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I want to make the most out of the choices given to me in my future career.
July 31, 2011 10:03 PM   Subscribe

I have a dream of becoming an anthropologist someday. The problem is I don't know what I should focus on.


I'm a future undergraduate and budding anthropologist who needs some help...

I'm going to be graduating from university with a B.A. in Cultural Anthropology in the fall. I don't have a very firm grasp on what I want to study since I have so many interests including the peoples of Polynesia, Asia, religion, medical, visual and applied anthropology. I may even find more interests in the future.

Obviously, the best advice right now would to not go to graduate school until I have a firm grasp on what I want to do. The thing is...HOW do you find a focus? I'm been researching and consulting the university career center with out much luck because I have been given MORE CHOICES!!

I want to make the best use of my choices. The biggest goal I have is to go abroad after I graduate. The various things I could do is work and teach abroad. I could also find an internship abroad but which one? I could also volunteer abroad. I could also study a second language. I am attempting to teach myself French but I don't even know how useful that will be. I am interested in teaching English aboard in Japan. How in the world does one get published? Can a recent graduate go to ethnography field school?

The goal is to get experience so that I could look good on a future application and as a benefit to my future career. How do I make the best appropriate decisions for my future? How do you find focus in such a broad field?

posted by mind2body to Education (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Most of your first and second year graduate course work should focus on theories. A good program will give you an introduction to the four fields (or five, depending on the program.) You will be thinking broadly and intensely about concepts of culture, approaches to language, and many techniques. You might not be thinking about your specific field study for quite some time.
posted by pickypicky at 10:20 PM on July 31, 2011

One of the hallmarks of modern anthropology is that it's not really about focusing; the idea is that you dip into a heck of a lot of different disciplines in order to have a more well-rounded understanding of humans and all the things they do.

As far as graduate school, you will probably want to be thinking about, "How do I want to feed myself using this schooling?" and pick something that both appeals to you and provides enough probable income for it to not be a waste* of years. Spend some time talking with anthropologists who get anthropology paychecks (as opposed to Starbucks or Pizza Hut paychecks) and checking out what opportunities are out there for you. The social stratification of Polynesian boat-building cliques and the music they listened to of 700-800 CE may be fantastically interesting to you, but if no one is going to pay you for that knowledge over the course of many, many years, you're better off spending time with that subject as a hobby and picking something else to dump schooling funds into.
posted by curious nu at 10:37 PM on July 31, 2011

INAA (not an anthropologist) but I do have a BA, and a few other things. You need to separate the many aspects of your questions and goals and approach them more clearly.
1) You want to go overseas? This will not, most likely, be at all difficult. Teaching English in Japan is an option, there are many others-- backpacking, getting some teaching experience and working in an international school, getting a job that pays well enough to take an o/s holiday. This does not need to be a major factor in the decision making about your career.
2) Learning an second language (that you teach yourself? And French?) is a non sequiter. It has nothing to do with your budding career as an anthropologist or international traveller. You probably won't be very good if you only teach yourself (no offence-- it's just limiting to do it that way with no actual immersion) and even if you do learn it-- French people, especially those in a highly specialised and educated field like anthropology, speak English.
3) Getting published: do you have anything to publish? This needs to be your first step. You need to write something publish-worthy, which probably means doing research that is associated with a university or other organisation (anthropologists, am I wrong?). You are a long way off this.

I like curious nu's advice. I think what you want is a job in anthropology. As in, you want to make a living out of it. Otherwise, you may as well already consider yourself one, since you have a degree in it. When you go back and look at your options, cull those that don't clearly lead towards this outcome. Make that your focus. Hope that helps-- I found it did, in my early post-BA days.
posted by jojobobo at 11:11 PM on July 31, 2011

Also: I really like Penelope Trunk's blog on careers.
posted by jojobobo at 11:21 PM on July 31, 2011

I am not sure if the university career center will be helpful since the only option you are exploring now is the possibility of more school. The first thing you should do is research. Find interesting, ongoing work that is being performed now and read about it. Familiarize yourself with people at those departments where the work is being performed and, with the wonders of the internet, look up professors, PhDs, and Master's students' (faculty) pages. Narrow your interest to something a bit more specific... an interest in Asia + religion is one thing, but an interest in (and working knowledge of) more specific areas will help set you apart from other applicants.

The other stuff about learning French and going abroad are interesting, but really peripheral to the main topic as I understand it. Choose your second language based on where (or if) you'd like to do fieldwork in graduate school. Why not focus on an Asian language if that is where you're interest is? Traveling abroad is not something to aspire to -- this can be done in a single summer.

