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NAPA Mentoring FAQs


Understanding Graduate School in Anthropology (Part One)

This section consists of 16  separate questions, and is divided into two sub-sections. Below, the first subsection considers graduate programs in anthropology. The second sub-section specifically explores applied anthropology Masters Programs.


Considering Graduate Programs in Anthropology

1.  Should I seek an MA or a PhD?  What are the differences in career consequences?

This is a key question to think through carefully for the long term. Generally speaking, the PhD is a research degree.  If you have a passion for research and anticipate that your future career will involve research, then a PhD program is likely to be your goal.

Students who complete an MA degree in anthropology – particularly applied anthropology – find work in many different settings performing many different job functions.  Job titles of recent MA graduates with a specialization in archaeology include forensic archaeologist, osteologist and archaeologist, and environmental specialist.  Job titles of those specializing in cultural, physical, and applied anthropology tend to be less anthropology-specific than those in archaeology.  Typical job titles include analyst, consultant, project coordinator, program manager, curator, and evaluator.

2.  I am interested in graduate school in anthropology.  Where do I begin?

There are essentially two routes with respect to graduate anthropology that will most readily lead to viable employment:  the professional master’s program in applied anthropology, and the PhD.

  • The professional master’s degree is offered by various universities around the country.  It is typically a two-year program with a strong internship and/or thesis component.  You will find a list of such programs through the website of the Consortium of Practicing and Applied Anthropology Programs, http://www.copaa.info/.  Through this site you can explore and get an idea of what these programs are like.  You may find one that has a particular anthropological specialty or emphasis that suits your interests (e.g., medical, archaeology, business, education).  Look for those with faculty members who have applied interests and whose areas of specialty match your own.  The program should have a strong job placement record, and evidence that the master’s program is not simply a minor component of a department emphasizing a doctoral program.  When you graduate with a master’s degree, you will be equipped to take positions in an organization or agency such as program manager, evaluator, trainer, planner, research analyst, and needs or impact assessor.
  • The second route is the PhD program, which takes a minimum of five years of graduate study (and typically longer) after you complete your BA.  There are many such programs in the U.S. and internationally.   Your faculty advisors and/or Governing Council members of the National Association for the Practice of Anthropology will be good sources of advice.  Seeking a PhD is a much larger undertaking than completing a master’s program because it typically entails foreign language acquisition, successful grant writing, and extended fieldwork.  Anthropology PhD programs are generally designed to equip you with robust research skills, though you will achieve some level of competency in areas such as teaching, proposal writing, and project management. And although masters students may also do this, PhD students regularly attend and present at academic meetings and produce published work.

Perhaps half of all cultural anthropology PhDs work in academia; the remainder work in business, consulting firms, non-profit organizations, government agencies, and non-governmental organizations.  Find more information by scrutinizing the websites of the American Anthropological Association and the Society for Applied Anthropology, along with this NAPA website. You can also join NAPA’s LinkedIn and Facebook pages or the listserv, and pose questions to other members through these social media.

There have been a number of books published in recent years that explore anthropology as a career, including some NAPA “Bulletins” (now called the Annals of Anthropological Practice) on anthropology careers.  There are also anthropology videos on a wide range of careers; two career DVDs can be purchased through the AAA website or obtained through interlibrary loan. A number of the resources mentioned can be found in the Career Development/Career Resources section of this website.  Always seek advice from multiple sources – individuals, websites, publications, videos, listservs – and then decide for yourself what fits your particular situation, competencies, and goals.

3.   What internships should I take when anticipating applying to graduate school in anthropology?

The point is not to engage in resume-building, but to acquire important knowledge and skills.  Among other things, your undergraduate years are a time to equip yourself for your career ahead.  As a graduate student you will not have much opportunity to build basic knowledge and skills of other disciplines that are important to an applied anthropologist, so chart your undergraduate years, including internships and other out-of-the-classroom experience, to construct a broad and useful base upon which to build your graduate training.  Volunteer work and affiliations with select organizations – particularly in leadership positions – are important sources of experience.

When you apply to graduate school, be ready to make the case that you have an impressive foundation of knowledge, skills and experiences that will allow you to maximize the value of what you will learn as a graduate student and then put to work as a career professional.

4.  What is graduate study like?  Is it just like undergraduate coursework, only more intensive?

Each person experiences graduate school differently based on her/his academic preparation, prior jobs, volunteer and internship experiences, and many other factors.  Most students find that graduate school requires an enormous investment of time and energy.  The expectations are much greater than what you encountered in your undergraduate years – with more reading, meticulous understanding of the work of anthropologist authors, more responsibility for field work and analysis, more substantive papers, insightful and original interpretations, and perhaps expectations for teaching and proposal writing.

