Physical Anthropology

How to Choose an Anthropology Graduate Program



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Anthropology is a complex, fascinating field which makes choosing the right graduate program especially challenging. The critical thing is finding the best match between your interests and what the program offers; in anthropology this includes a variety of factors.

Let's assume for the moment that money and location are not concerns. In other words, you can afford to attend any school, and are ready to travel the world!

The first question becomes, what degree are you looking for? Some graduate programs offer only masters level degrees, while most offer masters and doctoral degrees. In general, Ph.D. programs will offer the best-qualified professors and widest range of courses. But sometimes, master's students are overlooked in doctoral programs and may not even be accepted. If you're not ready to go for the doctorate, make sure you understand clearly how a master's degree will help you. A career as a professional anthropologist will require a doctorate.

The second question: Which area, or areas, within anthropology interest you? The field of anthropology includes cultural anthropology (think Margaret Mead), archeology (Indiana Jones is a popular but bad example here!), physical anthropology (Dr. Temperance Brennan on the TV show Bones), and linguistics, which is the study of language.

Each area is a distinct specialty with training requirements all its own. Some can be combined; for example, cultural anthropology and archeology both contribute to our understanding of ancient cultures. Physical anthropology and archeology are both needed to understand human evolution. But there are few graduate programs that offer excellent training in all four areas. And all graduate programs will want to know your interests as part of the application process.

The third question: What areas of the world, and of human history and prehistory, will you focus on? Given the millions of years we humans have been on this planet, and the amazing diversity of cultures we've developed through time and across the globe, no single graduate program can offer top-class training in everything.

If you are fascinated by early hominids, you will want a very different program than someone interested in urban archeology of the eighteenth century. Are you dying to visit South America to study tribes of the Amazon basin? That will call for a different grad school than an in-depth look at Southeast Asia, or Central Africa. Again, the admissions committee will want to know whether your interests match their program's strengths.

You know some of the key criteria; how do you get the information you need? Take some undergraduate courses; then talk to the professors whose work interests you. Where were they trained? Where is the best work going on today? Check out the authors of books and articles you like. Where are they on the faculty?

Now focus in on the key programs in your areas of interest. What are their programs like? What courses are required? What special experiences do they offer? What do their graduates do once they complete the program?

At this point, creativity is often required, because few of us can really choose a graduate school without thinking seriously about money and location. Still, if you spend some time looking carefully at what you would choose under ideal circumstances, you can work on creating a program that gives you the best education possible.

Maybe you can't afford the top schools, or need to stay closer to home. Many schools have exchange and study abroad programs; many participate in consortia that offer other kinds of exchanges; you may also be able to arrange field work through other schools all options that can allow you to receive training at your dream school even if you can't attend as a full time student.

Anthropology continues to develop as a field and offers many exciting possibilities at the graduate level. There's an entire world out there to explore!

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