Should I get an MA in Anthropology?
February 19, 2011 2:11 PM   Subscribe

Considering a Masters in Anthropology... curious about which programs are worth applying to and job/graduate options afterwards

I will be finishing up my undergraduate degree in anthropology in the next year or so, and am trying to figure out What I Want To Do With My Life. I'm contemplating getting a MA in Anthropology. While I'm not sure I want to be an academic-for-life, I think Anthropology likely relates to the fields I most want to pursue in the long run: writing, journalism, and/or design. I'm especially interested in agriculture, environmental anthropology, "folk" culture, and modern counter/subcultures. On the side, I'm into art, bookbinding, cooking, and photography. I'm a pragmatist, and I'm most happy when my life has momentum--when I'm doing and making stuff (hence my ambivalence re: academia).

I guess what I'm wondering is this: what programs would be worth looking at or applying to (I may not be the best applicant in the world, but I am far from the worst: while my transcript isn't perfect, it should be respectable, I go to a difficult, prestigious school, I think I'm a good writer)? At this point, I'm most interested in moving West, but this is negotiable. I prefer cities. Is it worthwhile to pursue an MA in Anthropology? And if so, what professional or options might I have at its completion? If not, do you have any alternative recommendations for someone like me? Money isn't my primary motivation in life, but avoiding impoverishment is extremely important. I'd appreciate any wisdom; life is confusing.

posted by faeuboulanger to Education (16 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Graduate school is an expensive place to figure out a profession. Are you comfortable with the cost (maybe debt) and putting off the start of your earning years? Have you thought about trying out some of your possible career choices before going to grad school? What about the Peace Corps?
posted by Houstonian at 2:21 PM on February 19, 2011

Response by poster: Houstonian: I guess I'm just not confident that I'll be able to get a satisfactory job with only an undergraduate degree; I feel like I need more experience, more confidence, stronger credentials. I am comfortable with the expense as long as it isn't totally unreasonable, federal loans are available, and/or teaching opportunities. I'm also not totally opposed to entering a Ph.D program, which might offer a stipend. But I like that a masters is a little less commitment, that I can get out in a few years and do something else if it doesn't end up working out as well as I might hope.

I have considered the Peace Corps... I'm keeping it in the back of my mind.
posted by faeuboulanger at 2:26 PM on February 19, 2011

Terminal MAs are generally not a good investment. Is there any job that's open to an anthro MA but closed to an anthro BA? None that I can think of (though I'd be delighted to be proven wrong). If I were you I'd finish the BA and get out in the world, do some internships/volunteer gigs, make some real-world connections. That seems more likely to lead you to a job doing something you like.

Oh, and if you liking making stuff, working and seeing actual results, academia is definitely not for you. Academia is where you spend 6 to 10 hours creating each of 45 witty illustrated lectures, which you deliver three days a week to undergrads who sit in the auditorium checking their facebook or watching hulu, and the only question anyone ever asks you is "are you going to make us a study guide for the exam?"
posted by philokalia at 2:30 PM on February 19, 2011 [3 favorites]

Totally not worthwhile. It's a degree that gets you nothing: it has no value in the working world (it's certainly no professional degree) and is irrelevant in academia (really a vestigial, and usually bypassed, step toward a Ph.D.). Its only real value is in self-edification, but at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars. Despite this, people still do these degrees and the anthro departments know it, so they treat the MA students like the profit center they are. Your presence subsidizes the Ph.D. and undergrad students. NOT WORTH IT. Disclosure: I have an anthro MA after leaving a top-10 anthro Ph.D. program.
posted by The Michael The at 2:33 PM on February 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

If writing, journalism and design are the fields you want to get into in the long run, why would you put that career off for years by doing a degree that provides you with no commercial writing, journalism or design skills?
posted by dontjumplarry at 3:14 PM on February 19, 2011

Response by poster: dontjumplarry: because pursuing those fields at the graduate level would likely exclude other professional paths, and I'm not really sure what I want to do with my life in the long run. I wouldn't want to spend 2 years getting an MFA in design only to decide I want to do something completely unrelated... which might require more graduate school. I feel like Anthropology is complementary to most things I'm interested in without closing any doors. An MA would also leave me open to pursuing a Ph.D afterwards. I don't feel like I'm qualified to break into design without a graduate degree... writing, I'm not sure. But I'm well aware pursuing a career as a Writer without another source of income (like teaching) is precarious at best.
posted by faeuboulanger at 3:25 PM on February 19, 2011

Best answer: Take a break before more school. If you're ambivalent about academia now, grad school won't help that. Move to a city, take some sort of job, and plunge into the culture of that city.

I applied for an MA in anthro right after undergrad, and got rejected. That turned out to be a great thing. I just took jobs, and found some very interesting internships in other cities. I built up experience, and just flailed around defining my own personal interests.

I see an anthro MA as not that great of an investment, honestly. If you want to try it out, take a grad level course, see how you like it. Then multiply that by 2 years. And factor in less of everything you're used to (sleep, money, social life, free time). I'm in grad school now, in a totally different field, that I discovered in my years away from undergrad. Maybe the same thing could happen for you.
posted by shinyshiny at 3:26 PM on February 19, 2011

Best answer: The only real growth area in anthropology is in forensics

Sorry but that is unequivocally wrong. Thanks to csi etc Anthro departments are full of students with a completely unrealistic view of job prospects in forensics, which is the ultimate niche area.

I would say (as a prof in Anthro) that the big hiring fields are public health/medical anthropology and contract/consulting archaeology. U Washington is decent for the former while Washington state is a good general archaeology school, as is U Oregon (archaeology is almost nvariably embedded in Anthro).

