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What does it mean to work post-graduation, and what does anthropology have to do with it?

It happens every quarter. The conversation. Students ask us big questions about their futures as anthropology graduates. Sometimes it’s sparked by parents’ concerns. But often it arises as graduation looms, and students get worried about jobs. Their questions? What can I do with anthropology? How do I use anthropology to get the job I want? Did just I make the best—or worst—decision of my life?

Their stress is not unfounded: the socioeconomic drivers dictating the buyer’s market of education and harsh realities of the job market weigh heavily on these interactions. We know it, students know it. What do we say? More importantly, what should we say?

As anthropology faculty, we propose that instead of adhering to the market’s demand that we “sell” anthropology to our students, we’re better off trusting our field’s commitment to critical self-fashioning, context, and process as we mentor students. Meet students where they are rather than where the world thinks they should be.

Anthropology’s catch-22

We are not the first anthropologists to explore these questions. In February 2012, Adam van Arsdale took on the question of “usefulness,” arguing that anthropology itself is not useless but that students are not well-equipped to apply the skills they acquire. In April that year, Jason Antrosio voiced the wonderfully irreverent sentiment that “anthropology is the worst college major for being a corporate tool,” but also added that most anthropology majors come to discipline out of “pure interest” and desire to “learn about the world and about themselves.” Between wanting to be useful and resigning to corporate instrumentalism—there’s a lot of territory. And it’s likely why students end up with so many questions.

Empty university hallway, with tall windows on the right side.

Rye Jessen/ Unsplash

Herein lies the catch. Many students are drawn to the discipline because of its promise of critical engagement. Anthropology is often a pathway for deeply personal commitments, including desires to better the world through research, advocacy, activism, and social justice. Yet, competitive job markets, debt, and “making a living” create an unavoidable trap that all too quickly closes off many of those possibilities.

It seems like there’s no middle ground. Either follow your dreams or “sell out,” and the pressure is high to choose wisely. Students dream of a life full of passion and creativity, but they have loans, tuition-paying parents, and a spectre of future income that must be secured to make rent. More often than not, passion bows to obligation: so it’s #nottodayKarl, not tomorrow either.

Pushing back

We propose an alternative to these either/or scenarios. We’re taking the advice of Ilana Gershon (2017), who in her research on employability and the search for work, encourages focus not on the unattainably perfect end goal but on the context of experience:

We don’t need more and more techniques for achieving the impossible, for being the universally desirable candidate for all business. We need to understand how we got here, where all this advice is coming from, and how we might make hiring and working more satisfying in this rapidly changing environment (xi).

Granted, an undergraduate degree might feel like a critical end point. But we suggest telling students this: it’s just the beginning. Between the sobering realities they face and creative possibilities ahead, it’s a long, uncertain road. And that is ok.

Life post-graduation is like an algorithm. It’s marketed in higher education as planned out, as if it will roll out and do its thing once students graduate. But that’s not how it works. Algorithms need constant attention and adjustments to work. They are imperfect, full of unexpected mistakes, and often unpredictable. On some days, life post-college is just what students imagined it would be. On others, they can’t believe they signed up for what they’re doing.

Most importantly, life post-college is work. As faculty who live and work in the Bay Area, we get it: the pressure to be successful comes from all sides—parents, peers, departments, metrics, and the media. We’re not here to sugar-coat these realities; we’re also not going to assure students that an anthropology degree will automatically lead to a dream job and life full of adventure (Alex Golub argues a similar point). As Gershon remarks, “There is no one-size-fits all answer to the question of how you get a job” (ix). We agree. And we’ll add this: there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to the question of how to keep a job, let alone one in which anthropology fits perfectly.

Conversation as process

The old, post-graduation narrative went something like this: “if you get a degree, you’ll automatically climb up the ladder”; or, “you’ll at least stay on the same rung.” But we know this isn’t true. Now, the narrative goes something like this: “It better get better. It better pay off,” meaning—we hope to buy something (in this case an education) and get certain outcomes. But this isn’t true either and our students need to know why—and what they need moving forward. This is what mentoring is all about.

So we came up with four pieces of advice we keep in mind when we advise anthropology students:

  1. Refuse the either/or option. Balance pragmatism and strategy with moral optimism. Rather than paint a picture that everything is going to be awesome, remind students about the skills that they worked on and experiences they acquired because of what they chose to study.
  2. Challenge the “pick yourself up by the bootstraps,” Lean In narrative. Doing the work doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. Be prepared to honestly address the discomfort students experience knowing that resources and recognition operate unevenly in the workplace. Acknowledge the intersections of race, gender, class, ableness, and ethnicity that create these injustices—and present them viable resources to face those challenges.
  3. Rejection and uncertainty are not failures. Remind students that rejection and feeling stuck are opportunities to take stock, make adjustments, and collaborate with those willing to brainstorm with you. Emphasize process over pressure.
  4. Recognize and remember the mentoring you valued in your own trajectory. Whether it was long-term mentors, letter writers, ghost advising, or invisible labor—identify what made those interactions valuable. Share them with your students and remind them that college is not only about building skills. It’s also about cultivating relationships and networks to rely on.

Then make your students this promise: This will not be the last time we talk. What you do after graduation is not a one-time choice. It is a process, something that requires support, strategy, and persistence. Persistence from you, and from us. We’re ready to listen and take this on as it unfolds. Are you?

Mythri Jegathesan and Ryan Anderson are assistant professors in the Department of Anthropology at Santa Clara University. Mythri’s research focuses on gender, labor, and the politics of development in Sri Lanka. Ryan’s research focuses on the politics of coastal development, sustainability, and conservation in California and Baja California Sur, Mexico.

Cite as: Anderson, Ryan, and Mythri Jegathesan. 2019. “The Conversation.” Anthropology News website, March 7, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1112