NAPA Mentoring FAQs
Becoming an Applied/Practicing Anthropologist at the PhD Level
1. I want to get a PhD in anthropology. Should I enroll in a masters in anthropology program first, and then apply to a PhD program after I have the MA?
Decades ago the standard pattern was to obtain a masters from one institution and then to go on to a PhD program in another. It was said that this exposed the student to a more diverse range of faculty, and that the two-degree sequence was a way for students to have a degree (the MA) if, along the way, they found that they were not suited for the demands of PhD-level graduate study. Those considerations remain valid today.
However, beginning in the 1950s, PhD programs, for a variety of reasons, began to admit students directly from the BA degree, going straight through to the PhD. One important reason is that a straight-through BA-to-PhD course of study shortens the student’s years of study by a year or so. This is not only attractive to many students, but also to the department which, in the more selective programs, seeks to provide financial support to its advanced students.
Some years ago straight-through PhD programs did not award an MA to its students unless the department faculty decided that a student was unsuitable, in which case a “terminal masters” was awarded. More recently, PhD programs began awarding an MA as a progress marker, commonly at the point when the student passes an admission-to-candidacy exam.
For today’s PhD-bound student, among the relevant factors in choosing between (1) a “straight-through” program or (2) a two-part sequence of a MA and then a PhD are:
(a) Do you have strong enough credentials to be admitted to a straight-through PhD program?
(b) Are you certain enough of your goal and your talents that the risk of stopping short of a PhD would be negligible?
(c) Are your content goals achievable within one department, or will you need two to produce the right combination?
(d) Do you have the financial resources and personal circumstances to launch into a multi-year, largely full time program, or is it more prudent to do it in stages?
2. I want a PhD to become an applied anthropologist. Some graduate departments offer a PhD in Applied Anthropology while others offer a PhD in Anthropology that can include an emphasis in applied anthropology. How do I decide between these two types of programs?
There is a debate about this. The traditional and still most common approach is to get a degree in Anthropology and to emphasize applied anthropology in some of the coursework, in your choice of faculty mentors, and in the focus of your dissertation project. Also of relevance is to be active in regional and national meetings, present panel papers and poster sessions, and publish in the applied area. The argument for this route is that one is an anthropologist first, and an applied anthropologist as a more specialized identity. Especially for those who want the option of an academic position, having the greater breadth of a PhD in Anthropology makes you more prepared to teach the wider array of courses that a department may want offered. Courses in applied anthropology tend to be few enough that a department may find that a person who can offer a broader set of courses is a better fit for their faculty needs.
On the other hand, the PhD in Applied Anthropology is likely to have more abundant and specific knowledge of the tools and alternative methods of applying anthropology in a diverse set of social situations. For some positions the PhD in Applied Anthropology may have the advantage.
Regardless of the wording of the degree, the subject of your dissertation project, the methods you are skilled at, and your field experience are likely to be major factors in whether you are an attractive candidate for a particular position, contract, or consulting arrangement.
A thorough knowledge of models of applied anthropology (i.e., theory), quantitative and qualitative methods of data-gathering and analysis, research ethics, and a readiness to work in multi-disciplinary teams will commonly be important as well. In many cases, fluency in one or more non-English languages and the ability to write in a clear and well organized fashion are also big plusses.
3. How long does it take to get a PhD?
A full time program of study generally requires about three years of regular coursework, plus at least two years to propose, conduct, and write up a dissertation project. Five years from BA to PhD is essentially the minimum: if the fieldwork portion of the dissertation research lasts more than a year – say, two or three years – the total length of study lengthens accordingly. Other factors, too, can lengthen the time. Start asking those you know who have PhDs, and that will give you a sense of the time needed.
4. Do graduate students do more than classroom study prior to the dissertation research?
Absolutely. Graduate study is in no way simply classroom learning, papers and exams. Rather, courses are gateways to informed, personal study of important areas of anthropological research, argumentation, and theory. The student is on a personal quest to explore, think out, and understand areas of the discipline. Courses provide vehicles for that process, but they are not the central point of graduate study. Throughout the years of graduate study, the student conducts her/his own personal learning program in addition to mastering course content.
Summers are not “time off” in graduate study. They afford opportunities to gain direct experience in a social and ethnographic context, to work with a faculty member on field or laboratory research, to participate in an internship, or to work on a paper to be submitted for presentation at a professional meeting or to be published in a journal. Those pursuing a career in archaeology, biological anthropology, or anthropological linguistics are likely to deepen their experience in those fields. If you need to work to pay off student loans, try to find a paying job that also allows you to advance your anthropological acumen.
5. What about the “four field” approach?
The first university graduate training in anthropology in the U.S. got going at the end of the 19th Century. Following Franz Boas’ appointment as a full time faculty member at Columbia University PhD training in Anthropology began, and Boas then largely populated the great departments of anthropology that emerged at the nation’s major universities with his students. Boas, whose own PhD was in physics, believed that to understand another culture one had to understand it from archaeological, physical, linguistic, and ethnographic/folklore standpoints, and that no significant cultural trait can be fully understood without seeing it from such multiple perspectives. Until well after World War II, graduate anthropology programs in the U.S. required that their students, although emphasizing one of the four fields, be quite conversant with the relevant theory and data from all four fields.
Since the 1960s, graduate programs have moved, to varying degrees, away from four-field expectations, probably because the rapid expansion of scholarship in each of the fields made a Boasian four-field standard impossible for a graduate student to attain in a reasonable period of time.
Certain PhD programs remain somewhat attached to a four-field approach. However, it is more common today for programs to expect a student to master one field while having some awareness of contributions from the other fields pertaining to, and illuminating, a particular problem being investigated.
In the applied master’s programs one is unlikely to find any trace of the fully four-field approach, although, because problem-solving is inherently multi-disciplinary, drawing on research and theory from multiple disciplines is standard.
6. What possibilities are there for getting a combined MD-PhD in Anthropology? Are there other combinations?
There are a number of universities that offer this combination of degrees. A quick internet search will yield some options for you including University of Pennsylvania, Case Western Reserve University, University of California, San Francisco, and Harvard University. Also of note, in some universities a PhD in anthropology may be combined with a masters in public health or even a masters in business administration, among others. Again, a search engine should produce programs across the country offering these combinations, although it might take additional digging.