Posted by: Christian | July 15, 2010

Area Studies: Career Suicide?

[Yes, I’m back to writing. I had quit because of impending employment prospects, expected fieldwork, plus dissertation duties. But unhappily/happily I was deemed under-qualified (or overqualified…or too specifically qualified) for employment, my next bout of fieldwork has been delayed and my dissertation has made some unexpected quick progress. So here I am.]

Answer to the title: yes, probably. At the PhD level this is widely acknowledged by the PhD students themselves. The job market for recently minted PhDs is abysmal. It’s a simple supply and demand explanation. And that is for PhDs in history, political science, sociology, anthropology, etc… Now imagine you are getting a PhD from an area studies department; how many area studies departments are out there? And realize that these departments often hire social science and history PhDs who focused their dissertation on a particular “area” that the area studies department specializes in. Long story short is that getting a PhD in Central Asian, Middle Eastern, Russian, South Asian, East Asian, Etc… Studies is, on average, a road to debt, underemployment and whining about how nobody appreciates your skill set.

Let’s take it down a level to area studies at the Master’s level – specifically to Central Asian studies. I was close to an area studies department for about 7 years and was able to track career trajectories to a decent degree. My guesstimate is that less than 20% of the people who came through the department are now actually engaged in anything related to Central Asia. At this level you would mostly be looking at government, NGO and international organization employment.

NGOs overwhelmingly need people with technical skills or with the bureaucratic experience to carry out projects. They do not need some area studies kid who can speak the local language(s) and who thinks that their skill set applies in any way whatsoever to NGO work. They can hire locals to do the language thing, and they don’t particularly care about the “gatekeeper effect.” Of course, there are many NGOs that actually care and who do a good job. But your CV will be one of hundreds on their desk. I once read an anecdote about a human rights NGO that would receive thousands of applications for every position advertised.

Bottom line: NGOs do not want to employ anybody from an area studies program. Your bright-eyed enthusiasm, the love of the area you study, your deep historical knowledge, your command of the area literature and your language skills do not count for anything in their hiring decisions (caveat: professional level fluency does help). They are looking for mid-career professionals, not for you. Think about what exactly they do as an organization and try to think how your skills match up. If you think your skills apply then you probably don’t know what exactly NGOs are up to.

I know only two MA grads who were able to get hired by an NGO, despite dozens trying to find a job in this sector. One had previous experience working for an NGO before their MA studies and the other was hired for their non-Central Asian language skills and was assigned to something that had nothing to do with Central Asia. European NGOs are somewhat different, and I have noticed many more junior academics in their ranks, so what I’ve said may only apply to the US.

As for government employment, I know of five hires out of probably about 40 (two of them have jobs that do not involve the region). And only three of them are American. Many of those who apply for government jobs don’t get a call-back, and those that do overwhelmingly fail their security clearance background checks for silly reasons like spending too much time overseas with Muslims. Over three-quarters of the people I studied with who have been on the job market for more than a couple of years have given up completely on what had been their chosen field. Probably not as bad as getting an Master’s in art history, but still bad.

As for international organizations like the UN, OSCE, etc…, just imagine a hybrid of the NGO and government employment sector – mostly the parts that work the least in your favor.

So what use can the area studies aficionado be? Well, one day you will be at some embassy-sponsored or -hosted event and some guy with out of fashion glasses and an adequate but not stylish suit will ask you why you are in Examplestan and what exactly you study. He (usually a he) will tell you that what you are studying is fascinating (it’s not, just so you know) and that you have such great insight on Examplestani society (nobody actually believes this). Like most professional flatterers, this embassy-bound employee of indiscernible duties will probably be successful. So there is that option. But there is no salary for that.

So why get an advanced degree in area studies? Well, I can’t give you an answer that has anything to do with financial or career prospects. But if you actually care that much, an area studies department (selected carefully) can be personally rewarding. I love my case study and I couldn’t imagine a better place to be than where I study at the moment.  I may end up teaching English for a few years while working on a book manuscript for a publication that will probably only sell 300 copies. Meh. I’ll figure it out later.

If you want to help your country, make a contribution to better foreign policy, get a tenure-track university position, help develop Examplestan, make a decent salary and/or be able to influence the debate on Examplestan, then stay away from area studies (especially if you are American). If you love studying a particular area and you don’t care that much then  go ahead and jump right in. We area studies martyrs do enjoy the company.


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