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.”