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Unusual background, pursuing grad anthro


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Hi all. Long time lurker, first time poster. Hoping for some guidance. 


So, I'm a trader at a prominent hedge fund. There, I said it. My undergrad degree (spring '13 grad) is from a top-20 school where I did a double major in Physics and Economics, and a creative writing thesis. High GPA, summa cum laude, phi beta kappa. you get it. After school I did the practical thing and took a very high paying job in finance, where I have worked since. You probably hate me by now -- I get it. So why am I here... 


In my junior and senior years of college I became very interested in culture and philosophy. What little free space I had in my schedule, I used to take anthro, soc, and philo courses (2 anthro, 1 soc, 2 philo). I was also very active in multicultural and social-justice organizations on campus. Since graduating, I've volunteered at a domestic violence shelter that specializes in services for immigrant women. Not only has it been rewarding and interestingly multicultural, but I've met some brilliant women who have taken my feminism and cultural awareness to the next level.  


Towards the end of college, I had the idea that grad school was something I wanted to pursue, but it was so much more practical at the time to take the money and get on my feet. Now I'm on my feet quite well and I still can't shake the pull of grad school. My bookcase is full of Strathern, Butler, Foucault, Anna Tsing, Marx, Derrida, Mead, Tannen, Chomsky, Comaroffs, Margaret Lock... I spend a huge chunk of my free time reading and thinking about their work and chasing down other sources. When the market is slow, I lean back and pull up an ebook of Foucault or whoever I'm reading at the time. I have so many ideas rattling around in my head that I want to investigate and share... Guys, I think I need to go to grad school. 


Comments on my reasoning for attending grad school are welcome, but I'd like to focus on the application process. In terms of knowledge and theoretical literacy, I think I can run circles around anyone with just an undergrad anthro major, but my transcript doesn't reflect this and I don’t know exactly how to show it. I also think it will be hard to explain my years in finance. So the question is: Given my unusual background, how can I position and present myself to get into a top grad program? A former anthro professor of mine recommended I write a original paper and try to get it published, which would show that I can “do” anthropology. I’ve started working on this. Comments on that project, and any other advice or guidance, is greatly appreciated. Thanks!


Edited by DancinFool
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Also a long time lurker, but your situation reminded of my situation right now. Now mind you I'm in the process of applying, so my experiment of trying to enter anthropology from an unrelated discipline may end up utterly failing. That remains to be seen, so as disclaimer take what I say with a grain of salt. Nonetheless, I thought I'd might throw some information your way (and publicly for that matter) on what I found in my application journey thus far without revealing too much information about myself.

Like you, I did my undergraduate and masters in a very unrelated major. However, unlike you, my discipline was not practical for everyday life, which I regret for the most part, but so be it. Also like you, I'm constantly digging and dwelling deeply into heavy anthropological (broadly speaking) theory. Although my particular interests lie somewhere in an intersection between phenomenology, linguistic anthropology, and semiotics. Thinkers like Bakhtin, Geertz, Goffman, Heidegger, Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, and Peirce are my jam. Yet with this, I don't have the formal and proven background via a transcript that I am competent in such literature.

From what I've gathered, the Statement of Purpose is bar none the most important aspect of your application. This is truly the one part of your application that you have complete and utter control over—although one could potentially argue this point regarding the GRE, but its scale of importance is debatable. For my SoP, I followed closely the collection of successful past statements available at Duke University's graduate page. I personally didn't apply to Duke as I didn't feel my project was a fit with any of the faculty members, but I appreciated the formatting of the SoP. Primarily, this is because it demonstrated that placing your project within the scope of other work and anthropological models through referencing is not only good practice, but almost seems expected. With this model in mind, I referenced the !@#$ out of my SoP. I believe that not only does this make your project seem relevant, but it shows how your work fits in with others whom are in your specific field and shows your knowledge and level of maturity in working with anthropological theory. One professor whom I contacted stressed this point quite strongly. And I am hard pressed to know how to demonstrate this without referencing. Obviously from your source of materials you read, you're already mature enough in this respect, so be sure to demonstrate the aptly in your SoP, especially since this is one of the major cruxes onto which you will be basing your project.

Speaking of projects, you also need to demonstrate that your project is original, feasible, and prepared to be conducted upon starting research. While projects obviously don't have to be finalized upon applying to graduate school, having a narrow scope, but demonstrating the ability to take on original ideas, is highly beneficial. Numerous professors I've contacted also stressed this point, and I can see their vantage point. Graduate schools are ultimately making an investment in your—at first, but ideally you'll be supporting yourself through NSF or Wenner-Gren and the like—and its bad on them if they hire someone who can't maintain a relatively steady scope. I doubt professors want to work with someone who flip-flops, as that can ultimately be hazardous to your advisor if your interests flip too much. As having your project fit within the research scope of enough people in the department to form a dissertation is kind of an implied necessity of applying to any program, the more narrow and feasible you make your project to align with their interests, the better. With this point, I must put in a crevice that your said you wanted to apply to top-ranked PhD programs. I'm under the impression that fit is a bit more important. For instance, I wanted to apply to Michigan badly, but I just couldn't see what I wanted to do fit there outside of one faculty. Perhaps this is my downfall on stressing departmental fit. Nonetheless, you definitely have to strike a balance with ranking and fit.

