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March 9, 2014 / Matthew Wolf-Meyer

How to Write a Journal Article (in [currently unnumbered] steps): Step 1 — Analyze a Model

Writing an academic article isn’t as difficult as it might seem from the outset — as long as you have enough evidence, a clear sense of the existing literature, and a good model to work from. In this first of several guides to writing a journal article, I want to work through this last element: a good example from an appropriate journal. (This is intended for anthropologists, but it might apply more generally.)

1The first thing to do is identify a journal you’re interested in publishing in. If this is your first article, target a journal that focuses on your subfield or geographical region of interest. Generally speaking, these smaller journals have word lengths of approximately 6,000-8,000 words. These short articles tend to focus on one key idea from your research, and mobilize 2-3 cases to support it. Once you have a significant number of dissertation chapters written, it should be relatively easy to weave together a first draft. But putting something together and making it relevant to the journal you’re interested in publishing in are two different projects. So the best thing to do is to find a good article published in the journal you’re targeting and work from that to get a sense of what the journal is looking for.

A good model isn’t one that comes from a senior academic. Instead, find one published in the last 12-18 months by an assistant professor or someone recently graduated from their Ph.D. program — someone roughly like you. Your model author will also be working from dissertation material, which is significantly different than the kinds of evidence later-career academics work from. Moreover, because junior people are working to position themselves in the field, the burden of their articles is significantly different.

If the editorship of the journal has changed hands since the publication of the article you’re working from, be sure to look at any introductions to the journal that the new editor(s) has written. If the journal is changing its focus or generic form, the new editor(s) will generally make that known early in their leadership.

Once you have the model in hand, read it once all the way through. Then, circle back with a highlighter and read it again. You’re going to need a few different colored highlighters for what’s about to come, and each time you read the article, it will get shorter and shorter…

On this first pass, highlight all of the primary evidence in the article — all of the actual empirical content generated by the author’s research. So for most anthropology articles, this means descriptions of spaces, people and events; it also includes quotes from interviews and other qualitative (and sometimes quantitative) data.

On the second pass, highlight (in another color) all of the secondary evidence in the article, but focus your attention on the content outside of the literature review. This often includes paraphrasing other authors, as well as historical or other anthropological work on the same topic. This does not include theoretical citations.

On the third pass, highlight (in yet another color) all of the argumentative content — the thesis, the topic sentences, and wherever else claims are being made (there shouldn’t be too many in the introduction or conclusion). This may include theoretical citations, especially if the author’s purpose is to argue with a set of theories or theorists.

On the fourth and final pass, highlight (in still another color) all of citations in the literature review section of the paper. Most journal articles should have 1-2 pages where the author is positioning the research alongside other work in the same subfield, other approaches to the same topic, and other research on the topic and subfield in the same geographic region. In some cases these sections can be quite long, but in most subfield and area journals, they’re relatively short.

Once you have this set of tasks completed, you should have a well marked up document. It will provide you with a few things: 1) a sense of how much evidence you need for an article of the same length, 2) a feeling for how much secondary literature you need to engage with, and 3) a scaffold of an argument and its relation to the empirical content that supports it.

With this evidence in hand, you should begin to think about your work and what might be successful at the same scale. Short articles in the 6-8,000 word range usually only have one substantial argument, and use a few cases to argue it. (For an example, you can look at an early article of mine, here.) Generally, your argument can’t get too complicated — you need a well defined problem and interpretation of it for a short article — so it will often be less than a dissertation chapter, or might borrow content from a number of chapters.

Like I discuss in relation to developing a publishing strategy for your early career, often when you’re writing for subfield or area journals, you’re making an argument with the existing literature in that field. So, what does your dissertation research add to dominant approaches to your subfield, area or topic? Just tackling that question is enough for a first or second article, because, in the beginning, you’re trying to do two things: First, you need to get people to pay attention to you, and, second, you need to start putting out articles that you can cite to support later, more complicated arguments in longer, more complex articles… But early on you need tight, short articles that make it clear to your readers what your interests are and what debates you’re contributing to at this stage in your career.

And here is Step Two (as soon as it’s up).

