What should I look for in an anthropology program?

We were asked by Selena, a student pursuing anthropology at the graduate level, How do you pick a good school/program for studying Anthropology? and What kind of questions should I ask the program director?

Maybe it’s just us, but, more and more, we are noticing that students are looking to take their interest in the fascinating world of Anthropology beyond a passing curiosity or an undergraduate major. The study of humans is a broad and fascinating field, and, for this reason, can be difficult to navigate. At this “back to school” time of the year, many students thinking about the application process so we wanted to provide a roadmap, which will hopefully lead you all to become the next generation of cool anthropologists!

Define Your Drive

Before asking a program director about their program, it is a good idea to ask yourself some questions first: Which aspects of the human experience excite me and make me curious? It is also not a bad idea to ask yourself, How do these questions relate to different fields of employment? This last question is not a romantic one, but it is something your family and potential employers will likely ask, so it is a good idea to be clear on that answer, or at least begin to ask yourself this while in graduate school. I will address both of these questions below.

Every Direction Leads to Learning

It’s important to remember that you will learn regardless of which direction you choose.

Be Curiouser and Curiouser

At the point one is considering graduate school, you have probably had some undergraduate classes in Social/ Cultural Anthropology, Physical/Biological Anthropology, Archaeology, and Linguistics, which are the core fields in Anthropology. These classes give people a sense of the types of big questions that anthropologists ask. Your questions might involve all of these fields, but often one has a sense of whether they prefer working with dead people (archaeology and often physical/biological anthropology) or living ones (socio/cultural or linguistic anthropology), which can lead you in the direction or another.

Fields of Anthropology

Cultural or Social Anthropology
Biological or Physical Anthropology
Applied and Practicing Anthropology
To learn more about each subfield see: ThisIsAnthropology

Graduate school is an environment where students can delve deeper into the discipline and learn how to conduct research on a specific topic. You should have a pretty solid idea of the types of things you would be interested in studying. And when I say studying, I mean, reading about it until your eyes hurt, spending vast amounts of time in the field learning about it through participant observation or other methods. You will do this with the guidance of a mentor, who is an expert in the field.

Identify Potential Mentors

The mentorship aspect of graduate programs means you need to look for faculty who study questions similar to the questions you have. Go to the University websites and read about the faculty and their research interests. Look up their publications and see if you like what they do. One way to do this is to find their CV online.

When looking at a potential mentor’s work, pay attention to whether they are the only author on a publication or if they have co-authors. You want to work with someone who will help your career and give you credit for your contributions to the work. Very few researchers accomplish great work alone. Most have graduate students working with them. Some give credit to these graduate students, others do not (this varies largely by the generation in which they trained and were taught). So, be wary of looking to the chronic-single-author for mentorship. In fact, some faculty now note publications they co-authored with graduate students on their CV, usually by putting a * next to it. Put a star next to that person’s name on your list of potential mentors.

Do not limit your reading to just the faculty at an institution. Read about the graduate students there too, if they have information on them. If they do not have a web page telling you about their graduate students, this is a potential red flag; they might not value the mentorship and training of graduate students… or the institution is not very tech savvy. This is not always a blight against the institution. Some schools are teaching colleges, not research-intensive institutions. They have different goals overall. Most graduate programs are at research universities, so keep that in mind as you look for mentorship. They might be amazing places to attend as an undergraduate, but they might not be very good at training you in applied research.

Graduate Program Website Review

University of South Florida
Which faculty have research interests similar to mine? You should be able to find a list of faculty and biographies/ research interests of each. Check out the faculty at USF here.
Does your potential mentor faculty have a CV available? My mentor was Dr. Heide Castañeda . You can see her CV on her page. Try doing a google search on your potential mentors.
Does your potential mentor faculty frequently publish with graduate students? Look for * on publications in the CV. Under the publication section of Dr. Castañeda’s CV, you can see a * by some co-author’s names. That means that co-author is/was a student. Dr. Castañeda clearly has strong record of publishing with students, and this suggests she cares about her students’ building a publication record and giving them credit for the work they contribute.
Does the department have a page for graduate students? Yes! See how the USF highlights graduate student contributions throughout the site too. This department values and highlights the work contributed by graduate students.
What kind of research are graduate students doing? USF has a biography of each current student AND a searchable datable of all completed these and dissertations.
Is there information about funding opportunities and admission rates? This program gives information about GR & GA opportunities here. It also has scholarship information. If you do not see this information on a school’s website, ask the Graduate Director.
Is there information about time to completion for graduate students? Since this information cannot be located on the website, you will have to ask the Graduate Director.
Is there information on what alumni graduate students are doing for employment? Yes! There are videos and job descriptions about USF Anthropology Alumni.  If you do not see this information on a school’s website, ask the Graduate Director.

