Start an Anthropology Career in 2018

Start an Anthropology Career in 2018

Lets put aside for the moment all the usual warnings about pursuing an academic career. Lets say that you are old enough to take responsibility for your own bad decisions and have somehow gotten it in your head that, despite everything you’ve heard, you really like the idea of becoming an anthropologist. If you really will not be dissuaded . . . “Welcome to the club!” But also know that competition is stiff. You probably have better chances of landing a gig as the lead vocal in a successful indie rock band than you do of landing a tenure track job at a research university, so you better start planning your career early! Today is January 1st, 2018, so let 2018 be the year you start working towards your goal! I’m not talking about choosing a graduate school, but what you should do now so that you are not only ready to apply for graduate school in a few years, but also might actually end up with a job at the end of it all. (Fortunately, if you do everything listed here and still don’t end up with a tenure track job at a research university, you’ll have some really great life-skills under your belt that are valued by many employers.)

First of all, no matter how many languages you already speak, you are probably going to need to learn another one before you are through with your Ph.D. and because language learning is a long and painful process, starting now is the key to success. If English isn’t your first language, you are going to want to focus on that. Even though there is an ever increasing amount of great scholarship published in other languages, the vast majority of work that has been published to date is in English and only a small portion of that has been translated. No matter what the language of instruction is, graduate level classes in anthropology will invariably require students to read a large number English language texts (some of them very abstract and difficult). And if you are talking about increasing your chances for successful employment, know that training at the world’s top ranked universities (most of which teach in English) is still you best bet for landing a good job.1

Comic about learning another language
Copyright 2013 Malachi Rempen

If English is your first language you are going to want to have at least one other language under your belt. While you can do research in English (and many anthropologists do), the experience of learning another language is great training for anthropology. It will also greatly expand your options when you are picking a research site. And if you are already bilingual, consider learning a third language. As Maxwell Owusu pointed out a long time ago, many scholars only speak the major “world languages” but not the local languages spoken in their field site. Maybe learn an endangered language? These are skills that will last you a lifetime, but can also take a lifetime to learn. (In my case I think it might take two lifetimes!) 2018 is a great time to start learning a new language, or perfecting one you already know!

Second, study everything except anthropology. OK. I don’t mean that. If you are lucky enough to have anthropology courses at your high school or university (as I was) then certainly take those courses! My point is that many successful anthropologists only began studying anthropology in graduate school and as far as I can tell it was never a handicap for them. Quite the contrary. One of the things that distinguishes anthropology from other disciplines is that it adopts a holistic approach. Almost everything you can do outside of anthropology you can do within the discipline as well. There is economics . . . and then there is economic anthropology, there is medicine . . . and then there is medical anthropology, there is linguistics . . . and then there is linguistic anthropology . . . you get the point. The main difference between these specializations and their mirror sub-disciplines within anthropology is that anthropology tends to take a more holistic approach. Economics tries to strip out everything from human behavior that can be considered non-economic, while economic anthropologists try to put it back in. Linguists (I know . . . “not all linguists”!) try to understand the structure of language separated from its social context, while linguistic anthropologists are interested precisely in the social aspects of language use. And so on and so forth. What all this means is that if you study economics, linguistics, psychology, history, philosophy, medicine, etc. all of that will pay huge dividends when you are ready to begin graduate school in anthropology because it will position you well to engage in with scholarship on your subject being done by non-anthropologists and will better enable you to speak to those scholars as an anthropologist.

Also, while the goal here is to get a job as an anthropologist, I know a lot of anthropologists who got tenure track research jobs because they were able to wear multiple hats. A surprising number of anthropologists don’t teach in anthropology departments. (I’m in a department of “ethnic studies and cultures”…) Especially important is getting a grounding in area studies. For instance, if you speak an Asian language and plan to do research somewhere in Asia, take as many classes as you can on Asian history, culture, politics, etc. There will be time enough later to become a specialist, but broad based knowledge of your region is going to be incredibly important. You very likely will end up attending many area studies conferences and getting hired to teach outside your own area of specialization, so apart from the benefits for your own training as a researcher, think of it as job insurance.

