Aspirations to Practicing Anthropology are OK!

Rick Holden  is a practicing (non-academic) cultural anthropologist who is relatively new to the field. .  This is the first in a series of nuts and bolts blogs by Rick about ”leasons learned.”  He wants to encourage graduating anthropology students to think about how anthropologists go about making a living ouside of the academy. Tony Waters

Most of what’s written about getting into practicing anthropology is written by well established figures at the end of a successful career, most of whom describe falling into it after receiving their PhD’s and a brief stint in academia. But there are other ways to go. 

The trick is to understand that there are solid differences between practicing anthropology and academic anthropology in terms of outlook and the goals of your research.  In academic anthropology you produce knowledge for the academy, and the goal is getting published and pushing students through the graduate school.  In practicing anthropology you’re lucky if you even get to call yourself an anthropologist, and all that matters is how well you are able to produce, in a timely fashion, a predetermined set of “deliverables” for a client, agency, business, or non-profit.  In the grad school you have the luxury of studying whatever is interesting to you (or your professor), and you can make a contribution to the ethnographic record.  In the practice of anthropology, though, a client outlines your field site, and determines the parameters of study.  As a practitioner you will always have in your mind the question ‘how will this benefit my client?’ or, ‘how will this help them accomplish their needs and goals’? 

This is something that students should understand before applying to a graduate program. Schools that benefit future academics (U. of Chicago, Berkley, Columbia, etc…), are usually not the schools that will benefit a future practicing anthropologist.  When you enter into a prestigious graduate program, you soon learn that your professors’ job is to teach you how do replace them one day, even though the math indicates this probably won’t happen—after all each professor trains something like 20 Ph.D. students during their career, and logically, only one can “replace” them.  The others then win the booby prize by being sent packing off to a teaching U. (like Tony), or slipping into the “practice” route.  But, if you are bright enough to know up-front that you want to work as a practicing anthropolgist, and have no intention of becoming a professor, then the Chciago, Berkeley, Columbia route really isn’t going to help you gain the skills you need especially if you don’t plan on getting your PhD. I would recommend instead going to a well-ranked undergraduate institution with a theory-heavy program, and then to a high quality Master’s applied graduate program (U. of South Florida, U. of North Texas, U. of Maryland).  The undergraduate program will teach you anthropology (all four fields), and the graduate program teaches you the methods and techniques to actually practice anthropology.  This graduate program should include one course in advanced statistics, geographic information systems (GIS) techniques, human geography, and maybe population, and a minor in a relevant foreign language.  Other elective courses, and a possible second M.S. degree, will depend on what sub-fields you plan on specializing in.   These are worth far more to future practicing ethnographers than a summer dig, or memorizing primate nomenclature, which are things you’ll do in a good undergraduate program anyway. 

At the end of the day employers care about what you can do for them, which is what you need to concentrate on. This means having things on a resume like GIS, multivariate analysis, qualitative methods, and knowledge of software packages. If you are going overseas, indicate language skills, backed up with scores on standardized tests.  (Military recruiters are happy set up these tests for you free of charge, just don’t let them know you probably aren’t going to join). For example, very few people outside of the academy are going to care about your graduate thesis or dissertation on the linguistic patterns of cowboys, or the parenting strategies or the LGBT community in the Philippines. However, a resume that explains how your thesis consisted of a structured study for a public health dept., Samsung, or whoever, and how you were able to solve some problem for them is something that employers want to hear about.  If you have the right skill set then there are plenty of jobs out there, but it requires proper planning, training, and experience. 

 If you’d like to work in the non-profit sector, then intern or do your thesis for a non-profit.  Chances are you will be working with a future employer (this is how most professionals start out).  Don’t be afraid to dream big.  If you want to work in urban development like I did, then market yourself to a major city.  Chances are good that whoever you intern with, or do research for, will appreciate the anthropological difference and ask you to stay on.

 Another thing you will learn as an anthropologist is that nothing is more interesting to someone than themselves.  You will be amazed at how well prominent people doing jobs you want to do someday respond to an eager student when asked, “Please tell me about your job, and tell me how I can do what you do someday.”  After you graduate you’re just some person looking for a job, but as a student you are a non-threatening young student that they can mentor.

 Also, a practicing anthropolgist who has two master’s degrees is eminently marketable.  And two Master’s degrees can take far less time and cost less money than one Ph.D.  If you’d like to be a medical anthropologist, a degree in anthropology combined with a Master’s in Public Health gives you the skills you need, and increases your standing among your competition.  If you add a language like French to work in areas of Africa to that then you’ll be set.  Finally, I would recommend that those interested in working outside of the academy that you purchase Riall Nolan’s, Anthropology in Practice: Building a Career Outside of the Academy.  

 So, next time you tell someone that you’re majoring in anthropology, and they ask you, “what are you gonna do with that,” you can tell them exactly what you’re going to do “with that.”  All you need is a realistic goal, a solid plan, a good work ethic, and a hustler’s spirit.  Or, you can go to grad school, because you don’t want to pay back your student loans, and haven’t figured what do with your life like most students at your university.