If you are still unsure, maybe consider teaching ESL in Japan or where ever, learn the local language a bit and make some interesting anthropological observations... then, after a year of that, while keeping on top of current publications and researching different university programs, start applying to graduate programs that appeal to you.
posted by mateuslee at 11:43 PM on July 31, 2011

As someone leaving grad school with an MA instead of PhD because I couldn't find one narrow field of interest, I would really encourage you to take some time off after undergrad, especially if you're not sure what you want to go into. Spend time teaching abroad or interning. This will both make you a better applicant and help you see if academia is really for you.

Grad school in the social sciences/humanities is structured to breed professors, and specifically, it tends to specialize your knowledge more and more the further you go. My other advice would be to read through a lot of the current major anthropology journals - American Anthropologist, etc. See what kind of articles really grab at you. Can you imagine doing that kind of research, writing, presenting at conferences, etc. for YEARS? Remember that grad school is preparing you for a dissertation - an extremely narrow topic within a narrow subfield. Your dissertation then becomes kind of your "brand" - you apply for postdocs and then professor positions based on one very narrow slice of the field that is your specialty. After you've written several articles, or a book (years and years of research) on one very narrow slice, you might build up enough cachet in the academic community for you to have the leisure to say "OK, I'm going to study something totally different now".

After the breadth that undergrad education stresses, especially liberal arts schools, it is really weird to go into an environment where you are expected and encouraged to find one tiny corner of research you will happily devote years of your life to, in a field that has so many possibilities. You may find that this is something you can see yourself doing - but based on your current question I would definitely say think hard about whether you will want to commit to one subfield-of-a-subfield eventually.

Also, grad students are usually happy to discuss/vent about their disciplines - this response being an example! Cruise some websites for anthropology grad programs. There's usually contact info for current students and I'm sure if you send a few emails someone will be happy to tell you more about the lives of anthro grad students.
posted by nakedmolerats at 1:04 AM on August 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yes! Consider what you might do with your anthro degree, as others have said. Do you see yourself as a professor? Would you want to work in development? In a museum? In industry? Think about what career might make you happy. As nakedmolerats says, grad school (except certain places with an "applied anthropology" focus: Kentucky, FSU, Pittsburgh--as far as I understand) tends to prepare you for academia only. That's great, although you need to know the realities of the job market if that is what you will choose. If you want to know more about applied anthropology, maybe dig around the websites of the Society for Applied Anthropology or the National Association for the Practice of Anthropology. Check out NAPA's book of profiles of practitioner anthropologists, if you can get your hands on it. Do you like the look of any of those jobs?

Do do do go experience something different. My dissertation project grew out of a year of service work abroad. Friends of mine found their initial interest from seemingly unrelated work they had done before coming to grad school: in public health, in education, in fair trade coffee. Not all of them went overseas for this, though! The average age of my cohort coming into the PhD program was probably 25 or 26. Not that you have to wait that long, but it certainly wouldn't put you behind schedule.

If you are interested in Asia, then teaching English in Japan seems like a good start. If you go in proposing to do fieldwork somewhere in East Asia, you will need to get started on the language as soon as possible: I don't know anyone doing graduate work in China who didn't start learning the lingo as an undergrad.

Don't bother with French, unless you want to pursue fieldwork in French. (Or you really want to know about France and it has nothing to do with your anthropological interests--but in that case you should try to align your academic and your other interests so you don't, for instance, learn a language that wouldn't be professionally useful.)

And yes, do pick up AA, American Ethnologist, Current Anthropology, Cultural Anthropology, and see what articles pique your interest. Then look up those professors. Find their books in an academic library and have a skim. Who would you want to work with?

Also think about what kind of anthropological education you want: one that is more scientific? More humanistic? In the former case, a four field department would be a good idea. I have a previous AskMe answer that fills out this issue a little more (from my perspective, at least). As a BA in anthro you probably have a handle on this, but it's good for you to be aware of the state of the discipline and where you might want to stand within it.

As for field schools: looks like there are some options out there for those not currently enrolled in a degree program.

Finally, having lots of interests is not necessarily a hindrance in grad school. Part of your job in your first two years would be to narrow these down. In my program it's totally normal for people to not know what their dissertation project will be until midway through the second year. Later than that and people start worrying, but even then there's time.