February 28, 2014 / Matthew Wolf-Meyer

The 5-Page Dissertation

Starting to write a dissertation is a daunting project. I’m all about formal conceits, though, and find that they can be very helpful in making dissertation writing a much more agreeable process. With my own dissertation, I used a method that relied on 5-page, case-oriented sections (which I’ll describe a bit below, and which you can still see the remnants of in the structure and content of The Slumbering Masses; if you feel really daring, you could also look at my actual dissertation). Each chapter of my dissertation was comprised of 5 or more of these 5-page sections, as well as an introduction and conclusion. All in all, my dissertation ended up being comprised of more than 50 of these 5-page sections, which included evidence assembled from fieldnotes, interview transcripts, and archival and textual content.


Not every section adhered to a strict 5 pages, but my general rule was that if it was less than 5 pages long, then it wasn’t enough to count as a section — so it either needed to be paired with other data, or it needed to be expanded with more data or analysis. If it is longer than 5 pages by more than a couple of pages — i.e. it was closer to 10 pages than 5 — then it would need to be broken into two smaller sections that were clearly argued.

My general writing philosophy is that no one wants to read  about any one thing for more than 5 pages, and even if they do, they forget why they’re reading about it after page 5. So, both for the purpose of keeping people interested in your dissertation, and making sure they know what they’re reading what they’re reading, 5 page sections make sense.

Sections like I’m describing can also be fairly easy and stress-free to write. If, at the beginning of your dissertation writing, you can set aside theoretical concerns and structural conceits, writing up evidence in this 5-page case fashion can go fairly quickly. Yes, you’re deferring the heavy lifting, but it means that by the time you get to the analytic work, you have a significant amount of data, and a clear sense of what’s going into the dissertation (evidence-wise).

There’s also inherent modularity to 5-page sections. That is, if you need to move content from one chapter to another, if it’s in 5-page chunks, it’s relatively easy to relocate, and usually only requires a little rewriting in the section’s introductory and concluding paragraphs (and maybe in some of the analytic sections).

So, how did I (and how might you) structure 5-page sections?

I always tell people who are writing their dissertations to start with the evidence: just start writing up fieldnotes and transcribing interviews, beginning with the stuff that really stands out, and working from there. Don’t worry about why you’re writing this stuff up, just focus on assembling evidence. These nuggets of evidence provide the basis for your 5-page sections. These initial evidence-focused drafts can be quite short, anywhere from 1 page to 3 or 4. If they get longer than that, think about where it might be broken into 2 sections for the purpose of later development.

As you write these small sections, it’s worth marking them with keywords — these can be very straightforward descriptors or theoretical terms — which you can then use to move to the next stage. If you compile all of your sections into one document, it also makes it easy to keyword search for sections that might be associated with one another.

Once you have a significant number of these 5-page sections written (say 20 to begin with), you can start to arrange them into the skeletal framework of chapters based on similarities in themes or content. On first pass, each chapter probably needs 3-4 sections; as you move ahead, you might write new sections to complement the ones you already have, or move sections from one chapter to another. It will also become increasingly clear what other evidence you need to type up, so although you might only start with 20 or so sections written, by the end of the process you’ll have significantly more.

After assembling skeletal chapters, you can begin to write the analytic content for each of the sections and work on tying them together. This is the real difficult part of the process, and nothing makes it easier. But having solid evidence-based sections will ensure that there’s a firm foundation for each of the chapters.

You might also find that you end up with a number of sections that don’t ultimately fit into the dissertation. This isn’t cause for alarm, but instead might provide the basis for future articles or book chapters. Dissertation writing is about creating an archive of content that you can mine over the next five or more years (when the likelihood of new research opportunities is low), so the more you have by the time you finish your dissertation, the better. It doesn’t all need to be in the dissertation though, so don’t worry about producing too much since you’ll inevitably find uses for it.

Any questions about the process? Other suggestions for how to tackle dissertation writing? Desire to read a whole How-To book about the idea of dissertation writing this way and possible strategies? Post everything in the comments.

For another approach, check this out.

