Picking a Graduate Program

anthropology table at the homecoming tent on the QuadPicking a graduate school is an important step toward becoming a professional anthropologist because the department you pick determines—to a large part—your anthropological perspective, the kinds of research skills you learn, your research opportunities, and access to funds to help you survive graduate school. So before you start looking, answer these questions:

  • What are your research interests?
  • Where is the anthropology department that is right for you?
  • Who is going to direct your graduate studies?
  • When is the best time to visit the department?
  • How many departments should I apply to?

What are your research interests?

The primary reason you should pick one department over the other is because it suites your research interests and perspectives. Are you interested in applied anthropology that focuses on the relationship between culture and medicine? Or the archaeology of complex societies? If so, then maybe the University of Alabama’s department of anthropology is the place for you. If not, then find a department that focuses on the kinds of questions of interest to you. It’s also important to understand the range of resources available to you within the department and the college itself. You will have to work at your studies full-time so it’s important that the department has the resources to help support you. Are Graduate Teaching Assistantships (GTA) available? Are you eligible for them, and how many years of GTA support are allowed? What kinds of merit-based fellowships or scholarships are available? Are there affiliated institutions, centers or agencies that support graduate research, like the University of Alabama’s Center for Latin American Studies or its Office of Archaeological Research?

Where is the anthropology department that is right for you?

One of the best ways to begin is to search the web for departmental websites, like this one. Most students start by searching for departments in places where they would like to live. But it’s important to remember that graduate school is more about learning to become a successful anthropologist than living in a fun-filled beach town. Make a list of your research desires and domestic needs, and then search “big” research universities, like UCLA, public “flagship” universities, like the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, and smaller institutions. All schools have their pluses and minuses. Look at the range of research projects they publicize, how many graduate students are currently enrolled, and whether they have field schools. Spend plenty of time researching anthropology departments. Once you’ve narrowed it down to five or so, then email each Graduate Director of Anthropology and ask him or her pointed questions about research opportunities, funding, and living conditions at their home institution. Get to know these people since Graduate Directors are often the gate keepers to graduate departments.

Who is going to direct your graduate studies?

Although home departments are important, graduate school is about matching your interests with a professor’s expertise and body of research. Anthropology graduate students work very closely with a professor who is their principle advisor (or chair) and committees of two or three other researchers, so it’s important to identify professors whose interests equal yours. If you’ve always wanted to learn how to read Classic Mayan hieroglyphs, then seek out active epigraphers. Don’t apply to a department that doesn’t have faculty that matches your specific interests. It’s also important to contact professors. Not all professors may want to supervise graduate students. They may be close to retirement, they may have too many students already, or they may be on sabbatical. You want to find active researchers who have on-going projects that make your research possible. Most anthropology graduate students do not do totally independent projects. Graduate students often work on a professor’s project because the professor has grant monies and a permit to run a project, or they development their own project using their advisor’s methods and local contacts.

How do you find the right professor to direct your graduate research?

Good question! Think about academic articles or books that you have read that have peaked your interest and inspired you to think deeply about a research question. Read through the latest journals in your field of interest, such as American Anthropologist, Current Anthropology, Latin American Antiquity, or Southeastern Archaeology, and identify authors that write on your research subject. Go to professional meetings and listen to papers by researchers. Talk to your undergraduate professors and see who they recommend. Search Google Scholar for key words associated with your research interest and then read the articles it retrieves. Once you settle on three or four professors, CONTACT them. This step might be the most important of all! By talking to them, you will quickly conclude whether or not you could work with this person.

When is the best time to visit the department?

Contact the Director of Graduate Studies and your professor of choice and set up a visit. Go when you can meet graduate students too, since they hold the inside scoop on the department. It’s best to visit as many of your top choice departments as possible. Yes, it’s a lot of money, but nothing can replace face-to-face interaction when making an important decision like this. Ask professors about their on-going projects, what research questions they are addressing in their studies, if they have money to support your research, and if they need graduate students. If they don’t have on-going projects or interests, you might have to find another professor. Generally, active researchers prefer their own graduate students to work with in the field, not someone else’s. Ask the Director of Graduate Studies about funding and GTAships. Check out the campus and town. Eat and drink with the graduate students. See if you like the place since you’re going to be spending between two and eight years there.

How many departments should I apply to?

For a variety of reasons, most departments admit only a small fraction of the applicants that apply. So apply to at least three departments, and don’t limit yourself to a single kind of school or a single geographical area. There are lots of good graduate departments in anthropology out there and many fine professors. Check to see if there are any restrictions on applying to the graduate program in the same anthropology department where you got your undergraduate degree! Many graduate departments don’t accept their undergraduate majors. Good luck!