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.

16 thoughts on “Aspirations to Practicing Anthropology are OK!

  1. c

    Maybe academia and Tony feel like he got a “booby prize”, but I feel like I got the grand prize to have him as a teacher.

    As an aspiring anthropologist/sociologist/grad student, your post is very interesting and potentially extremely helpful. Thank you for putting it out there, and thank you Tony for getting Rick onto this site; I look forward to hearing more from both of you.

  2. Rick Holden

    I’m sure there are people that are already in a non-applied type of dept. at good schools thinking that it’s a little late to transfer to an applied program, but there options here as well. The Society for Applied Anthropology (SfAA) has a mentoring program that matches up students with established professionals who can mentor the student. The person that runs the program is a really nice guy, and the process is easy to get into. They determined that I didn’t need a mentor, because I was already doing all the things I recommend above at the time. I guess they felt like I would have been double dipping.
    Actually, if you can only go to one annual convention a year then skip the AAA, and go to the SfAA. Get a program guide ahead of time and look for someone from a field or organization that you would want to work for/with, and contact them ahead of time to set up an informational interview. From there network, network, network.

  3. Chico is not the booby prize, rather Berkeley is, particulary if you want to teach and can sing badly! (Captive student sudiences are notoriously forgiving).

    If you have not seen my commentary about UC Berkeley about why I think Chico is a better college than Berkeley, please see:

    See: http://www.ethnography.com/2007/11/the-sociology-of-status-hierarchy-and-why-i-think-chico-state-is-a-better-college-than-uc-berkeley/ on this web site.

    I have another longer version of this article on my computer, too. The other part of academia I really ilke is writing and commentary. I have been trying to get this published somewhere for a couple of years, but so far no luck. If anyone wants to read it, or has an idea where it can be published, please let me know.

  4. Kroba

    @ Tony Waters,

    Could you please post the longer article? I would love to read it. Perhaps it is because I just graduated from Berkeley last year with a b.a., but I think you are sorely mistaken in your assessment. (generalizations about students at both schools abound).

    Berkeley’s “inexperienced graduate students” are usually in at least their second year of graduate school (meaning they were good enough to get into Berkeley, with something like an 8% acceptance rate), and are there to help clear any fog for students, and not teach per se. They are discussion sections, not lectures. And the majority of Berkeley anthropology courses do not have them. Rather, during the school year, most courses are taught by that sometimes-famous faculty member, and papers are graded collaboratively between professor and TAs, in classes of about 40-50 students. Yeah, its not an ideal situation, but I didn’t have an underperforming GSI, and I emerged with is 6 very good TA/GSI friends who came in super handy when it came time to apply to graduate school.

    Chico students are not “B” high school students. I was an mostly A and sometimes B and once C student in high school. “B” high school students in California go to Riverside. What does that mean for a professor at Chico? That you’re dealing with improving students’ writing, getting them to think analytically, and training them to be able to get through academic texts. Usually, but not always, professors at Berkeley don’t have to go through this. I’ll give you an anecdote. After I graduated from Berkeley, I took a summer class at UC Davis in anthropology on a topic I was theoretically unfamiliar with, as a bridge between undergrad and grad school. I was shocked that the 3rd/4th year students said that Ferguson’s book “Global Shadows” was “dense” “hard to get through” and “a lot of fluff.” Appadaruai’s “Disjunctures” essay was described as “impossible” and instead of discussing the implications of the articles, we spent every discussion section that summer “taking the articles apart.” I don’t particularly like what I read, but those texts, especially Fergusons are quite accessible. What would these students make of Foucault? Frued? Sahlins? Geertz? And these were UC Davis students, presumably more academically along than Chico students.

    The notion that Berkeley students do not routinely interact with faculty is a myth, I think passed down from one non-Berkeley student to the next. I have never heard of a student complaining that they couldn’t meet easily with a faculty member, and I myself can’t begin to count the hours I personally spent in my advisors’ offices I have simply waltzed right into an office without previous appointment more times than I can count. And yes, we’re talking about names like Nader and Ong.

    We occasionally do have very small courses. Albeit they are difficult to get into, if one works hard, a 15 person seminar with Nancy Scheper-Hughes is not difficult to find oneself in.

