Anthropologists like to ask big questions. “Why did this civilization collapse?” “How do language barriers affect the flow of information?” or even “What makes us human?” Anthropologists have inquiring minds, big-picture thinking, attention to detail, and solid research skills. Through patient research and deep analysis, anthropologists develop insights into topics like how past cultures functioned, how humanity has changed over time, or how languages, religions, and governments have evolved over time. But anthropology is also concerned with applying this knowledge in order to solve real-world problems, like how to increase vaccination rates among diverse populations or decrease the incidence of hate speech.
If you are interested in the civilizations, culture, and society of humankind, you may be a good fit for a degree in anthropology. That will naturally lead you to some big questions of your own, like “What’s the difference between a degree in archeology and a degree in anthropology?” “Can I earn an anthropology degree Online?” and “What can I do with an anthropology degree?”
If you’re wondering about the anthropology field, the path to a degree in anthropology, and what to do once you have one, our guide to What Can I Do with an Anthropology Degree? can provide some clarity. Read on to learn about this truly fascinating discipline and whether an anthropology degree might be a good fit for you.
- What is Anthropology?
- What Do Anthropologists Study?
- What is the Difference Between Anthropology and Forensic Anthropology?
- What is Anthropology?
- What Can I do with a Bachelor’s in Anthropology?
- What Can I do with a Master’s in Anthropology?
- What Can I do with a PhD in Anthropology?
- Can I Earn a Degree in Anthropology Online?
- Where Can I Work with a Degree in Anthropology?
- Is an Anthropology Degree Right for Me?
What is Anthropology?
Anthropology can be defined as the study of humans, including human behavior and human societies in both the past and present. According to the American Anthropological Association, anthropology incorporates knowledge and practices from the biological and social sciences, along with the humanities and physical sciences. Anthropology probably strikes most people as a pure science if there ever was one, with its focus on gathering ancient texts, performing surveys, and analyzing research. But an important concern in anthropology is applying technical knowledge towards solving present-day human problems.
One of the greatest distinctions of anthropology as a field is its interdisciplinary nature. Alfred L. Kroeber called this discipline “the most humanistic of the sciences and the most scientific of the humanities.” In an anthropology degree program, you’ll learn everything from the hard science behind carbon dating, to humanities topics like how language reflects a society’s attitudes about gender.
What Do Anthropologists Study?
Anthropology differs across the globe based on each country’s academic traditions. In the US, the discipline breaks down into four main areas: archaeology, sociocultural anthropology, biological/physical anthropology, and linguistic anthropology. Needless to say, there’s plenty of overlap between each of these fields, and they all share the same approach to research, including hypothesis-testing and data-gathering.
In the US and Canada, Archaeology is considered a sub0-discipline within anthropology. It’s worth noting, however, that in Europe and elsewhere, it’s grouped under History, or considered an entirely separate discipline. Archeology is the investigation of human cultures through physical evidence, such as ancient structures and objects. These may include ancient temples, tools, pottery, or burial sites. They also gather samples of the environment, such as soil samples and preserved plants to understand the setting in which people lived. Archeologists map, excavate, examine, and analyze physical evidence to learn about the lives of people from the ancient or near past, and compare them with the lives of people today.
Also called “Physical Anthropology,” Biological Anthropology examines how human bodies reveal information about their lives, habits, and evolution through the study of human bodies (living and dead) and those of other primates. Biological anthropologists aim to understand how humans have adapted to a range of environments, the roots of disease, and how humans evolved from apes and earlier relatives. They study both living human and animal bodies, cadavers, and fossils to understand how internal and external biology shapes individual lives and cultures as a whole.
This is perhaps the most easily recognizable branch of anthropology- the one that laypeople picture when they hear the term “anthropologist.” Also called “Sociocultural Anthropology,” this branch examines how people in different locations live and how they understand the world. Cultural anthropology requires taking in a wide range of perspectives, often by interviewing many individuals or living within a society. Cultural anthropologists aim to understand a society’s laws, religion, values, lifestyles, and social organization.
Linguistic anthropology is the study of how people throughout the world communicate. Beyond the study of different languages themselves, linguistic anthropology studies how languages are linked to the world and how people relate to one another through both verbal and written language. Languages change over time and vary widely between settings, such as urban and rural dialects. Language has an impact on our identities, the ways we share meaning, and power dynamics, and all these issues fall under linguistic anthropology.
What is the Difference Between Anthropology and Forensic Anthropology?
If you’re exploring what you can do with a degree in anthropology, you’ve probably come across the term “forensic anthropology.” In fact, there are quite a few job openings for this specialized field, and it frequently pops up on job listing sites. With such similar titles, you may be wondering what is the difference between anthropology and forensic anthropology.
