Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Worst College Major or A Life-style Choice

A recent article on Forbes Magazine's website is entitled "The 10 Worst College Majors". In the article Forbes found that the number 1 worst college major, from a career point of view, is anthropology and archaeology. Forbes reports

Unemployment rate for *recent grads: 10.5%
Median earnings for recent grads: $28,000

Unemployment rate for *experienced grads: 6.2%
Median earnings for experienced grads: $47,000

*Recent college graduates are ages 22 to 26, and experienced workers are ages 30 to 54

The question is often asked, "What can the profession do to demonstrate the relevance of Anthropology in today's marketplace?" This is a persistent question about a chronic problem facing the discipline and profession. Why is that so? Could it be that we are asking the wrong question or maybe starting from the wrong perspective?

The answer seems to me to be that the profession must become more open minded about what its product is and how it can be used. Who and what is an anthropologist? And we need to be realistic about what anthropology can and can not do. And then, we must address the basic question: Who and where are our customers/clients?

We need to start by realizing that anthropology offers a service product and that services require a Push marketing Strategy. That is, the profession must start first by identifying the market rather than focusing solely its product. Part of that process would be to stop asking questions such as "What can we do to demonstrate the relevance of Anthropology in today's marketplace?" and instead ask "What can we do to understand the relevance of Anthropology in today's marketplace?" The underlying reality is "Who needs anthropology or archaeology?"

At one time it was an avocation which evolved into an occupation and a career in the academy and in museums. There was a need to train people to fill those spots. Those days are over.

To begin with we should recognize that today, Anthropology has become a life style choice and not just a career choice. If Anthropology is to continue to be a career choice, we need to know as a profession, and at the anthropology departmental level where the real decisions are being made, the answers to the following questions: 1. How does today's service market work? 2. Where are the opportunities to be found for the skills and special knowledge that anthropology offers? 3. Who is our competition and where does our competition lies? And most of all, 4. What competitive advantage do we offer our students and society at each level in the training of students? That is, Is it only at the PhD level, or does this competitive advantage also exist at the BA/BS and MA/MS levels?

Applied anthropology is a very promising and potential area for graduates with an anthropology major. Yet we have not effectively exploited it.

Within anthropology, we talk only about the ideal research/academic career as the legitimate post graduation career path. Today that path is expensive for the individual. It is expensive both in terms of the financial costs of earning a PhD (required for an academic career) and the tremendous loss of potential opportunity and income deferred to carry out the PhD educational program. Yet the rewards are certainly not worth the effort when measured in the traditional standards that Forbes is employing. They may however be very value on a personal level. That is, a poor career choice but a desirable or acceptable life style choice.

For the profession and its organizations, there is a real need to market anthropology as a realistic option for solving the problems facing potential employers and their clients/customers We need to reach out to the non-academic communities, find out what training students require to fit into real areas of professional service, and adapt our curriculum to meet these needs. Here medical and educational anthropology might serve as models for such efforts. Learning the language of these professions and using it, instead of speaking in "academese" and expecting the others to understand us, would also help.

This may sound like a prescription for vocational training and not for serious liberal arts and scientific preparation. I would argue that this is not the case. It is less about changing the curriculum to dumb down the skills and knowledge and more about changing the questions and perspectives in how those skills and knowledge are to be applied in today's world. Anthropology is the only social science with a holistic perspective focused on the human species, its condition, and it role in the world. No other discipline has this, though many are beginning to realize its importance in today's global community.

After more than a half century as an applied anthropologist, it strikes me as unfathomable why the profession still has not made the corporate decision to become proactive in promoting our science and our students in the "real" world. It certainly is not for lack of effort. Over the years many of us, individuals trained in anthropology, have found and create niches for ourselves outside of the academy. Yet, when we have attempted to share our experience with our academic colleagues, we have not been recognized or accepted as 'real" anthropologists.

Further, there seems to be a cultural bias within anthropology toward the prestige of the PhD academic career, which combines with a prejudice against those anthropology students who have not sought and/or not obtained the PhD degree and employment in the academy. The latter are treated as being somehow incomplete. Maybe it is because the latter lack of traditional ritual of the "vision quest" or field experience which is part of the PhD rite of passage. Maybe it is that such preparation is considered the critical distinction between an Anthropologist and other students who happened to major in anthropology. Maybe this is why they are considered incomplete and therefore unqualified be be called "anthropologist."

It is true, especially in today's higher education economy, that undergraduates contribute significantly to the financing of departmental operations at all levels. Right now 90+% of those who take anthropology courses support the department and thereby enabling the 10 % who want go on for a PhD, to be taught and supported. For most of those undergraduates, anthropology is a life style choice and never a career one.

Unlike the 1960s and early 1970s, today's supply of PhDs far exceeds the demand. Of those who earn their PhD, only an estimated 10% will find a full time position upon completing their degree in the traditional academic or museum departments. Given these odds, is there really any question why Forbes comes up with its conclusion? We face a supple and demand problem.

Unless the profession is prepared to actively create demand and promote the discipline and its product in the wider community, "anthropology," as an academic discipline, will remain more of a live style choice than a career choice for most undergraduate and graduate students it recruits at the university level.


Eric Jones said...

Excellent post. While contemporary anthropologists do work in a broad range of fields outside of anthropology, the total amount is terribly insufficient to do the research and/or remedy human social problems for which they are so well trained for. This under representation creates a serious dilemma, especially in my subfield, environmental anthropology. By only helping to explain small parts of often large and complex problems our work is easily taken out of context, sometimes, perhaps more often than not, exasperating misunderstanding. To change this anthropology needs to be at the helm of large, long-term explanatory research studies, not bit players brought in late in after studies have already been underway. Oftentimes after sociocultural factors become obvious obstacles to problem solving the anthropologist is approached for help. My advice, don't do it, too often it's a set up and you will find yourself in the middle of a hornet's nest. It will be hard to say no when your heart longs to help some disenfranchised group in need, but know there is most likely a place where you can do greater good in a more effective way...though you may have to do it probono unless you can disguise your background and dip into disciplines that are properly funded.

jahy said...

i have in Anthropology, i don't know my future still what it will be, but I ask myself always, was major in Anthropology the biggest mistake i ever made.

Anonymous said...

Biological Anthropology is the only discipline I found useful in becoming a primatologist. As an undergrad there are limited majors to choose from if you hope to study primates. Having a bachelors degree in Anthropology allowed me to fulfill my childhood dream of studying monkeys in Africa and I do not regret it for one second. I learned more in one year abroad than I have in 15 years at home. That opportunity was only available to me because of my education and enthusiasm for that type of lifestyle (as an Anthropologist/researcher). Living a life that makes you happy will make you rich in spirit and can outweigh the conventional riches in our society if you're a particular kind of person. For some, Anthropology is still the perfect major.

Anonymous said...

To anomymous: the key question is, WHY study monkeys in Africa? Studying monkeys becomes an end in itself in primatology. It is supposed to teach us about "man's place in nature" or some other such allegedly "holistic" nonsense. There is a reason why only anthropologists study wild monkeys -- it's because it's almost impossible to ANSWER a question that way. Go ahead and follow your childhood dreams of watching animals in exotic places -- just know that you are neither doing science nor doing anything useful to mankind. And if you ever end up having a family to support, God help you.