Photo: Florida Gov. Rick Scott
Whether or not someone should consider a career in anthropology appears to be a hot topic ever since Florida Governor Rick Scott called for slashing funding to anthropology programs in higher education because they don’t produce jobs. As I reported earlier this week, anthropologists quickly moved to manage the P.R. crisis, arguing that anthropology graduates have a range of skills making them ideally suited to a multitude of jobs, and they have played vital roles in policy, science, healthcare and a number of other pressing social concerns.
No sooner had Scott said sorry, than NPR reported that the U.S. Department of labour predicts job growth for anthropologists between now and 2018 to be 28% — above the average rate of growth for most jobs.
But what gets lost in all the spin is the fine print. The Bureau of labour Statistics Report which was published in 2008, notes that the number of qualified job applicants is growing beyond the rate of job growth, that many of the jobs that will be available are not exclusive to anthropologists, but open to all social scientists (swelling the pool of applicants even more), and that most of the job growth will be in management, scientific and technical consulting.
It remains unclear how many of these consulting jobs will be for full time, long-term employment, and how many will be for temporary contract work, but what is clear is that the majority of jobs will go to archaeologists, biological anthropologists, and to other anthropologists with quantitative and technical skills – in other words, maths and science.
Anthropologists are right to defend their discipline against Scott’s disparaging remarks and threats to cut funding in his state. But to defend the job market in the discipline as a growing one, without discussing where exactly this job growth will be, misses Scott’s point altogether.
Anthropology has long prided itself on its holistic approach to the study of humans, integrating the four fields of culture, linguistics, biology and archaeology. And in my view, this four-field approach has significantly strengthened the theories and methods of the discipline.
But these four fields have long divided the discipline to such an extent that not only are internecine departmental wars between the sub-disciplines commonplace, but few biological anthropologists are even members of the American Anthropology Association or publish in its journal.
The differing skill sets, theories, methods and problems that each sub-discipline addresses grow increasingly distinct, and contemporary graduates are rarely employable across the sub-disciplines. Thus any measure of job growth in the discipline is of value only to the extent that it measures job growth among the respective sub-disciplines.
In addition, in any assessment of a degree’s worth, it’s important to keep in mind the distinction between undergraduate and graduate degrees. Scott himself is an enthusiastic employer of people with degrees in the social sciences, as nearly everyone of his political advisors have them.
And CEO’s of the top 100 Fortune 500 companies are increasingly represented by graduates with degrees in social science, as well as graduates of public universities. When it comes to undergraduate degrees in nearly any field, long-term professional success depends less on the degree itself than it does on the individual’s intellect, ambition and social networks.
But when it comes to advanced degrees in anthropology, a strong argument can be made that the degree is one of the most cost-ineffective degrees out there. According to the National Science Foundation, a Ph.D. in anthropology takes more time than any other degree to achieve – with a median age at graduation of 36. Yet the number of jobs for those graduates is among the lowest, and the pay often less than a dental hygienist.
I don’t want to by cynical about my own profession, consider the years I spent working in it. But I do want to be honest. As a professor of anthropology for many years, it was my job to recruit students to our graduate programs – even though it was well known that there were no jobs for them when they finished, and with limited graduate assistantships available, that they could well graduate owing tens of thousands, and often more than $100,000 in student loans.
For every faculty job search I participated in, there were always from 70-five to over two hundred candidates for the position; and a candidate who does not land a tenure track job within two years of graduating, is unlikely to ever find one. Considering the job market for Ph.D.’s in anthropology peaks from September to January, and then trickles to a drizzle through the rest of the year, that leaves a candidate two annual shots for the coveted tenure-track line.
Miss that shot, and the potential jobs become temporary adjuncts, low-paid instructors who work from semester to semester with no job security and few benefits, or work in the private sector for which a Ph.D. is not necessary. Make no mistake about it, anthropologists understand that the job market for their students is not just competitive, it’s a high stakes gamble, but no university department can survive without its students.
But as the Department of labour Report suggests, most of the jobs for anthropologists will not be in the academy. Much of the applied job growth in anthropology will be for positions that call for generalized degrees in the social sciences – those that require fewer years of study than a doctorate in anthropology, and thus significantly increase life-time earning power.
Among the jobs the Report notes as significant to job growth for anthropologists, however, is in national security – specifically, “embedded anthropologists,” a highly controversial program that uses social scientists in war zones to help make warfare more culturally sensitive – and thus, effective. The ethical implications of the practice have led to wide condemnation in the discipline, and has been formally opposed by the American Anthropological Association.
For those who go that route are often disparaged if not shunned and blackballed by the profession. Indeed, a former student of mine who did become an embedded anthropologist and risked her life in Iraq, told me that had she been able to find a job in the United States with her M.A. degree, she would have done so.
As for jobs in physical anthropology, many argue that the biggest growth is in forensic anthropology, and indeed, more and more departments are turning toward such programs. But while the popularity of crime shows has made forensic anthropology one of the most sought after advanced degrees, the huge influx of graduate students is no match for the limited number of skeletons that need their attention.
True, warfare, human rights abuses and plane crashes require large teams of skilled forensic anthropologists, but there remain few jobs in comparison to the number of applicants for full time, long-term employment in the field.
Governor Scott’s concern that anthropology and the other social sciences are not preparing students for jobs is very much a valid concern, regardless of how worthwhile an anthropology education is, or the skills of anthropologists are to the workforce. And I would further argue that the economic value of any college education, when considered in terms of how much money is invested in it and how many years students devote to their studies, rather than to participating in the workforce – is increasingly questionable in our rapidly changing economy.
But a university education is prized by the elite class for good reason. It provides students with a breadth of knowledge, develops writing and reasoning skills, helps students to mature and to develop the lasting social relationships that will advance their social standing throughout their lives. Toward those ends, I can think of no better intellectual pursuit than anthropology for those students who, like Scott’s own daughter, are attracted to the field. But when it comes to “working as anthropologists,” investing in graduate educations and competing for jobs, the numbers don’t add up.
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