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Becoming an Anthropologist

Published on: Jan 22, 2021

Becoming an Anthropologist
Image credit: AAA stock photo

Are you or someone you know considering a career in anthropology? We hope this information helps answer your questions about becoming an anthropologist.

It's a great time to be an anthropologist! A degree in anthropology opens doors to a variety of career paths by establishing highly sought skills in today's competitive job market, particularly in the fields of business, research, teaching, advocacy, and public service. Click here to learn more about anthropological skills.

High School Students

If you are a high school student and have heard about anthropology, we're impressed! Many of us weren’t even exposed to anthropology until we went to college, so you already have a bit of a head start on preparing for your anthropological career. Depending on the particular field of anthropology you are contemplating, consider taking coursework in areas like social studies, history, or other social sciences, math (statistics is especially useful), physical sciences like biology and chemistry, as well as language (English and foreign). Computer skills are important, as are good writing skills. Courses that encourage critical thinking are particularly useful.

College Students

There is a wide variety of information available to students who want to study anthropology at the college and university level. It is important to thoroughly review your options before choosing a college or university. Some resources for learning about anthropology programs are:

  • American Anthropological Association (AAA): The AAA annually publishes the AnthroGuide which is a comprehensive directory of its members, hundreds of academic programs, as well as information about museums, government agencies and research firms. This guide is also a great resource to learn more about what’s hot in the field (it lists recent PhD dissertations).
  • Consortium of Practicing and Applied Anthropology Programs (COPAA) If you are interested in exploring a career in practicing or applied anthropology, please visit this site. This organization is a nationwide consortium of university departments and programs that provide education in practicing and applied anthropology. It can provide information on departments and programs that specifically focus their educational training on practicing or applied anthropology. 
  • Federation of Small Anthropology Programs (FOSAP): FOSAP Sponsored by the AAA, this organization helps support the needs of small anthropological programs.

When considering a program, you need to seek answers to a wide variety of questions — ask about courses offered, graduation rates, financial aid, job prospects in your field, just for a start. It’s best to have those answers before you begin your degree program!

When planning coursework, much of what we suggested to high school students will also apply to you—anthropology draws on a wide educational foundation, and you will find that coursework in both social and physical sciences as well as the humanities will be very useful. You should speak with a faculty advisor in the anthropology department (if your university has one) to design a course of study that best suits your interests.

While degree programs vary, bachelor’s degrees in anthropology tend to take about four years. Some students with undergraduate degrees decide to continue on to graduate school, while others venture out with their BA in anthropology to find jobs. If you think you might want to stop with a bachelor’s degree, some students find it useful to do a "double major," that is, they major in anthropology and some other desired field such as business, nursing, public health, and so forth. You should know that you might not find advertisements that list "anthropologist" as the job title—you might find it useful, then, to emphasize to your potential employers what anthropologists do (anthropological skills) and how your skills contribute to the position at hand.

Considering Graduate School?

We strongly recommend thoroughly researching possible graduate schools. The AAA AnthroGuide is an invaluable resource for locating reputable programs in the United States and Canada. The internet is an important option for locating programs located elsewhere but as with many things online: Beware commercial advertisers who often create junk pages.

Once you have a list of programs, check the faculty and interests closely. Most graduate students need to “fit” with a couple of anthropologists at the program(s) of interest to you.

Once you find faculty who share your research interests (and hopefully there are several at a number of universities) then check out the rest of the department—are there other faculty whose research might complement your own? Is the coursework offered sufficiently broad to fulfill your needs? What sorts of financial aid or support are offered? Consider contacting faculty or current students (perhaps even students under the advisor you are considering) and ask questions. If the program sounds promising, you might even think about a visit.

If you already have a bachelor’s degree, then the average time needed to obtain a master's degree is about two years, while a PhD can take five years or longer. One big reason these degrees can take so much time to finish is that most anthropology graduate students conduct a field project, which they then write about in their thesis or dissertation. Field research can take several months (for master's students) to a year or more (for doctoral students), after which they write up their findings.

If you are interested in learning more about what graduate students in anthropology are doing with their skills, please check out this interactive presentation.

If you have more questions about becoming an anthropologist, please check out the resources below, suggested by the AAA.

Resources for Students

The American Anthropological Association is made of many sections and interest groups that are united around particular topics, such as the Society for Medical Anthropology or the Society for Linguistic Anthropology. Many of these sections also have websites with information, scholarships and programs for students.