PhD, or not PhD

A column in The Chronicle of Higher Education, as pointed to by my friend Matt Bandy, has an interesting take on the essentialness (or lack thereof) of a Ph.D.  The column is specific to the humanities, but is easily transferable to the social sciences, and I think most particularly, to Anthropology.  Matt makes his points specific to archaeology, but I think that getting a PhD in any kind of anthropology these days is a particular kind of folly.

Yes, I got one.  Yes, some of my best friends are Ph.D.’s in Anthropology.  Reader, I married a Ph.D. in Anthropology.  That doesn’t mean it was a good idea—just that we were lucky, and that our passion for the discipline managed to (almost) make up for, in my case,  the hard time we spent trying to wring even one full-time job out of our two-Ph.D. partnership.

This is not to say that I don’t think people should study Anthropology.  On the contrary, I think we need more, not less, in our educational system.  But Anthropology should be shot through all of our educational system, K-12 as well as higher.  It should be a robust undergraduate degree, from which one could spring to any number of professional career platforms.  Anthropology should be a foundational discipline in anyone’s Liberal Arts and Sciences education.  A knowledge of anthropology, and the history behind the discipline, can lead to a perspective that can be useful in any number of paths.  But one doesn’t need a Ph.D. to have this knowledge.  Indeed, the quest for the Ph.D. can isolate the people who have this knowledge into a group of sad, self-flagellating academic wanna-be’s who, rather than getting to share their love of the field, grow increasingly bitter at the disconnect between what they wanted to happen in their professional lives (that is, a tenure-track job as a Professor).  How liberating it would be if they (if we) had simply studied what we loved as undergraduates, but then took that wonderful foundation and did something else entirely?

I had at least one professor, when I was an undergraduate, try to talk me out of going to graduate school in Anthropology.  I appreciate their efforts—they were not doing it out of disrespect for me or my abilities, but rather because they did (and do) respect me, and knew how hard and thankless the road to the Ph.D. would be.

I will repeat:  I have many successful friends in Anthropology, people with the fabled tenure-track jobs.  They are not only talented, they are extremely lucky (and most of them know it!).  I also have many wonderful friends who are successes in every other way except for the tenure-track job, and that latter “failure” makes them miserable, even though it is not their fault.

We as a profession need to take responsibility for our students, and not only inform them of the options outside of a Ph.D. in Anthropology, but actively point undergraduates into post-B.A. in Anthropology, non-Ph.D.,  professional opportunities.  That can include an M.A. in Anthropology, but not necessarily.  And we need to be serious about it, not treating anything other than a tenure-track job as “second- (or third-, or fourth-) best.”

12 thoughts on “PhD, or not PhD

  1. Tony

    Hmmm. I guess I am one reformed biologist who needs to cheer up you anthropologists! Anthropology has always struck me as the most interesting of fields, in part because it is so good at trying to answer the “who are we?” questions. For biologists, it is clear…we are DNA. This can be a comforting reduction, but not a very intellectually stimulating one. Sure biologists get jobs in academia and “industry” (hey even I had one for awhile), but still end up with their share of neurotics and compulsives.

    The other question is what is a Ph.D. for? One of the problems of the social sciences is that it too often frames the tenure track job as the only legitimate reason to pursue a Ph.D. I don’t buy this–but I guess that is a subject for my own blog!

    I never discourage students who love to read, write, and explore from getting a Ph.D. in any subject. But, they also should never limit themselves to solely the academic job market.

  2. Frank

    Yeah, ive got to say thats a cheery post. lol. The problem isnt the anthropology PhD per se. Its the type of society we live in and the types of knowledge that are rewarded economically by the neo-liberal system and its insitutions of which the university complex is one.

    Anthropology, and humanities degrees also – those forms of PhDs which are involved in critique and critical reflection – are not seen as important nor economically rewarded because they dont stimulate profits and economic growth. Their type of knowledge isnt easily turned into economic profits as the research from biology say might be. On the contrary anthropology PhDs and the like often seek to produce ‘fairer’ societies where services, support and finance are redistributed in ways that do not support the neoliberal leviathan, and in fact go after it as the problem rather than something to live and support through our careers. Im not sure how many professors you know telling their BA anthropology students to do PhDs in Anthro, that strikes me as bizarre. BA students, not just anthros, should be encouraged across the board to not move straight into academia or a phd. A BA student told to move straight to a PhD is being done a disservice. And from another point of view encouraging them to move straight to a PhD isnt because they are brilliant – to assume such means we are cutting them off at say 21/22 from other parts of their life they need to develop and often because their fees support the profits of the university complex.

    If one wants an easy life and to become another mechanism in the system of inequality spread by global capitalism there are numerous non-critical thinking PhDs to do, and people are free to choose those. If from another direction one wants to critique society in what granted might be an idealistic and more ethically driven career then one should do a PhD in anthropology or the humanities. The choice isnt, from my point of view, to tell them to get out why they still can, although of course one is entitled to be grumpy and negative as one pleases. Rather the choice is what sort of society do we want to produce. One where there are very few critical thinkers and very few people with real life experience before their PhD studies or one where people educate themselves both inside and outside academia and then make a choice about what phd or other they want or dont want to study. I think you’ll find most with experience of the working world will steer clear of anth anyway, although some may not.