I guess I've found these two the more important factors in drafting my application, but there are a few more minor points I've found that I could write up at a later date. Again, I'm applying this cycle and I could end up being an utter failure and not getting into any program. That remains to be seen! Hopefully these few cents of perspective were somewhat helpful.

Edited by throwawayanthro
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A couple things:

1: Your background in no way flags you as a strange candidate for a Ph.D. program. Anthropologists of all people are interested in diversity, and any advisor you'd actually want to have as your advisor will likely see your background as a plus. You're clearly read up enough to have a general sense of debates and perspectives in the discipline, so don't feel like you're handicapped.

2: The single most important thing you can do in support of your application is reach out to potential advisors--better yet, several professors in the programs you're interested in--before you apply or during the application process. It's the most reliable way to let your POI know that you're interested and serious. They might not respond to your e-mail right away or even at all, but you should still write them.

3. Publications are fine, but they're not really important for getting accepted. More important is to think hard about what topics you're interested in and what sorts of projects you might want to take on for a dissertation. You're obviously not expected to have a dissertation plan starting out--if you do, it'll change dramatically over the first two or three years anyway--but you absolutely need to demonstrate that you've put some time and effort into working out what you'd like to do.

4. I'm an archaeologist and you're a cultural anthropologist, so the specific expectations for an SOP in your sub-field will be slightly different from mine. I didn't cite a single source directly in mine, although I attributed a few quotes the way a journalist might. In any event, it's true that the SOP is the most important part of your application, and you want it to do three things: (1) demonstrate intellectual seriousness and depth of knowledge about the discipline as a whole as well as your particular area of it (which means you'll need to have some sort of topical or areal focus); (2) demonstrate that you've thought about what you might like to do, although you're not expected to be married to a project; and (3) state very plainly, explicitly, and it detail why you think the foregoing make you a good match for the particular program you're writing to. Absolutely mention professors by name and explain why each of them in turn appeals to you as someone to study under or work with. Do the same with on-campus resources like libraries or research centers. This shows that you're not applying on a lark and that you're taking the application seriously, which will prompt professors in the department to do the same.


Hope that's helpful!

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Thanks for the helpful responses!

 Sounds like publishing a paper is unnecessary (phew). But most of the schools I'm interested in require a writing sample anywhere between 6-20 pages, and I don't have any anthropological writing samples of that length or rigor to submit yet. So I'll need to write something for that. I have plenty of topic ideas, but I'm not sure what type of paper to write or what the scope of it should be. Any guidance on this? The paper ideas I have are syntheses of several works with some original analysis. For example: X concept from Strathern can be generalized to give an interesting perspective on Y concept from Oyewumi and Z concept from Tsing... Something like that. Is that the right idea or no? 

Regarding the SOP, I looked up the samples on the Duke website and they are terrifyingly specific. Right now, my interests could most narrowly be described as "relations of power and marginalization". Is that too broad for a SOP? I can talk in depth about a lot of disparate issues within that category. But there's no way I can narrow myself down to "the cultural dynamics of city planning in Kigali" or something like that. They can't expect me to limit myself so much so soon, can they? 



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Hey there, DancinFool! I just finished applying to PhD programs in sociocultural anthropology this past December and I hope I can give you a few helpful bits of advice.

1) Your SOP/suggested topic of interest. In a way, they expect you to be able to narrow your desired research topic down strictly to show that you can identify, research, and design a project in your SOP. This is how you show you can "do" anthropology. I am also interested broadly in power dynamics, but I am also interested in the drug war, Mexico, the Continuum of Violence (thank you Bourgois for your brilliance), and security. In my SOP, I explored how these interests could come together within a project examining the effects of drug law enforcement within Ciudad Juarez, and what forms of order have emerged as a result. So my piece of advice is this- when you have finished reading about theory, what other topics interest you? Do you find yourself drawn to a region or broad area of the world? Is there a problem/current event that you have enjoyed reading about and exploring? Those are the kinds of questions to keep an eye on as you begin to think about applying in the next year. I found it extremely helpful to write down my thought processes in a rough flow chart. If you're interested in A, B, and C, what do those ideas also make you think of? Then slowly start consolidating these ideas into a succinct, executable project that you have thought through.

While it is not expected that you will ultimately stick with the same exact project throughout the program, these interests will help you identify programs and advisors. I highly suggest narrowing your interests down a little more so it will help you with that search. While knowing you have an interest in power dynamics is helpful, it will be difficult to know who you want to work with or what program is a good fit given that one data point.

2) Writing sample. Is there a term paper you wrote during those anthro/phil/soc courses back in college? If so, look for one that is about 10-15 pages and relates to your topic of interest. That is going to be the paper that you want to focus on polishing. Take it to your college's writing center (if you are nearby), have friends read it, have you letter of recommendation writers take a look. I highly highly highly suggest this method, as that paper has been seen by a professor and you have been given academic feedback already on that specific prompt.

