That gesture a truck driver makes when you cut him off on the freeway has a complex linguistic and cultural history. Anthropologists make it their business to trace the history of language, customs, and how people interact with each other. The study of other cultures and how people have lived in the past has a great deal to do with how we behave today. Anthropology is an interesting and exciting profession.
Anthropologists do much of their fieldwork in other countries and often live for many years abroad, but some remain stateside and research American culture--everything from colonial customs to modern urban life. Anthropologists are academics and most are employed by universities, researching their areas of specialization and reviewing the work of their peers. Becoming an expert on a particular culture or region can require many years of study in a particular, often remote, location. This necessitates an extreme resolve, as one may be shut off from any and all communication with the outside world for extended periods of time. Cultural anthropology requires a broad base of knowledge, a strong command of foreign languages, excellent writing and research skills, and a passion for the subject. Formulating and understanding cultural theories requires a solid grasp of history, sociology, science and linguistics, which means that it takes many years of study, both in the classroom and outside, for an anthropologist to become an expert in his/her field.
A close community
Almost all of an anthropologist's professional time is spent with colleagues as they edit and critique each other's work. Anthropologists also spend a great deal of time writing grant proposals to get research funding. A necessary evil of the profession is that great discoveries require money, and a researcher must become a professional schmoozer in order to sell the federal government, universities and private grant-giving organizations on the value of their research. No anthropologist enjoys this process, which takes time away from the part of the job that they love. The adage "publish or perish" applies particularly to anthropology; anthropologists must publish articles in scholarly journals to foster awareness about their work and to build strong reputations among their colleagues. There is cutthroat competition among researchers for grant money.
Aspiring anthropologists must develop a specialty early on. One way of doing this is to spend time as a research assistant for professors. At the graduate level, students either decide to pursue their PhD or to leave academia to work at museums, travel abroad or enter a non-research related field. Cutting-edge anthropological fields of study deal with economics, such as emerging markets and race and gender studies. Some large corporations hire anthropologists to study their corporate structure. Teaching positions are very limited, so anthropologists specializing in newer and less-researched areas may have a better chance at being appointed to fledgling departments.
Many anthropologists cite an early research assistant position with a favorite professor or mentor as their first real "job" in anthropology. Research assistants read and summarize articles, grade papers and transcribe interviews. After graduate school, many anthropology students travel or join the Peace Corps to gain practical experience with cultural observation. They continue to assist established anthropologists and acquire more responsibility; they actually get to write reports and conduct interviews.
After acquiring a PhD, most anthropologists seek out professorships at universities, where they derive their primary income from teaching and grants. The most renowned anthropologists are often asked to advise government agencies and companies on domestic and foreign endeavors. For successful anthropologists, pay after 10 years on the job is not astronomical, but is definitely comfortable.
Anthropology is "more a field of study than a type of job." Preparation for the field consists of "sitting and talking with people," "living in their communities, bouncing their babies, putting Band-Aids on their cuts, sharing food and stories," and, as another respondent says, "sometimes unintentionally being an annoyance to them." The academic market for anthropologists is "limited," so some find it "more profitable" to become consultants to businesses examining "corporate social structures" or on development projects overseas, "including health care development." The knowledge and perspective that anthropology provides can be used "in a great many ways." One anthropologist says he went into the field because he had been a Peace Corps volunteer for two years after college, "teaching school in Africa." Other people work for "organizations like Oxfam or Teach For America--anything that will give you a perspective on other cultures." The initial pay is "low and the work is often demoralizing," and "you feel like you're wasting your time" until "you get into the field and start doing your own work." Then, anthropologists say, "there is no more rewarding life."
Exposure to different cultures; Wide variety of career options
Competition for teaching jobs; Difficulty getting funding for projects; Remote locations
Conceptual; Empathetic; Inquisitive
Average about 40 per week
Median salary: $49,930
Master's degree or PhD; PhD required for most university teaching positions; Statistics and quantitative reasoning