  3. Tony

    As an aside. I got involved in Ethnography.com because Cindy wrote an article about an article I wrote (does that makes sense?) regarding how the issue of culture has been appropriated by other academic departments. The link is here: http://www.ethnography.com/2007/08/can-and-should-anthropology-share-culture/#comments

    The gist of Cindy (and my) article is that the subject of culture has been appropriated within the academy by other departments. As a sociologist I have done it, and as department chair in a sociology department, I even hired two anthropologists as lecturers to teach our “culture classes.”

    The point is that culture is so successful as a subject that it is now taught by many departments–while Anthro Ph.D.s are as Donna points out, under-employed.

  4. Donna

    “negative and grumpy” Hee! And I thought I was just telling the truth. Far be it for me to discourage people passionate about anthropology from studying it. My point is, the PhD takes a long, long time. Make sure that you really want to study anthropology for 10 years before you take the PhD plunge. And make damn sure that you’re realistic about the job market for academics, and that you allow yourself to envision yourself outside of the Ivory Tower. Because that is where you are likely to end up. And it’s a fine, fine place! A friend of a friend today said that one of her professors encouraged her to pursue a PhD if “that’s what you want to do in your 20s.” I think that’s a fine paradigm for choice. And it’s what I chose to do with my 20s, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. My beef is not with the discipline, but with the lack of a realistic professional assessment of our collective professional prospects as PhDs in anthropology, indeed, in the social sciences. There are so many of us! And so few tenure-track jobs. Let’s own the shift the focus, acknowledge that the tenure-track is far more the exception than the rule these days, and for goodness’ sake, be open about that reality with our students. I repeat: it is terribly irresponsible to do anything less.

  5. WHOA! Lets be clear *I* have an exclusive on being “negative and grumpy” on this site. I have both patents and trademarks. The rest of you blighter’s are to even things out and give the site some cred.

    I agree partially with Frank but not all, I am a very happy capitalist after all, and think its fine for anthros to be capitalists as well.

    Where I agree is that during both my grad programs there was a very big difference between the students that had gone from kindergarten to grad school without stop and those that did spent a few years working. Don’t mistake me, I have also met more than one returning student that was a 5 x 5 loon as well, but people that have had a successful career prior to grad school certainly brings something extra back to school with them.

  6. Joe

    I’m one of those students/persons who worked for a number of years instead of going straight from undergrad to grad school (in Anth). My parents forced me to work, and I’m EXTREMELY glad they did so. (I worked in the media industry in a non-Western region [Southeast Asia] for five years.)

    I have much, much more insight into to topics brought up in my current Anth grad program compared to others who went straight to grad school. I can apply these theories/topics to my personal experience. I’m breezing through the course, making excellent grades, find the course very stimulating, and feel bad for my classmates who went straight from undergrad to grad school.

    Sure they can regurgitate the theories, although for the most part, they don’t have much of an idea how these translate in regards to different contexts, as this is mostly understood through experience.

    As such, I feel that admissions committees to Anth programs should not concentrate on GPA, GRE’s, etc, but should focus upon whether or not a student has experienced life to a significant amount of time outside of one’s “own” culture context. This, I believe, should be the most important factor when reviewing a candidate. The rest is more-or-less bureaucracy (although it should be said that I’m a horrible standardized test-taker!)

  7. Alan

    I don’t know if it makes you feel better, but cultural anthropology and specific cultural coursework was a requirement in my degree program from the School of International Studies at the University of the Pacific. If the professor who did the courses on Africa had been in residence in my four years at school, I would have taken more.

  8. Thank you for this very insightful and honest write up. I just had an argument about credentialing in anthropology, in fact. Why do you suppose engineering empowers its BAs to go be “engineers,” but anthropology disempowers its students until they become PhDs?

  9. Very interesting take. I think that it is very worthwhile to examine anthropology education overall. In my life as a consultant for a major firm, as well as researcher for a non-profit, I would not have been half as successful if I had not received my anthropology undergrad. Still, I will not lie, I would love to be a tenured professor – just figured I would wait a while until the current crisis passes.

    In the meantime, what are ways we can encourage undergrad students especially to market their skills for jobs post-school?

  10. T. Murray

    Interesting post! As a working adjunct instructor in anthropology at the 2-year college level (so I teach 95% introductory courses) I am constantly confronted with my own questions about HOW to get a PhD, as a necessity for my own career advancement inside Northern California community colleges. So even today, not yet educated enough to find employment at the four-year level, I am finding that the PhD/not PhD question is affecting my own career, and life, in ways I had not imagined just a few years ago within my chosen path to teach community college!

