Yahoo! Education (an appropriate name, I'd say) has today published an article on the top 5 most unwanted, unhelpful degrees a person could possibly waste their time earning. Some usual suspects make the list, like Philosophy and Religion, while more unexpected ones like Architecture (you should do an MBA instead, apparently, which doesn't bode well for our buildings) and Information Systems also appear. Perhaps not unsurprisingly is that Anthropology and Archaeology make the list at #3, followed by Area Ethnic or Civilization Studies, which I can't help but feel are also close enough to anthropology for this to be a double sting.

According to Vicki Lynn, senior vice president of Universum, a global talent recruiting company that works with many Fortune 500 companies, bachelors degrees in anthropology and area studies are useless for finding a job. In other words, they are worthless. As academic anthropologists, we are producing class after class of unwanted, unskilled graduates.

Unwanted Degree #3 - Anthropology or Archeology

Interesting? Yes. Important? Definitely. Marketable? Not so much... Lynn says a bachelor's degree in either anthropology or archeology is "totally limiting. Except for on a faculty or doing tours to the Parthenon, I don't know what you would actually do with this [degree]. Maybe there's some career in excavating or some other specialty, but I would assume the demand for these degrees is really small and shrinking." Again, numbers from the "Hard Times" report seem to back that, with recent grads in these areas logging a 10.5 percent unemployment rate.

Unwanted Degree #4 - Area Ethnic or Civilization Studies

Quick, what exactly does a bachelor's degree in area ethnic or civilization studies help you pursue? Not sure? Chances are neither are most employers, says Lynn, and that could be a problem for landing a job. "Some degrees have really bizarre names, and if you have one of those and you have to try to explain it to the recruiter or an employer, it's not helping you, so I would avoid them. These two fall into that category," she says. Unfortunately, the data from the "Hard Times" report backed Lynn up, noting that recent grads in this field yielded a 10.1 percent unemployment rate.

It's hard to argue with unemployment figures. Yet it is not difficult to see that a sheer ignorance of what key skills these degrees impart is rampant outside of our misunderstood discipline. This goes back to my argument in my previous post that Anthropology has a huge PR problem. It is also reminiscent of the time Gov. Rick Scott of Florida tried to eradicate anthropology from his state because of its inherent uselessness. A comprehensive record of this affair can be found at Neuroanthropology. Perhaps Vicki Lynn missed what anthropologists had to say in response to Gov. Scott's categorization of anthropology as a non-scientific, useless degree with no career prospects.

Kristina Killgrove, bioarcheaologist at the University of West Florida, responded to Gov. Scott in her blog post "Why is Anthropology Needed?", which I find has one of the best responses to the idea that graduates in anthropology have few skills to offer employees in today's marketplace (emphasis added):

First and foremost, the focus of anthropology is on understanding yourself in relation to others. This may sound pretty simple, but it involves critically thinking about why you do what you do, why others do what they do, and what factors affect these actions: e.g., religion, economy, biology, politics, family structure, gender, ethnicity, etc. While we tend to deal with individuals in our line of work, we're also interested in the community - the commonalities in experience at various scales.

That's all well and good, you might say, but what skills do students learn in an anthropology course? Don't they just learn how to throw around adjectivized names like Foucauldian and Marxist? I tell my students - and then demonstrate as best as possible throughout the semester - that anthropologists do learn several key skills:

-   We learn clear, precise record-keeping skills and have to be attentive to detail. You have to observe what people say (and what they don't say), what they do (and what they don't do), what their bones or bodies tell you.
-   Anthropologists also learn analytical reading and critical thinking skills: how to read between the lines of a text, to question an author's or speaker's biases and the cultural context in which their ideas were formed. Thinking critically means questioning one's own biases in addition to those of others.
-   We also learn how to deal with unfamiliar social situations - we learn new languages and new rules for communication with people from all over the world, and we do this through participation in addition to observation so that we can understand where someone else is coming from.

Through these approaches, anthropologists want to understand the amazing variation in humankind - past and present - as well as the social and cultural context in which that variation occurred or is occurring. I think this is a powerful way to approach the world, but students aren't always convinced. How can anthropology help in the job search?, they ask.

The majority of my undergraduate students, particularly in the large lecture courses, will go into one of three main occupational spheres after graduation: health and medicine (doctors, nurses, genetics research, allied health fields, etc.), business and economics, and teaching (from preschool to PhDs). Anthropology is useful to all of these fields:

-   Medicine - The health professions aren't just about biology or chemistry or pharmacology. For example, is your African-American patient more likely to suffer hypertension because of his genetics or because of his diet? Anthropologists have tackled questions like these, with our dual emphases on biology and culture.
-   Business - You can crunch numbers in econ classes, but it only helps you predict what will happen under certain economic conditions. It is equally important to understand how individuals and cultures deal with money, for example, or how they react to global developments that have lasting effects on the way they see the world and act within it. Future business people can learn about the global economy and people's place within it through anthropology.
-   Teaching - This field isn't just about imparting facts for students to learn. A good teacher is attuned to a classroom that has seen many changes over the last few decades. My parents' generation was in high school when integration happened - and teachers are even today dealing with a pedagogical legacy that excludes certain ethnic or racial groups or is prejudiced against them. Today's teachers think long and hard about how to convey information in the best possible way, how to use multimedia, how to engage students who take different approaches to learning, how to remedy old curricula that focus largely on DWMs - dead white males. Future teachers can also benefit from understanding the main tenets of anthropology in designing lessons, engaging in instruction, and communicating with students and their parents.