September 7, 2013 / Matthew Wolf-Meyer

Asking for Letters of Recommendation (for Undergraduates)

These are the general criteria I have for writing letters for undergraduate students, particularly for graduate school. I assume most other professors have similar standards, so I’m listing my criteria here so that students can plan appropriately. If students don’t meet these criteria, it’s very unlikely that I’ll write a letter of recommendation on their behalf.


1) A student must have taken at least two classes with me, and preferably more. If you only take one class with a professor, all they can write about is your performance in that one class. What’s more compelling to readers of your application is seeing consistency or trajectory — i.e. either that you are a solid, high achieving student across classes, or that you are maturing as a student and are improving in your achievements.

2) A student must write an original research paper in at least one of the classes taken with me. It’s fine to write about your performance on tests, quizzes and your general classroom behavior and achievements, but what’s even more important is the ability of a letter writer to speak to your ability to conduct original research and write a compelling, well argued research paper — since that’s what you’re going to have to do in graduate school.

3) I have to recognize your face and name. This might seem incidental, but if you’ve done 1 & 2, then it’s most likely the case that you’ll already meet this criteria. If, however, you’ve taken a number of classes with me, never spoken in class, met with me outside of class, or distinguished yourself in some way in my memory, something has gone wrong. If I know your name in class, I’ll probably remember it a few years later.

If you meet all those criteria, please don’t ask to come see me in my office just to ask me to write a letter of recommendation; an email will suffice. Please also take the time to read this guide on applying to graduate school, and plan on sending me your personal statement and the list of schools you’re considering. if I suggest other schools, take my suggestions seriously and at least look at the programs I mention.

A few other things to keep in mind as you prepare to ask people for letters of recommendation:

First, don’t ask graduate student teaching assistants for letters of recommendation. Their letters don’t carry the weight that faculty letters do, and, frankly, it’s not part of their job to recommend you.

Second: try and get letters from faculty who are in some way related to the kind of program you’re applying to. This can sometimes be difficult to manage, especially if you’re changing disciplines. But if a reader recognizes the name of a letter writer, that letter is going to prove much more effective in getting you into the program.

Finally, if you have weak or uncertain letters — i.e. you don’t meet the above requirements but are still getting letters from people — don’t waste your money on applying to Ph.D. programs, just target M.A. programs (which weak letters can probably get you into, as long as you have a solid GPA and personal statement).

If you’re thinking about graduate school and you don’t meet the above criteria for anyone you might ask for a letter from, the best option is to apply for post-baccalaureate enrollment at your alma mater and to take a few more classes with professors you previously worked with. This can give you the chance to work closely with professors, and to impress them of your readiness for graduate study.

Graduate school is a big commitment — time-wise, emotionally and monetarily — and preparing for it socially and academically will make a big difference in your ability to get into the programs you’re interested in.

September 7, 2013 / Matthew Wolf-Meyer

The Mysterious Teaching Statement, Part 1

This is the first of a two part series on teaching statements. In this entry, I focus on my own expectations as a reader of teaching statements; in a future installment, I’ll present similar expectations from colleagues at other institutions.

My general sense of teaching statements as part of the job application process is that they’re principally used to separate the wheat from the chaff — that is, they’re used to disqualify job seekers on the basis of having little or no actual teaching experience, which can often be seen in teaching statements that include phrases like: ‘I embrace the Socratic method’ or ‘I believe that research papers are important in every class.’ Those are clear red flags that the author of the statement has spent little or no time in a university classroom, and might not be the best person for the job.


That all being said, I do think there are some key things to cover in a teaching statement, and they are (in no particular order): 1) how you would approach teaching a ‘service’ course, 2) the curriculum that you bring with you (including courses on the books that you’re prepared to teach), 3) examples of your actual classroom practice, and 4) your approach to research or mentoring experiences. I don’t think they necessarily need to appear in that order — it should be organic in its presentation — but as a reader, that’s the stuff I would want to see.

