Working with an Anthropology Degree

There are two great reasons why studying anthropology should be considered by undergraduate and master’s students.

First, the material is intellectually exciting: anthropology students enthusiastically complete their course of study.

Second, anthropology prepares students for excellent jobs and opens doors to various career paths: the course of study provides global information and thinking skills critical to succeeding in the 21st century in business, research, teaching, advocacy, and public service.

What do employers want?

The Association Of American Colleges And Universities** contracted with Hart Research Associates to conduct a study to learn more about what employers want their employees to have in terms of education and skills.  From October 27 to November 17, 2009, Hart interviewed 302 employers whose organizations have at least 25 employees and report that 25% or more of their new hires hold either an associate’s degree from a two-year college or a bachelor’s degree from a four-year college. The found that employers want their employees to use a broader set of skills and have higher levels of learning and knowledge than in the past to meet the increasingly complex demands they will face in the workplace. Within this context, to the degree that employers’ emphasis on hiring will be affected by the economic downturn, the shift will be toward greater emphasis on hiring four-year college graduates. What kind of four-year education are they looking for?

Four-field anthropology is education for the social and economic world that we live in today. A majority of employers believe that colleges should place greater emphasis on a variety of learning outcomes developed through an education in the liberal arts and sciences. The learning outcomes include the following items as shown with the percentage of respondents reporting that they are essential elements. These are basic learning outcomes to the Anthropology Program.

Knowledge of human cultures and the physical and natural world

  • Concepts and new developments in science and technology (70%)
  • The ability to understand the global context of situations and decisions (67%)
  • Global issues and developments and their implications for the future (65%)
  • The role of the United States in the world (57%)
  • Cultural diversity in America and other countries (57%)

Intellectual and practical skills

  • The ability to communicate effectively, orally and in writing (89%)
  • Critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills (81%)
  • The ability to analyze and solve complex problems (75%)
  • Teamwork skills and the ability to collaborate with others in diverse group settings (71%)
  • The ability to innovate and be creative (70%)
  • The ability to locate, organize, and evaluate information from multiple sources (68%)
  • The ability to work with numbers and understand statistics (63%)

Personal and social responsibility

  • The ability to connect choices and actions to ethical decisions (75%)
  • Civic knowledge, civic participation, and community engagement (52%)

Integrative learning

  • The ability to apply knowledge and skills to real-world settings through internships or other hands-on experiences (79%)

See how the Essential Learning Outcomes for the 21st Century compiled by the American Association of Colleges and Universities are basic to the Anthropology Program at Marshall University.

Other Resources: Links to Learn More

Where do anthropologists work?  Take a look at results from the American Anthropological Association’s 2016 survey of its membership here.

See two recent Marshall Anthropology Alumni speak reflect on their experiences in the program and its value to them as they begin their careers.  Interested in archaeological fieldwork?  Watch a video about the MU Archaeological Field School.

To learn more about working with an anthropology degree, you can visit the career information page of theAmerican Anthropological Association (AAA). You might also like to see the Careers in Anthropology pages, the brochure What do Anthropologists Do?, or an overview of the value of an anthropology degree to business all of which have been prepared by the AAA.  In addition, the AAA has a very informative news site which pulls together announcements, discussion, and reports from the organization’s vast membership and beyond–just checkout AAA Anthropology News.  For students interested, specifically, in a career focusing on the archaeological aspects of a four-field education in anthropology, check out the Society for American Archaeology‘s career information page.

The National Association for Practicing Anthropologists has also created a very useful guide that is tellingly titled Anthropologists at Work: Responses to Student Questions About Anthropology Careers. In addition, there are some interesting podcasts under Profiles in Practice available from practicing anthropologists on the AAA website.  The Guardian (UK newspaper) has this discussion of “What to do with a degree in anthropology.”

Finally, you can have a look at an  Essay on Careers in Anthropology (with video clips) prepared by Gary Ferraro for Wadsworth Publishing.

For an up close look at fieldwork, you can check out a short (8 minute) film produced by the MIT Department of Anthropology which does a very good job of describing the conduct of ethnographic fieldwork. As evidenced in the above links, ethnographic fieldwork is increasingly used by companies around the world to give them a better picture of, for example, how consumers use products in their everyday lives than would be available from something like survey data alone.

