NAPA Mentoring FAQs
Applying to Graduate School
1. Should I go to Graduate School in Anthropology?
Different advisors will have contrasting opinions on what is relevant to answer this question. Here is just one view: Anthropology, whether applied or academic, is not what you do, but what you are and how you do it. It’s more like a calling than a job. It involves a lot of creativity, collaboration, and problem-solving. It may be hard, demanding work, and sometimes insecure if you are relying on grants, contracts, or consulting. Further, the graduate training required to become an anthropologist is at once exhilarating and personally challenging. One way to sum this up is: “don’t become an anthropologist unless you wouldn’t be caught dead doing anything else.” But, if that is true of you, then nothing else really matters, does it?
2. What do graduate admissions committees value in applications to their programs?
While no two admissions committees operate in exactly the same way, the following may be a fairly good guide. Ordinarily, there are four components in an application to graduate study in either anthropology or applied anthropology (presented here in descending order of importance). First and most important will be letters of recommendation written by your professors that, hopefully, will discuss in enthusiastic detail why you should be admitted. Second and next in importance will be your transcript and relevant experience and activities documenting your undergraduate years, including your grades, GPA, internships, course array, research projects and papers, and awards. Your record should reflect an applicant who is competent, prepared, and promising as a future professional. Third, your application essays should be articulate, concise, well composed, and focused. Do not treat the essays hurriedly or casually. Fourth, nearly all graduate schools will require the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). If you score very highly, it will validate the rest of your credentials, indicating you have great promise. If your score is good, but not outstanding, the specific GRE score may have little effect on your prospects. If your score is just OK or unimpressive, it may suggest that you are too. If that is not true of you, then you’ll need to make a convincing case that you are better than your score suggests.
It is worth pointing out that in recent years, undergraduate applicants to the most competitive PhD programs may have a publication or two on their record, perhaps as a co-author with a faculty member but from other sources as well. Because PhD anthropologists commonly do research and publish it, this early indication that an applicant is ready to do so can be a relevant consideration in choosing whom to admit.
3. How important is the GRE? When should I take it?
Your GRE score is generally not the key admissions credential, but it is a required part of most graduate school applications. Very high scores will help you; average to low scores will likely hurt your chances.
When to take it? The GRE is typically taken in the fall of your senior year in college. The test can be taken again to improve a disappointing score, although both scores will be sent to the schools you apply to. If you take the GRE by early fall, you will have time to re-take it if you wish to do so before the schools make their decisions.
If you can, take the exam while you are still in school. At this writing, scores are good for 3 years, and you are likely to do better while you are still in school rather than after you graduate and leave a formal learning environment. Also, take the exam seriously. The Educational Testing Service (ETS) website gives you a great deal of important information about the test – its rules and how to prepare for it. Also, the rules can change, so be fully conversant with the information on the ETS website. Schedule a serious amount of time across several weeks to prepare so that on test day you will be as sharp and quick as you can be.
4. My undergraduate GPA is 3.00. How can I get accepted to a good graduate program?
The first thing to ask yourself is, why am I not getting As? If a B (3.00) basically describes your level of performance, then going into a career that is focused on original scholarship, creativity, intellectual exchange, and problem solving may not be the best fit. To be an anthropologist you need to be very good at these activities.
Sometimes an unexceptional GPA can be explained – illness, an extended family crisis, a language barrier, or special learning challenges, for instance. If you can articulate convincingly why your GPA doesn’t reflect how skilled a student you are, and your other application components all depict a clearly outstanding student, then you may be able to offset the GPA’s effect. Note that a GPA which has many As in strategic subjects, and low, explainable grades in a few others, may be a better situationfor you than a college record consisting of mainly Bs.
Be aware that strongly competitive graduate programs will probably have more applicants with GPAs close to 4.00 than they have slots to fill.
5. I’m a senior and I’ve discovered that I really like anthropology, but I’ve only taken one course in it. How do I get admitted into anthropology graduate work to become an anthropologist?
First, be sure that you know enough about anthropology to make a commitment to it and that it is not a passing infatuation. Do as much as you can to be certain, including talking in depth with one or more faculty members who know you well.
Assuming your commitment is durable, look at what you have taken as an undergraduate. If you have done very well in related fields (e.g., sociology, humanities, sciences), and have internships and other activities that reveal a very promising future professional, then the challenge of presenting yourself as a plausible candidate for anthropology graduate work is easier.
It then remains for you to demonstrate that you know enough about anthropology to make a commitment to it, and that you will be highly successful in graduate-level anthropology courses. One way to do this is to take some further anthropology courses as a post-graduate (5th year) student during the coming summer and fall, and to apply to graduate programs for admission one year after your BA degree.
Also, if you are planning for a PhD, then taking a general anthropology master’s program first, where you can demonstrate your academic success, may be a good route. In this case you probably should favor a generalized master’s degree rather than a specialized, professionalizing master’s program.
6. Do undergraduate applicants have publications?
See question 2 above.
7. What are the best strategies for choosing a graduate program?
In general, look for some degree of alignment between your interest areas and the courses and research specialties of the faculty. Even more important is how well you “click” with those faculty members who share your interests.
- Check out the websites of those programs in which you are interested. Anthropology department websites provide considerable insight into the people, scope, and requirements of applied programs. The philosophy, areas of concentration, research interests, and courses are listed. The work of departmental members, including students or recent graduates, may be featured and often enhanced through photos or video clips. Departmental newsletters and current events may be posted.
