Finding and Getting into Graduate School in Anthropology

            From time to time, the blog editors will be offering tips for preparing for grad school, tips for finding and getting into the appropriate program for you as an individual, and tips for succeeding in a graduate program.  For this post, we have elected to explore the topic of finding and getting into grad school.

            Let’s begin by assuming you have completed all of the program requirements for each of your school choices in a more than satisfactory manner.  Let’s also assume you have been following the tried and true advice of gaining experience working with people and showing yourself to be an outstanding member of your community.  Those things are standard for application to any graduate program in any discipline.  You will be competing with the best and brightest students from around the world for that coveted slot at your program of choice.  How will you make yourself standout?  To answer this, remember the focus of anthropology: people!

            To really stand out it is always good to make yourself a real person.  You do not want to compete as an abstract concept described on paper.  You want the faculty at your chosen program to get to know you and what you will offer the program, both as a student and, later, as a working professional alumnus.  The short answer for solving this dilemma of making yourself “real” is personal contact.  It really can be that simple!

            After you have chosen a program, regardless of your personal reasons, you need to spend some time getting to know the faculty of the program.  This is easily accomplished by spending time reading the program web page.  Somewhere on those pages you will generally find contact information for every faculty member and, in many cases, you will find a short biographic description of each of them.  Find out who is doing research in the area you would like to study.  Find out who is the person you would most like to meet.  Checking out the faculty is an important part of finding the best program for you so you should have already finished much of this preliminary work.  It is the people who make a program and, ultimately, it is the people who will shape your feelings about your graduate school experience.  Get to know them as much as you can when you are making your initial decisions.

            Once you have selected the person whom you would most like to be your mentor, start reading their professional publications.  Not only will this help you get excited about the potential of working with them, but it will also help you determine if they really do seem like the person you want as a mentor.  Once you have completed this background research, you are ready to initiate contact.

            Email is a great way to begin.  Send personal notes to each of your selected faculty members explaining your interest in the program in general and your interest in them being your mentor, in specific.  Include some biographical information about yourself as a way of generating their interest in the opportunity to meet you.  There is an important caveat for this introduction email.  Use proper grammar!  Format and write this email as if it is a letter.  Do not use abbreviations or internet code and above all, be respectful.  Begin your email with “Dear Dr. Smith” not “Hey” or “Howdy, John.”  Remember, you are trying to create a favorable impression, not just an impression.

            When you receive a positive response, if it is at all possible, you should arrange a personal visit to the campus.  Ideally, you would like the visit to be on a day and time when your chosen mentor will be available to meet with you.  Be mindful of their schedule.  But, during your visit you also want to meet as many other faculty and staff as you can.  You also want to talk to current students.  They will be able to give you inside information about people and the program that you might not learn otherwise.  If you can’t arrange to physically go to the campus, do not neglect the email and possibly a telephone contact.  Your goal in all of this personal contact is to create an ally for yourself on the admissions committee.  You want someone at the school to be willing to fight for your inclusion into the next incoming class.  If you have made the appropriate impression you will have the ally that you need.  This could even spill over into the area of funding.

            Does all of this really work?  Absolutely!  When applying to graduate programs, the author of this column sent four applications and visited three campuses.  I was accepted into three programs.  At that point, my main concern became funding.  I called my potential mentors at each school and explained my dilemma.  One immediately made an offer of funding and one made a promise of funding but needed to get back to me about the level.  The third politely explained that no incoming graduate students got funding at their program.  So, my choice was narrowed for me.  Of the two making offers, both actually worked to recruit me instead of me feeling that I was begging to get into their program!  Granted, I had other factors working in my favor in the applications but we should not undervalue the personal contact’s role in my application success.  Be someone whom others want to be around and take the opportunity to demonstrate your interest in being mentored by the right person.  These, after all, are the skills of an anthropologist.  Good luck!