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NAPA Mentoring FAQs

Understanding Graduate School in Anthropology (Part Two)

Understanding Applied Anthropology Masters Programs

1.  How does an applied master’s program differ from a generalized master’s program in anthropology?

Applied master’s degrees are an area of growth in anthropology,(the first one goes back to 1974).  They differ from the traditional anthropology master’s degrees in that they are focused on applying anthropology to practical human problems.  They are end-point professional degrees and not designed as stepping stones toward a PhD degree, although some applied students will subsequently enter PhD programs.  Because the applied masters programs are focused on problem solving, degree holders should anticipate that few of the credits will offset required coursework in a PhD program.  Applied master’s programs are also called “training programs,” underscoring their strong problem-solving nature.

By contrast, general master’s programs will devote much of the first year to examining the discipline of anthropology, its history, theory, foundational questions, and distinctive methodologies.

Applied master’s programs generally last two to three years (or two years and a summer) going full time.  The last part of the program will often be devoted to an extended, supervised “practicum” in a workplace, and then a master’s thesis (or some sort of paper or presentation on the practicum experience in lieu of a thesis).  Applied programs generally require choosing among areas of application: health, gerontology, and education are common, but political policy, environment, business, cultural resource management, and other concentrations are found in specific programs.

New applied master’s program continue to appear, and there are some that now offer, or will soon offer, much of the instruction online, such as the online degree at UNT mentioned in the previous section.

2.  What are applied anthropology masters graduate programs like?

Applied programs emphasize two fundamental characteristics:  problem solving and collaboration.  The faculty and graduate students are typically working on community, organizational, or societal issues – that is, there is a problem or issue that they are hoping to understand and address through their projects.  Faculty and graduate students also tend to collaborate, that is, they work with each other as well as with clients or community members.  This collaborative model of work, combined with a focus on a problem needing a solution, distinguishes applied programs from their more academically oriented counterparts.

3.  Do applied anthropology masters programs include off-campus, “real world” experience?

The most common feature is the internship or practicum.  This experience, including any preparatory and post-internship/practicum phases, becomes a mechanism for connecting theory with practice, books and lectures with experiential learning, and the university with the broader community.  The internship is also an effective way to link students with the job market, since students in applied programs commonly use these experiences and the networks associated with them to identify post-graduation employment.

4.  How else are these applied anthropology masters programs similar?

Applied programs tend to integrate job skills into the core curriculum through such means as methods courses, applied courses, and grant and résumé writing.  Many programs encourage networking opportunities with alumni and practitioners as a strategy for understanding the job market, getting advice, setting up informational interviews, and following up on job placement leads.   They also encourage students to attend anthropology conferences and hold workshops or other kinds of exercises to help students translate anthropological skills to the job market.  If you are seeking an applied anthropology masters program, make sure it is robust in this area, among others, and has a strong record of placing its graduates.

5.  How do applied anthropology masters programs differ?

Applied programs differ in age, size, faculty interests, location, degrees offered, and many other factors.  In general, newer programs and those in which few faculty members consult for organizations and communities tend to have relatively fewer offerings compared with larger, more mature applied programs.   A large number of applied programs offer a master’s degree which is considered a professional degree; a few applied programs offer a dual-degree option (two masters), and/or a PhD degree. A dual anthropology/MPH degree is being found more frequently, and is an excellent foundation for moving quickly into the health-related workplace.

6.  Are there significant differences among applied anthropology masters programs? 

Yes, very definitely.   Here are just four contrasting examples.

•      One department actively cultivates and integrates community members – especially alumni – into all aspects of program functioning.  Alumni are viewed as the “lifeblood” of the program because they serve as part-time instructors, they help students network, and they hire interns and graduates of the program.  The program’s alumni often remain in the local job market, largely due to strong anthropology networks into many non-profit organizations.  It is the strength and durability of the alumni network that plays a key role in this applied program’s strong practice foundation.

•      Another department is distinctive by virtue of its adjunct faculty members.  Many anthropologists work for the federal government and various other organizations and institutions in and around Washington, D.C. – just 11 miles from campus.  These adjuncts perform the same kinds of functions as alumni at the university noted above:  giving lectures, supervising independent studies, offering career advice, and assisting with the job search.  Adjuncts help to facilitate internships – both through their networks and their ability to find placements for students.

•      A third department is built around neither alumni nor adjuncts, though both are important to how the program functions.  Instead, the centerpiece of the program is the “cohort philosophy.” Entering student cohorts are encouraged to build their own networks, taking advantage of those of their student peers, faculty, and others connected with the program.  These networks are a contributing element to an individually tailored curriculum and internship experience.  The cohort philosophy engenders strong, tight-knit connections among the students, playing a key role in their graduate education and in their ultimate career paths.

•      A fourth department is characterized by student involvement in multiple client interactions over the course of the program.  Class projects are a key mechanism for exposing students to issues facing organizations and communities, sharpening their research skills, and engaging them in problem solving and decision-making.  Another type of project experience is the practicum, or applied thesis, a type of internship in which the student designs and carries out a major client project.  The combination of the class projects and the practicum/internship experience prepares students for the job market and enables them to make an impact on both local and global community issues.