So, to explicate a bit:

Service classes are things like Intro to Your Discipline, Methods, Theory, and maybe Intro to Your Area or Subfield. Every department offers these classes, and they’re often the staples of the curriculum. Seeing that a job applicant has taken the time to think about their approach to one of these classes shows that the applicant has thought about one of the likely courses they’ll be facing in the short term; it also serves as a good way to see what makes a job applicant characteristic in their thought. For example (and please forgive the italics):

I’m committed to teaching Anthropological Theory, which, as I teach it, focuses on the relationship of imperial centers of thought and the colonies; as much as I find it necessary to include canonical figures and topics, I also include a number of thinkers from the postcolonies — anthropologists and not — in an effort to make evident to students how anthropological theory arises in dialogue with local forms of thought and expertise. Rather than organize the course historically, with theory progressing from Boas to the present, I instead structure the class around current ethnographies to make evident how anthropologists both produce and engage with anthropological — and cultural — theory. For example, I’ve recently begun teaching Elizabeth Povinelli’s Empire of Love as a way to approach ideas about globalization, postcoloniality, and indigenous rights. Alongside Povinelli’s work, we read pieces from Walter Mignolo, Achille Mbembe, Franz Fanon, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Gayatri Spivak, and anthropologists George Marcus, Aiwha Ong, and Anna Tsing. Students are asked to stage debates between anthropologists and their interlocutors, and, to do so, are tasked with uncovering and explaining the theoretical underpinnings to their arguments.

A paragraph like that lets your reader know that you’re willing to tackle a service class, and that you’re able to bend it to your own strengths. Moreover, it also gives your reader a sense of your perspectives as a teacher, which may vary significantly from your presentation of yourself as a researcher. For instance, I don’t think my commitment to global knowledge production is necessarily apparent in my description of my own work (which is largely U.S.-based, and pretty Continental in its theoretical influences). That being said, being honest about my approach might not make me friends among faculty who think that Anthropological Theory begins with Boas and ends with Sahlins…

On the subject of your perspective as a teacher, it’s worth thinking about what 3-4 classes you could offer a department on a two year cycle. Most departments will expect faculty to teach 1-2 service classes each year (or more), but also give you some flexibility about upper level courses, particularly tied to your training and interests. For example, although I’m tasked with teaching Intro to Medical Anthropology every other year (as well as another service class) at UCSC, I also offer at least two classes that are directly keyed to my research. So, I often teach a course entitled The Biology of Everyday Life as well as a class on Medicine and Colonialism. It’s worth including a sentence or two about each of the classes.

In addition to teaching Intro to Cultural Anthropology, Ethnographic Methods, and Anthropological Theory, I am also interested in regularly offering classes related to medical anthropology and science studies. My Intro to Medical Anthropology is structured around four ethnographies, one each on Western biomedicine, Indian Ayurveda, African ‘folk’ medicine, and Traditional Chinese Medicine. My interest in exposing students to these four traditions is to unsettle their ideas about the lack of history of Western medicine and the naturalness of non-Western practices. I find that students often naively assume that non-Western practices are more authentic, and also, paradoxically, acultural. Situating these four traditions alongside one another exposes how each is historical, cultural and influenced by contemporary politics and concerns. I follow some of the concerns presented in this Introduction in Medicine and Colonialism, in which I focus the class on the use of colonies as a space for experimenting with medicine, subjectivity and governance. My Biology of Everyday Life class allows me to teach content related to my research on sleep, but put into a broader theoretical context regarding how basic biological functions — reproduction, eating, defecation, breathing — become the basis for subjection and politics across societies and history. Additionally, I regularly offer topically focused seminars in medical anthropology and science studies; over the last five years, they have focused on ‘risk and insurance,’ ‘chronic illness,’ and ‘the brain.’

If it hasn’t already been covered, it’s also useful to explain how your classrooms are organized and what kinds of expectations you have of students:

My classes are highly regimented, and through a combination of reading questions (that ask students to identify key concepts in the readings and provide examples from other class readings) and reading guides (a set of questions designed to help students identify an author’s thesis, evidence, and theoretical commitments) I help students work through difficult empirical and theoretical texts. Because the courses I teach are often very theoretically focused, I regularly quiz students and rely on extensive exams to assess their knowledge of the course material. Students who take multiple classes with me and excel in them are offered the opportunity to write a research paper instead of taking quizzes and tests, and I ask them to write ethnological papers, relying in part on HRAF. Across my classes, I work to include documentaries, podcasts, and other multimedia learning experiences; between these media exercises and the format of my classes, I am able to engage students from diverse backgrounds and with varied learning styles.