Forensic anthropology is a specialization within physical anthropology. As noted above, physical anthropologists study human remains to understand how people in the past lived. Physical anthropology answers questions like “how closely were these two populations related?” “How did the switch to agriculture affect nutrition?” and “How did the spread of diseases impact people in a historical period?”
Forensic anthropology asks physiologically-based questions about modern human remains, generally related to criminal investigations. The most obvious, of course, is “How and when did this human body die?” but other related questions matter as well, such as “Has this body been moved after death?” “How old did this person live to be?” and even “Did this person experience traumatic injuries at other periods in their life?” By applying their scientific knowledge to the study of human remains, forensic anthropologists help criminal investigators understand physical evidence and solve crimes. As such, this branch of anthropology is an excellent example of a way that anthropologists can use their knowledge to help solve real-world human problems.
What Classes Will I take for a Degree in Anthropology?
To develop an understanding of different cultures and societies, you’ll need to have a foundation in the the basics of math and the hard sciences. That means you’ll likely be assigned requirements in classes like:
- Applied Economics
In addition to math and science, you’ll likely need to take courses in history, politics, psychology and language, in order to have a broader context for understanding topics in anthropology. Your classes in anthropology itself may include titles like:
- Ethnicity and Identity
- Gender Experiences
- Medical Anthropology and Global Health
- Beyond Race: Human Biological Diversity
- Peoples and Cultures of Africa
- Society and Power in the Middle East
- Urban Anthropology
- Natural Resources and Public Policy
- Culture and Natural Resource Management
- Material Culture Studies in Archaeology
- Anthropology of Cultural Heritage
- Anthropology, War & Security
- Environmental Conservation and Indigenous Peoples
- Field Methods in Archaeology
What Can I do with a Bachelor’s in Anthropology?
A bachelor’s in anthropology is typically offered as either a BA (bachelor of arts) or a BS (bachelor of science), and some schools offer both degrees. Where two degree types are offered, the difference between the two is typically a matter of focus. A bachelor of arts degree program is usually more broad and focused on the humanities, while the bachelor of science degree is more focused on the technical and scientific side. A BS is a better fit if you’re interested in Physical Anthropology, while a BA is a better fit if your interest lies in Linguistic Anthropology.
It generally takes four years to earn a bachelor’s degree on a full-time basis, and you’ll need to complete about 40 classes, totaling 120 semester hour credits. Of these, many classes, particularly in your first year, will be general education courses, such as math, science, literature, and languages. The purpose of general education classes is to ensure that bachelor’s level graduates have a broad general knowledge about the world, and to provide a context for their more specialized understanding of their major. Along with your anthropology major, you may wish to pursue a minor, such as religion, history, or a foreign language.
A bachelor’s in anthropology can stand on its own, but if you’re interested in working as an anthropologist, it is best thought of as a step on a path towards a master’s degree or PhD in anthropology. That’s because jobs within the formal academic field of anthropology usually require a master’s degree or higher. That’s not to say, however, that you can’t get a great job with a bachelor’s in anthropology. With a bachelor’s in anthropology, you’ll be qualified for jobs that make use of your skills like global awareness, communication, organization, collaboration, cultural literacy, writing, and research. The fields of education and administration are an excellent fit for this educational background. Examples of job titles with a bachelor’s in anthropology include:
- Diversity officer
- Foreign language instructor
- Media planner
- Human resources representative
- Nonprofit administrator
- Public health specialist
- International activist
- Market researcher
If you decide to pursue a master’s degree, you choose to earn a master’s in anthropology and look for jobs as an anthropologist. But many people with a bachelor’s in anthropology go on to earn a master’s in another field, like law, social work, psychology, theology, or education. Because a bachelor’s degree in anthropology provides students with a deep understanding of human culture, physiology, history, and behavior, it provides an excellent basis for understanding the nuances of fields related to these topics. Examples of master’s-level jobs in related fields include:
- Equality, diversity and inclusion officer
- University professor
- Museum curator
- Public relations officer
- Social worker
- UX researcher
- School principal
What Can I do with a Master’s in Anthropology?
To earn a master’s in anthropology, you’ll need to complete two years’ coursework that’s specific to the field of anthropology, with no general education requirements. If you choose to take part-time classes, your time until graduation will be longer, while an Accelerated Master’s Degree Program can allow you to finish in as little as 18 months. You’ll complete a research-based thesis as part of your anthropology master’s curriculum, as well as a field-based internship or practicum. You’ll also likely be able to specialize by choosing a concentration, such as sociocultural anthropology or archaeological anthropology.
