PhDs Study the World but MAs Run It: Masters-Only Training in Applied Anthropology

Society for Applied Anthropology Meeting, 2010


Ruthbeth Finerman (University of Memphis) and Miriam S. Chaiken (New Mexico State University)


Ruthbeth Finerman (University of Memphis), Miriam S. Chaiken (New Mexico State University), Barbara LeMaster (Cal State University Long Beach), and Lisa Henry (University of North Texas)

Summary of Discussion

The session encapsulated the title from Robert Trotter’s insights into the role of MA trained anthropologists, as central to many positions in the public and private sector. It brought together representatives from departments with MA programs that emphasized applied training. Participants represented programs that focus on preparing graduates for careers as practitioners, and engaged in a vigorous discussion from the colleagues that attended the session. The session focused on the following topics and issues:

  • What makes your MA program unique? And, is applied anthropology embedded within a more traditional department, or is it the central focus of your program?
  • What is your MA program’s mission? Is your program a feeder for doctoral/other post-grad study, or is it intended to produce practitioners?
  • How are the needs of students in applied programs unique, and different from those in traditional MA programs or graduate programs that also offer Ph.D.s?
  • What are we currently doing in our instruction and curriculum design for our current MA program?
  • Do innovations such as distance education technologies and reliance on internships or practica hold the key to our futures, or is traditional classroom-based instruction still essential?
  • What should the final product of an applied MA look like – a thesis? Project report? Policy statement?
  • What do graduates of your program tend to do after completing their MA degree, and how do you maintain outreach to your alumni?
  • What challenges do we perceive, or areas for improvement in our programs?

The session’s overarching goal was to discuss the strengths and challenges that face applied MA programs, to discuss the contributions our graduates make to their communities, and to find means to strengthen our programs’ positive impacts. The session had robust attendance and constructive discussion and sharing of insights, and the panelists felt that they learned as much as they conveyed to the session participants. The discussion highlighted a tremendous range of variation in program foci and degree requirements (e.g. thesis vs. practicum). Even so, the consensus was that there continues to be a large and growing demand for master’s-level training in applied anthropology, and that the MA provides a solid foundation for employment in public and private sector praxis.