Reading that paragraph makes it apparent that I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the classroom and that I know what my teaching style is. Near the beginning of your teaching career, it’s difficult to be so succinct and honest; instead, it might be best to take a look at syllabuses from faculty you’ve worked with. See what kinds of assignments they use, and, if you can, see how their assignments and classroom policies have changed over time. Often, by the time someone has taught for a decade, their teaching becomes fairly stable — so try and find an early associate or late assistant professor and take a look at their syllabuses for a few years of classes. And, if you can, look at some of their exams and other assignments to get a sense of what they actually ask students to do.

Finally, you should have a paragraph about your research opportunities for students, as well as your mentoring style. For primarily undergraduate institutions, the former is more important; for institutions where you’re be interacting with graduate students, the latter is more important (to the degree that you might cut any discussion of undergrads).

Much of my mentoring at UCSC has been designed around the problems that many students experience, and my own recent memory of being a graduate student. Broadly, I provide students with ongoing, direct intellectual support, as well as professional development opportunities, with the intent being that by the time they have earned their Ph.D. they will have published one or more articles, and they will have begun to work on a variety of individual and collaborative projects. In the category of intellectual support, I offer a monthly reading seminar for my graduate students, wherein we read an article or excerpts from a book of mutual interest, and use this as a centerpiece for our conversation; we then segue into conversations about individual work, and the status of writing projects. Along similar lines, I offer a professionalization seminar that runs fortnightly over the course of the school year, offering from 15 meetings. We cover topics such as writing job letters and preparing curriculum vitae to dealing with problem students and syllabus development, to writing articles and planning publishing trajectories. It’s a demanding seminar, but the students who participate find their anxieties about the transition from student to professional to be much less stressful through my demystification efforts.

Taken together, the document should be 1-2 single spaced pages. If the institution asks for ‘evidence of teaching effectiveness’ or has some other way to ask about teaching evaluations, it’s better to summarize what you have in a page or two (included representative comments from students) than it is to include copies of evaluations (which can vary significantly from institution to institution). Ultimately, it shouldn’t be too long, and, like a job letter, should not overstay its welcome.

Questions, comments, experiences? Post them in the comment section.

September 6, 2013 / Matthew Wolf-Meyer

Conceptualizing the Second Project

One of the challenges that academic job seekers confront is conceptualizing a second project to engage in after the completion of their dissertations. Some brief description of a second project is always part of job letters, but it’s even more important in conversation with potential colleagues during interviews. Broadly, it seems like they can be reduced to pragmatic and ideal projects. But, in either case, they need to convince your potential colleagues of your intellectual (and work) trajectory.


Pragmatic projects directly stem from dissertation projects, and consist of work that develops a dissertation project into a marketable book project. Basically, this kind of project is described in terms that convince readers that you have a sense of what it will take for you to get tenure at their institution; it might mean returning to your original fieldsite, some comparative fieldsite (either locally or abroad), or some other kind of research (archival, textual, etc.). I don’t think it’s an admission of inadequacy to suggest that your dissertation project needs more work to be publishable as a book — everyone’s dissertation needs work to be a book. Instead, it makes it apparent to your reader that you know that there’s still work to be done, and that you know what needs to be attended to.

