What’s a Recent Anthropology Grad to Do?

Florida Gov. Rick Scott said in an interview in 2011 with the Sarasota Herald Tribune, that the state did not need any more anthropologists. According to Scott, no more tax dollars should be spent on educating “more people who can’t get jobs in anthropology.” Even though his daughter received an anthropology degree, he argued for a shift in state funding to science, technology, and math departments to support degrees “where people can get jobs.” His statements illicited response from Virginia Dominiguez, President of the American Anthropological Association, who sent Scott a personal letter. The anthropology community as a whole put up their defenses. At Beloit College, a small liberal arts school with a long history of excellence in the discipline, many would like to write off Scott’s statements as empty rhetoric. But the question remains: was Scott right?

The Beloit Anthropology Department is definitely unique. The Logan Museum boasts over 215,000 objects from 123 countries and more than 480 cultural groups. Used as an open teaching space, the museum offers a venue for hands-on learning and investigation of the cultures studied in class. One anthropology minor said that during a unit on early hominids, her Archaeology and Prehistory class observed the museum’s paintings to see how the portrayal of ancient human ancestors has changed through time. In addition to the museum, students have opportunity to do ethnographic research outside the classroom. Two professors are leading an ethnographic field school to Jamaica this May.

These initiatives appear to be successful in terms of gaining education beyond Beloit. The department’s website states that “more anthropology Ph.D.s earned their undergraduate degrees at Beloit than at any other four-year liberal arts college.” Just because the program produces Ph.D.s does not guarantee those Ph.D.s are making money. However, it does mean that anthropology graduates leaving Beloit are highly motivated and passionate about the discipline. Graduate schools across the country report high attrition rates for their anthropology programs because the degree takes so long to complete. The majority of programs can only graduate about half their students in eight years. Beloit’s graduate school success is indicative of their strong undergraduate program.

The question remains, is a doctorate in anthropology worth eight years and a $200,000 tuition bill? The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that the average anthropology major’s earnings are $54,230 per year. Forbes Magazine declared it the worst college major due to low earning potential. The stigma about a dismal salary exists even among the discipline’s ranks. Dr. Kylie Quave, a professor of anthropology at Beloit said, “I wish someone had pulled me aside and told me about the lack of money in anthropology, but I don’t regret pursuing a degree in it.” A senior anthropology major said she chose the major because it encompassed a broad range of academic skills and interests. “I like the satisfaction of living off little money and I’m determined not to make a lot of it,” she said.

Many of Quave’s peers from her graduate program do not currently have jobs and she feels lucky to have snagged her temporary professorship at Beloit. “I have one friend who opened a coffee shop because he couldn’t find anything else. Some people still don’t have jobs.” Even if graduates do not use their education working at a field site or in academia, they use their degree in other ways. Dr. Shannon Fie, another professor in the anthropology department, said “Job listings don’t list majors, they list qualifications, and anthropology majors are qualified for many things.” Quave said about her java-selling friend, “His background makes him a better business owner. He treats employees with more respect and awareness.”

Anthropology is not as useless a major as Scott professed. The degree will not breed any anthropologist millionaires either, but the BLS reported a 21% growth rate for jobs for anthropologists from the years 2010 to 2020. Anthropology is most important because it brings promotes ethical business practices and teaches complex cultural understanding in our increasingly diverse workplaces. This is a field of study that we cannot afford to ignore.

I graduated this past May with my degree in Cultural Anthropology from Beloit College. Since my graduation I have not worked directly with other anthropologists in a professional setting. This summer I worked on the Storehouse Crew at the Appalachian Mountain Club driving trucks around the North Country of New Hampshire and since September I’ve been serving an AmeriCorps term with Habitat or Humanity in the Twin Cities. Many days I question whether my degree was worth it. And I always come to the conclusion that yes it totally was, but it’s difficult not be envious of the grass on the other side of the fence. Many of my friends are continuing right on to grad school with distinct careers in mind after graduation. Perhaps one of anthropology’s strengths is that it encourages questioning, not only of informants, but also of the self. How do you fit in society? In what spaces do you have more or less power? Which choices are culturally conditioned and which are biologically determined? Do we have free will? 

I will forever be seeing the world trough the anthropological eye glasses. Mine are finely tuned and someone has duck taped them to my face. There’s no one to blame but my stellar professors at Beloit, and probably myself. My corrective lenses make my way of living slower than most people’s. I live work and play with all these complicated questions floating across my vision. I’m learning that my twenties are a time for living out the questions I’ve gathered up in real time. I’m learning that some days taking action is just showing up, and that I am doing anthropology every day. I ask questions, I listen, I write.It is part of my life no matter how little or how much money it makes me. And this doing, this being in the world, is what makes a life.

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