Applying to Grad School

Over the years, a number of students have asked for advice about applying to graduate school -- if they should apply, and how to actually apply if they decide to. This page is my attempt to share my answers with a larger audience and is written in a tone similar to what I would use with students who come to my office hours. I recommend you take everything with a grain of salt. Other people certainly have different ideas, and I recommend anyone considering graduate school explore the internet for other pages like this. My doctoral advisor, Bill Kelly, has a wonderful page with great advice.

Because I am trained as an anthropologist, I have written this advice imagining specifically for students who ask about that field, but please feel free to substitute in another discipline. Most of this advice is relevant across disciplines.

How to Approach Graduate School
The first thing to understand when considering graduate school is that it is radically different from undergraduate education. A good number of students in the US go to college because it seems like the thing to do. Maybe their parents or siblings went to college, maybe it’s what they think their community expects of them. Some students surely have an end-goal in mind when they begin college but, in general, undergraduate education in the United States is understood to be more of a cluster of experiences. Joining a club or team, making life-long friends, or generally figuring out who you really are (whatever that means) are elements integral to the undergraduate experience, especially in popular culture representations of college.

Especially for current or recent undergraduate students considering graduate school, it’s vitally important to realize that graduate school is not at all the same set of experiences. Matriculating in a graduate program is akin to a long-term commitment to a particular field. Graduate training takes a long time (especially in anthropology) and is designed to turn you into a professional. It is professional school for people who already know they want to become a professional in a particular field. Graduate training in anthropology is designed to turn you into a professional anthropologist, whether you will teach at the college level, work as a consultant, or in public or applied anthropology. The end-goal and focus is much more clear, even if job options are relatively diverse.

As you think about applying, the first question you should ask yourself is: Do I want to become a professional anthropologist? If your answer is to shrug and say, “Sure, that sounds nice,” you probably haven’t done enough homework. You need to figure out exactly what professional anthropologists do on a regular basis. If you were an anthropology major or minor, you might think you have some sense of it, but even that is limited. For instance, most professors do only about a third of their work in classrooms. I teach, sure, and I enjoy it very much, but my career is shaped around imaging research questions, designing projects, conducting research, reading literature, maintaining research language skills, formulating books and articles, going to conferences, giving presentations, reviewing other people’s work, advising graduate students, advising undergraduate students, and helping with bureaucratic responsibilities through committee work. Therefore if you are thinking seriously about becoming an anthropologist, it is in your best interest to talk to some people who already are anthropologists about what they do on a regular basis. Don’t ask them what you should do and don’t even ask for advice (at least not at the beginning). Literally and simply ask them to describe their typical day or typical week. Ask a few people. Think seriously if you could imagine living a life similar to what they’re describing. By asking people about their daily lives, you are effectively (but not obnoxiously) doing some pseudo-fieldwork with people to get a sense of their daily lives. (In addition to the influence of ethnographic methods, I am also building here on ideas in Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling Toward Happiness.) Before you apply to graduate school, you need to work hard to figure out what anthropologists do. Not, please notice, what anthropologists can do, but what anthropologists actually do on a regular basis.

With that knowledge, with some detailed sense of daily life for anthropologists, you should move on to figuring out what it’s like to be in graduate school. This is relatively easy, too, especially if you have people with whom you can talk. As I suggest above with professional anthropologists (professors or otherwise), to figure out what it’s like to be in graduate school you should talk with people who are currently graduate students. Again, don’t ask them to imagine what it would be like for you, or to give you advice. That’s not your goal. Your goal should be to ask them what it’s like for them. Humans tend to be much more accurate, I think, when they’re describing their own experiences, especially experiences they are in the middle of. Don’t ask them to speculate about what it would be like for you. I’m suggesting that you find someone who is currently in graduate school -- preferably anthropology, and preferably the same sub-field -- and ask them what their typical day, week, semester is like. Think of good interview questions that are about them, not you and what you should do. What has been hard about grad school? What’s fun? Why did they decide to go to grad school and are they accomplishing that? What’s the defining element of grad school for them? What’s different about college and grad school? If you’re wanting to be an anthropologist, you should be able to think of good interview questions.

The information you gather from conversations with professional anthropologists and current graduate students should give you a more detailed sense of what you’re signing up for. This is the first step of the homework you need to do before you apply. I hope it is already clear, but I think it’s a mistake to apply to graduate school casually. Even in the best, most supportive programs, graduate school is a long process. Starting a program with unclear goals, a diffuse sense of what to expect in grad school, and little idea about the daily realities of being a professional anthropologist is a recipe for unhappiness. Take the time to know what you want and what you’re getting into.

