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: http://savageminds.org/2012/09/08/adjuncts-anthropology-what-now/ 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.
The Chinese University of Hong Kong