Anyway you might have to explain the field a bit to prospective employers but cross-cultural health issues is where the money flows most readily in the discipline.
posted by Rumple at 3:42 PM on February 19, 2011 [5 favorites]

You might look into Applied Anthropology. See here for one example of a program.
posted by gudrun at 4:05 PM on February 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: This is going to sound out of the blue and you should feel free to reject it but my gut tells me this: You should go get a paid internship at a nonprofit in grant writing/fundraising now and make that into your full-time job post graduation. I scanned your earlier questions, and something is really telling me that you'd end up on that path anyway. You can make a lot of money in the field this way, and you should do it sooner rather than later. Lots of people with BAs in fields like Anthro end up trying to get into nonprofit work and if you have good writing skills, you should try and jump in as soon as possible.

The Peace Corps is a popular idea, of course, but I personally don't think it's worth it.
posted by anniecat at 4:43 PM on February 19, 2011

Best answer: Oh, and if you liking making stuff, working and seeing actual results, academia is definitely not for you. Academia is where you spend 6 to 10 hours creating each of 45 witty illustrated lectures, which you deliver three days a week to undergrads who sit in the auditorium checking their facebook or watching hulu, and the only question anyone ever asks you is "are you going to make us a study guide for the exam?"

This is cynical nonsense. I became an anthropologist to do what I do now, which is travel constantly to interesting places, work directly in communities where I can feel the difference my work makes, and sustain lifelong projects with people I come to care deeply about. Some of whom are my students, who aren't watching hulu in my classes, anyway, because my work produces compellingly interesting stories of compellingly interesting people.

That said, the only reason to get a standalone MA in anthropology, really, is to make yourself more competitive for funded PhD study, and unless you plan to be a contract archaeologist or work in an allied health field (Rumple is exactly right about the demand areas, above), you can't "be" an anthropologist very easily without also being an academic. I love both sides of my career, but I wouldn't have chosen it if it didn't give me a constant sense that what I am doing helps the world and fascinates me.

Bitter people are everywhere. Don't let them bring you down.
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:52 PM on February 19, 2011 [10 favorites]

Another reason to get a standalone MA is if you want to go into CRM/consulting archaeology. A fairly standard career path for that is to work for a year or two as a archaeological technician (field or lab), then see if you're still into it, and if so, go get your MA (or PhD). Generally, only people with MAs or higher may sign reports, so the degree has some value in this field. The good thing is, there's a way to get your feet wet and figure out if this is really the thing for you before you dive into a graduate program. Send me me-mail if you'd like more information.
posted by faustessa at 5:22 PM on February 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Anthropology has exported its methodologies to other disciplines and for that reason, an anthropology MA might have good consequences in other disciplines besides Anthropology. For example, literacy studies is a growing field and ethnographic methods are quite respected. Folks with an anthropology MA will be pretty welcome in certain English PhD programs.
posted by Jagz-Mario at 11:40 PM on February 19, 2011

I guess I'm just not confident that I'll be able to get a satisfactory job with only an undergraduate degree; I feel like I need more experience, more confidence, stronger credentials.

Go find out. Do informational interviews with people at jobs you're considering, and ask them whether you need an MA, how much an MA would help, etc. Don't just jump into that amount of debt based on a vague feeling that you need the degree in order to get a good job-- try hard to find out first. Not just by asking random people on AskMe, but by specifically tracking down people who are doing the various jobs/working in the various fields you're considering and having in-depth conversations with them. These conversations may also help you get more of a sense of what you actually do want to do.

I think you need to change the way you're looking at this, especially if "avoiding impoverishment is extremely important." A Master's degree will put you in quite a bit of debt. You need to look at it as an investment. That doesn't mean that it's never worth it to spend thousands of dollars on a degree. But it does mean you ought to research your investment well and have a clear idea of the specific reasons why it will be a good investment. The degree "not closing off any other doors" is not a good reason at all. You don't have to go to grad school right now. If you go, you should have an active reason why it is a good idea to get a specific degree, not just assume you need to go to grad school and then figure out which program keeps as many options as possible open for you for the future.
posted by EmilyClimbs at 9:56 AM on February 20, 2011

Best answer: By happy coincidence, Inside Higher Ed just wrote about a recently-released report looking at the career trajectories of terminal master's students in anthropology. It seems that the dismissive advice of many people in this thread--advice I agreed with when I first read it--is at odds with what the data suggests:

"Despite their numbers, the perception is that M.A.'s 'disappear' from professional organizations, departmental alumni networks, and the social landscape of anthropology," note the authors, Shirley Fiske, Linda Bennett and Patricia Ensworth. "Master's degree holders do not disappear, but they do disperse -- through a wide variety of employment sectors and jobs."

Few of these untested perceptions held true. Two out of three master's recipients belong to some kind of national anthropological organization. Among those working in non-academic jobs, nearly 30 percent are in positions that require education in anthropology.

I'd still highly recommend going and doing some work for a year or two before applying for grad school. It'll make you a stronger applicant as well as giving you time to think about whether more schooling is really for you. A Fulbright IIE award or a Watson Fellowship (if you go to an eligible school) would be an excellent idea.
posted by col_pogo at 12:30 AM on February 21, 2011

On the other hand, col_pogo, there's this paragraph from your link:

The report's authors also acknowledged that the survey was not scientific; it is not known how large the universe is of master's degrees in anthropology, which makes it impossible to measure how representative the sample is. In addition, respondents were contacted by the researchers through the anthropology association and other disciplinary interest groups; that they belonged to such groups suggests that they already identified strongly with the discipline.

So I wouldn't put much, if any, stock in that report because it's likely that the sample is highly biased.
posted by The Michael The at 6:06 AM on February 22, 2011

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