5.  How important is it to go to a “top” graduate program? 

In general, seek the school that can train you superbly and that will hold you to exacting standards.  However, in many situations, other factors intervene (e.g., family needs, a spouse who cannot leave a present job, cost factors), so the calculus of what program is the best for you personally will balance a particular department’s reputation with several other considerations.

Why is a department’s reputation, and the reputation of the university of which it is a part, as important a factor as it is?  A top school is usually at the top because it is very good at training high-quality graduates, and because the faculty, in their various specialties, are influential in shaping anthropology.   Keep in mind that the top anthropology programs are not necessarily the same as the top applied anthropology programs.  Graduate training in applied anthropology did not typically develop in public flagship or private universities, but rather in smaller state-funded universities.  Robust applied anthropology programs often emerged in locations such as Flagstaff, AZ, Corvallis, OR, San Jose, CA, or San Antonio, TX.

Be aware that graduate anthropology is not like a medical school or a law school wherein students are educated as groups or classes.  Anthropology remains fundamentally an apprentice process where students above the MA level are individually associated with senior professors and usually consider themselves, after obtaining the PhD, to be a “student” of so-and-so.  That professor may well use her or his reputation to help “place” the student in an internship or first job, or at least serve as an important reference.

A top program means that your fellow graduate students are likely to be knowledgeable, creative, and, in a word, colleagues, from whom you can learn a great deal.  It is usually the case that, in the course of graduate studies, you may often learn as much from your fellow grad students as you do from professors, so the quality of the mix is important.

At the same time, you may have a specific focus or goal that only a few established anthropologists share.  Say you want to go into the anthropology of fisheries, or the study of the ideas of Marvin Harris, or explore the archaeology of the Arctic, or delve into the applied linguistics within vaccination programs.  The professor you will need to study with may be at an otherwise unexceptional institution.  Go there anyway.

Another asset of highly selective PhD programs is that they are more likely to have graduate stipends (e.g., teaching and research assistantships) to support their students, especially after the first year.  Getting one of these provides a modest income and, crucially, allows a graduate student to attend full time and devote all waking hours to absorbing and exploring anthropology.

6.  I have a specialized anthropological interest.  Where should I turn?

If your direction of study is tightly focused, you need to find faculty and other university-based researchers who are working on your specific topic.  Ask anthropologists you know who are working on your topic of interest.  Reach out to those who were suggested to you via email or LinkedIn, or by contacting their departments directly; department staff can be quite helpful in fielding questions and directing you to any appropriate faculty.  Use this opportunity to start building your network and establishing connections within anthropology.

Another idea is to conduct a search for anthropologist authors on your topic through Google Scholar.  For more in-depth search, you can consult professional journals and newsletters (e.g., Practicing Anthropology, Human Organization, NAPA’s Annals of Anthropological Practice, the American Anthropological Association’s Anthropology News, or the Society for Applied Anthropology’s News), or review annual meeting programs from anthropology associations (e.g., AAA, SfAA) to see who has presented on topics of interest to you.

At the same time, graduate study commonly leads to discovering an ardent interest that you did not know you had.  Be cautious about foreclosing this possibility by being overly committed to an interest you have now.

7.  My local university does not meet my exact needs, but I can’t afford to move away.  What should I do?

If your mobility is limited, enroll locally and work with a professor who is flexible and who can help you chart an academic course that meets your desires.  Consider taking coursework outside the department or getting a dual degree, if available.  Anthropologists embrace a multidisciplinary approach; for many, a second specialty has proved instrumental in building a career.

If you live in a place with little or no access to higher education, you have an option. The University of North Texas launched the first online master’s program in applied anthropology.  Students in the three-year MA or MS online program need to present themselves on campus in Denton just twice, at the start and finish of their studies.  The online program is one year longer than the on-campus program; it is designed to accommodate students who are unable to attend a traditional program. There are now additional online masters programs offered; evaluate them carefully for content and results.

8.  I want to take two or three years off after I get my BA.  Will that affect my viability for graduate admission?

It depends on why you want to take the years off and what you do with them.  If you want to get “real work experience” and build your skill set and expertise, your choice can be viewed positively by graduate admissions committees. If you must break away, say, to deal with an urgent family need or to pay off college loans, that too can be justified, but it is a good idea to stay connected to anthropology in the meantime (e.g., through a systematic reading program, courses, library research, writing).

If your hiatus is to do an anthropologically relevant activity that makes you still more attractive as an applicant for graduate studies (e.g., the Peace Corps), that also can work well.  The bottom line is that graduate faculty want to see that you are preparing yourself further, not simply taking a break.   And if you must take time off for other compelling reasons (say, for a family need) it would be wise to continue your connection and growth in the field and have evidence of having done so.


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