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NAPA Mentoring FAQs

The Basics:
Anthropology and Being an Applied Anthropologist

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.copaa.info).

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.

On to the Next Series of Questions –>

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