In short, anthropology is useful for anyone whose future job will require them to develop the interpersonal skills to work with the public. And that includes just about every college graduate today.

I'd also go one step beyond saying that anthropology is imperative for college grads to work in a globalized market: anthropology needs to be brought into high schools. Many high schools around the country teach courses in psychology and sociology. Both of these are excellent options, but why not anthropology as well? The analytical and critical thinking skills we teach our students are fundamental to future jobs in many different fields, but it's our bio-cultural focus, our understanding of how we as living beings interact with our natural and cultural world, that sets us apart from psych and soc. And I think that's well worth teaching our high schoolers.

Let me close with a quotation from one of my favorite authors (and one-time anthropology student), Kurt Vonnegut, whose words - from an interview in 1973 - still ring true in our poor education of youth in anthropology:

"I didn't learn until I was in college about all the other cultures, and I should have learned that in the first grade. A first grader should understand that his or her culture isn't a rational invention; that there are thousands of other cultures and they all work pretty well; that all cultures function on faith rather than truth; that there are lots of alternatives to our own society. Cultural relativity is defensible and attractive. It's also a source of hope. It means we don't have to continue this way if we don't like it."

In my previous blog post, I concluded that anthropology's problem is at least two-fold: how we engage with each other and how we present ourselves to the rest of the world. Clearly we are failing at the latter. But as Killgrove argues,

Part of that is our fault [and] we need to figure out ways to make anthropology more relevant. We don't have to continue this way if we don't like it.

It is easy to dismiss assessments like this of anthropology as "ignorant"; however, we are responsible for the level of public ignorance about anthropology and its usefulness in the world.

On another level, this article reveals serious defects in the hiring practices of the current employment market, where prospective employees are expected to be trained to the exact parameters of a job description by the completion of a bachelor's degree, rather than being hired to do a job based on their competence, critical thinking skills, capability of learning on the job and the facility of working with people in multicultural settings, all gleaned from a culturally aware education. Of course anthropologists have less to offer a job market that does not serve, at its very foundations, the needs of clients and customers as people beyond numbers on a spreadsheet.

Check out this presentation for more information about what actual anthropologists do. Hint: it's not about the Parthenon.

In case you missed it:

More open thoughts on anthropology and academia
What matters and what doesn't: open thoughts on academia

See also:

Anthropology is the worst college major for being a corporate tool, best major to change your life (Living Anthropologically)

(12/16/12) Anthropology is useless? Not to my students (Digs & Docs):

Returning to the question of "What's the value of an anthropology major?", I think hope it's self-evident. You leave a good anthro program as a better writer, a more critical thinker, someone who can appreciate not just the fact of human diversity, but why it's so persistent and important. You've learned how to study up on a topic you're not familiar with, analyze the basic assumptions and implications of the topic's party-line thinkers, and how to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses. You've learned to distrust simple, one-size-fits-all explanations. And you've gained experience in defining important questions, collecting and analyzing data, and writing up conclusions that are both conscious of your bias and faithful to your observations.


Jason Antrosio said...

Hi Fran (if I may), great post and thank you for the link. Important points here. It does seem this article was rather unusually silly (Yahoo! Education, as you note), even for its genre. My personal feelings about anthropology aside, the idea that students should avoid architecture but get a business degree instead seems just silly. First, by getting a business degree, you'll be plunging in with many, many others, rather than taking the opportunity to stand out with a more unique passion. Second, there is no reason most undergraduate institutions won't let you combine the two, as either a double major or a major-minor. The same could be said of each of these so-called recommendations. For example, at my college we have a criminal justice minor that could be combined with a sociology or (gasp!) anthropology major, and similarly with education, or area studies. I'm going to sound like an elitist snob, but frankly the author-consultant does not have enough elite cultural capital to navigate a world in which you need not an entry-level job but preparation for the possibility of several careers.

Fran Barone said...

Hi Jason,

Thanks for your comment. I agree completely. The article itself is so badly done and just throws away whole majors indiscriminately. Forget about job satisfaction, just change your entire direction to be more marketable to the whims of a few unnamed recruiters who probably aren't even hiring. Telling Philosophy or Arts students that they should switch to Elementary Education to pursue a career with children? How does that possibly compute? Not to mention that forcing people into teaching as an easy catchall to land on your feet is one way that we get bad teachers. By all means, recommend that students take as many diverse classes as possible to keep on top of changing career demands, but shooting down valuable disciplines is really disgraceful.