.If you do not have a paper that you could edit, you can write one. Aim to choose a topic that will fill 10-15 pages. This is where you really need to demonstrate your ability to think critically, originally, and demonstrate your proficiency at the details of a certain citation style. During your research for sources, make sure the topic has not been already covered, or if you are writing about something related, that you are taking a unique stance, using a different theoretical framework, etc. etc. But get this read by a professor!!!! It is dangerous to submit a paper that has not been given critical, academic feedback by someone in your field. If you are writing a new paper, I would say read current papers in the field and model yours after that, but with a topic that doesn't require you to do fieldwork. Or, better yet, if you are still volunteering with victims of domestic violence, use that as a fieldwork opportunity. I used a paper analyzing public policy in Mexico.

3) Contact your recommendation writers early. I contacted mine 4 months in advance, before the semester started, to make sure they could write me a letter. Then I provided them with a binder covering the following: deadlines, contact persons for each program, details about each program and advisor I wanted to work with, my CV, my statement of purpose (already polished!), and papers that professor had graded. While it looks like a lot of work, my writers said it was immensely helpful and also demonstrated my ability for organization and forethought. I also met with them individually to speak about my interests, what I had been up to since graduation, and what I hoped to accomplish by going to grad school.

4) As has been mentioned before, contact potential advisors. Seriously. Travel there in person if you can to meet with them, sit in on a class, meet the chair/graduate program coordinator/see the campus. I'm serious. Best money/time I ever spent. I saved up then quit my job to do this, and I never regretted it.

5) You seem a bit preoccupied with having a background in finance rather than anthropology. Similar to the work on your research topic, write out a flow chart of skills you have gained working in finance that would help you be a successful researcher. You are no longer a student. You are accepted into a program based on the possibility of you developing into those advisors' colleague. It is less about your ability to get As in classes but more about your ability to identify unique research questions, create a project, and execute it. Write about those skills you have gained through your job and volunteer experiences. How they have shaped you. Highlight your intellectual curiosity. It ultimately becomes less about what theories you can prattle off and more about what will drive you to become an expert on a certain topic in your field. Everything you have done up to this point has given you marketable skills. Think of this as a job application. There is a program out there that would be a great fit for your interests in skills. Find it and sell yourself.

6) This will come into play much later, but as soon as the applications open for your schools, start them. Fill in basic information, and look for requirements listed within the application that are not available elsewhere. This happened to me, and I am so thankful I started the apps 3 months ahead of time and knew that one school only accepted SOPs that were 400-500 words- but that requirement was not listed anywhere else except in the application. Also, keep a spreadsheet of login information, pieces of the application, deadlines, etc. And keep it updated.

Hope these pieces of information help... I would say start first with your interests, and that will help you narrow down everything else. And don't forget to ask your letter writers or other professors for advice!!! They are a great resource and oftentimes know of good programs or experts related to your interests. Journals are also a great way to discover topics and people/programs. You may still have access to online resources through your school credentials (see if you can access your school's VPN or resources through the library webpage). Good luck!!!

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Duke—oh my god, right? First of all, those essays were all wicked long: most SOP word limits I encountered were 60-75% of what they wrote. Second, all four of the successful examples they gave had master's degrees. When I think about how Duke chose those examples, I waver back and forth on what the apparent MA-based model of success means for me. On the more obvious side of things, that would seem like a bad sign for people, like me, who only hold BAs. On the other hand, I have got to hope that the standard of specificity those examples faced (and attained) was at least slightly higher than is expected for the applicants who do not yet have a graduate degree. Who knows—my SOP is still very research-based, even though far less so than an applicant with an MA and four years of fieldwork could produce, so I suppose I'll know how well my attempt to square this circle worked when admissions results start coming back.

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On 1/11/2016 at 9:57 PM, knp said:

 I have got to hope that the standard of specificity those examples faced (and attained) was at least slightly higher than is expected for the applicants who do not yet have a graduate degree. Who knows—my SOP is still very research-based, even though far less so than an applicant with an MA and four years of fieldwork could produce, so I suppose I'll know how well my attempt to square this circle worked when admissions results start coming back.

Yeah, faculty understand that people with MAs will have more fieldwork and will have had more time to narrow down their focus. Don't worry about it too much. Also bear in mind that every program is just a little bit different, so while Duke may want to you write some epic, massively-cited beast of an SOP, a lot of other places won't. 

OP, the level of specificity you indicate for your interests should be fine as the basis for an application, but I would begin thinking about what part of the world you'd like to do fieldwork in and what sort of questions jump out at you from the body of theory you find most compelling. For instance, you're into relations of power and marginalization. Okay, are there holes in the arguments of thinkers that get cited a lot--Foucault, say--that you think could be filled in? Is there a particular instance of marginalization that you think cries out for fieldwork? These are the kinds of questions that will get your started on finding a specific research topic.

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