Overall, though, you should be looking at institutions where your questions are aligned with the faculty. Then, you should also look for skills that you would like to learn. For example, if you want to learn about how to prevent human diseases or which diseases people suffered from in the past, you might want to learn about statistics, or GIS technology for mapping outbreaks. These skills can translate to a number of different types of employment opportunities if you decide you want to work outside academia. And this brings us to the last question.

What is your end game?

Graduation Cap 2016

Where are you going to go from here?

You do not have to have an answer like, I want to work at X institution doing Y, but you should be able to say, I want to help address [problem] in [types of settings]. Do you want to address those problems through an academic position? If so, you are probably going need to go for your PhD.

If you think you would like working outside of academia in non-profits, nongovernmental agencies, within the government, or in for-profit companies, a Master’s degree will likely suffice, and this does not take as long to complete. This is something to keep in mind when considering your investment of both time and money. If you cannot find much information about funding online, you will want to ask the program directors about that too.

Questions for the Director

1 What is the admission rate? Be sure to find out how many people apply in total vs. how many get in.
2 What is the average time to complete the program?
3 What kind of funding packages do you have for graduate students? Find out about opportunities for Research Assistance positions.
4 Of the graduate students admitted, how many receive funding?
5 For those graduate students who receive funding, is it guaranteed for the full scope of the program, or just the first year?
6 Is healthcare included as part of the funding package for graduate students, or does it have to be purchased separately?
7 How long does it take to establish in-state residency for tuition purposes? Make sure you find out if graduate student funding covers out-of state tuition (until residency is established).
8 Where are graduates finding employment upon completion of the program?

You should ask the director about how many students are admitted to the program each year versus how many applications they receive to get a sense of how competitive it is. Look at the required courses to see how long it should take to complete the program, assuming students are taking at least three courses a semester (full time in graduate school is calculated differently than full time in undergrad- don’t expect to be taking 15 credits a semester, expect to be taking 9). Then, ask the program director about the average time to completion for the program. If it is taking most students five years to complete a Masters degree (instead of two to three), you should try to figure out why. It might be because many of the students are attending only part time because they are working outside of the department. Keep in mind, it usually takes a person six (6) years to complete both MA and PhD in Anthropology. The fieldwork for a PhD is usually at least a year in the field, which is part of the reason why it takes so long.

Ask about funding packages and research assistance positions. Many programs offer research assistanceships that cover tuition. Becoming a research assistant has the added advantage of on the job training in your field of interest, so ask how many students receive these each year. Often, programs will admit more students than they can fund each year. Some pay well, some do not. Be sure to consider the cost of room and board, which can be prohibitive in some expensive cities. Verify that you are guaranteed these positions for the full time of the program, and not just the first year (to lure you into the program). You want to avoid student loans, even subsidized, if you can. Ask if health care is included in the funding package as a graduate student or if it has to be purchased separately.

The first year can have you paying far more during the first year than you expected if you are going to a school in a different state. Ask how long it takes to establish in-state residency for tuition purposes and if funding covers this. If you attend, be sure to prioritize getting documents in order to establish this residency so your tuition costs drop after the first year

Visit the Department

University Library

Take a campus tour, explore the surrounding community, and speak with faculty and students in the department.

During the application process, once you have narrowed down your choices, arrange to visit the campus to get a feel for the department and the graduate students. You can ask students more candid questions about the mentorship in the department than you can the program director, who might be uncomfortable answering them. For example, finding out if the faculty give them credit on publications.

Consider the policies that govern the institution and department. As universities take more and more of the business model, graduate students are both consumers of a product (education and training) AND employees. As employees, you are producing a cheap product, providing research, teaching courses and so on. Be aware of this dynamic and how it seems to impact the ethos of a department.

Ask them if they feel they have what they need to pursue their research. Most of all, do they seem like they still have a passion for pursing questions about the human experience or has it been crushed? Ideally, you want to find a program that will allow your curiosity to grow and your ability to answer your questions to become refined.

So, Selena, all of this is a lot of work but it is worth it to find the right place for you to develop your skills and pursue your passions. I can’t stress enough about looking at information about current graduate students in a department. Along with your mentor, these people will become your colleagues and allies as you complete the program and head into the real world, and, in that way, are perhaps your greatest life benefit of graduate school. You don’t need to feel like you could be best friends with all of them, but shared ideas and interests can really go a long way to getting you through and helping you build the life you see for your future.

Click on the following link so you can use my handy guide to evaluate programs. Happy trails!

Download “Researching Anthropology Graduate Programs” cool-anthropology-graduate-school-questions.pdf – Downloaded 89 times – 921 KB

Dr. Janelle Christensen received her PhD in Applied Anthropology and MPH from the University of South Florida in 2012. She currently works as a Research Analyst at Florida Southwestern State College’s office of Institutional Research. Learn more about her by visiting palmbeachstate.academia.edu/JanelleChristensen.

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