As we read David Platzer and Anne Allison’s essay and the initial round of responses to it, we were struck by two things. First, we noted sincere concern about how the discipline might retool graduate training to prepare anthropologists for a broad range of careers (even as there were few concrete proposals for what this retooling would, or already does, look like). Second, we noted the extent to which this concern about the shape of graduate training was framed as a reaction to precarity, rather than an intrinsically valuable examination of what anthropology graduate students are and ought to be learning.
Work in academia is undeniably precarious in ways that call for greater recognition and response from anthropologists and anthropology departments; indeed, this forum reveals that anthropologists can usefully draw on their own experiences within academia to engage with wider questions of precarity. Yet it seems to us that posing the question of training as a response to that of precarity ends up perpetuating the attitude that thinking beyond academia is a result of failure (whether personal or systemic) within it. We propose, instead, that thinking about how anthropologists are trained and what we can do with that training is worthwhile beyond the question of precarity; moreover, we suggest that framing these questions in terms of precarity might cause us to miss out on some of the value of asking such questions in the first place.
Informed by these two observations, we want to share some of the experiences we had and insights we gained in 2016 when, as postfield doctoral students at Columbia University, we organized a series of workshops for students on careers beyond academia. Our workshops brought seven anthropologists working in what we considered nonacademic positions to Columbia to speak with students in New York–area anthropology programs.1 We focused on careers that use the core skills anthropology graduate students are trained in—research, analysis, and writing—and on participants who valued and felt valued by the work they were doing. We avoided framing the workshops in terms of an interest in “leaving” academia, though we were interested in why discussions of post-PhD careers so often get framed in terms of a strict division between academia and everything else.
Here, we offer some reflections on the workshops, in an effort to explore how distinguishing the issue of training from the issue of precarity might help us think more broadly about what it is that anthropological training offers and how it can be used—within and beyond academia.
- In planning the series, we reached out to selected faculty members within our department for advice. Their responses were supportive but short on specific suggestions—with the exception of one junior faculty member, who provided a number of contacts and ideas. When we discussed the series with one senior faculty member, she offered the department’s backing as well as a comment that stuck with us: “So you don’t want to be me!” This comment not only thematized the issue of academic reproduction quite directly, but also reminded us how our efforts to think more broadly about our training were being heard by more than a few faculty members—and students—as a rejection of an academic path. We assured this individual that we would, in fact, be delighted to “be her,” but that we still felt it was important to think openly and concretely about the full range of things that we as anthropologists could be and do.
- Among the most striking insights from the workshops was hearing participants agree that the training they received in graduate school did prove extremely valuable. While several participants noted having to learn some additional skills, particularly around working in teams, everyone noted that their experience with research, problem framing, and analysis prepared them far better than they had expected for careers outside of academia; indeed, many said that they were admired for their ability to think both critically and synthetically. Yet all of our participants recalled having been actively discouraged, as graduate students, from thinking more broadly about how they might best use their training. Rather than helping them to think in an open way about career possibilities, supervisors and other mentors were dismissive of opportunities that were not tenure-track academic jobs. Even a participant who was working in higher education—teaching and running an academic program—recalled being asked by an advisor if she was considering looking for a “real job” once her book was published.
- Participants said that exploring career possibilities beyond academia had encouraged them to think more broadly about what excited them intellectually and to think in practical terms about what kinds of work they enjoyed. Almost everyone described a process of remembering and revisiting skills and interests that they had not used during graduate school or as tenure-track faculty. In particular, the need to work collaboratively and to engage with nonspecialist or public audiences came up as aspects of many participants’ current work. For some this was an exciting new opportunity, for others more challenging, but most participants agreed that they had learned to consider specific jobs in a more multifaceted way: did the job call on a range of skills that they saw themselves as possessing, and did the job offer opportunities to work in the ways they wanted? Such stock-taking of one’s interests and priorities seemed to us equally valuable within academia, even if it is largely neglected there.
- Many participants were still participating in academia in some way and did not think of themselves as pursuing nonacademic paths. One participant, who continued to attend academic conferences and publish in academic journals, commented that the narrative of “leaving” academia was one imposed on her, rather than one that she chose for herself. In her mind, it led those who adopted it to misconstrue both the nature of her work in research and public outreach and the profile of those who are doing recognizably academic kinds of work.
- The discussion led many of the students in attendance to the realization that while we were being equipped with skills that were more broadly applicable than we had previously understood, we actually were not being all that well trained in some of the skills most relevant to (and time-consuming in) academic careers—namely, skills related to teaching, advising, and administration. The very premise, then, that doctoral training in anthropology exclusively prepares students for one kind of career to the detriment of others would seem to require revision.
In response to the question posed in various ways throughout this forum—of how or whether to reimagine graduate training—the workshops we organized suggested that before we think about redesigning this training, we might start by broadening our understanding of what this training already offers. One key to doing so would be to drop the assumption of a strict division between what is academic and what is not, whether in our training or in what we do with it. Rather, we propose a more expansive way of thinking about the work we as anthropologists might do—regardless of its orientation to academia—in terms of whether it is intellectually satisfying, utilizes and values the training and experience we have gained in our doctoral programs, and allows us to have some impact on the issues that matter to us.
1. The participants were Britt Dahlberg, Rob Freeman, Rebekah Park, Johanna Schoss, Amy Starecheski, and Maria Lucia Vidart-Delgado, as well as one person who could not be reached for permission to be named. At the time of the workshops, these individuals were working in the fields of research, design, public art, consulting, journalism, education, and public outreach.