World Anthropology and the State of Employment: Should We Stop Giving Ph.D.s?

September 14, 2012

When students come and talk to me these days about getting a Ph.D. from my Department at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and making a future career in anthropology, I generally tell them not to—“Do something sensible with your life instead!” This is because the academic job market for anthropologists worldwide seems so dismal. It seems unconscionable to tell someone to get a Ph.D. in anthropology when the chances that they will become an adjunct making less than enough to live on seem extremely high. Of course there are the few exceptions, who through being at the right place at the right time manage to find tenure-track jobs, but these are few and far between. By and large, a Ph.D. in anthropology makes people unemployable in career-track anthropology teaching jobs, so don’t do it! That’s what I tell my students.

This situation seems worse in the United States, with its educational contractions of late, and jobs apparently are somewhat more available for recent Ph.Ds in societies such as China and Brazil. But by and large, this bleak situation seems true worldwide—there are too many Ph.D.s in anthropology and not enough jobs. Universities worldwide produce these Ph.D.s because having a Ph.D. program provides status, as well as, in many universities, low-paid tutors and other labor; but given the fact that there are so few jobs to be had, this is irresponsible.

This situation has been widely trumpeted throughout the humanities and social sciences, and the difficulties of finding anthropological jobs and the prevalence of adjuncts are discussed in anthropological websites across the internet. Savage Minds has offered a particularly apt post: But these discussions are primarily American in focus. The situation is not just American—again, it is worldwide.

In all the handwringing I’ve seen over this issue, one call not often made is this: anthropology departments worldwide should perhaps practice voluntary abstinence. Perhaps we should ask every degree-granting anthropology department to stop granting Ph.D. degrees for five years, or at least to diminish their total number of Ph.D. students in anthropology by 80 percent. Think of how much personal misery would be prevented if the thousands of future potential anthropology Ph.D.s, who in the future would only languish bitterly on the margins of academe, might instead follow a different path in life, one in which they could find employment.

Of course, this option might cause anthropology to enter a downward spiral. With fewer Ph.D. students to be taught, fewer professors would be deemed necessary; departments might shrink, and the discipline might eventually vanish. What might be a highly responsible policy vis-a-vis jobless future students might be a highly irresponsible policy vis-a-vis the future of anthropology as a discipline. So what it is the solution? For the sake of our own disciplinary survival should we simply keep churning out Ph.D students who will probably never find academic jobs? Shall we continue wasting, professionally, if not intellectually, what may be the best years of their lives?

A solution is clear, if only it could work. Those with Ph.D.s in anthropology may have much to offer NGOs, secondary schools, and all those corporations trying to shape the world cross-culturally, from Apple to Google to Microsoft to Nokia. Perhaps we need to focus our training much more on practicality: on making a living through anthropology in the world beyond the academy. But if anthropological institutions worldwide were to do this, would the jobs come? I suspect they will—and I suspect that this move might help to create a discipline not apart from the world, but in the very thick of the world, for better or for worse.

Gordon Mathews
The Chinese University of Hong Kong

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Laura hicks  |  September 28, 2012 at 5:40 pm

    What would you suggest a student should get a degree in if she wanted to work with NGO’s and corporations shaping the world cross-culturally? What practicalities of anthropology would you suggest she should study and focus on to make it in that world?

  • 2. Graeme MacRae  |  August 13, 2013 at 8:22 pm

    Thanks for this Gordon (sorry its taken me a while to get to it).
    A lot of us have these very mixed feelings about en/discouraging keen students to/from doing PhDs. And I agree there are plenty of ways, places and opportunities for practising anthropology outside academia – in fact that is where the majority of people trained as anthropologists already work. So yes again – I think we should be trying to develop those practical applications a bit more directly/explicitly in our postgrad training programmes. Anthropologists, and even anthropology can survive and thrive outside the academy – and it will need to as the academic jobs are unlikely to be there in the foreseeable future
    But – the problem I see is not so much survival in the short term, but reproduction of our discipline in the longer term. Postgrad programmes (including PhDs) are the main way we pass our discipline on to the next generation, and universities are where they have happened for over a century. But I see no evidence that we can rely on our academic institutions to look after our discipline – at least not in my part of the world. Nor can I see any other natural home for this training process to shift to.
    I don’t have too many answers for this one, except the one you already mention – that the centre of gravity of anthropology will inevitably shift, as it always has, to where the money is – or more specifically, where there are growing middle classes wanting eduction and governments able to provide it – which for the next century or so looks like China, India, Brazil, maybe Indonesia.


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