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Master's degree

What They Do

Anthropologists Career Video

Insider Info

Anthropologists study people and society, from our beginnings right through to the current day. They examine all aspects of humanity, from physical characteristics to languages to social behavior to cultures.

"There's a myth that anthropologists are only concerned with ancients, apes or savages and that all anthropologists are bearded old men," says Michael Whisson. He is a social and cultural anthropologist. In fact, anthropologists are interested in everyone.

"I have friends who've worked with the elderly in California and with neighborhoods in Tokyo. Anthropology is as much about us as it is about them," says Juliana Flinn. She is a cultural anthropologist and anthropology professor.

Anthropology has four main branches. The type of work an anthropologist does will depend on their specialty.

  • Cultural anthropologists study human behavior and culture, looking at art, religion, music, politics, language, social structure, traditions and myths. Most anthropologists work in this area.
  • Physical anthropologists study biological aspects of human evolution. They study genetics and anatomy to uncover why people evolve differently than others in different geographical areas. They also study primates such as apes and monkeys.
  • Archeology is the study of past civilizations. Archeologists dig up remains and artifacts to help us learn more about ancient cultures.
  • Linguistic anthropologists study how languages relate to behavior. They study the way languages develop, how they're used and how different languages make people unique.

Most anthropologists conduct applied and basic research. Applied research is used to solve specific problems like helping the government deal with native issues. Basic research is used to solve fundamental questions about a society.

Most basic research takes the form of fieldwork. For cultural anthropologists, this means living and working among the population they study and includes speaking their native language.

Fieldwork can take place anywhere: excavation sites in China, the homes of people living in the rainforests of South America, the jungles of Africa and urban shopping malls.

"I like the travel and the constant learning involved, and I have a certain pride in knowing things and participating in things that few people outside anthropology can ever experience," says Anthony Stocks. He is an anthropologist and professor of anthropology whose work has taken him to 25 countries.

Fieldwork can be stressful and physically demanding. Anthropologists must be in good physical shape to work under rugged conditions in remote locations for long periods of time. Being away from family and friends can be tough, but most accept it as part of the job. Some even find ways around it.

"My wife and I, and our baby daughter, lived with some remote folks in the Amazon for a year. It was fascinating and challenging," says Stocks.

Job duties can vary from lecturing in university and marking papers to observing cultures in person and participating in rituals and the everyday lives of the culture they visit. Anthropologists often write about their findings from fieldwork in books or journal articles.

Anthropologists work for universities, museums and governments. The private sector also employs anthropologists.

"It's not a huge trend, but anthropologists can work in the private sector," says Ellen Badone. She is president of a national association that represents anthropologists.

"Some work for private archeology firms. A construction company will come to them because they have found some remains and ask the archeologist to excavate the site. Native groups might employ an anthropologist to help define problems and help in negotiations."

In universities, most anthropologists have regular hours. They work about 40 hours a week. But this is not so when they are doing fieldwork. Hours can be long and irregular.

Competition for academic positions is stiff. But the growing popularity of the social sciences in high schools may mean a greater demand for anthropologists who can teach.

Just the Facts

Want a quick overview of what this career is about?Check out Just the Facts for simple lists of characteristics.

At a Glance

Do basic and applied research on people and society

  • Many anthropologists split their year between fieldwork and teaching at university
  • Competition for academic positions is stiff
  • An advanced degree is required in this field