MA vs. PhD
One of the most common questions students ask is: Should I apply to MA programs or for a PhD? Although an MA (master’s) and PhD (doctorate) in anthropology might seem like very similar things, they are actually radically different tracks. Let me emphasize here that I am not speaking of any particular program, but of American programs in general.

Master’s Degrees
An MA in anthropology is good for things that require, or are assisted by, having an MA in anthropology. With apologies for the tautology, what this means is that I recommend students get an MA in anthropology when they already have a very clear sense of what they want to do with it. For instance, maybe you want to become a professional archaeologist and the job you want requires at least a master’s degree. Then, by all means, get a master’s. Maybe you are working in consulting and would get a pay bump with another degree, and anthropological methodologies will help you sell the newest mousetrap. Absolutely, a master’s could be perfect. Or maybe you are working at a non-profit and know that your career advancement requires a post-graduate degree. Perfect.

It is not a good idea to think of a master’s degree as extended undergrad. Some undergraduate students who apply to master’s programs do so because they’re not quite sure what they want to do. Although master’s education can be a fine method for figuring it out, I want to emphasize that it’s also incredibly expensive. With some exceptions, most master’s programs do not provide financial aid, meaning that a one or two year program can set a student back tens of thousands of dollars. That’s fine if, as I say above, you’re spending that money with a real sense of what your newly expensive degree will help you get or do. To be sure the time and money is worth it, you need to do more homework about the job or position you want to get after you earn the master’s. Be very sure before you start that spending time and money to get this degree will help you get what you want when it’s finished.

In my experience, it is not necessary for students applying to PhD programs to have a master’s first from another institution. I want to emphasize this because it’s a logical, but mistaken, belief that I’ve heard from a number of undergraduate students. The thinking goes: “well, if eventually I want a PhD in anthropology, I should apply for the master’s program first.” That’s not correct. If you want a PhD (because, having done your homework, you know what that will let you do / be), then you should apply to PhD programs. If you do apply to a PhD program and the admissions committee doesn’t feel you are a strong candidate, they might offer you admission instead to a master’s program. Depending on the school this can be a good idea, but you need to figure out if it is a “terminal” master’s -- meaning the department won’t reconsider your application to the PhD program after you’ve finished the master’s. If it is, you should consider the literal costs (time and money) with the possible benefits to matriculating. Do not, though, think that every master’s program automatically makes it easier for you to enter a PhD program. If you know you want a PhD in anthropology, I recommend applying to PhD programs.

Here is an interesting recent article about the worth and strength of terminal MAs. Please note that if you want to teach in Higher Ed, a master’s degree will likely qualify you only for two-year college positions, in community colleges. They can certainly be wonderful jobs and places to learn, but that’s another important thing to think about before you start grad school.

Doctoral Degrees
Most people who enter doctoral programs in anthropology in the United States probably want to teach at the college level. Not everyone, surely, but my sense is that most people who start PhDs would like to become professors. Not everyone actually ends up becoming a professor, partially because of the conditions of the job market and partially because people can change their minds, or realize they don’t like academia, in the middle of graduate school. Another way to say this is: there are very few jobs in the United States that require a PhD in anthropology that are not college-level teaching. Sure, you can get a PhD and then teach at a high school, or run a non-profit, or become an academic administrator. Although skills you honed in graduate school might help you in either of those jobs, the jobs themselves didn’t require the PhD.

This is important because it suggests that you should only apply for a PhD program if you think you might like to be a professor of anthropology. But please note that getting a PhD in anthropology isn’t a guarantee that you will become a professor. There are many people with PhDs who are unable to find jobs, or are unable to find jobs that pay them livable salaries. Before you consider applying to graduate school, you need to review all the internet coverage of the job market in higher education in the US (and other places). Look at some of the things I found by googling “job market anthropology”:

Boston University’s Department of Anthropology’s excellent and detailed description of possible trajectories of anthropology undergraduate majors
The American Anthropological Association’s database of potential tracks for anthropologists
A HuffPo story that will lead you down other internet rabbit holes
Some predictions that there will be more jobs, especially non-teaching jobs, in anthropology
Sarah Kendzior’s Al Jazeera piece that lays out many structural problems with higher ed and implications for recent PhDs
Idealist’s list of good and bad reasons to go to grad school
An extreme, and slightly bitter, take on Humanities PhD programs. I am one of the lucky ones and most of these assertions don’t match my experiences, but the Harold Bloom joke made me laugh out loud.
Marc Bousquet’s “The Waste Product of Graduate Education” via Project Must.