    I understand that Chico as an institution must work much harder to get their students “up to par”, and thus they might learn “more” in terms of thinking critically, writing well, etc., and that’s excellent, and perhaps in that vein its a much, much better school…for students who need attention in that particular way. But Berkeley students are already often there. So more anthropology can go on rather than “this is how to cite properly” or “this is what time management means.” More simply, you can definitely argue that a math major “learns more” and gets “more bang for their buck” if all they completed in high school was algebra. This is the difference. Berkeley students arrive to their math department knowing calculus. Chico students don’t. That means the Berkeley student finishes up his degree doing some kind of math that I can’t pronounce while the Chico student plays catch up.

    “Berkeleyites and Chicoites look alike, take the same classes, and learn the same things about sociology”
    Are you kidding me? (I just realized you’ve been talking about sociology and im studying anthropology, but I think the points remain the same). These students DO NOT learn the same material. I read “Conformity and Conflict” in my high school anthropology class. Its an easy-to-read look-how-cool-humans-are kind of reader. According to a Chico syllabus I found online, it was the central text for the intro cultural anth course once upon a time. Berkeley students are made to read decent chunks of books (Buddha is Hiding, Coming of Age in Samoa etc.), on top of articles for their introductory anthropology class. The same topics might be covered generally, but I think that since more is expected of Berkeley students topics are covered in more depth and engaged with more critically.

    I agree with you completely on the uselessness of USN&R.

    Its not impossible for a Chico student to get into Berkeley. One of my friends just received his Phd in med anthro from Berkeley, and he did his undergraduate at San Jose State. Again, one has to recognize that straight As at Chico are easier to get than straight As at UCLA. Berkeley has some 400-odd applications for social anthropology. Among them are probably 40 4.0s from top 20 schools, with research, highly developed writing samples, and strong theory. Unfortunately, (according to your article) Chico student was busy getting up to speed with working hard in school, than starting to think about the GREs in her jr. year.

  5. “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.”

    Most of my experience with applied anthropology comes from cultural resource management (which is basically applied archaeology mixed with some applied anthropology). One of the most difficult parts, as I saw it, was the fact that predetermined “deliverables” often matter above anything else. This is sometimes called “the real world,” but in reality can be a gloss for the politics that crop up in applied work, where there is plenty of BS.

    Research, archaeological or anthropological, gets really difficult when a developer or other client holds all of the cards and expects certain results. Sometimes conflicts also arise when affected populations (local communities in the case of CRM) are at odds with the motives and wishes of the paying client. It gets even more fun when a client doesn’t give a damn about anthropology in the first place, and when your “research” is a mere formality in an EIR process.

    My point: I don’t think it makes sense to romanticize applied work as the more realistic, practical route in anthropology. There might be more readily available jobs, but that does not mean that there aren’t plenty of political and ethical issues that people have to confront. Both academia and applied work have their pros and cons…and ultimately it all depends on the specific project or research that is under discussion.

    “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’? ”

    Ya, and this can be another downside of applied work, especially if the client doesn’t know the first thing about anthropology (or archaeology, etc). Also, with applied work many of the research questions are pretty loaded–there are expectations about the results, and sometimes clients are not exactly happy when field investigations present problems for their projects. This kind of thing happens in Cultural Resource Management all the time.

    “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.”

    Hmmm. Or you can go back to grad school when your pay in the applied world hits a fairly low ceiling, and when it’s not possible to get a teaching job–just in case–with a master’s. Or you can continue in grad school because you think that the increased debt load and education will ultimately pay off. Overall, I think you provide a good introduction to applied anthropology, although I am not one to harp too much on the supposed irreconcilable differences between the applied and academic world. Plenty of people do both, and there is no reason why there has to be this major division between the two.

    Last point: while you focus on “deliverables” and providing “products” for clients, I think you might be forgetting the fact that some of us ended up in anthropology because we cared about other things besides just making a buck. If all I wanted was to make money, then I sure as hell would not have headed into anthropology–I would have gone into sales, marketing, IT, or something along those lines.

  6. Rick Holden

    “There might be more readily available jobs, but that does not mean that there aren’t plenty of political and ethical issues that people have to confront. Both academia and applied work have their pros and cons…and ultimately it all depends on the specific project or research that is under discussion.”

    I didn’t saying anything about that in the essay, that’s for a future essay I’ll get around to. I was also writing mainly for a socio-cultural point of view. As far at CRM and archaeology goes, there are laws that will keep you employed. A developer has to spend his money on you whether he wants to or not. This is a different situation from having someone pay to to produce knowledge or solve problems for them. It’s also part of the job description to ensure that knowledge and recommendations are streamlined into existing power and money structures as well as being very aware of legal and political realities.

