So You’ve Got a BA in Anthropology…

ImageEvery year, graduating seniors are struck with bouts of anxiety when it comes time to think about what to do after graduating. I’m never entirely sure how to address this anxiety — when I graduated with a BA in English Literature in 1998, I went to work as a substitute teacher for a year, first in Ohio then Michigan, which was fun but not ultimately what I wanted to do — but here’s what I tell most students:

1) Most importantly, stay busy. Many students take time off after graduating, but it’s pretty important, both psychologically and professionally, to stay active. It can be really tempting to grant yourself a short vacation upon graduating, but unless you have a job lined up, a short vacation can often become a long one as you go through the process of looking for a job when you return to being active. And it doesn’t have to be your career — a job at your local coffee shop will do nicely, as will some weekly volunteering — but it does need to be something to get you out of the house and provide you with a bit of structure. After 17 or more years of having a life governed by school, a little bit of structure can be a very important thing in fighting off malaise and anxiety.

2) Find a volunteering gig. is a pretty good place to look for both volunteer and intern positions by area; InterAction seems to favor international opportunities. Ronald Hicks maintains a good list of more general internship opportunities for anthropology majors, but it might mean sorting through websites or relocating for a position.Your alma mater probably has a career center of some sort that can help you both with volunteering and an eventual job, and your home department might be able to help with volunteer positions as well.

It might not seem too important to spend 4-10 hours each week volunteering or interning, but: most of the other people in any volunteering gig are usually volunteers themselves, and they have contacts. If they know you through your volunteering, they might be impressed enough to connect you with people who have jobs available or even offer you a job that they have. Or, a volunteer organization might sometimes offer you a job, if you’re a dedicated and thoughtful person and they have a job to offer. Volunteering is really playing the long game: it might not get you something in the first couple of months, but it might turn into something great over time.

3) Start looking for a career. There are many, many job websites on the internet, and I can’t really recommend one over the other. But know that there are plenty of employers that are interested in the kinds of work that anthropology BAs can do; UC Berkeley and the American Anthropological Association both have overviews of kinds of career paths anthropology graduates have followed after graduation. If none of that sounds appealing, there are many programs to teach English abroad, like JET — just google ‘teach english [place you want to live]’ and see what comes up. Some programs seem sketchier than others, so it’s worth sussing them out a bit, but they all seem to pay equally poorly in exchange for you spending a couple of years abroad. There are also opportunities like Teach for America and the Peace Corps. Teach for America gets you teaching in exchange for teaching credentials, whereas Peace Corps volunteers can be asked to do any number of things based on their skills in exchange for pay. Really, there’s no shortage of low-paid, idealistic work for Anthropology BAs to do… But these are the programs that I’ve known former students to have worked with, and they’ve generally benefited from their experiences.

Remember two things: your first job probably won’t be your last job, so don’t despair if you hate it — it’s experience and at the worst lets you know what you don’t want to do in the future. And, secondly, every job is a step towards a career. As you winnow out the things you don’t want to do, as you build professional contacts and skills, you’ll be moving towards being employable in better and (hopefully) better paid positions. This might mean you’re perpetually on the job market, but that’s okay — ultimately, this is about finding a career that you tolerate if not enjoy.

4) Consider a practical Master’s degree. If everything isn’t working out on the job front, take a look at Master’s programs that can help you land a better class of job — M.A.s like Public Policy, Public Health, Social Work, and Education. Many of these programs are 1-2 years long and will cost you a fair amount of money, so look locally and benefit from paying in-state tuition. (Often the degree granting institution doesn’t matter as much as the content of the education, which is usually pretty similar from one institution to another, since it’s a much more practically focused curriculum.) They may require letters of recommendation, but letters from faculty and employers can work; and, some employers will help to offset the cost of your education if you come back to work for them for a while. Or, if you want to go on to get a Ph.D., this can be a way to get fresh letters of recommendation and training that might help you be employed on the other side of your Ph.D.

5) Or you can pursue a Ph.D.

Life after university can be tough and existential crisis-provoking — I only made matters worse by spending my free time reading Borges and Burroughs at my local city park when I should have been reading something more uplifting. Staying busy is essential, as is thinking about the kind of future you want, and working towards it. Faculty aren’t always the best people to talk to about this kind of stuff — we all chose a Ph.D. over other opportunities, after all — but talking to faculty early and doing volunteer work or internships prior to graduation can definitely reduce stress levels after commencement…

Picking & Working with a Dissertation Adviser

So you’ve gotten into graduate school and now you need to figure out how to compose a committee and select an adviser.