Third, create situations where you are forced to have deep and meaningful interactions with people that you don’t normally encounter in your daily life. This is something you should do even if you are planning on studying your own culture. This is the case with most of my students here in Taiwan, and because many of them are planning on doing culture work or activism in their own communities this makes sense for them, but if your goal is an academic research career you will likely (although not necessarily) be better off if your first research project is a little more outside your comfort zone. You don’t need to travel abroad to get outside that zone. (Indeed, many travelers I know end up spending time with people very much like themselves, even in another country.) Barriers of class and race are such that like China Mieville’s novel The City & the City we often co-inhabit the same space with people without ever seeing them or talking to them.

One way to get outside your comfort zone is to work or volunteer with people who do that voer a living. Finding an NGO and volunteering your services is a very common way to do this, although it does come with its own risks, since not all NGOs are on great terms with the communities they are supposedly there to help. Another option is to come up with your own project: make a documentary film, take photographs, write some nonfiction journalism, make art, etc. Such projects are even better if they can be done in a truly collaborative manner with the people whose lives you are documenting. At this point you are practically already doing anthropology! Even if nothing comes of your project, the very process of working on it will offer the opportunity to create meaningful long term connections and to learn a lot along the way.

So, if you want to start being an anthropologist in 2018: learn a language, study subjects other than anthropology, and get to know people that you don’t normally interact with in your daily life. By the time you’ve done all of that, graduate school will be a breeze! And if you are really lucky, you might discover a way to use all these newfound skills without having to go to pursue an academic career! Have a happy New Year, and good luck!


  1. I’ve seen scholars in Taiwan who have studied in France, Germany, and Japan and still done well, but the point is that even if local universities offer world class training, jobs tend to go to those who trained at recognizable name brand universities abroad. 

P. Kerim Friedman is an associate professor in the Department of Ethnic Relations and Cultures at National Dong Hwa University in Taiwan. His research explores language revitalization efforts among indigenous Taiwanese, looking at the relationship between language ideology, indigeneity, and political economy. An ethnographic filmmaker, he co-produced the Jean Rouch award-winning documentary, ‘Please Don’t Beat Me, Sir!’ about a street theater troupe from one of India’s Denotified and Nomadic Tribes (DNTs).

4 Replies to “Start an Anthropology Career in 2018”

  1. “Fortunately, if you do everything listed here and still don’t end up with a tenure track job at a research university, you’ll have some really great life-skills under your belt that are valued by many employers.” I can’t believe anthropologists are peddling are still peddling this BS to students. If you don’t get an academic position with your PhD. the vast majority of employers will either see you as overqualified for any job (and thus likely to leave).

    You essentially have 3 options with a PhD. in anthropology:
    1. Becoming an academic.
    2. Working for a “prestige” marketing firm that hire anthropologists (which means you better have an ivy league degree or personal connections at the firm).
    3. Working for overseas NGO’s (which again means you better have a “prestigious” to the general public degree or personal connections).

    Your advisors will be unable to help you get jobs outside of academia because they’ve been in the academic bubble for so long. ll there connections are with other academics (or people the subjects of their research). With the decreasing number of tenure track anthroplogy positions available (due to the adjunctification of colleges and universities), you’ll probably end up at a low paying job where your anthro skills are not valuable. Of course, many anthropologists will tell you that everything is fine and not to worry because anthropology is as strong as it ever was but they’re only deluding themselves.

  2. There are few degrees as useless outside of academia (which is currently oversaturated with them) as a degree from the soft underbelly of anthropology which is pretty much everything you described (i.e. cultural anthro). TruthTeller is correct.

    The rest of us who actually decided to stay on the scientific side of things and make ourselves more employable as archaeologists or forensic investigators can’t help but chuckle at how anyone could think cultural anthro is a good career move for anyone who isn’t independently wealthy or married to someone making serious money.

  3. Learn English, for sure. Readings in graduate school probably include literature in that language pretty much in every country. That said, it is not true that those with a PhD from English-speaking countries are the only employable ones in every country. “Local” doctors compare favorable to top-English-speaking-university ones in many “local” universities. Maybe because they speak the language. And also because anthropology is being thaugh in places you from the North could not even start to believe – and would not come teach.
    That said, Social/Cultural Anthropology is a bad career choice probably universally. I keep imagining what my students, all from empoverished backgrounds (from a Latin American country), will do after graduating. Probably, get in university again and start a more useful career.
    Learn something unrelated to Anthropology is probably the best piece of avice. Anything.

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