Hope some of that helps. Good luck, and feel free to Memail me if you want to chat.
posted by col_pogo at 2:57 AM on August 1, 2011

I got my BA in anthro in 2009, and getting rejected by my first choice graduate program was a good thing. My focus was biological anthro with an emphasis on osteology, as I planned on going into forensic anthropology. But I did a field school in Chile, took several classes in and outside of the department about Japan...blah blah blah. If I had gotten accepted to the program I would have already burned out and dropped out.

I didn't go abroad after graduation. I got a crappy job and worked on developing my relationship with my SO. I grew up, grew as a person, and eventually stumbled on folklore as a natural extension of my anthropological interests and my non-scholarly interests, some of which had been sidelined since starting college. I'm moving towards applying to a folklore studies program. I'm currently giving homesteading and organic farming a try, though, so I'm not in a rush. The school will still be there in a couple years.

Anthropology draws people who like a little bit of everything, because that's the nature of the discipline: to be interdisciplinary.

So, yeah, keep your toe in the anthropological waters, imagine what you could devote years of your life to studying, but more importantly, go do JET, travel wherever you have the opportunity, take internships and read heaps of books to give you more ideas. Don't think overmuch about grad school or whether what you're doing is going to help you get into a great program or benefit your future career. Choose as many of those choices you mentioned as you can, don't commit to one idea just because you think you should commit. The value in experience is what you gain from it, not that you simply went and did it. Along the way you'll have experiences that you gain more from than others and from there you refine your interests to that focus grad schools want you to have.

As far as French goes, do it if you want. I'm proficient, but none of the cultures I'm interested in speak French, so it's only been useful for that one time I tried to read Levi-Strauss en Francais. I didn't get very far...but you may decide that Asia is cool and all, but your heart is really in North Africa. I am trying to teach myself Japanese (after a year of it in college), because I'm interested in Japanese folklore and religion, but going abroad to learn isn't a good fit for me right now. Just have realistic expectations of how much you can teach yourself, and worry less about utility and more about if it's fun and if you're getting more out of it than a sense of passing the time.

TLDR: I encourage you to take a more fluid approach to finding your focus and gaining experience. Worry more about general life experiences and your growth as a person. Finding your focus will stem naturally from that growth. As long as you got something out of your choice, it was a good choice.
posted by syanna at 10:37 AM on August 1, 2011

Another anthro BA here (bioanthro, not cultural). If you have an interest in medical anthropology, your skills in that subject might be an asset to a medical NGO. That might give you a good means of going abroad. Also, I wouldn't discount French, if you have an interest in traveling to West Africa.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 11:08 AM on August 1, 2011

Also: I didn't mean to be so down on French. It's a beautiful language and useful in many places--but if you think you might be headed towards fieldwork in Asia, I do think you should consider how and when you will find the time to learn a local language. An alternative is to follow your interest in French and see if it might lead you to some interesting fieldwork opportunities.
posted by col_pogo at 12:03 PM on August 1, 2011

I received my B.S. in Anthropology. It's a wonderfully diverse field and one of the reasons I chose it as my major was because I didn't HAVE to focus on anything. It's very broad and I could dip my beak into a wide variety of choices including biology, chemistry, physics, archaeology, cultural anthro, zoology, etc.

To be honest, after I graduated, I was a bit lost, because like you I had not found any focus. I graduated last year, and for the past year, I've just been wandering from part-time job to part-time job, working at grocery stores, assembly lines, and... more grocery stores. Not quite the life I had imagined I would be living after I had received my B.S. I've been barely making a living on a tiny bit more than minimum wage in my state. Despite this, some things you can do as others have mentioned, is to try out a little bit of everything in your field. PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE go to a field school of some sort. It really is one of the best experiences you'll ever have regardless of whether or not you decide to go into that field or not.

Also intern at various places. I interned at my University's Anthropology museum on my last quarter. I really wish I had done it sooner, or volunteered at the molecular anthropology lab. You can still volunteer after you graduate, but it is a lot harder, and you probably won't be living near your university anymore.

If you're wondering what I ended up doing, I applied for and got accepted to a teaching credential program and I am now finishing up my first quarter of the program. I intend to teach High School Biology. Reason being, teaching is a job that allows me a lot of free time, provides me with enough to live comfortably (i.e. not sharing a one bedroom apartment with a Vietnam war veteran, his caretaker, and my boyfriend) and best of all, it will allow me money to continue pursuing my education: that is once I figure out what I want to do. Like you I still haven't found focus, but I have my entire life to decide that, as do you. Do what you enjoy, and find a living doing something you enjoy for right now that allows you time and money to keep developing professionally if you wish.
posted by Peregrin5 at 4:31 PM on August 3, 2011

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