The point here is that even if you work hard to get into graduate school, manage to get in, do all the years of work required to get a PhD, there is still no guarantee that you will get a job as a professor, let alone get a job as a professor in a place you like with nice colleagues. It’s certainly not impossible, but I think it’s fair to say that the trajectory I’ve experienced is less common. (By that I mean, being offered well-paying, tenure-track jobs.) Because entering a doctoral program is a commitment to professionalization, even before you decide to apply to graduate school you need to spend time thinking about where that professionalization could lead. Educate yourself about likelihoods, and career options for people who hold a PhD but don’t teach in higher education.

Deciding on a Project
With all that in mind, if you would like to apply to graduate school, the first step is understanding the process to apply to MA programs and PhD programs are likely different. To apply to an MA program, you need to have some sense of a possible MA thesis project, but generally you want to explain in your application why you are applying to the program. To apply to a PhD program, you absolutely need to have a viable and interesting dissertation project. Students are admitted into doctoral programs based on their experiences, recommendation letters, previous coursework, test scores, but also the strength and fit of their proposed project. All the later steps -- deciding where to apply, etc. -- are dependent on the specifics of the project you’re proposing, so you need to have a strong sense of that early in the process. You also need to realize that, if you are accepted into a program based on this project, you are going to be working around those themes and questions for many years. Sure, you could change your project. Lots of people do (myself very much included). But it gets harder and harder to change. When you are deciding what to propose as a project, make sure to pick topics that you think you will truly be interested in for at least a decade. I’m not kidding.

Although a solid and interesting dissertation project is important for graduate school admissions, once you matriculate into a program there is more flexibility. I’ll talk about my own experiences to demonstrate this point. During my first year in graduate school, I got really interested in how the birth control pill was being marketed in Japan. The pill was just legalized in 1999, and I started graduate school in 2001, so the pill was very new and very unpopular. I was interested in marketing and anthropology of marketing, and also how marketers and anthropologists might think of culture in different ways. I was also interested in gender, family, and contemporary Japan, and I had a background in those fields. So I worked on that project for a few years until suddenly, sitting in my apartment in Tokyo during a year of Japanese language study and preliminary fieldwork, I realized this project was almost literally impossible. I had been doing lots of interviews with marketers, nurses, and doctors, but the fact remained that less than 5% of Japanese women used the pill. I suppose I could have written a dissertation locating myself in marketing boardrooms, but that wasn’t what I wanted. So I changed my project, and ended up writing a dissertation about divorce experiences in contemporary Japan. On the surface, this might seem utterly different, but it’s not. Divorce is just as much about gender and family -- even more so, actually, because compared to the 5% of women using the pill the 30%+ percent of marriages ending in divorce was a veritable waterfall. I suddenly had lots of people to talk to.

Changing my topic was a great idea for me and it worked well. However please notice that this isn’t a huge shift -- I moved away from medicine and closer to law, but otherwise I was still exploring gender and family in contemporary Japan. It would have been much harder if I wanted to change the project more radically, let alone change my region. That’s because I already had finished my coursework and chosen a dissertation committee. I was being supervised a fantastic anthropologist of Japan (Bill Kelly) and it would have been really difficult to change advisors. So once you matriculate at graduate school you absolute can change the specifics of your dissertation project, but you also need to be well aware of the structural limitations on how much you should change. Getting a new advisor isn’t impossible, but it’s less than ideal. That said, if you have a bad relationship with your advisor, or if she doesn’t get tenure, you might have to make the effort to find a new one. To some degree, thinking hard about any possible topic before you apply is an effective way to limit the chance you’d have to radically change your topic, and therefore advisor or committee.

Picking a Program
Once you have a firm sense of your project, you should start exploring departments to see where you might find the best fit. “Fit” sounds like it could be a nasty euphemism, but it’s actually really true. Students are admitted into graduate programs because of fit -- does the student’s research interests fit with the specialties in the department? You need to do everything you can to figure out if you are a good fit for a particular department. Part of fit is having multiple faculty within a given department who share research interests with you. Another part of fit is making sure your interests overlap with departmental resources. For instance, if you are a primatologist you want to make sure you apply to programs with biological or physical anthropology fields. If you want to study medical anthropology, you need to make sure you’re applying to programs with medical anthropologists on the faculty. So in this way, it’s important to think through the fit of a program generally.

Picking an Advisor or Committee
While it’s important for you to fit in a doctoral program, the most important relationship is with your advisor or dissertation committee members. Most of the time, I think it’s still quite standard for each student to have a particular relationship with his / her advisor. Although we’re all advised and taught by a committee, i.e. a small group of people, the most important relationship is often with your advisor. Your advisor will be the person who is asked to do the most for you, on whom you’ll rely for advice but also all sorts of other relatively mundane but vitally important tasks, like writing letters, reading many drafts of your work, and supporting you in general.

