This guide provides basic orientation to the process of graduate school admissions in the four subfields of Anthropology (socio-cultural, archaeological, linguistic, and biological). It offers perspectives and advice on how to approach the entire process of applying, what you can do to prepare before you graduate, how to select the best program and school for you, how to write a personal statement and ask for recommendations, when to undertake different aspects of the process, what to do if you are accepted (or not), and basic resources for further exploration. As you read and use this, keep in mind that people approach each step of the process differently, and that you will want to consult with others, including professors and anyone else you know who is going or has gone through the process.


Hard copies of this guide are available in the Anthropology Department, on the fifth floor of Williams Hall.

Let me know what you think:

Thinking about Graduate School in Anthropology?

Some Basic Considerations: M.A. or Ph.D.?

Do you have the interest to sustain you for a longer program or would you rather do a shorter one? (Average Ph.D. completion time is 8.5 years, while an M.A. generally takes between 1.5 and 3 years.)

How will a graduate degree help get you the career you want? Which degree is better for that career?

Is there funding for the one you chose, or do you pay your own way? (usually M.A.s are difficult to fund, Ph.D.s easier)

Do you want to get an M.A. to see if you like it, and then consider a Ph.D.?

Other options to consider include getting an M.A. degree in a discipline related to your anthropological interest, including regional studies disciplines, education, geology, etc. before getting a Ph.D. in Anthropology. to advisers, people in the field, etc. about the process of graduate school, job prospects, state of the discipline, etc. As with any major decision, it is caveat emptor. Know pretty well what you're getting yourself into, and know the different career options ahead of time.


Note: Cast of mind is important for the Ph.D.

Most get a Ph.D. because they have some questions they want to explore and want intellectual growth - not because it's the automatic stepping stone to an academic job they may want - because the academic job market being what it is, there is no assurance that anyone will get a job. Don't fool yourself: the academic job market has been pretty grim, and it's not going to improve anytime soon. Anthro grad school (especially at the Ph.D. level) is not a 'professional school' in the same vein as an M.B.A., J.D. or M.D. (One possible exception would be Applied Anthropology, but even that is debatable.)


Taking Time between UVM and Grad School

Ask yourself: Will I be a burn-out by my second or third year? If yes, wait.

Also, admissions committees are looking for maturity (not always what they award you a B.A. for), so time off will likely enhance your application. (In fact, the average age of Ph.D. recipients in Anthropology is 39!)

Besides the usual (job, travel) you might consider using your time between undergrad and grad to further your research goals...apply for a Fullbright grant, a Watson, attend a field school, work on language skills, or find work as a research assistant on a project (this will probably be easiest for archaeologically-bound folks), etc. The UVM Office of Sponsored Programs will have information on grants and programs.

These considerations will affect where you apply, on what you chose to work, with whom you will work and, most importantly, it will help orient you throughout the entire process. Before proceeding, you will have to make some very sobering assessments and decisions, so it is important to carefully consider why you want to go to grad school.



Academic Preparations

Or, what to do before you graduate...

Get to know three (or at least two) professors pretty well - they will write your recommendations for you. Try to arrange for these BEFORE YOU LEAVE CAMPUS if you think there's any chance of going onto grad school (even if it may not be Anthropology).

Absolutely Essential: Keep papers with their comments, so you can show them down the road to remind them of your work (and what they thought of it). Your good recs rely on them providing as many details about you that they can.


Courses in your major

What if you didn't major in the field you want to study in grad school? Don't let this discourage you from applying, since grad programs are always looking for people with interesting backgrounds. If you didn't major in the field, you may have to work harder in courses your first year than people who may have a background in the field. No matter what you major in though, you should have high grades in your major field - this shows them that you are a serious student when it comes to something that interests you.


Do a Thesis or Independent Study, and/or a Field School

Not only will this help you decide if you have the gumption and interest to handle advanced work and actual fieldwork, the products you create will be useful to send with your application so that the admissions committee sees your actual work abilities.



It is required, but is it important? Sort of. It hurts your chances for admission only if your score is low. It helps the admissions committee make a quick first cut. In some schools, they are more likely to give funding if your score is high. There is no special exam for Anthropology (although there is for other fields such as Sociology).

This seems to be the most intimidating aspect of the graduate admissions process, but it shouldn't be. Prepare for it, by either taking a course (expensive) or buying a book that includes some practice exams (cheap). Learn the tricks of how to take it and do well (prove to everyone how easy it is to circumvent the actual content of the test, and by implication, what a useless and biased test it is!). Many people take it twice, and improve markedly the second time.