- Conduct some informational interviews. Interviews with faculty and students can be used to confirm what was learned from their website and to gather additional information. Questions can be posed about such matters as program structure, expectations, work load, graduation rates, and post-graduation job placement. These conversations can reveal how much energy and enthusiasm permeate the program, the likelihood that solid working relationships can be formed, and the extent to which departmental members share common interests.
- Visit your top choice department(s). Finding a good “fit” between you and the program is the goal. That can be done most effectively by traveling to a campus and meeting with faculty, staff, and graduate students face to face. Such visits will give you a chance to see people in their context, chat with them informally, gauge your level of interest in them, their working styles, and their projects, experience the culture of the departments first hand, and confirm your impressions. However, not all departments are set up to receive visits from applicants; check the policies for the specific campuses that interest you.
- Use mentors as a sounding board. Talk to your mentors about your goals and about what you have learned from your graduate program search. Get their reactions to your descriptions of the campus visits you have made. Some guidance from mentors is likely to be helpful in sorting out your priorities.
- Understand alumni networks. As mentioned in previous comments, departments that are serious about maintaining strong connections with their alumni have active alumni networks. It demonstrates a faculty’s commitment to their students, even after students have left the program. Alumni are often important in linking new graduates to employment opportunities and to mentor their transition to professional work. These networks should also be able to enlighten you about their particular programs.
8. Can I pursue anthropology graduate study part time?
Virtually all MA programs and some PhD programs accommodate different academic and financial models and incorporate both full time and part time students.
However, highly selective PhD programs are predicated on full time study. The benefits of the students’ undivided intellectual exploration of the discipline, and the need to move through what is already a program lasting many years, preclude having some students progressing at part time speed. Financial support for these programs’ students assumes full time study as the standard.
9. Is there financial aid for anthropology graduate students?
For students in masters’ programs, practitioner or general, financial support, other than perhaps university loans or work study, is uncommon.
Highly selective PhD programs try to admit the number of students equal to the number of support sources at their disposal. Assuming good performance, in these programs a student can expect (though it is not guaranteed) that there will be support (tuition plus modest living costs) in each fall and spring semester of the three years of pre-dissertation coursework. Commonly, these will be teaching assistantships and research assistantships that entail work and time obligations. After three years, the student is expected to secure external grant funding for her/his dissertation project and hopefully the write-up year that follows. Alternatively, senior professors often have funded research grants that will support dissertation and write-up years for students studying under their supervision.
Some very selective PhD programs, however, do not provide financial support to their first year graduate students, restricting their support to students after they have “proven” themselves and are allowed to continue to the second year.
Other PhD programs have funding only for a fraction of their graduate students and expect the others to supply their own financial support. Be clear before you enroll in a program whether financial aid will be forthcoming; you might hear stories about over-promising by departments.
10. How can I pay for graduate school?
Start your search within the department(s) you hope to attend. Identify particular professors as your key contacts within those departments. Tell them of your need for funding. Graduate assistantships (GAs), research assistantships (RAs), and teaching assistantships (TAs) are available in some quantity through most departments, although the latter two are more often designed for PhD students than master’s students. Ask how other students in the department are funded. It ranges significantly across programs. Find out about possible tuition waivers or stipends. Ask whether any professors have received or expect to receive research grants that will allow them to hire graduate students. Let the department know that your selection of a graduate program is at least partly contingent on getting some funding.
Financial aid resources are available through the financial aid office on campus. For example, the Federal College Work-Study Program subsidizes student employment on campus and can be attractive to professors (in anthropology or in other departments) looking for research assistants. Again, be sure to clarify any assistance you are expecting from a program before you officially accept. If possible, get commitments in writing.
11. Are there other resources that support graduate students?
Visit anthropology department websites and pay attention to any outside funding the department might be currently granted (e.g., National Institutes of Health [NIH], National Science Foundation [NSF]).
External grants or fellowships can be found on the web.
- At the University of Washington (www.grad.washington.edu/fellow/hotlist.htm), there is an 11-page website called “Funding Sources on the Internet.”
- The Council of Graduate Schools (www.cgsnet.org) has information under the “Programs and Awards: Resources for Students” link.
- The Foundation Center (www.foundationcenter.org) has a dizzying array of information, although it requires digging to find relevant links.
- Search the University of California-Riverside for a list of grant-giving organizations (try: www.graddiv.ucr.edu/Admiss/HowFindMoneyNew.html), including minority and subject-specific grants.
- The well-known academic press, SAGE Publications, produced a series of five books in the late 1990s on Surviving Graduate School. Some of the titles include Surviving Graduate School Part Time, The Women’s Guide to Surviving Graduate School, and The African American Student’s Guide to Surviving Graduate School.
- The NIH website offers an indexed list of links titled “Surviving Graduate School” on their site (www.training.nih.gov/careers/careercenter/survgrad.html).
- Peterson’s (www.petersons.com) provides a well-organized and valuable body of information, including an enlightening timeline and international student information.
12. What about student loans?
Student loans are easier than grants and fellowship to obtain but the catch is that they have to be paid back someday. Your program should be able to provide application information. Visit the Sallie Mae website (www.salliemae.com) for additional planning and application information. Be conscious of the burden of having to pay back the loans after obtaining the degree; if professional employment is not secured promptly, or initial salaries are low, the burden may weigh very heavily.