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Just how bleak is the academic job market for anthropologists? Job ads over the past twenty years reveal some surprises and point to ways departments are seeking to change themselves and the discipline.

Many anthropologists have the sense that the academic anthropology job market in the United States has changed dramatically over the past 20–30 years, and often for the worse—even before the pandemic. Fewer and fewer jobs were available, and these jobs were increasingly temporary jobs as the number of tenure-track lines decline in academia. Yet how bad was it, exactly? In this piece, we hope to establish a baseline for the anthropology job market prior to the pandemic so in the future, we can have a better sense of the pandemic impact. In particular we are asking: what can we learn about how academic anthropology in the United States has changed over the years by using job ads as a lens for how departments articulate how they wanted to constitute themselves going forward?

To answer these questions, we decided to do a deep dive into the job ads published in Anthropology News since 1999, supplemented by the AAA’s database of job ads from its online job board since 2013. All of our data from 2013 and later is based on the AAA’s online job board ads as departments no longer post ads in Anthropology News. We decided to compare the job ads of two academic years—1999–2000 and 2019–2020—years when the US economy was in fairly good shape, and just before a serious economic downturn would dramatically reduce the number of jobs available. In other words, we are focusing on years in which departments were given the opportunity and resources to begin imagining what kind of expertise they should include.

Our first surprise in comparing 1999–2000 with 2019–2020 was that the number of jobs advertised had only decreased by 5 jobs, from 339 jobs to 334 jobs. Yet when we looked more carefully at the numbers, there was a big dip in tenure-track jobs in the US-based job market, down from 274 jobs in 1999 to 207 jobs in 2019 (a decrease of 25 percent).

Most of the jobs in both years were for assistant professors: 180 jobs were advertised as entry-level tenure-track jobs in 1999–2000 (although 22 of these departments and programs would also consider associate professors), while last year 130 jobs were advertised (with 8 places willing to also consider associates). In addition, in 1999–2000, 30 institutions had open rank positions, as opposed to 6 institutions in 2019–2020.

Job ads are increasingly asking for more materials from applicants.

But the stability of the jobs advertised shifted. Pessimists will feel vindicated that the number of temporary jobs increased by 24 percent, with a considerable portion of the increase happening in postdoctoral positions. In 1999–2000, there were 48 job ads for temporary positions—16 for postdocs, and the remaining 32 were visiting teaching positions. Fourteen percent of all jobs advertised were temporary. In 2019–2020, there were 79 such job ads—35 for postdocs and 44 visiting teaching positions. Twenty-four percent of all jobs advertised were temporary ones. The salaries for these jobs have not improved substantively. In today’s dollars, $38,000 was the lowest salary advertised for a temporary job 20 years ago. In 2019–2020, the lowest salary was $34,000. And, again in today’s dollars, the average temporary salary (when it was mentioned) was $52,000 twenty years ago, and $57,000 in 2019–2020.

Even for a primarily US job scene, more jobs are now advertised for international locations on the AAA online job board. Twenty years ago, 10 of the jobs were for institutions in Australia, Canada (7 of these jobs), Hong Kong, Ireland, and Singapore. In 2019–2020, 34 jobs were outside of the United States, and the range of locations grew considerably as well, although Canada still had the majority with 17 jobs. Now other countries advertise on the AAA job board: Cambodia, China, Denmark, Egypt, Great Britain, Netherlands, Norway, New Zealand, Singapore, and Taiwan.

While the international scene expanded, the number of outside departments advertising jobs decreased. Twenty years ago, 163 jobs were advertised for a variety of departments, including women’s studies (5), South Asian studies (2), and more. Meanwhile 175 jobs were advertised for anthropology departments or joint appointments. In 2019–2020, 114 job ads were from outside departments, and 169 jobs in anthropology departments were advertised. Meanwhile the percentage of anthropology jobs relative to the overall number of jobs advertised has stayed the same: approximately 51 percent in both years.

Over the years, the number of jobs in each subfield has shifted. Here we focus on archaeology, biological anthropology, linguistic anthropology, and sociocultural anthropology jobs. You may notice that the numbers don’t add up here; some job ads welcomed applications from all subfields, others were interested in applicants from more than one subfield. If you were an archaeologist applying for jobs in 1999–2000, there were 61 jobs you could apply for. In 2019–2020, there were 71 jobs. For biological anthropologists, there were 69 jobs 20 years ago, and 47 in 2019–2020. For linguistic anthropologists, there were 53 jobs 20 years ago, and 19 jobs in 2019–2020. And for sociocultural anthropologists, there were 163 jobs 20 years ago, and 182 jobs in 2019–2020. Notice that not all these jobs were in anthropology departments; and the ones that were not anthropology departments often requested sociocultural anthropologists, which gives the impression that they have increased opportunities. In the 2019–2020 academic year, 61 of the sociocultural anthropology jobs were not in anthropology departments, while only 21 of the archaeology jobs were outside of anthropology programs.