Ideal projects, on the other hand, are the sequels to dissertation projects. Whatever you feel about your dissertation, your ideal second project should build upon it in some fashion and convince your reader that you have some kind of intellectual commitment. At the time I was sending out my first job applications, I was pretty convinced that my second project was going to be about the idea of ‘public health’ as it touched down in postcolonial India and China, especially around ideas about breathing. Because my dissertation was so rooted in the U.S., I really felt the need to work internationally; I also wanted to work on the transmission of particular ideas about the body outside of the U.S. And, most importantly, I wanted to continue working on everyday biology. I abandoned this project as a second project (traipsing to India and China, and developing research partnerships in both places, was too much to ask of myself pre-tenure), but I’ll get around to it eventually… But what it indexed to my readers was my interest in everyday biology and how it gets caught up in medical and scientific thought and practice — it showed my readers that I had a ‘research agenda.’ And that seems to be key in thinking through a second project: what are you planning on working on — in your research, in your teaching — for the next decade, if not your entire career? If you can index it by pairing your current and future projects, it will give your readers and interviewers a clear sense that you have a plan and know what you’re about. Even if there are some bumps in the road.

There are a couple other things to consider as you think about second projects. None of this needs to be covered in a job letter or during an interview, but it is worth keeping in mind as your career develops.

It’s not a contract between you and your potential employer. That is, if you’re hired by an academic institution, you don’t have to produce the second project you said you would. Things come up, both in life and through writing and teaching, and what seemed like a good second project when you were finishing your dissertation may not be quite so compelling a few years later. And, realistically, if you spend time applying for funding for your second project, and no one is coming through with funding, it might be worth abandoning for something more fundable.

Be realistic. Starting a new academic job (tenure track or not) comes with a lot of work commitments — faculty meetings, meetings with students, service, publishing, new course preps, etc. — and having the time to develop and carry out a robust second project can be slight. This can be seen with a lot of more senior academics, who often develop local or historical projects. It can be worth looking around a potential employer to see what, if any, resources or sites might exist that could provide fertile ground for developing a new project.

Other thoughts, experiences or questions? Post them in the comments.

May 31, 2013 / Matthew Wolf-Meyer

The Elements of Productive Peer Review

One of the most important academic practices to learn is that of peer review — both producing peer reviews of other people’s work, and learning how to read peer reviews productively. And yet, we’re rarely taught how to write generative peer reviews, and even more rarely are we taught how to read peer reviews to improve our work. So, here’s a first stab.

Preparing Peer Reviews

At the outset, I should say that many journals have peer review expectations, and these are embedded in forms that they ask peer reviewers to fill out at the time they submit their peer reviews to the editors. At the most basic, they ask reviewers to evaluate the submission in terms of its ability to be published (e.g. publish without revisions, publish with revisions, revise and resubmit, do not publish). Beyond that, though, most peer reviews are rather free form and are left up to peer reviewers to do with it what they will. That being said, useful peer reviews tend to share some qualities:

Make sure that throughout your review to flag what the author needs to address and what she or he may choose to address. More than anything else, this can really help make the difference between a useful review and one that’s not so useful…

Start with a summary of the author’s argument, as you understand it. This is a pretty good index to the author as to whether or not he or she is conveying their argument, and what, if any, interpretive problems are happening on the reviewer’s end. If the reviewers just aren’t getting it, then there’s a big problem. Or if the reviewers are missing a nuance in the argument, that’s important to see too. This summary needn’t be long, but it should paraphrase the thesis and then cover the argumentation (i.e. the argument is X, which is followed in the paper by discussions of A, B and C). If there are logical inconsistencies in the argumentation, this is the place to point that out. If there are argumentative problems, this section can be much longer — upwards of two pages. But if it stretches beyond that, it needs to be broken into subsections to help the author interpret what to do and where specific problems lie.

The middle section of a peer review usually falls into the realm of free association, which is where the reviewer can spend some time discussing the relative merits and shortfalls of the paper, the paper’s linkage to other existing scholarship, and the overall consistency of the paper. Throughout, it’s important to flag which comments need to be addressed by the author and which are not so critical: it’s fine to go on for a paragraph or two about a pet peeve or some flight of fancy, but if it has little bearing on how the author should be rewriting his or her paper, make sure to flag that (e.g. ‘The author might be interested in…’ rather than ‘The author needs to address…’).

In the middle section of the peer review, it’s worth taking the time to discuss each of the sections of the paper (as the author has it broken down), including a brief description of the section along with some evaluative language (does it work or doesn’t it?). If there are parts of the paper that just don’t work or parts of the paper that really do work, this is the place to point them out. Praising things about the paper is just as important as saying critical things: if one reviewer really likes a section and others do not, it’s helpful to see why that’s the case.

