An anthropology degree can lead to various research and nonresearch careers.
If you're fascinated by people and interested in answering big questions about what makes us human, then you may enjoy studying anthropology.
What Is Anthropology?
Anthropology is a social science that focuses on understanding the evolution and behavior of human beings and clarifying the ways in which people differ from one another. As an academic discipline, anthropology has historically had four distinct subfields:
Archaeology focuses on investigating the beliefs and lifestyles of historical individuals and cultures by examining the remains of their gravesites, possessions and architecture.
Biological anthropology centers on the study of the Darwinian, or natural, evolution of humanity. Scholars in this subfield explore the ways in which human brains and bodies adapted in response to environmental threats and strive to understand why the human species has survived for as long as it has. Some examine human fossils, some observe primates and others study the human genome. These experts seek and share knowledge about the physical differences between modern peoples and their prehistoric ancestors.
Linguistic anthropology investigates the various ways in which humans communicate with one another, including spoken, written and nonverbal communication. Scholarship within this discipline often explains the differences between communication styles used in various societies. Researchers who specialize in this type of anthropology are often interested in clarifying how and why a culture's dominant language impacts the worldview of its people.
Cultural or sociocultural anthropology compares and contrasts the beliefs and customs of different peoples. Experts in this area can provide insight into which philosophies and practices are universal among humans and which are specific to a particular society. Anthropological scholars of this type often immerse themselves in a particular culture, so that they can accurately describe what it is like to be a member of that culture, which is called ethnographic research.
Brian Wygal, an associate professor of anthropology and director of environmental studies and sciences at Adelphi University in New York, says someone who earns an anthropology degree typically graduates with numerous marketable skills. "Anthropology graduates are equipped to think critically, understand and appreciate diversity, and understand many dimensions of humanity," Wygal wrote in an email.
"Many anthropologists apply their skills and knowledge to help communities resolve problems: some examples include issues of cultural revitalization, historic preservation, public health concerns, and inequities in access to resources," adds Wygal, who has bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees in anthropology.
Anthropology degree-holders say their education can lead to various types of jobs, including both research-focused positions and roles that focus on the application of knowledge.
Cortni Borgerson, an assistant professor of anthropology at Montclair State University in New Jersey who has a doctorate in anthropology, wrote in an email that an understanding of the field is necessary in order to address some of the world's most complex and urgent social problems, like racism, sexism, malnutrition and environmental conservation challenges.
"Effective progress in any of these fields depends on understanding people and the decisions they make," Borgerson says. "That's where anthropology comes in – we translate our knowledge of people into effective change. This means that students in anthropology are working in careers where human culture, behavior and biology affect outcomes."
Anthropology grads who are interested in and skilled at conducting research can find research jobs with a variety of employers.
"Google, Facebook, Intel, and Microsoft hire anthropologists to study market trends, human behavior, and technology," Wygel says, adding that the federal government also employs anthropologists as researchers.
Stacey Pereira, an assistant professor with the Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the Baylor College of Medicine in Texas who has a Ph.D. in sociocultural anthropology, says the type of research job an anthropology graduate can get depends on how advanced his or her degree is. An anthropology degree-holder who applies for a job with her research center typically will be considered for a faculty post only if the applicant has a Ph.D., whereas he or she might be hired for a research associate position with a master's degree, she says. Someone with a bachelor's in anthropology would most likely only be eligible for an entry-level research coordinator job, she says.
Aspiring researchers who are intrigued by the idea of being absorbed in their research and who like interacting with people might like producing anthropological ethnographies, Pereira adds. Since these research projects require relating to and empathizing with others, they are well-suited to individuals who are highly curious and very social, Pereira says.
Nevertheless, Pereira warns that tenure-track anthropology professor jobs at colleges and universities tend to be scarce, and they are usually reserved for individuals with anthropology doctorates. So prospective anthropology students should understand the difficulty of obtaining an anthropology professor position before pursuing an anthropology degree, Pereira says.
Borgerson notes that there are many types of anthropology degree-related jobs that involve hands-on efforts to improve society. For instance, she says, anthropology graduates might work in health care careers that involve communicating with patients who aren't complying with their doctors' orders for cultural or socioeconomic reasons.
Dr. Isaac Alexis, an addiction medicine physician based in West Virginia whose undergraduate degree was in anthropology, says his knowledge of anthropology helps him empathize with patients who are struggling with addiction. Coursework in anthropology exposes students to cultures that differ significantly from their own, he adds.
"It gets you out of your comfort zone," Alexis says, noting that employers welcome employees who know how to stretch and challenge themselves. He says an anthropology education is similar to a telescope – it allows people to see far beyond their own world and facilitates appreciation of the beauty that exists in distant places. "You get to see this wonderful rainbow of diversity."
Many anthropology degree-holders who work in the private sector say that their degree is useful in a business context. Mia Damiano, an account supervisor at the Merritt Group communications firm in Virginia, says the lessons she learned through her bachelor's degree in anthropology are highly relevant to the communications industry.
"You learn to write well, think critically, present in a compelling manner and above all, you gain the perspective to embrace other cultures, a skill I think lends itself well to successful client relations," she wrote in an email. "Anthropologists are conditioned to be open-minded to other viewpoints and ways of life, rather than making gut judgments or relying on preconceived notions."
An anthropology degree is similar to other liberal arts degrees in that it has a wide array of applications, Damiano adds. As long as a job candidate with an anthropology degree can make the case to an employer that his or her education is relevant, it can help him or her secure a job offer, she says.
Nikki Carelock, who has a master's and Ph.D. in cultural anthropology, says one way to apply a degree in anthropology is to work in the tech sector. She says her job as principal user experience researcher at Ad Hoc LLC technology company is to help the federal government develop technologies that people find easy and pleasant to use and that serve every segment of society, including vulnerable populations.
She notes that many anthropologists work at technology companies and help design people-friendly technology. For instance, Carelock has a friend with an anthropology degree who works at an online dating company.
"At the heart of anthropology, we're attempting to answer questions about who and what humans are, how they've lived in the past, how they're living now... and what we could potentially expect from humanity and human nature in the future," Carelock says. "It's huge because it's the study of man... It's very big, because we're asking big questions."
Knowledge of anthropology gives people sufficient insight into humanity to not only imagine solutions to problems within society, she says, but also to envision the way society ought to be and propose "how we might live better."develop technologies
By Ilana Kowarski, Reporter