    While I’d personally *love* to pursue a PhD — where that academic and research experience is both a lifetime goal, but also sort of a fanciful dream about my own future — is not an easy goal for me to accomplish as a “late start/non-traditional age” university student whose BA came at the tender age of 36 years old (and my MA accomplished 2.5 children later at the tender age of 42).

    A PhD has not been part of my life path *yet*, while I also raise children and must “pull a paycheck” to help my family (both the paycheck helps immensely, but not continuing past my MA — so delaying long-term and distance-based research — supports my family in a sort of double-whammy sort of way. I have a husband whose non-anthropology/not-an-academic goals are also supported by his wife — and working also allows us to raise our children in a first-world economy that is difficult to manage with one income.

    Of course I could have chosen another course: a husband whose life goals allowed raising children in the field, for example. Surely that is done “all the time” (both “that spouse” and those education possibilities in the field) but this one-of-many-possible trajectories for a life isn’t completely realistic for all possible students of any discipline. Right?
    Can most would-be-PhDs find themselves automatically embedded into both education decisions and life choices about the direction their next 10, 15, 20 years will take/can take work the same way for all possible PhDs? It seems the idea PhD student of the humanities, arts, and social sciences, is a traditional-aged college student who starts college before/near the age of 20 and completes their many years of education and preliminary research in a linear, full-time, fashion before they turn 30!

    I guess that is why, for me, I’d call the PhD path a bit fanciful. Within my own personal context, I find two challenges discussing graduate work with my students.

    Since many of my students, but not all, are traditional aged college students, many of my own personal challenges do not come up in discussing their educational goals. I encourage them instead to keep up their GPA and get into a research universality which has scholarships to give to those how enter. This first goal seems important to me in just financing college alone. Both keeping one’s debt down, and also already residing in a timeline where getting a PhD in anthropology looks to be a task best suited to the traditional-aged college student. Both completing college, generally, but advancing into graduate work specifically, seems would be made easier if they started out with as little debt as possible before they reach graduate school.

    But my later-start students, those closer to the age I was completing a BA have a higher mountain to climb if they are also already establishing families, creating a work history, marrying during college.

    Thus, I return to the alternative discussion of starting, or completing, a PhD for non-traditionally aged college students: since the economic downturn (most of my teaching career lies within it since I started teaching right after I completed my MA in a four-field degree in 2006). I find it difficult to advance into a full-time position within departments of anthropology near me inside 2-year university settings. This is partly because anthropology departments tend to be smaller than other social sciences and humanities departments; there aren’t that many positions that open, and the competition for an interview is fierce. But also since the downturn, more and more instructors, both experienced and those newly out of their PhD programs are vying for these limited positions. I have to assume the downturn has affected four-year-schools and their own hiring possibilities, so would-be university applicants (both part-time and full-time) have broadened their own job searches into community colleges where some PhDs of the past might not have had to search for teaching work traditionally.

    I find that not yet attaining my PhD as an automatic dis-qualifier for interviews in these limited community college opportunities very frustrating, especially within my chosen calling of teaching at community colleges to begin with. So if any of my students believe they aspire to teach *anywhere* (post-K thru 12), and of any age (traditional/non-traditional-age college students), I find discussing those challenges that my not-20-something students might face important for them to begin to consider.

    Of course, I do not directly point out the challenges I have faced in discussions with my students. My life is not theirs, and I do not want to pose challenges that would discourage any potential graduate students from at least “going for it.” But just as I worry about my own career opportunities, I do worry about
    theirs too.

    Considering I am a parent, a partner, and perhaps also – a female? — I think the PhD/not PhD question raises even larger questions within anthropology and all of academia. First, how feasible is a PhD to attain to begin with? For many: quite. For many others: not-quite.

    And I think for those who want a PhD, but for which the traditionally luxurious questions like “what program should I choose?” is their challenge rather than the questions “how can I juggle all this?” and “how can I pay for all this?” and how can I come out the other side of my dissertation both a human of life AND an anthropologist would can find work?” important real-life issues that transcends all of our fantastical dreams of working in an occupation we love, and making a living wage doing it.

    I know I have posed more than my fair-share of questions from within the context of the messiness of us “wet-ware” beings which also might not be best context to be answered from within an academic setting, I apologize that my philosophical heart keeps me there.

    I see I am touching on the value of both education inside society, but also on the value of the educated – as one finds oneself also inside that same society. So these musings probably need to be examined from the larger context of our social settings, our culture!!

    But, as academics, one might try to find a way to suggest our students examine, before going into a PhD, not just if it will get one the best-case job (assuming your best case is a tenure-track, or even full-time, teaching gig) but if that job will fulfill your other personal goals in the sections of your life that are not academic. For me, I wish there was a way to obtain both, the PhD and the life I am living. I’d be happy I had progressed further with my academic development, past my MA education and teaching experiences. But without the PhD, another issue is: I’d be less frustrated about academia, and our culture, if I was taken as seriously as some PhDs without any teaching experience (yet), when being considered an academic equal within academia itself. But I wish I didn’t have to obtain the PhD just to obtain the latter. Just my two cents!

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