This NAPA Mentoring FAQ section offers nearly 60 Frequently Asked Questions–and answers–about the study of applied anthropology and careers in applied anthropology, divided into several primary categories below.
The information presented is necessarily extensive, and there is some overlap between categories. Plan on spending enough time needed to fully absorb the answers, especially in the categories related to graduate school. You will also find four undergraduate scenarios, taken from actual situations presented to NAPA mentors.
These FAQs were compiled and developed by NAPA Mentor Committee members Tom Greaves, the past NAPA mentor coordinator, and Elizabeth Briody, past NAPA president and long-time mentor. The NAPA Mentor Program Committee (along with Tom and Elizabeth this includes Niel Tashima [Chair], Sara Cote, Tara Eaton, Bill Roberts, and Terry Redding [Communications Chair]) and the NAPA Governing Council subsequently reviewed and approved them.
The topics and responses provided in the seven categories below derive mainly from the queries most frequently received from those using NAPA’s Mentor Match program. We share them here in hopes that you will find them useful. If you believe you would benefit from a long-term, personal correspondence with a NAPA mentor, go to the Mentor Match form tab in the Mentor Program page after completing the relevant FAQ section. A NAPA Mentor can work with you going forward to address your specific issues and needs.
The FAQs may be followed sequentially through the navigation links provided at the bottom of each page. Or, you may choose to follow just those questions that meet your immediate need. You will find a link back to this page centered below all the other links on each page.
At the bottom of each page, you may pose follow-up questions for the content posted on that page. These questions may lead to discussion threads that assist others, so do not hesitate to post you queries!
When exploring options for coursework, majors, and careers, it is prudent to consult as many sources of advice as you can. This applies to all mentoring, information, and counsel you may obtain, including what you find elsewhere on this site. Any resource has blind spots, implicit biases, and other limitations that arbitrarily narrow what is advised. Consult widely, sort through what you hear, and choose what seems best for you.
You can make an investment in your career by attending an annual AAA meeting. At the Employer Expo, you will be able to meet with representatives from companies and organizations that hire anthropologists. NAPA workshops held throughout the meetings provide important training on specific topics, and are presented by experienced practitioners. NAPA networking events help introduce you to both peers and practitioners to address your queries. Instant Mentoring at the NAPA booth in the exhibition hall puts you in immediate touch with mentors offering advice and suggestions.
Undergraduate and graduate students usually have some very good sources of counsel available to them, especially from faculty advisors who can offer personalized advice based on knowledge of you and your past academic work. Those students who have internship experiences often obtained them from advice offered by their internship supervisors or preceptors. Also, virtually every campus has a career center with staff whose career expertise is tailored to your geographic region. Lay out your situation candidly to them and see what they say. Remember that access to your career center services does not necessarily end when you graduate; obtain their help as long as it is useful to you.
How one prepares to be an applied anthropologist and how one practices anthropology as a profession vary profoundly from one country to another. Our advice here is situated within the context of the United States. While visitors from other countries are most welcome, remember that what is written here may differ from how things are done in your country.
Two individuals may answer the same question quite differently, and one answer might be better than another for your particular situation. So, along with the information presented here, you may also consider posing questions to the NAPA LinkedIn and Facebook pages, and the NAPA listserv (links below). Also query any local groups or sources of information, individual professors and academic advisors, and career counselors.
Note: Alternative solutions will strengthen the usefulness of this online resource; additional advice from practicing and applied anthropology professionals, particularly that which differs from the advice given here, is welcome. Please submit any advisory paragraphs (of about the same length as responses currently listed) to Tom Greaves, FAQ editor for NAPA Mentoring (greaves -at- bucknell -dot- edu).
scroll down for the FAQ section!
Frequently Asked Questions
1. What is anthropology? How does it relate to applied anthropology?
Anthropology is the study of people, past and present. It consists of four subfields. Cultural anthropology focuses on similarities and differences across the world’s contemporary cultures. Linguistic anthropology directs attention to language in relation to the cultural context. Archaeology works to reconstruct cultures of the past – often without the benefit of written records. Physical or biological anthropology specializes in human biology, particularly with respect to human variation and evolution.
Applied anthropology is the application of anthropological theory, method, and knowledge to the solution of societal, organizational, and community issues. Applied anthropology pertains to all four subfields.
2. What distinguishes anthropologists from applied anthropologists?
All anthropologists share an understanding of the role of culture in people’s lives. They seek to understand and explain perceptions and behavior, as well as the relationship of material items to the culture.
Applied anthropologists are primarily engaged in problem solving. They try to develop workable solutions to problems that organizations and communities experience. They may be researchers, consultants, project managers, cross-cultural trainers, administrators, and professors, among others. They tend to work in interdisciplinary environments and teams and often have to translate their anthropological skills and value for their partners. They may work for private firms, non-profit organizations, government agencies, non-governmental organizations, or educational institutions. They also may be self-employed as independent consultants.
Academically based anthropologists teach and mentor students, seek funding for their research, and carry out and publish their research results.
3. I see information about applied anthropologists, practicing anthropologists, professional anthropologists… are they all the same thing? How do they relate to NAPA?