    “If all I wanted was to make money, then I sure as hell would not have headed into anthropology–I would have gone into sales, marketing, IT, or something along those lines.”

    You can go into non-profits and micro-finance all day long. I have friends that studied to become practicing anths for refugee populations. In fact the non-profit sector is full of former CEO’s and other high paid professionals that felt a lack of meaning in their lives.

    I’m personally not allergic to making money, and doing good shouldn’t prevent you from it. I was only talking about working outside the academy. I also made it clear that it was a good idea to combine disciplines to get the best of both worlds. I didn’t think there needed to be information out there for idealists or those that wanted to be broke making a difference in the world, that’s pretty easy to do. There are also those of us that really don’t want to be bored and want to enjoy what we do. I don’t think anyone’s main focus in life should be money, because that’s a vapid existence. (Of course, as my mom used to say, “Money won’t by you happiness, but at least you’ll be able to afford misery on your own terms. I’d rather be miserable sipping a drink on a beach somewhere.”)

  7. Tony

    Hi Kroba:
    Thanks for the interesting response–I appreciate the thoughtful response to what is what I have always hoped is a provocative essay. I will get back to you in a couple of days with a longer response.

    In the meantime, check out http://www.gradeinflation.com for a sense of how hard or easy grades are at different institutions. Chico State has lower gpa’s than the UC. UC has lower grades than Harvard and Stanford. Grades are of course a subjective measure, and not readily comparable across different institutions. But the patterns of this variation are nevertheless worth comment…

  8. Rick,

    “I was also writing mainly for a socio-cultural point of view.”

    Ya, that came across, and so the CRM example is related but a little different. CRM does have its socio-cultural aspects though. Especially when there are potential problems or conflicts that arise with projects. So it’s not all archaeology, by any means, even though a good amount of CRM folks tend to be archaeologists. Personally I’d like to see an increase in focus on socio-cultural CRM, since many of these projects DO affect surrounding communities quite heavily. In fact, working in CRM is part of what pushed me back into grad school to focus on cultural anthropology.

    “As far at CRM and archaeology goes, there are laws that will keep you employed. A developer has to spend his money on you whether he wants to or not.”

    Ya, there are all kinds of laws that mandate CRM and keep people employed. But these things get manipulated on all sides as well. Developers try to get around them, and some CRM jobs are just milking the system (some projects really don’t need to be done, and they are quick ways to make a few bucks). One of the main problems with CRM is that the laws really have no teeth. And sometimes the fines are cheaper than doing the actual archaeology, so you can guess what happens there. Environmental laws have a lot more power and bite…the cultural stuff is often either a suggestion or a slap on the wrist.

    “I’m personally not allergic to making money, and doing good shouldn’t prevent you from it.”

    Agreed. My point was pretty basic: there were reasons why I didn’t just go get an MBA and head into the business world. That doesn’t mean that I want to starve for the rest of my life, it just means that going into anthropology had certain appeals that obviously weren’t motivated purely by the numbers.

    “There are also those of us that really don’t want to be bored and want to enjoy what we do.”

    Ya, I agree. That’s another reason why I ended up in this field. Anthropology is anything BUT boring.

    Anyway, I’m not trying to be a pain here in the comments section. I have plenty of opinions about both academic and applied anthropology–and how different camps talk about them. I went to one school where applied work was pretty much seen as the lame stepchild of anthropology. The university where I got my MA had a much better blend of applied and academic anthropology, which I think worked out well. My current uni is pretty similar, a good mix.

    So I think it’s good to have these discussions about applied work, especially since there are so many people getting degrees in anthropology and so few jobs in academia (and less by the minute).

  9. Liam

    Many thanks, Rick, for your very thoughtful reflections. Even us 40-something tenured profs sometimes “dream big” about life beyond the academy :-), and your post is inspirational!

  10. Rick Holden

    “Personally I’d like to see an increase in focus on socio-cultural CRM, since many of these projects DO affect surrounding communities quite heavily.”

    I know a guy at a development company that does this work with both cultural and archaeological anths. I’m sure that this would have probably been an issue, but they guy I know at the company doing it on the cultural side seems to love it. He was on a team that basically changed the crab fishing regulations in the Pacific NW. So, part of one’s power can be derived for who you work for (this case it is the world’s largest such company). His business card also lists him as an “ethnographer and cultural anthropologist.”

    “working in CRM is part of what pushed me back into grad school to focus on cultural anthropology.”