Many programs will assign you to a first year adviser, who may or may not share interests with you; his or her job is to serve as a contact person, to help you navigate the world of graduate school, and to serve as a sounding board as you start to develop your thoughts on your future dissertation and committee. Most programs fully expect you to stop working with your first year adviser as soon as you start assembling your committee — although you might not. Don’t feel like your doing something wrong by not continuing to work with this person.

Picking a Committee and Adviser

Most programs expect you to pick 2-3 members of the department to serve on your committee, as well as 1-2 people from outside of your department. I tend to think that the way you should approach this is by just considering all of these people to be committee members, and you’ll select one of them to be your adviser. Many people approach things the opposite way, selecting an adviser, and then building a committee around that person. I make this suggestion because there’s always the possibility that your adviser will leave — for another job, retirement, illness or death — and you want to make sure that the other people on your committee are suitable advisers as well, and not just people that you picked to fill in topical gaps in your committee. So, from these 2-3 people you have to choose from, here are some things to consider:

1) How much contact do you need with your adviser? Some advisers are very hands on, while others can be quite hands off — and people fall all along that continuum. Do you want to see your adviser every week, every month or every year? It’s not always obvious at the outset what kinds of contact expectations an adviser will have, so ask students that your committee members work with to see what kinds of expectations the faculty have about contact and what that contact looks like (e.g. meetings, phone calls, emails, meals).

2) What’s your work style like? Do you write fast or slow? It’s good to work with people on your committee who have similar work styles. If you’re a very slow writer but everyone on your committee works very quickly, there’s bound to be tensions between you and them (they might think you’re lazy or easily distracted). Or, if you’re very fast and they’re all slow, that can pose a similar problem (they might think you aren’t careful enough). It can be fine to work with an adviser who works differently than you do, but make sure that you have someone on your committee who can serve as an advocate for your work style.

3) Would you want to be stuck on an airplane next to this person? Would you be willing to go to this person’s house for dinner? Members of your committee — and your adviser especially — will be writing letters of recommendation for you for the decade after you defend your Ph.D., whether for jobs or tenure and promotion. So you’ll need to be in regular contact with them, which may mean meeting for meals at professional meetings. If you have a hard time having small talk with a committee member, you might do better to seek someone else out. And if you’re too intimidated by someone to watch them eat ice cream or sloppy noodles, again, they may not be long for your committee.

Maintaining a Relationship

Your relationship with your adviser is really a professional one — since they’ll be writing letters of recommendation for you and mediating your relationship with the rest of your department (when it comes to reporting on your ongoing standing in the program), you want to make sure that you treat him or her with a reasonable about of respect and can interact with him or her naturally (i.e. not quivering out of being intimidated). First and foremost, know what your adviser’s expectations are: how quickly do they think you should get through the program? what do they expect a dissertation to look like and include? how much do they expect you to do (in terms of publications, conference talks, etc.) before you graduate? You can talk about this stuff with potential advisers, but also be sure to talk to students who work with individual faculty to get a sense of their experiences. Sometimes the experiences of students can be significantly different from what an adviser will tell you.

Beyond that, if your adviser sets a deadline, be sure to meet it, even if the work isn’t perfect. But try and make it as solid as possible. And know that you have two meltdown opportunities: once while you prepare for your qualifying exams and once during your dissertation writing; your adviser is not your therapist, after all.

Changing your Adviser or Committee

Like any relationship, sometimes things don’t work out between an advisee and an adviser. And if things aren’t working for you, they probably aren’t working for your adviser either, so breaking it off with them might be best for everyone. You can sometimes shuffle your present adviser into a committee role; and sometimes you need to eject them entirely. There’s no really easy way to go about this, but here are some general tips:

1) Talk to who you want to replace your current adviser, and make sure that he or she is willing to step into the role. If not, then see who is. Once you have that person lined up, they can help with the transition from your current adviser to your future adviser.

2) Talk with the graduate program director and let him or her know about your intentions. This way, if things go south — for whatever reason — they’ve already been primed on the situation and can advocate for you. They might also be able to have a conversation with your current adviser to iron things out and make your transition smooth.

3) Yes, it may be a little awkward for a while, but it’s probably more awkward for you than for your former adviser. Eventually, things should work themselves out. But always remember that your education and professionalization is about what’s best for you, and if that means ejecting someone from your committee altogether, that’s just what you need to do. And if you can’t expect your former adviser to write you a solid letter of recommendation, then you need to trust your instincts and set him or her free.

So much of graduate school — and the rest of your professional life — is managing and maintaining relationships with people, and for the first few years there’s no more important relationships than your committee, who will really see you through the worst of your academic training (your qualifying exams, your dissertation, your first publications, etc.). Make sure you surround yourself with supportive people, and many of the anxieties associated with this stuff won’t be nearly as bad.

Questions? Comments? Experiences? Post them in the comments and we’ll continue the conversation.

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.