These terms have different shades of meaning within anthropology, but for our purposes here, they refer to anthropologists who work to address various kinds of problems in society. This may be as a full time university professor, or as a professional outside of the academy altogether. NAPA, the National Association for the Practice of Anthropology, is an association of anthropologists involved in this kind of problem solving. These anthropologists may work full or part time and/or train students to be problem solvers. Most NAPA members work outside of colleges and universities.
Being an Applied Anthropologist
4. My undergraduate department teaches applied anthropology only as a couple of lectures in the introductory course. How do I learn more about it?
There are probably more opportunities on your campus than you realize. For example:
- In the course you are presently taking, is there a research project that would allow you to study the nature of applied anthropology?
- Approach your instructor about doing a semester-long independent tutorial with her/him next semester on applied anthropology.
- Your instructor may know of other campus faculty who are trained in anthropology who may be willing to guide you in an exploration of the applied sector of anthropology.
- Check with the library’s professional librarian regarding print and video sources to consult, including those obtained through inter-library loan.
Web resources abound. Start with the websites for the American Anthropological Association (www.aaanet.org), the Society for Applied Anthropology (www.sfaa.net) and the Consortium of Practicing and Applied Anthropology Programs (www.copaainfo.org).
5. How do I know if I’m suited to be an applied anthropologist?
Ultimately you yourself are probably the best judge, but here are some personal characteristics that are usually important:
- You need to be strong academically in anthropology and other contributing fields.
- You need to have intense curiosity about human behavior, be good at problem-solving, and have an enduring commitment to bettering human lives.
- You need to have good people skills, and not just enjoy observing human behavior from a distance.
- Finally, you need to know enough about anthropology and applied anthropology to know that it is the career for you. See the questions in the next section for further guidance on this. Recognize that being and anthropologist is not what you do, it is who you are.
If you are an undergraduate student, consider doing internships, volunteer work, or other off-campus activities that will allow you to gauge whether applied anthropology is the life career for you. See question 5 in the next section for further guidance on this.
6. Are there non-academic jobs in applied anthropology?
Most applied anthropologists work outside university settings, in, for instance, non-profit organizations, government agencies, and corporations, and as private consultants and contractors. At the same time, university professors of applied anthropology also commonly engage in applied anthropology projects in addition to their academic duties.
Cultural and linguistic applied anthropologists may find jobs with private firms and state and federal government. Multinational corporations, for example, may want assistance in figuring out new international markets, in doing consumer research, or in understanding how to change their corporate culture. Archaeologists and physical anthropologists often find jobs with private cultural resource management firms as well as state and federal government agencies. Museums hire anthropologists with various specializations to fill a wide array of positions.
Specialized training at the master’s or PhD level is required to become a professional applied anthropologist. Through that training and associated off-campus experiences you will encounter various avenues for seeking career openings. The faculty where you receive training will be one source of guidance, as will anthropology’s professional organizations. Too, you may use your own networks or those of your classmates and other academic colleagues to locate potential opportunities.
7. How abundant are the jobs in applied anthropology with an MA? With a PhD?
In a weak economy no jobs are abundant. While there are thousands of applied anthropologists at work in the U.S., beginning a career in applied anthropology can be a challenge. Remember that most employers will not be seeking an “applied anthropologist” specifically. They will have issues they want addressed and are, thus, seeking to hire or contract someone to do that. It is up to the applied anthropologist to show that she/he is equipped to address those problems.
Start building your own network by developing relationships with people working on issues and in the types of organizations of interest to you. Those contacts can be enormously helpful in connecting you with others, in mentoring you, and in helping you with your eventual job search. You might also ask yourself whether there are particular types of organizations (e.g. corporations, government agencies, research firms, private consulting, non-profit groups) within which you would like to apply your professional skills. Remember, network-building is not just strategic; you learn from the people in your network, broadening and deepening your knowledge and professional competence.
For more information on anthropology careers with a master’s degree, turn to the AAA CoPAPIA survey report (published 2010), which describes the realities of those working with an anthropology MA, MAA, or MS.
Getting a PhD in anthropology may not necessarily open up more jobs than having an MA. Rather, each degree opens up different kinds of jobs. (See also questions in the PhD section, category six) Positions for PhDs commonly entail significant research involvement and require substantial research experience. While the abundance of job opportunities for applied anthropologists with either degree varies from year to year, it is prudent to expect that finding a solid, long-term position (or developing your own consulting business) will require diligence, excellence, strong social and professional networks, and luck.
Once you have completed reviewing the FAQs and exploring the other resources listed, you may find you still have questions. Post your immediate or clarifying questions to the relevant discussion list at the bottom of each section. As noted above, you should check in with the various listservs and websites, including the NAPA online resources (LinkedIn, listserv, blog, Facebook, or other Career Section resources such as resource links, career shifting, consulting information, and position openings, and also the career podcasts). You can also look for local resources; along with area universities, in a few cities such as Washington DC, there are local practitioner organizations to turn to. Attending professional meetings is an excellent way to meet with those who can best advise you. While at the annual AAA meetings, you can take advantage of NAPA’s Instant Mentoring. If you are looking for long-term guidance, submit your profile to the Mentor Match program.