Connecting the article to existing literature that hasn’t been discussed by the author also usually falls into this middle section. Again, it’s important to flag what needs to be addressed and what might be addressed. If an author is making vague references to a body of theoretical literature and would really do well to spell out her or his assumptions more directly, point that out; if an author has a huge blind spot in his or her discussion of relevant literature, point that out too. But if there’s some tangentially related literature that you know but the author doesn’t — and it won’t really have any bearing on the article anyway — make sure to mention that citing that work isn’t consequential, but might be interesting to the author.

The last section of peer reviews usually focuses much more on very specific things that need to be addressed by the author: are there specific awkward or vague sentences, missing citations, bibliographic errors, etc.? This isn’t to say that a peer review’s job is to find syntactical or grammatical problems, but if there are writing issues that interfere with the ability of the paper to be read, these problems need to be pointed out to the author.

The final paragraph of the review should succinctly restate your overall assessment of the paper and outline the major things (if any) that need attention on the part of the author.

It may seem paradoxical, but a really good review can actually be a bad review for an author. I’ve received reviews that say things along the lines of ‘This paper is ready to be published; the author shouldn’t change anything.’ (Usually only after already having passed through peer review multiple times, mind you…) But if the other reviewers are highly critical of parts of the paper, such a blanket positive peer review doesn’t help much. Instead, working through the positives of the paper is more helpful for the author, so that she or he can see why you like sections or the paper as much as you do — if you like things that others do not, it’s vital to see why that is. And, if there’s an editor involved, they’re more likely to be swayed by articulate, negative appraisals than a blanket and vague positive one.

Interpreting Peer Reviews

If you’re an author and have peer reviews that look roughly like what I’ve outline here, there should be very little problem in interpreting them. But, more likely, you’ll have peer reviews that don’t strictly (or even closely) follow this format. The best way to tackle reviews is to read through them and identify those things that reviewers think need to be changed (and thereby isolating them from less pertinent critiques). Often, the best way to do this is to see if there is convergence between readers: are people having similar problems with the paper? If they are, that’s fairly easy to see and address. If they’re having wildly different kinds of problems, it’s worth writing down the criticisms and seeing what the problem lies: is it that they really understand your argument differently? Are they coming from very different interpretive traditions? Sometimes you can address these problems; sometimes, it’s just the luck of the draw. And the important thing here is to isolate what you actually need to address and what you don’t. In not addressing some concerns, it’s important to point out why — sometimes in the body of the paper itself (which may be a way to get your argument more precise).

If you’re preparing to resubmit a paper after peer review, editors will often ask that you enumerate the changes that you’ve made to the text — and which changes you haven’t made and explanations as to why. If you have a list of requested changes, this is a fairly easy document to prepare, as you can list which changes you’ve made, how the criticism has been addressed, and where the change appears in the paper. Doing this can be helpful both for the editor and for peer reviewers, who often want to see that you’ve made the changes that they’ve suggested.

February 24, 2013 / Matthew Wolf-Meyer

The Future of Anthropology (According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics)


My partner forwarded me a short blog post about job prospects in anthropology looking better than they have been (started by The Atlantic), and we collectively began wondering whether there’s really anything to look forward to. And, the short of it is this: there isn’t. The number of Ph.D.s awarded annually has increased dramatically over the last 20 years (from 341 in 1991 to 555 in 2011, up from 472 in 2006 — a 17% growth) and the job projections at the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) show only a 21% projected growth in anthropology-related jobs. On the face of it, this might look okay, but when we look closer at the BLS numbers there are some things to be concerned about — and to prepare strategies for:

First of all is the actual number of jobs. The BLS lists the number of anthropology jobs in 2010 as 6100, with a total of 7400 by 2020. If the job growth is gradual, with ~160 jobs being created each year, that’s still ~300 anthropology Ph.D.s out of work in their field each year for the foreseeable future. And this assumes that the normal number of retirements continue, providing for the regular entry-level jobs that account for ~100 academic jobs annually (which is about the number of jobs posted annually on the AAA job center).

