Anthropology students explore career transitions with participatory research

Daniel Ginsberg, PhD
Manager of Education, Research & Professional Development
American Anthropological Association

A bachelor’s degree in anthropology makes people nervous. They worry that it might be impractical, dooming graduates to flail around trying to find some use for what they’ve learned. We’ve all heard this story because anthropology is such a common target in media and policy discourse, but for me, it’s on my mind because at least once every few weeks, I get a phone call from someone asking for guidance. Sometimes it’s the parent of a current student or recent graduate trying to help their children transition out of college; sometimes it’s a department chair thinking about how to advocate in the dean’s office and recruit their next cohort of majors; and sometimes it’s the students themselves, realizing that none of their professors have talked about professional applications of what they’re learning, but convinced that their anthropology training will matter to an employer, if only they could figure out how. I offer moral support: yes, when your professor said that anthropology graduates could do anything, that’s true, but not terribly helpful. I share census data and talk about “transferable skills” and introduce the idea of informational interviewing. What I can’t do, though, is share stories.

This is unfortunate because story sharing is so central to anthropology. The whole ethnographic enterprise is an attempt to tell the stories of others as if they were our own, introducing the people we meet in the field and enabling our readers to see the world as they do. It’s an act of making the strange familiar, and its corollary is making the familiar strange: when we come home, we realize that our own ways of organizing our lives, which we had always taken for granted, are simply one option among many, and if one seems “natural” to me while another seems “foreign,” that’s just an accident of birth. And yet, according to anthropologist Hugh Gusterson, academic anthropologists are used to bringing this awareness to their field sites, but they systematically fail to apply it to the institutions of higher education where they spend their professional lives. “We are willing to be reflexive,” he writes, “but not this reflexive … we feel we could not make something this familiar strange.”

Since my job is to manage research and education programs for anthropologists, Gusterson’s critique reads to me like a provocation. How might we as an association study issues of concern to our members—how students come to understand the value of a bachelor’s degree, to name just one—using theories and methods that they respect and recognize from their own research practice? How might we use the findings of that research to support the variety of mentoring programs that we offer? Even better, is there a way to turn the research project itself into a new mentoring program?

This is the impulse that underlies our CCWT-funded project, Anthropology Undergraduates Prepare for Life after College. After all, who is better positioned to understand college students’ experiences than the students themselves, and who is better prepared to analyze and write about them than anthropology majors? By recruiting a cohort of undergraduate fellows to carry out the project, we are not only benefiting from their insight and offering them a chance to put into practice the research methods they have been studying. We also hope to use this participatory method to live out one of the core moral commitments of applied anthropology, that research should benefit those who participate in it. As Rosalind Evans writes (citing Susan Wright and Nici Nelson),

Participatory research methods offer an alternative approach aiming to engage infor­mants in determining research questions and attempting “to increase participants’ under­standing of their situation, and their ability to use this information” to create change for themselves.

Supervising the research on this project, I have begun to hear stories of how students explain their decision to study anthropology and plan their next steps. The fellows are working in a diverse range of colleges and universities, from a liberal arts college in Eastern Maryland to a religious institution in Illinois to the social science department of an engineering school in New Zealand, and the range of perspectives they encounter is similarly diverse. Some anthropology majors see themselves building skills that qualify them for jobs, while others feel a moral commitment to promote anthropological perspectives in a professional setting that they have not yet identified, and still others talk about falling into anthropology by chance. Soon we’ll start to talk about the range of advising and mentoring opportunities that departments might provide to connect students with professional role models and understand their options. And the fellows themselves, by participating in this project, are able to critically discuss and consider their own post-graduation plans. Naturally, they still feel somewhat nervous about the impending transition, but this research experience will help them to find a way forward, not only for themselves, but for the entire discipline.

Stay tuned for future publications our project Anthropology Undergraduates Prepare for Life after College. I’ll be presenting preliminary findings during my forthcoming visit to UW-Madison on September 30th (see the flyer below for details).