    I’m thinking about going back to school and picking up more skills, but I have to contend with a wife that would be really pissed if I went back to school after being a student for most of our marriage. I don’t know how I can avoid continuing education and remain competitive though. I’ll probably end up taking a course per semester. Anyone that commits to being an anthropologist has committed themselves to life long learning, whatever route they go. Right now I’m looking into language school, but using the hell out of Rosetta Stone on the side.

    “Anyway, I’m not trying to be a pain here in the comments section. I have plenty of opinions about both academic and applied anthropology–and how different camps talk about them.”

    Your comments are welcome. I don’t want to make it sound like practicing anth is a bed of roses. It’s hard work. Opportunities seem to come all at once, or not at all. There are also so many directions that you can go in that it’s hard to just pick one field. I’ve lost amazing opportunities for long term careers with great companies, because of little things that I couldn’t commit too. Like one job won’t allow me international travel, while another one is all international travel. One is half and half, but it’s corporate and I want to work with policy… Academics can pick where they work for the most part, can take classes when they want, etc… so there are real trade-offs.

  11. Rick Holden

    Oh, another trade off is that you really can’t just work anywhere, you go where work is. A CPA, MBA, MD, and other professionals can work pretty much anywhere. There’s an accounting dept. in every company, but no anthropology dept.

  12. Christos Karagiannidis

    A really inspiring post, thank you.

    Conditions in academic anthropology are not as good as they used to be; departments cut off their research projects, field-journeys, workshops because of lack of resources; academic personnel is reduced and PhD candidates are begging for grants in universities and other funding bodies. In practicing anthropology you’re lucky if your interests meet the needs of your agent; in academic anthropology you’re lucky if your interests meet the needs of the goals of the department you belong to, and the main concern is if there are available funds to your department. In academic anthropology you study what sounds interesting to your professor, and it is more than evident that your professor will try to bring you in his/her research interests. Of course, if your research interests are close to your professor, that is the ideal situation.

    I do believe that (practitioner) anthropologists can make a living outside of the academy. This depends primarily on the quality of the studies, the coherence of the courses that they have chosen, the multiple techniques of collecting data and conducting field-research in cross-cultural environments, language skills, etc. There are many opportunities ‘out there’, (depending on your research interests) for practitioners. Scholars who practice anthropology outside of the academy are flexible and can shift their research interests and audience because of their needs. In academic anthropology scholars are usually involved in a long-term research project, and they (mainly) focus all their research publications on their PhD’s thesis; thus, academia increases the percentage of those who conduct ‘armchair anthropology’. For me the fundamental question that I want to raise is if academic anthropologists can survive outside of the academy, outside of universities!

  13. Rick Holden

    Thank you for your thoughtful insights Christos. I’m very glad you brought up this:

    “For me the fundamental question that I want to raise is if academic anthropologists can survive outside of the academy, outside of universities!”

    I have found that among some of the people or depts. that look to hire practicing anthropologists often still assume that a person has a PhD and has spent time in academia. Some business consulting firms ask to see a few academic articles as writing samples, for example. I’ve had to get permission from a former client to allow me to use a report I wrote for them as a writing sample.

    Then there’s the world of international/urban development that I’ve been trying to get into, because I don’t want to spend my life doing marketing research. There’s an online clearinghouse for anthropologists that do this work, however to put in your name you have to have a PhD.

    I think the important thing to know is that everyone starts at the bottom. That’s true of MD’s and lawyers, so it damn sure is gonna apply to either academia or practicing anthropology. Each move you make though should be with the next goal in mind. For example, I’ve been talking with a recruiter to spend the next 12 months of my life in a development project in some place without much electricity and with a lot of danger. I’m hoping I’ll be able to leverage that experience to get a gig in a place with more electricity and less danger.
    We should also not forget that the economy is shit right now. I was working on a project for a major US city and it got cut after the initial round of research, because the city went broke! So the research position I was given a year earlier disappeared as my director was fired and my office merged with another.

  14. Amy

    This totally helped me! Thank you. I graduated with a BA in Anthro and a dream of workin for an NGO in Africa. other dreams are scattered in my head, some related to education or medical anthro. we’ll see what happens, but thanks for the advice!

  15. Today, I went to the beach with my kids. I found
    a sea shell and gave it to my 4 year old daughter and said “You can hear the ocean if you put this to your ear.” She placed the shell to her ear and screamed.

    There was a hermit crab inside and it pinched her ear.

    She never wants to go back! LoL I know this is totally off topic but I had to tell someone!

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