Be aware! Cultural anthro departments generally only care about the analytical and verbal scores, but that doesn't mean you should sleep through the math!


Undergraduate Grades

Again, these will only hurt your chances for admission if they are low - especially in your major - implication: pretty much everyone applying to grad school has good grades. As with a high GRE score, high grades might help you get funding.


It's also worth it to begin to expand your network and experiences in Anthropology before you graduate:

- attend conferences to get a sense of where the discipline is moving and meet people. (NEAA is great for this...)

- attend lectures and workshops at other regional schools, again to meet more people and get a sense of what's going on in the discipline.

- take a job or research internship with an ongoing anthropological project or institution (i.e., an archaeology consulting firm, a development consulting firm, etc.) or become a research assistant to a professor.

If you demonstrate clarity of purpose, maturity and panache in your personal statement and have persuasive recommendations, grades, GRE scores, and so on should not really matter too much for admissions decisions (although they may for funding).



Selecting a School

Send for Course Catalogues

Also, check the departmental websites, since they usually list course schedules.

How often do they offer the courses you want?

Will you be taking a lot of independent study courses if the course offerings are light or not in your areas of interest?

Are there people in the department or other departments who would actually do these things with you?

Can you take courses at other universities in the same city? ( of the bonuses of NYC area).


Paying a Visit?

Like with the Great College Tour, if you can afford it, visiting ahead of time can be helpful in making decisions. Find out when is a good time to go (Summer is always bad, Spring tends to be busy. Try early Fall, before all the application deadlines, and when people are not yet working very hard.) Arrange to meet with students and selected faculty, maybe even sit in on a class. Keep in mind that these people will be quite busy, but they should take you seriously since you are a potential colleague. If you can't actually visit, call or write to a faculty member or two announcing your interests and ask about the program. Also, you could get in touch with a grad student from a program and ask him or her for details. You could visit schools after getting accepted at them (sometimes they'll pay or wine and dine you), when you have a more concrete sense of the possibilities (and you won't get your hopes up that one school will accept you).


Selection Criteria Number One: the Faculty.

Who is there?

Who do you want to work with? (Identify at least two or three)

Will the professor(s) you want to work with be on sabbatical during your coursework?

What are professor-professor relations like? Are they at each other's throats, or do they get along? Do students get in the middle of acrimonious squabbles?

What are professor-student relations like? Do they cultivate mentoring relationships, or do you work more with a committee?

There are important trade-offs to consider with each of these models: Mentors can bring access to resources, research projects, etc...but they can also be tyrants. Committees often allow more independent work...but sometimes they don't take care of you like a mentor might.

Do faculty include students in department-level politics and activities?

Are the faculty formal, or informal with their students?

Do they leave grad students to figure things out by themselves, including actual work, bureaucratic maneuvers, and practical career training, or do they supportively walk you through these things? (It will most likely tend toward the former, especially at universities where undergraduate teaching or faculty research is the primary mission or faculty are more concerned with their research.)

How are M.A. students treated (as opposed to Ph.D. students or undergrads)?

You should identify up to two or three faculty with whom you would like to work, and you should consider contacting them ahead of time and let them know who you are. If they are enthusiastic about you, this could enhance your application.


Other Issues to Consider

Does the department have a general approach, style or regional concentration?

For example, in Cultural Anthropology, Princeton is known for its interpretive approach, Chicago for its work on the structural aspects of culture, Cornell for Asian Studies, etc. This might ultimately shape what kind of Anthropology you do, and the networks in which you find yourself.

Do you want preparation in all four fields, and does the department offer/require it? (Less and less common)

What are relations like with other departments in the university?

Do Anthro folks get involved with other departments and programs? Which ones?

Do students actually do fieldwork? Where?

How long do students take to finish? What are their stumbling blocks?

Is there an exchange program with other grad schools (in the U.S. and abroad)? (This could make a difference if there are several people at different universities with whom you could see yourself working.)

What are the graduate students enthusiastic about? (All grad students are cynical, but you can usually tell if their gripes are major ones.)

Are there differences in the ways that M.A. students and Ph.D. students are treated by the department or university? (i.e., access to funding, teaching, resources, etc.)

Could you spend anywhere from the next two to nine years of your life in that town or city? Is there intellectual or social life beyond the university?

Do you want to move away for a Ph.D.? If you do not want to (or cannot) actually move away to do a Ph.D., consider distance-learning options, such as the Union Institute, etc. However, the good ones are few and far between and require incredible independence.

At $45 to $60 a pop, it isn't cheap to get the 'privilege' to be considered for acceptance. Therefore, you should reconcile your pocketbook with the number of schools you're applying to. Nevertheless, my advice is to throw a wider net than a more narrow one (i.e., anywhere between 5 and 10 schools instead of just one or two), even if it is expensive. It's an investment into the future.