Second, when you look at where the jobs are projected to be, the BLS shows that most of the jobs will be in ‘professional, scientific and technical services’ (not education, but consulting), and that there will be shrinkage in jobs associated with ‘research and development in the humanities and social sciences’ on the order of 2.5%). The jobs associated with education (at all levels of higher ed — adjuncting and tenure track) only account for about 200 new jobs (if I read the table correctly). There’s also significant contraction in the number of jobs associated with the federal government (maybe related to human terrain work drying up?).

Most of the growth that’s projected is in ‘scientific research and development services’ — which, I’m guessing, means a lot of contract archaeology. Which is pretty much what the BLS says: ‘Archeologists should have the best job prospects in cultural resource management (CRM) firms.’ But, they warn, ‘due to the large number of qualified graduates and relatively few positions available, jobseekers may face very strong competition.’ (But this, I’m going to guess, depends on growth in the U.S. housing market, where archaeologists will oversee holes being dug…) They also shore up my summary, saying ‘job opportunities for anthropologists will expand in businesses, consulting firms, and other non-traditional settings,’ but that these jobs are going to be very competitive.

So, if that’s where the jobs will be, what can we do proactively to prepare for those employment possibilities?

We should probably slow down the number of Ph.D.s programs grant each year. If there’s continued ~20% growth in Ph.D.s granted, the growth projected by the BLS will only keep pace with the number of new Ph.D.s. And unless job growth continues at the same rate, it will quickly be surpassed by Ph.D.s granted (although there must be a ceiling to the number granted, I’m just not sure what that might be — especially since there seem to be more and more new Ph.D. programs… — who doesn’t want teaching assistants?). I’m not sure how Ph.D.s might be limited in the future, but it seems that at the level of the AAA some kind of ‘best practices’ could be developed — which would both ensure a diversity of institutions granting Ph.D.s (so it’s not all elite institutions) and rewards actual success (programs that only graduate 5 students each year, but most of them are employed should be favored over programs that graduate 20 each year and only get 5 employed). But that’s a pretty farfetched possibility… More realistically, students might take to heart the success of programs when selecting where they’ll go, which might lead to the same results, i.e. unsuccessful programs will wither while more successful ones grow.

More pragmatically, programs need to start training graduate students across the subfields to be able to do contract and consulting work, which requires a firm commitment to the professionalization of students that extends past preparing a pretty CV.

Mixed field programs might find ways for graduate students across the subfields to develop collaborative projects, both as term projects, but also as dissertations. Historical archaeologists and cultural anthropologists share many concerns, and teaming graduate students up to conduct collaborative work would prepare them for a future of working on research teams in consulting situations. And cultural anthropologists might think about ways to participate in and contribute to biological fieldwork, with both living and dead populations — which training in science and technology studies might prepare students for. Preparing multi-author papers will help prepare students for the possibility of team-written reports.

Programs might usefully invite local non-academically employed anthropologists for brown bag discussions with graduate students about locating and preparing for jobs in non-academic situations. Most academically employed anthropologists are fairly alienated from these realities, so finding mechanisms to make sure that graduate students aren’t is clearly vital. (If you’re a non-academically employed anthropologist and reading this, you should offer to visit your local Ph.D. granting departments for a brown bag lunch.)

With contacts in local non-academic organizations, students might look towards the possibility of developing local projects (maybe alongside their dissertations) with organizations that already employ anthropologists (Rachel Wright has a nice piece about this in a recent Anthropology News). Whenever I teach our graduate methods class, I have my students volunteer at local organizations — a trick I learned from Penny Edgell at the University of Minnesota. It helps students get their fieldwork feet wet, can result in an early publication, and it also helps them get a sense of how their professional career might involve working in a non-academic setting.

I’m sure there’s more to be done, but the low hanging fruit seems to be finding ways to prepare students for collaborative research possibilities (which cultural anthropology tends not to do, and that’s compounded by the meager funding opportunities that favor solo research) and to introduce them to non-academic employment possibilities. There must be more though — any ideas?


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