With a master’s in anthropology, you’ll be qualified for work as an anthropologist. You’ll be qualified to perform field-based research, work in museums, physical anthropology labs, or teach as an associate professor. You’ll likely travel to historical sites or different societies to gather evidence, examining artifacts, conducting interviews, and testing samples. You’ll draft reports, read peer-reviewed journals, and analyze data. As an anthropologist, you’ll also likely work with members of a research team to publish your research findings, and may contribute to a national professional organization, such as the American Anthropological Association. It’s important to note, however, that professional opportunities in the field of anthropology with a master’s will be quite limited in comparison with opportunities for those with a PhD in anthropology. If you decide to earn a master’s in anthropology but to move outside the field, you’ll also be qualified for higher-level employment in the private or public sector as a curator, administrator, or educator.
What Can I do with a PhD in Anthropology?
To earn a PhD, you’ll need to take 5-9 years to conduct completely new research within a very specific area of anthropology, then write, defend and publish your dissertation. You’ll have literally “written the book” about your niche area of research, and will graduate as a true expert. In order to complete this long-term undertaking, you’ll work closely with a thesis advisor, and you may work as a student instructor or teaching fellow during your time as a PhD student.
With a PhD in anthropology, you’ll hold the highest degree available in the field, a so-called “terminal degree.” An anthropology PhD will qualify your for a position as a tenure-track professor at a college or university. You’ll be able to teach, research, and publish in your field of expertise, and will also be able to consult. Of course, positions as a tenure-track professor are highly competitive, as the turnover for these positions is very low, and universities only have a few anthropologists employed at any given time. That means you may have to wait some time for a tenure-track professor position to open up, then compete with other PhD level job candidates. In the meantime, you can find work with a PhD in anthropology as an adjunct professor or research assistant, or with a private company.
Can I Earn a Degree in Anthropology Online?
Although online anthropology degrees are fairly new, the number of schools which offer a degree in anthropology online is growing steadily. More students than ever are looking to earn a degree on a part-time basis, while keeping up with work or family obligations. Online classes allow students to save time by avoiding a commute, and to work around their existing schedules by completing coursework in evenings, on weekends, on their lunch break, or whenever they have free time. Many students also opt for an online anthropology degree because there simply isn’t a school with a strong anthropology department in their area, or no school that specializes in their area of interest.
Online students learn through a combination of synchronous (scheduled) and asynchronous (on-demand) content, which may include:
- Readings and case studies
- Message board discussions
- Final exams
- Group projects
- Virtual labs
Where Can I Work with a Degree in Anthropology?
With an anthropology degree, you can find yourself working in settings like a university, museum, historical site, government office, cultural center, or nonprofit. If you like the idea of working in a variety of settings, this may be a great career for you. Many anthropologists divide their time between different work tasks and work sites. One day, they might analyze the results of a population survey, another day they might examine historical documents, and on another day they might document ancient artifacts in the field.
Of course, you may choose to move into a field related to anthropology rather than field work. This can mean A recent article in Business Insider, titled “Here’s Why Companies Are Desperate To Hire Anthropologists,” explains that major private companies like Google, Intel, Adidas, and Samsung are hiring or contracting with anthropologists to better understand consumer behavior. That means you may find yourself working in the corporate office of a large private business.
Is an Anthropology Degree Right for Me?
Anthropology is an unusual discipline, in that it represents a fairly equal balance of hard science and the humanities. And in order to succeed as an anthropologist, you’ll need to have a fairly unique combination of traits. These include:
- eye for detail
- global awareness
- research focus
- critical thinking
- problem solving
In addition to these personal traits, your professional priorities matter in deciding whether a degree in anthropology is a good fit for you. If your goal is to pursue work as an anthropologist, you’ll need to have a pretty solid commitment towards pursuing an advanced degree, since a master’s in anthropology or a PhD is generally required for a career in research and academia. If committing to the investment of time and energy required for a graduate degree doesn’t make sense for you, this degree may not be the best choice.
An anthropology degree may also not be the best option if you’re someone who wants certainty and clarity in their career path. A job as an anthropology instructor can be hard to get, given the limited number of openings, and you’ll need to be willing to take on other positions (such as adjunct professor or foreign language instructor) should the need arise. Of course, not everyone with an anthropology degree even wants to work in academia. Many choose to use their anthropology background as the basis for understanding human behavior and society in a related career, such as city planning, education, or librarianship. If you are interested in gaining a degree on the way to a career in a related field, you’ll need to be comfortable with using your degree flexibly. You’ll also need to be willing to help potential employers understand how your anthropology skills (such as research, collaboration, and global awareness) will make you a strong candidate for a given non-anthropology position.
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