Funding, or Show Me the Money!

Does the school offer scholarships or fellowships? Full support (tuition, stipend, health benefits) or partial? Is it for the duration, or only a couple of years?

Will you be required to teach (and how does that affect the amount of time to degree - it usually slows it down)?

Will you have to get loans? How much?

This is normal for an M.A., and Ph.D. students often take out loans, since not all fellowships will cover everything. Paying for a Ph.D. out-of-pocket is over $100,000 at a private university, in tuition alone! And remember: you also have to eat, clothe yourself and buy books! Be prepared for the fact that an M.A. could require a relatively heavy debt load (especially if it is a private university) - easily over $30,000.

Do students have opportunities for summer funding?

Do students get funding to do fieldwork?

You should consider applying for the following before you get to grad school to pay for it:

NSF, Jacob Javits Fellowship, Ford Foundation, Mellon, NIMH, etc. [Recognize though that these are national competitions, so you have to have a pretty clear idea of what you are going to accomplish in graduate school as well as great GREs/grades.] Check with the UVM Office of Sponsored Programs for grant applications.

If you are willing to pay for grad school, especially a Ph.D. (i.e., you are heir to a fortune), then make sure they know it; they may not accept you solely on the basis that they've already given their fellowships to other candidates (even though they want you too); so if you can pay for it, they might take you. On the other hand, if you cannot pay for it, let them know directly in the financial aid statement of the application - this may influence them to offer you funding to ensure that you come there. Be frank with them. You can generally defer undergraduate loans if you are going to graduate school.



The Application

Statement of Purpose/Intent

This is hands-down the most significant component of your application, so it has to be well-written and polished. Begin with a clear and forceful opening; remember that the admissions committee is seeing hundreds of these, and yours has to stand out. It could be a motivating question (it should not be rhetorical), a perplexing situation or contradiction (that you then explain), or an outright statement or observation - but it should convey a sense that it's not only important to you, but that it has wider relevance (otherwise it sounds narcissistic).

In the body of the statement you should explain the following: Why you? What have you done to prepare yourself to do well? What themes and region do you want to work on? (corollary: Who do you want to work with? Be specific and name names, THEREBY CUSTOMIZING EACH ESSAY FOR EACH SCHOOL TO WHICH YOU APPLY). And finally, what are your goals/plans with this? A good way to organize your essay would be to devote one paragraph to answering each of these questions.

As you are communicating your desire to go onto graduate study, be aware that admissions committee people tend to like those people who they see as eager to take on the vagaries of graduate school itself; so that means don't spend time talking about the fact that you're using this as a stepping stone to a career. Also, style counts: try not to plug in the answers to these questions mechanically, since they should organically meld into one another. Wrap up the essay by referring back to your opening observations, question, etc, making the whole a tight package. Be sure to circulate this essay among recommenders, faculty, friends, etc. ahead of time to work out all the kinks.

In identifying your areas of interest, be as specific as possible. Although you won't be held to them since everybody's interests and projects evolve, you show them that you have a wider sense of where you are going in the field and life. A good committee will be looking for a delicate balance between a solid sense of direction and an open cast of mind.



These are also extremely significant, so be sure that these people know you and particularly your work and abilities.

A key problem for an admissions committee is how to evaluate students coming from different academic and social contexts, so they tend to rely on recommendations from colleagues to get a sense of the applicant's abilities. This means that if your recommender knows someone at the school to which you are applying, or your recommender's work is more widely known outside of your department, then the admissions committee will be able to contextualize your application better. You do need to be aware of these dynamics (some might call it an 'old boy's network,' although this term is inaccurate because academia is not so exclusive nor are anthropology departments necessarily dominated by men), since the applications process is only the beginning of having to deal with this and it will be there constantly throughout (at least the early years of) your career. After all, academia is a social network! This is not to say that you won't get accepted at a place where no one knows who your recommenders are; but you could certainly use this knowledge to your advantage and apply to those places where there may be previous relations between them and a recommender or two (or even if a student from your department has gone there and done well). Having some kind of benchmark on which they can rely enhances your possibilities immensely. But don't let this scare you from applying at places even where you feel like it could be a longshot - you never know!

If you have taken time off after undergraduate, it is acceptable to use the recommendation of an employer who knows you well. However, at least two out of your likely three recommenders should know you from an academic context.