What to see examples of what anthropologists are up to in their everyday work?  Looking for an anthropologist near you?  Check out the “This is Anthropology” website from the American Anthropological Association.

What Anthropology Brings to Innovation

John Sherry: A Profile … November 2, 2015 – EPIC Profiles Series Heather S. Roth-Lobo

Anthropology is really undersold.

Dr. John Sherry’s words carry weight—he is Director of Business Innovation Research at Intel. In addition to discovering ways to power innovation in this major multinational technology company, he works in Portland leading Oregon Smart Labs an external business accelerator.

I recently talked with John about innovation, big data, and lean startup. He has made it part of his life´s work to interpret the way markets move and ideas shift around, and his intimate understanding of these dynamics has been driven by his passion for solving social problems with a creative imagination. The mixture of these elements paved John’s successful career as an established anthropologist in a company known for and reinventing computing around the world.

Anthropology is not only undersold, it’s misunderstood.

“People too often talk about ethnography as a tool for understanding ‘the consumer’ or ‘the customer.’ We don’t just talk to people in their homes, we think systematically. People don’t talk about it that way as much. The interdependence among lived experience, human practices, information, political organizations – that’s how we think.”

One of John´s early influences, Lucy Suchman, provided the groundwork to demystifying interactions between humans and machines, specifically the way in which those interactions are embedded in a greater sociotechnical context (Suchman 1987). Indeed, John’s ability to make connections among interrelating systems has led him to apply the concept of cultural ecology to reinvent the way innovation is done in big business.

John started out in a field more akin to software than ethnographic praxis, and his undergraduate work in computer science sparked his lifelong curiosity of understanding the way humans interact with technology. During a brief stint with a software company John started thinking about the ways technology could benefit from anthropology, and this thinking led him to pursue a doctorate in anthropology from the University of Arizona. His dissertation work investigated communicative practice, technology use, and organization among a group of Navajo Nation activists. As individuals moved from tribal, to local, to non-local settings, John studied how such navigation aided efforts to protect their own communities from environmental and political threats (Sherry 2002). Then a serendipitous email forwarded to John called for anthropologists to work in Microsoft. “I was probably the oldest intern they ever had,” he jokes.

… Anthropology is highly conducive to innovation. John references one work in particular, The Lean Startup, that has made a tremendous impact in the way people innovate. It forces businesses to develop a value hypothesis which asks them to answer, What value does your startup deliver and to whom?.

John insists that his anthropological training plays a critical role.

I can’t imagine being able to answer that [question] without some ability to understand what matters to the people you propose to serve, and how your offering fits into an ecology of other devices, practices, interests, and relationships.

Check out the full story in Epic People.

Intel’s Sharp-Eyed Social Scientist is a Cultural Anthropologist

New York Times – Saturday, February 15, 2014 – Natasha Singer

Genevieve Bell, as a cultural anthropologist at Intel Labs, runs a team of about 100 researchers. The team studies how consumers interact with electronics and develops new technology experiences for them.  Speaking about the value of an anthropological approach, Diane Bryant, General Manager of Intel’s data center group had this to say about its relevance to the company and its future:

What [Bell] and her organization have done is to shift our mind-set.  It takes a very different skill set, a unique domain experience, to sense the market and identify the emerging signals and what is going to matter to the end user.

Check out the full story in the New York Times.

Photo Credit: Leah Nash

More Anthropology in the Workplace

Here’s Why Companies Are Desperate To Hire Anthropologists” (Business Insider)

Intel’s Sharp-Eyed Social Scientist” (New York Times)

Anthropology: Education for the 21st Century” (American Anthropological Association)

Hot Asset in Corporate” (USA Today)

Anthropologists on the Job” (CS Monitor)

Anthropologists go Native in Corporate Village” (Fast Company)

Anthropologists at Work” (National Association for the Practice of Anthropology)

Thinking of Majoring in Anthropology?

**See the full AACU report here.

Quick Links


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Department of Sociology and Anthropology
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