Anthropology Without Doctorates

Study of master's degree in the discipline finds that many who never earn Ph.D. find professional fulfillment.
February 16, 2011

The majority of people who earn terminal master's degrees in anthropology identify themselves as professional anthropologists and credit their degrees with playing a big part in their career satisfaction, according to a study commissioned by the American Anthropological Association.

The study, called "The Changing Face of Anthropology," was carried out by the association's Committee on Practicing, Applied and Public Interest Anthropology, and is the widest-ranging effort undertaken to track master's degrees in the discipline. Even though the master's is the most common postsecondary graduate anthropology degree earned -- the number of master's degrees conferred in 2004 was about triple the number of doctorates that year, the authors note -- information on what happens to graduates after they leave the academy has been largely absent until now.

"Despite their numbers, the perception is that M.A.'s 'disappear' from professional organizations, departmental alumni networks, and the social landscape of anthropology," note the authors, Shirley Fiske, Linda Bennett and Patricia Ensworth. "Master's degree holders do not disappear, but they do disperse -- through a wide variety of employment sectors and jobs."

Few of these untested perceptions held true. Two out of three master's recipients belong to some kind of national anthropological organization. Among those working in non-academic jobs, nearly 30 percent are in positions that require education in anthropology.

About 62 percent of respondents said they identify themselves as professional anthropologists; 75 percent credit the degree with playing a significant role in their career satisfaction; and many work in jobs that are both more varied and more academic than previously thought.

"People really felt that their degree was pretty central to their career," said Fiske. She added that respondents seemed to identify more strongly with being an anthropologist the further away they were from receiving their degree. It was, she said, evidence of the discipline's particular training and molding. "Anthropology, even more than some of social sciences, creates a distinctive worldview," she said.

The researchers surveyed people who earned a master's degree in anthropology and its various sub-fields -- archaeological, cultural, linguistic, physical/biological, applied and other specializations -- from a North American institution before 2008. About three-quarters of the 758 respondents who formed the data set for the analysis had earned anthropology degrees during the past two decades. The 30-minute survey asked open-ended questions. While nearly one-third of respondents had gone on to or completed a doctoral program in anthropology or another field, the survey was explicitly aimed at master's-only graduates.

The report's authors also acknowledged that the survey was not scientific; it is not known how large the universe is of master's degrees in anthropology, which makes it impossible to measure how representative the sample is. In addition, respondents were contacted by the researchers through the anthropology association and other disciplinary interest groups; that they belonged to such groups suggests that they already identified strongly with the discipline.

Respondents listed a surprising range of jobs. The most common category cited was academe, which claimed about one in five respondents. These jobs were not faculty positions or even in anthropology departments. Instead, they were more often what Fiske characterized as "part of the larger academic enterprise." Those who held master's tended to get jobs in specialized institutes or in centers affiliated with a campus, or in museums -- as curators, educators or outreach coordinators. In some cases, they worked for a provost or research department. "It surprised us that there were so many in the academic enterprise," said Fiske. "They were in very interesting kinds of places across the landscape of universities."

A split emerged in the kinds of jobs held by those with master's degrees, based largely on their anthropological training. Those with cultural anthropology backgrounds worked more frequently in the nonprofit sector, such as centers for immigrants, where a knowledge of culture and behaviors of different people would prove particularly useful, Fiske said. Archaeologists, on the other hand, were often seen working in cultural resources management, where they might be tasked with gauging the environmental and historical impact of land development.

Fiske said the report points out how much the face of anthropology is changing. Far more people with master's degrees in the subject work in the field than initially thought, and the public view of what an anthropologist is will change. No longer will the image of an anthropologist be solely that of a professor studying exotic or dead people, she said. In the future, an anthropologist will likely also be seen as a ranger in one of the national parks or as the organizer of a cultural festival. “The change will be for the better for the profession and discipline of anthropology as the general public comes to understand the nature and relevance of anthropology to contemporary issues and daily living,” she said.

Many involved in the anthropology survey thought the act of conducting the survey itself was significant. "It was recognition by the AAA and our committee that it was important to know what goes on with master's graduates," said Bennett, a co-author of the report and associate dean for graduate studies and research at the University of Memphis, which offers only a terminal master's degree in the discipline. She added that the survey's existence points toward the increased emphasis among anthropologists on the practical and applied uses of the field's knowledge, rather than a traditional focus on anthropology as a purely academic endeavor. Programs, like the one at Memphis, that end at the master's level or are aimed squarely at the practical application of the discipline once numbered in the low single digits, she said. Now there are more than two dozen with an explicitly practical bent.

The study is one step toward redressing a lack of knowledge about the fate of master's degree graduates in the behavioral and social sciences in general. The master's degree occupies a strange dual status. On one hand, the degree is the stepchild in prestige to the doctorate; it is even offered as what some characterize as a consolation prize to those who cannot finish a Ph.D. Because master's programs rarely offer the kinds of financial aid or fellowships (however modest) that are available to students in doctoral programs, they are seen as cash cows for universities.

On the other hand, some universities are reducing their incoming classes of doctoral students in response to the shrinking job market, and they are bolstering the numbers entering master's programs, particularly in the social and behavioral sciences. Master's in these disciplines are increasing in popularity -- social and behavioral sciences, along with business and health sciences, were the fastest growing areas that conferred master's degrees between 1998-9 and 2008-9. They remain a decided minority, however; social and behavioral sciences still accounted for only 7.1 percent of the total number of these degrees awarded in 2008-9, according to the Council of Graduate Schools. Business and education comprised half of all master's.

Anthropology is also not alone among social and behavioral science disciplines to start tracking master's graduates. The American Sociological Association has been doing a longitudinal study, following a cohort of master's degree earners from 2006-7. "No one knew anything about what happened with [master's] graduates," said Roberta Spalter-Roth, director of research and development at the sociology association. Results suggested that few master's graduates (13 percent) were pleased with the career help they received in college. Most found jobs in research occupations, or coordinating or managing programs, while others performed case work or counseling.


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