Charlotte Noble said...

Another toothless attack on Anthropology, though I can't help but agree with your statement, "In my previous blog post, I concluded that anthropology's problem is at least two-fold: how we engage with each other and how we present ourselves to the rest of the world. Clearly we are failing at the latter." How do we move forward? A question I've been grappling with for some time (to the detriment of progress on my doctoral research!) Thanks for your thoughtful response (and for featuring the This is Anthro prezi)!

Anonymous said...

Archaeologists hold positions in a variety of government agencies, such as NPS, EPA and the Department of Interior. Private archaeological firms are an integral part of the construction process. We do surveys, salvage, and documentation of cultural resources, historical and human burial sites so imminent construction doesn't obliterate them. It's true that graduate programs are producing too many PhDs to fill the available faculty positions at four-year universities, but it's incorrect to lump all anthropologists, archaeologists among them, into a single unemployable pool.

Fran Barone said...

Charlotte, many thanks for your comments and for putting that excellent presentation together. We're having the same discussion about how to move forward over at the Open Anthropology Cooperative (see also my additional entries at the end of this post under "in case you missed it"). Ryan Anderson has just announced a CFP on a related subject for his online journal project Anthropologies ( There are definitely a lot of parallel discussions happening (public anthropology, open access, etc) and perhaps the tide is finally going to change.

Anonymous: "It's true that graduate programs are producing too many PhDs to fill the available faculty positions at four-year universities, but it's incorrect to lump all anthropologists, archaeologists among them, into a single unemployable pool."

I couldn't agree more.

Robert Barton said...

Yes, excellent post on a very silly and ignorant article. Tim Smid (Founder of the World-famous Eden Project - Anth and Arch at Durham University), Gillian Tett (Financial Times, and famous predictor of the financial crisis, attributing this specifically to her Anthropology training), HSBC (who hired anthropologists for their 'Local Knowledge' global promotional campaign), and the statistics on graduate destinations would all disagree with Vicki Lynn - clearly she has no idea what she is talking about, but this kind of misinformation is potentially damaging.

Anonymous said...

Here's 13,158 current employment listing related to the field anthropology.
Oh, and lets not forget this
with 9 new posting since this morning.
Competitive field to work in? You betcha. Impossible to find a job? Highly unlikely if you take the time to peruse jobs to see what skills employers want and take the time in college to acquire those skills.

Anonymous said...

I find this type of dismissal of anthropology (and with it area studies!) particularly ironic considering companies' constant claims to be "global" and understand the "global marketplace." That being said, I also think there is a lot that anthropologists could do to advertise their particular type of in-depth insight into the "global." Meanwhile, "global studies" programs are branded in a way that seems to give graduates an easier claim to "global" expertise. The point being, there is an opportunity here for anthropologists to think about how we can market anthropology's "globality": It is a simplication of anthropology to be sure, but also important strategically.

David Webb said...

Well done, though I don't care for the title; far too many people might have stopped there feeling they'd already read the gist of your article. I'd also have preferred to read as much from the archaeology side of things to make a better balanced article.

There are of course few clearly defined boundaries between academic disciplines. The core degrees (BA and BSC) are meant to be degrees in Arts and in Science, not in philosophy, or anthropology, or in biology. I'll say that again; these are Arts and Science degrees. Philosophy, or anthropology, or biology are merely areas of specialization (i.e., majors). Many of us seem to have forgotten this, and certainly members of the general public (including our incoming students) are grossly unaware of this.

The focus of the universities should not be specific job training, but simply education. A well-educated mind is a rarity, and will find gainful employment.

The irony of the original article of course, is that the original author obviously lacks sufficient understanding of higher education. It's a shame, but people do not seem to recognize that when they say things like, "I can't see the value in ...", that all they are doing is documenting their ignorance.

Fran Barone said...

Thanks for your comment, David. Some great points. In writing this I have been reminded that, in the US at least, archaeology and anthropology tend to get conflated for the sake of argument (especially by non-practitioners) and indeed they are often housed in the same university departments. This is also evident in the comments on this post, where the first two Anonymous posters refer directly to archaeological fieldwork as field anthropology. In the UK, however, archaeologists and anthropologists tend to have separate office buildings and research agendas, and rarely meet in between. As far as subject matter, there is certainly considerable overlap and potential for collaboration, but I've never heard archaeology included in any debates about the importance of anthropology. At my university, archaeologists fall under in the Classical Studies/Languages department (Humanities faculty, not Social Sciences). Come to think of it, I never met a single archaeology faculty or student the whole time I was in the UK.

Of course people can't see the value in what they don't understand. So they shouldn't try and speak authoritatively about it, but that won't stop a pundit. The fact that recruiters and many students have come to see universities as specialist employee factories leads to disappointment on both sides as well as a maladjusted education system struggling to keep up with such demands.

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