monkey's uncle

notes on human ecology, population, and infectious disease

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Should You Get a Ph.D.?

September 20th, 2013 · No Comments · Anthropology, science, Teaching

I wrote this as a long email to a list this week and, based on the feedback I’ve received, I thought it would be worthwhile posting it here. This is a topic to which I have given a lot of thought over the years, starting as a fellowships tutor at Harvard during my own grad school years and, more recently, as an undergraduate advisor and resident fellow at Stanford. While the specific context that elicited this essay was whether getting a Ph.D. in anthropology is worth the cost given uncertain job prospects, I think that the approach applies more generally.

Choosing to go to grad school is a decision that is fraught with uncertainty and a degree of risk. There are plenty of nightmare stories to go around about great teachers/scholars who get trapped in an exploitative cycle of perpetual adjuncting. However, a Ph.D. can also be a platform from which to launch a productive and rewarding career both within the academy and outside of it. Here are some of the issues that I think any student approaching a Ph.D., especially in anthropology, should consider:

(1) Are you passionate about research and communication of your research? For better or worse, the rewards within the academy accrue to research and publication. Some professional schools have made substantial progress in developing teaching (and clinical) tracks for faculty that reward teaching and other applied work, but this is typically not the case in disciplines housed in colleges of arts & sciences, as anthropology typically is. You need the passion for your research question to get you through the inherent tedium of research and the many obstacles to successful publication. A commitment to research does not mean giving up on teaching or other activities (such as organizational or other applied work). The NSF career awards, for example, require applicants to coherently weave their research interests with their teaching. However, research requires a commitment and, based on my rather unscientific sample, it seems that the people who are most productive in research are the people who are really driven to answer questions and are committed to publishing not because they want the professional rewards, but because they care about communication of their results. You have to be willing to write at night when you’re exhausted after you’ve put kids to bed and your grading is done. You have to write on weekends, etc. A passion for answering questions goes beyond a fascination with ideas, a love of social theory, or a commitment to education. There is a certain obsessive quality to the top researchers — answering questions and communicating your results becomes almost a compulsion. This is what helps you deal with the inevitable (and frequent) obstacles and allows you to succeed.

(2) Are you enrolling in a program that will pay for your Ph.D.? Given all the vagaries of the faculty job market, you do not want to go into debt doing a Ph.D. The financial details of different Ph.D. programs have become more critical than ever. Make sure you are informed! Ph.D. programs should pay their students’ tuition and a livable wage since Ph.D. students perform vital services for research universities. These services include the obvious things like teaching and doing the grunt work of research assistants but includes some less obvious, but perhaps more important, things like providing prestige to their institutions. The Ph.D. graduates of an institution are the people who go on to get prestigious jobs and write important works and garner fancy awards and societal recognition that reflect positively on their mother institution. It is difficult to over-state the importance of prestige for the functioning of the top research universities and Ph.D. students play a fundamental role in constructing this prestige. Many programs will pay for a Ph.D., but they are very competitive, as you can imagine. Big grad factories that provide little in the way of resources to their students — either financial or human capital investments — do no one any favors.

(3) If you choose to matriculate in a Ph.D. program, take advantage of the opportunity to gain some concrete (and portable!) research skills. Anthropologists have developed some really amazing methodologies that can be applied broadly. I think that anthropologists sometimes have an inferiority complex about our methods. It never ceases to amaze me how often I hear our students say that anthropologists don’t have methods! To get a sense of the potentially far-reaching impact of methodological innovation in anthropology, check out the many students of Kim Romney and Russ Bernard as just two examples. Ethnography is a very trendy idea in industry now. Having a slightly more tangible skill in addition (e.g., survey design, statistics, GIS, the use of qualitative analysis software like Atlas.ti or NVivo, social network analysis) improves not only your academic job prospects but your ability to secure a job in an NGO or industry.

(4) Communicate with people outside of your small disciplinary circle. The ability to communicate across disciplines increases the number of job opportunities both within the academy and without. With an anthropology Ph.D., you may expect a job in an anthropology department. However, if you are able to communicate with a wider audience and, crucially, convince people why your research is important, you might be able to land a job in a department of environmental studies or ethnic studies or women’s studies or urban studies or community health or … you get the idea. The academy of the future is far more interdisciplinary and interdisciplinarity places a premium on the ability to communicate across traditional disciplinary lines. Talk to people outside your department, write journalistic pieces for local media outlets, or even write a blog. I’m continually surprised how many people with whom I make professional connections who know me from the blog I write in about four times a year!

(5) Are you mobile and flexible? Many people who get sucked into the vicious cycle of perpetual adjunct teaching get that way because they are tied to a specific geographic location because of partner, family, or other obligations. There are good graduate programs all over the country and there are actually jobs but many would require you to move to some place you might not have considered. This includes overseas. Sometimes you take a job that may not be your ideal if it provides you an opportunity to get the work done that then allows you to trade up. If you are constrained to remain in a very specific geographic location, I would think twice about matriculating in a Ph.D. program.

I suspect that this is a step in the professional development process where we lose a lot of outstanding potential first-gen faculty. Mobility and flexibility are easier if you are an upper-middle-class grad who has been financially buffered by your parents and, importantly, when your social support derives from a mobile nuclear family. I think there are many ways that modern professionals resemble hunter-gatherers more than their more recent agricultural forebears and the key commonality is mobility and flexibility: emphasis on the nuclear family as the unit of production, bilateral kinship, high logistical and residential mobility, an ethos emphasizing individuality over group identity. Hunter-gatherers follow prey across a landscape while professionals follow job opportunities. People who are tied to a locality, whether for livelihood-based reasons or persistent social ties, will find this type of flexibility more difficult.

Getting a Ph.D. can pay off, both intellectually and professionally but it takes some planning and, frankly, quite a bit of luck if you’re going to make it in the academy. What is less up to luck is the fallback. Have a fallback plan; think strategically. It won’t hurt your chances within the academy and, in fact, will probably help. There are great opportunities for anthropology Ph.D.s with excellent research and communication skills. I have former students who work for major conservation NGOs (e.g., WCS, WWF) and public health organizations, and who have even started green businesses. I have friends who have gone into industry and done very well. Sapient and Olson, for example, are two companies I know that get major input from anthropologists and anthropological methodologies. Anthropological insights and, yes, methodologies are in demand if you are willing to look outside of the usual channels for employment for anthropologists.

It’s easy to get depressed by the academic job market (and many other job markets for that matter). However, with a little bit of planning and flexibility, getting a Ph.D. in anthropology (or any discipline really) can be an excellent ticket to a rewarding career both within and outside of the academy.

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