To understand the importance of fit, you should think about graduate school as a set of relationships that will continue for more than fifteen years. Even if moving through graduate school only takes a few years -- and I’m sure the average time for a PhD in anthropology is over six years -- you will still need help from your dissertation advisor and committee members. They will need to write you many letters of support and although those letters could certainly come from someone else, most typically they come from your advisor. For instance, when I applied for a fellowship in 2012 (to be used in 2013-4), which was eleven years after I started grad school and four years after I finished my PhD, I was still required to include a letter from my dissertation advisor. Your advisor is the person who will be asked speak for you and about your project, hopefully in positive and coherent ways, for many years. For all these reasons you should spend serious time and energy thinking about who you would like to begin such a relationship with.

Here are my thoughts about picking an advisor, keeping in mind that almost all choices are always already constrained in ways that I can’t anticipate:

You want someone with whom you can have a long-term, productive working relationship. You absolutely want to work with someone with whom you feel comfortable and supported, but I’m of the mind that you still want to be able to have your own intellectual space. For instance if you are applying to work on Topic X, you might think that seeking out a famous professor who works on Topic X might lead to the best advising. It absolutely might. But it’s also important, at least in anthropology, to give yourself space to develop your own research. If you work with a professor who is famous for her work on a particular topic, it might not be as easy for you to find space to develop your own work. Will your work always seem derivative of your advisor’s, no matter if it actually is or not? In my opinion, it’s a good idea to find an advisor with whom you have a productive overlap, meaning they can helpfully advise you about certain aspects of your project but you two do not share all research interests.

I’m sure that this view isn’t held by everyone, but in general I think the best advisors are friendly but not your friend. Real friendships, as you know, are quite reciprocal, and I don’t think such reciprocity is right in advisor / advisee relationships. Simply put, those relationships aren’t reciprocal, and an advisor should never ask as much from their advisees as vice versa. Real friends ask quite a lot of each other, and I would never rely on my advisees for support in the way that rely on my friends. But I know many people disagree with me about this, and you should make up your own mind.

No matter what, you want an advisor with whom you always feel comfortable. I’m sorry to have to type this out, but you don’t want to work with anyone who comes on to you or makes you feel uncomfortable. I would like to think that such dynamics are less common than they used to be, but I have no way of knowing.

You might think hard about having a junior faculty member (meaning an “assistant professor,” someone without tenure) as your advisor. Although younger professors can be great, they can also be denied tenure, which means you’d lose your advisor. Or they can get tenure, but be working so hard toward that goal that they have less time for you and your advising needs. Alternatively, older or tenured professors might be so busy with their own work (either research or service work) that they are less accessible to you. Extremely famous advisors might fall into this pattern, too, being busy with their own work to such a degree that they’re not available to students. Either way, there can be drawbacks and benefits, some of which are structural and some of which are about the particular personalities involved. Take time to think all this through before you sign up for the decades-long relationship that comes out of graduate school.

In general, there are no hard and fast universal rules, but you need to explore the options that are available to you with the knowledge that advisor / advisee relationships are long term and that personalities matter.

Applying to a PhD Program from Undergrad
Compared to even when I was applying to graduate school, I think it has gotten markedly harder to get into PhD program, especially for students who are applying directly from undergrad programs (i.e. students who want to start a grad program the same year they finish undergrad). I think there has long been a preference in anthropology to admit applicants who are a bit further away from undergraduate experience. This preference represents a general belief that slightly older students might be more focused, have a stronger background in their particular field (either topically or regionally), and be better prepared for the years of work that it takes to complete graduate school. This preference, though, can be very hard for some undergraduate students to understand, and I know many truly strong undergraduates who have little luck getting into grad programs straight from undergrad. In general, my advice is that undergraduate students who want to go into a PhD program should spend a couple years doing some work in the field before applying. This means they could try to live and work in their research country (which helps improve language skills and builds networks of connections), or work within their topical field (such as within a medical program, say, if they’re interested in medical anthropology), or take a post-bac fellowship like a Fulbright. Work that improves language skills or engages a student’s thematic interests should strengthen their application to a PhD program.

Alternatively, another possible route is through an MA program. As I mention above, MA programs can be a great way to figure out if you want to go on to more schooling but they can also be quite expensive. Although some programs offer MAs with funding, most do not, which means the student is responsible for the high cost.

There’s a lot to think about but I think it’s helpful to start thinking about your end goal. What is it you want to do and what do you need to get there?