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
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
thinkhope 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.