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So You Want to be an Anthropologist?

Anthropology is a holistic study of the human species, past and present. Anthropological inquiry ranges from the scientific (from genomics to pollen analysis) to the humanistic (from poetry to human rights). This is because people are neither simply biological organisms, nor are they purely social/cultural beings, obliging anthropologists to take an eclectic approach to study humans.

Although it would be most accurate to say that anthropology is “multi-field,” accommodating a wide range of research topics, methods, and theoretical approaches, the discipline (particularly in the U.S.) tends to follow traditional divisions into four intellectual subfields: cultural, linguistic, archaeological, and biological.

Below we have provided a rough guide to what you will need to consider as you begin to launch your career as an anthropologist. Students interested in pursuing graduate work in anthropology should first consider what thematic or topical area they are interested in studying, and evaluate graduate programs based on the expertise of the faculty in these areas. Applicants with a well-defined area of interest are more competitive for admission to graduate programs than those with little preparation and/or poorly defined interests!   (See Application Advice)

Because you will likely be applying (or have already applied and been accepted) to graduate school as a practitioner of a particular anthropological subfield, we have taken the liberty of providing advice tailored to three of the four subfields (cultural, archaeological, biological).

It is important to keep in mind that in all cases, anthropology is a demanding field that is writing intensive. Our strongest recommendation is to develop robust skills in written communication and analysis.  Also, as in any professional academic pursuit, critical thinking and argumentative skills are essential to research, all of which graduate school will help you hone and master.  The most competitive applicants to graduate programs can demonstrate independent research ability and strong preparation for their area of interest as outlined below.

Cultural Anthropology

Cultural anthropologists tend to pursue specialization in a particular thematic area (such as medical anthropology, political and legal anthropology, or environmental anthropology) as well as a regional area (such as Latin America, Southern Africa, or Eastern Europe). Students should realistically consider with what population, and in which part of the world, they might conduct fieldwork. Coursework in the relevant languages, regional history, and cultural geography is necessary at the graduate level and highly recommended at the undergraduate level. Depending on the specific nature of their interests, students should also consider pursuing undergraduate coursework in areas such as epidemiology, gender/ethnic relations, international development, writing, and research methods (qualitative and quantitative). Students with previous coursework and/or an undergraduate degree in anthropology (or a closely related field, such as geography, history, sociology, or political science), international travel experience, are the most competitive applicants for graduate programs.

Biological Anthropology

Biological Anthropology as a whole represents the more scientific end of anthropology, devoted to the study of biological history, evolutionary relationships, and adaptive diversity that characterizes the human species. Subfields in biological anthropology include (but are not limited to) paleoanthropology, skeletal biology, genetic anthropology, bioarchaeology, primatology, and forensics.  Anatomy, developmental biology, human biology, and paleontology are allied disciplines outside of anthropology.

A career in Biological Anthropology necessitates basic knowledge in general biology, chemistry, and genetics. An understanding of evolutionary biology is essential, and students should seek out courses in evolution as undergraduates. Additionally, biochemistry, cellular biology, organic chemistry and advanced genetics are highly recommended. Students will also find that courses in statistics (quantitative methods) and research design are essential. Advanced experience with independent research in the field and laboratory should be a goal of any undergraduate before applying to graduate programs, both to improve competitiveness of applications and to determine if a professional career in biological anthropology is desired.

Anthropological Archaeology

Anthropological Archaeology is primarily concerned with society and culture in the past, both historical and prehistoric, through the recovery and analysis of material culture and environmental data. Because archaeology can be theoretically and methodologically wide-ranging, the subfield can be variously considered a science and humanity.

In addition to undergraduate courses in anthropological method and theory, students interested in pursuing a career as an archaeologist might consider taking courses in architectural history, biology, chemistry, English, geography, geology, history, museum studies, and mathematics/statistics. Proficiency in foreign languages, especially for those working outside of the US or on classical sites, is necessary. Students should also, as undergraduates, get hands-on experience through participation in academic field schools, internships, and/or paid positions in the field and in the laboratory, and continue to actively engage in field and laboratory research during their graduate studies. Important to a successful career in all areas of archaeology are strong communication and organizational skills as well as fundamental computers skills in word processing, spreadsheet, and data base use. Aspiring archaeologists will find it necessary to be competent in Geographical Information Systems (GIS) as well.

The AAA’s eAnthroGuide is a good resource for locating anthropology programs across the country.