When you ask for any recommendation from a professor or employer, ask well in advance of the deadline (especially professors, who are swamped with writing recs when you want yours) and send them an updated resume so they know you better as a whole person. Be sure to tell the recommender what you want him or her to include in the letter (i.e., skills, experiences, service, internship, TA experience, etc).



Along with your application send a copy of a particularly good paper you wrote (thesis or independent study), or publications, to give the admissions committee an idea about your actual work and abilities.

Make sure you list any honors, presentations, conference participations, and foreign experience. This is the kind of stuff that could be offered on a C.V. that you include with your application.



A Basic Timeline

The following timeline will help you think about when you should be doing things, if you are applying for fall entry. If you're applying to a school with rolling entry (uncommon), adjust this schedule accordingly.

The year before you want to enter:

Spring/Summer: Study for and take GRE; send for catalogues, applications and identify desirable departments; send letters to faculty that you might be interested in working with; let recommenders know so if they want they can begin to write recommendations; request info on national competitions for grad funding such as NSF, Javits, etc.

Early Fall: Take GRE again (if necessary); definitely secure recommendations from advisors; write and circulate personal statement; visit schools and talk with students; prepare c.v. and materials to include with application.

Late Fall: Fill out and mail in applications; apply for national competitions such as NSF, Javits, etc.

Year you enter:

Early Winter: Finish sending applications.

Late Winter/Spring: Wait to hear from schools...and then wait some more... (please don't assault mail carrier)

Late Spring/Early Summer: If you're accepted, make a visit and weigh offers (see below); set up financial aid and loans




Have you NOT been accepted anywhere?

First off, please try not to feel so bad. You can never know for certainty why a school did or did not accept you - there are many dynamics internal to departments that you can't know from the outside. Nevertheless, you should try to find out what eliminated you as a candidate, and see if you can correct it before applying next year (by taking more college level courses, retaking the GRE, getting relevant work experience, or rewriting a personal statement, etc.). Or, you could apply in a different discipline, or for an M.A. instead of a Ph.D.

Have you been accepted?

How, the question is, how am I going to pay for this?! If you were lucky, you got a fellowship offer. If you have multiple fellowship offers, you can use them as bargaining chips to get a slightly higher stipend or benefits. Be modest and humble - don't push these things - but if a school is serious about you, they may see what they can do so they don't lose you to one that gives you a better offer.

Don't expect a deferment unless you worked it out with the school ahead of time, especially if they have offered you a fellowship. Fellowship monies are limited, and can disappear if no one takes it, so departments are nervous if accepted students don't come. Most will not even guarantee that you will be accepted next year, since the next crop of applicants could be stronger.

If you are going to be paying with loans (Staffords, Nellie Mae, etc.), you need to think about applying for them the spring/summer before you enter. The financial aid office will help with this.

Is there a way to prepare for entering your first year of grad school?

Rest?! Don't feel like you have to read all sorts of stuff to prepare yourself - unless you're normally like this you'll probably just exhaust yourself, and the first year of grad school is intense enough as it is (in terms of the quantity and quality of work expected), that it probably won't do you any particular good... (This is open to debate, though. For example, some might argue that a reading group with friends or colleagues would be helpful...)




Books and Newsletters

American Anthropological Association Guide to Departments

An annually published tome that lists faculty and basic information on all departments. We have one in the department office. Extremely helpful for finding out who is in what departments and what they work on.

American Anthropological Association Newsletter

See the AAA Newsletter to get a sense of the state of the discipline, the job market, funding opportunities, etc. Most faculty receive this and it is on-line through the AAA website.

The Real Guide to Grad School: What to Know Before You Choose

Produced by the editors of Lingua Franca, the academic society pages. Pretty trustworthy insights on specific departments. (

Websites (updated 8/99)

I will list only several websites that will be good gateways for exploring grad school admissions and careers. They will lead you to more specific resources.

Office of Sponsored Programs, 340 Waterman Hall. You can find out about grants - for post-undergrad research or for graduate studies - from this office.

Created by the Reference Department of UVM's Bailey-Howe Library. It offers information on and links to anthropological research tools, disciplinary web pages, career information, museums, search engines, and how to evaluate web sites. It is an excellent resource for researching anthropological topics as well as beginning a search for grad schools and careers.

American Anthropological Association. The definitive source for links to websites treating all the subdisciplines of anthropology, including socio-cultural, archaeological, biophysical, linguistic and applied. They have constantly updated links to different websites of anthropological interest. You should especially check out their career pages, where they list available jobs.

A website dedicated to anthropological themes, has links to many other anthropologically-relevant websites. A good place to start surfing on anthropological themes and searching for graduate departments and info on jobs.

Individual department websites. Where you'll get the concrete info you need.


(Updated 8/99)