Each program has special emphases and strengths that will fit the needs of particular sets of students.  Using the COPAA list of applied anthropology programs (http://www.copaa.info/programs_in_aa/list.htm), investigate each program and see what its fit is for you.

7.  What are relevant questions to ask when searching for an appropriate applied anthropology masters program?

First, there is no way to rank degree programs on a scale from strongest to weakest.  This is because each student will have a unique combination of objectives, needs, and personal situations that will make some programs more relevant than others.  To identify the best program for you, start by clearly defining your own objectives, needs and constraints.

Here are some questions that you might ask when interacting with faculty, staff, and students affiliated with an applied anthropology program.  Incidentally, some of these questions can also be used when searching for generalized anthropology programs.

  • How long does it take to complete the program on average?
  • Does the program have several permanent faculty – not just adjunct faculty – who personally offer most of the formal courses, advise the graduate students, oversee the internship/practicum experience, and evaluate/critique student outcomes?
  • How involved is the faculty in supervising your internship or practicum?
  • What other opportunities exist for working on applied projects besides those associated with the internship?
  • If the program you are considering offers both an MA and a PhD, how equitable is the distribution of the faculty resources?
  • Is there an active graduate student organization, or a planned cohort philosophy, so that students can learn from and help each other?
  • How strong and vibrant is the program’s alumni association?  To what extent are alumni engaged in coursework, internship planning and execution, mentoring, and/or future strategy development?
  • To what extent are adjunct professors engaged in coursework, internship planning and execution, mentoring, or future strategy development?
  • Does the program keep and share data – not just anecdotes – on the success of their graduates?

Below are more detailed ways of exploring the above questions.  Only some of them will be relevant to any particular applicant.

  •  The program should require at least two years for a full time student, ending with an intensive, closely supervised, practicum (it may also be called an internship, externship, or field project).  The practicum needs to be closely supervised by the program faculty, comprise a full semester, and culminate in your written analysis of the experience.  Be skeptical of a program that cancels a substantial portion of its own requirements for applicants with “credit for prior work experience.”
  • Does the program have at least several permanent faculty (not just adjunct faculty) who personally offer most of the formal courses, personally advise the graduate students, and oversee the practicum experience and evaluate/critique the student outcomes?  Avoid a program where faculty are mainly teaching the undergraduate courses and doing the graduate program on the side.  One indicator of this sort of situation is that some portion of the graduate courses also includes undergraduates in the same classroom (who may be registered under an undergraduate course number).  Another identifier of such a program is that the graduate courses its students rely on are not offered often because the teaching faculty is spread too thin.  [Note that the presence of part time faculty is not a sign of program weakness.  Part time (adjunct) faculty can supply specialty courses based on their direct, workplace experience.  Particularly for specialized subject matter, adjunct faculty can be a major strength of the program.]
  • How many students does the program enroll each year?  Are the numbers appropriate to the number of supervising faculty, yielding a ratio that allows ample personal attention and mentoring for each student?
  • It is essential that the program faculty be strongly involved in the preparation of their graduates for employment.   Does the program keep and make available data – not just anecdotes – on the success of their graduates in being placed?
  • Does the program have mechanisms, such as a graduate student organization, that facilitate students helping each other?  Remember that although the faculty are centrally important, you will learn a great deal – perhaps more – from fellow students.
  • Does the department also offer a PhD program?  Be cautious about an MA program that also has a PhD program, taught by the same faculty who teach the master’s program. Such faculty can find that their principal attention to students will be to their PhD students, not the MA students. It is possible to have a well-regarded master’s program and a good PhD program in the same department, but you want to avoid a department where the master’s program is essentially a credit-hour generator to support the department’s true priority, its PhD program.
  • Is there a department-sponsored alumni association for the graduates of the program? There are many good things that come from having a strong alumni association, including this:  if the association supplies input to the curriculum, indicating what needs strengthening, what is superfluous, and what new has to be introduced, then the curriculum, though controlled by the faculty, can stay well linked to the evolving job market. And, an alumni association can be very helpful in networking for jobs, linking students to internships, serving as mentors, providing guest lectures, and offering courses.
  • Certain states, responding to declining tax revenues, have been forced to dramatically cut budgetary support to public institutions.  The loss of funds, faculty positions, and graduate support can impact the quality and esprit of the program, at least temporarily.

8.  What if I decide after I complete my applied MA that I want to go for a PhD?  How difficult is the transition if I have to change universities?  

Students from applied master’s programs tend to be quite entrepreneurial.  They will use the networking and problem-solving skills they acquired to investigate and ultimately settle on a PhD program that extends their interests.  New MA graduates have some advantage if their MA and PhD programs are part of the same department; more of their course credits will count toward their graduate studies, so it typically takes less time to complete their PhD requirements.  On the other hand, if these graduates identify a different PhD program that is a good fit with their interests, the additional time it takes to complete a PhD may be worth it. Be sure to be very clear with the new university as to just how many of your credits will transfer. As noted previously, applied program credits may not always transfer well to some universities.


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