Can one see a shift in regional interests in the job ads? Below is what jobs ads listed:

Geographic Area1999–20002019–2020
Africa3316
Asia3427
Europe154
Latin America4226
Middle East108
North America7841
Oceania42
Note: Ads interested in expertise in North America include ads for specialists in Asian American studies, African American studies, and so on.

Rather than showing a shift in regional interest, overall job ads seem to place less emphasis on regional expertise over time. And while there seems to be a general sense in anthropologists’ hallway conversations that departments don’t advertise for North America, the numbers themselves don’t bear this out.

One of the major changes is that job ads are increasingly asking for more materials from applicants—twice as many job ads now request writing samples as did in 1999–2000. While 16 places requested statements of teaching philosophy 20 years ago, now 62 places do. The more material that departments request upfront from job applicants, the greater the burden of applying to jobs when the odds are slim. This tends to disproportionately favor people with more available time, perhaps because they have a postdoc that doesn’t require teaching or have the financial resources to devote themselves wholeheartedly to the job market.

There have also been a few shifts in the specialization trends across the past 20 years. If in 1999–2000 and the early 2000s, a fair number of departments searched for educational and psychological anthropologists, both these trends seemed to fade away somewhere around the mid-2000s and then disappeared from the job ads. Yet they didn’t vanish completely: we started to see them again from around 2014–2015, and the 2019–2020 hiring cycle offered three vacancies for anthropologists interested in education and another three for psychological anthropologists. Environmental anthropology, on the other hand, has been steadily gaining popularity in the last two decades: if only 3 job ads mentioned it in 1999–2000, there were more than 30 vacancies for environmental anthropologists in 2006–2007, and in 2019–2020, 54 job ads mentioned looking for anthropologists specializing in the environment.

Our sample of job ads offers an imperfect glimpse into how the anthropology job market actually functions.

Medical anthropology has been a steadily popular and in-demand specialization since 1999. There were 43 job ads searching for medical anthropologists in 1999–2000 and 33 in 2019–2020. However, if earlier ads for medical anthropologists rarely specified desired topical expertise within medical anthropology, since the mid-2000, there has been a growing interest in global health and health disparities (especially class, racial, or ethnic inequalities). Medical and environmental anthropology also seem to be those specializations that are most often accompanied by an adjective “applied.” Overall, applied anthropology has been quite a popular search in the last two decades, even though requests for applied anthropologists might be slightly less prevalent now: 23 jobs ads mentioned it in 1999–2000 as opposed to 11 in 2019–2020. Since 2013, business anthropology emerged as a search trend; it is still fairly marginal, though, as in 2019–2020, only two ads were looking for business anthropologists.

Anthropological interest to the topics of migration has been rather steady. The same can be said about development. Human rights, on the other hand, seem to become slightly more popular in recent years: there were only 4 vacancies mentioning it in 1999–2000 as opposed to 12 in 2019–2020. Similarly, anthropology of media, including new media, has also had a steady presence as a research specialization since 1999. The 1999–2000 hiring cycle offered 6 vacancies for anthropologists interested in media; in 2019–2020 this number increased to 10.

Finally, we would like to offer a few preliminary observations about the new trends on the anthropological job market since 2010: ontology as a possible research interest was first mentioned in 2013. The same job ad mentioned cosmology, a term which until that ad had been on a hiatus of 12 years. In 2014, the first job ad seeking someone interested in researching human trafficking appeared. Since around 2014, we have also seen a growing interest in the Anthropocene. And if before the mid-2010 the job ads would not mention decolonization as a possible research interest, it seems to be slowly changing since around 2014.

Our sample of job ads offers an imperfect glimpse into how the anthropology job market actually functions. We don’t have many ads from community colleges in our data, and job ads don’t capture when departments expand because of partner hires and other alternative routes to tenure-track jobs. Job ads are also not terribly good indicators of who gets hired. The texts of the job ads are often the traces of complicated compromises between different perceived needs and different factions in a department, and might be set aside almost entirely as the politics of the search unfolds. To understand more fully how the anthropology job market was changing prior to the pandemic, we as a discipline need to do two more studies. First, researchers need to track who anthropology departments have gained over the past 20 odd years, correlating this with the attributes the departments advertised for. Second, researchers need to compare this with the labor supply—what anthropology dissertations are being written every year, and how does that expertise correlate with the foci that departments request? In short, studying anthropology jobs ads from the past two decades is only the first necessary step toward understanding the patterns in our own academic labor market.

Authors

Ilana Gershon

Ilana Gershon is the Ruth N. Halls Professor of Anthropology at Indiana University. Her most recent monograph is on corporate hiring in the United States—Down and Out in the New Economy: How People Find (or Don’t Find) Work Today (University of Chicago Press, 2017).

Dafna Rachok

Dafna Rachok is a graduate student at Indiana University, currently in the field studying Ukrainian changes in how health care is provided to sex workers.

Cite as

Gershon, Ilana and Dafna Rachok. 2021. “Hello to Tristes Tropes.” Anthropology News website, September 16, 2021.

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