeping while you’re in grad school, you might not be ready for grad school — or you might just look for Master’s programs in your area. Ph.D. programs are full time jobs, and you need to make sure you’re ready for them, both socially and financially. And, if you really feel like you can only live in certain parts of the country for a Ph.D. program, you might think about other career paths — getting into grad schools in an area of your choice can be hard; getting a job there is even more unlikely. Plus, living in highly desirable places for grad school (the coasts, major metropolitan areas) is a surefire way to come out of grad school with tons of student loan debt. Cost of living is something to consider, especially when any stipend or pay you’ll be receiving through your grad program is unlikely to be more than a couple thousand dollars a month.

3) Don’t plan on working with a bunch of very senior or very junior faculty; any good committee has a mix of faculty at various points in their careers. Junior faculty are usually stressed out from tenure-related concerns; very senior faculty are usually working towards retirement. Associate professors, on the other hand, are right in the middle of their careers, and should be ready for working with students. But, really, all faculty have significant publication, research and teaching burdens. There’s also the question of social networks, which is a big part of graduate school: pick faculty who circulate in different social circles (e.g. they have different research topics, come from different programs), since getting a job can be very dependent on social contacts. Lots of redundancy cuts down on the breadth of any social network. So people working with a diverse committee of people at various stages throughout their career is one way to ensure a bigger social network.

4) Don’t put all your eggs in the graduate school basket. At the same time that you apply to graduate school, apply to jobs (or plan on staying in your current job). In some cases, you might find that your options for graduate school aren’t very appealing; in other cases, you might decide that you don’t want to live a graduate student life of poverty. And, if you don’t get admitted anywhere, it’s good to have something to fall back on. When you get around to applying to grad school again, more life experience will only make you a better student in the long run.

That’s it — although I’m probably forgetting something. If you have questions, comments or contradictory experiences, let me know in the comments and we’ll continue the conversation.