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How Do I Become a Cultural Anthropologist?

Explore the career requirements for cultural anthropologists. Get the facts about job duties, education requirements, job outlook and salary to determine if this is the right career for you.

What Is a Cultural Anthropologist?

Cultural anthropologists study the significance of a broad range of human activities related to communication, religion, food, politics, art and much more. They may look at societies around the globe or focus on one in particular. They seek to find out about the development and history of human cultures and their interactions with others. They gather and analyze information from artifacts, documents, interviews and research. They often present their findings and advise entities on the impact of policies and products. The following chart gives you an overview of what you need to know about entering this field.

Degree Required PhD degree for best opportunities
Education Field of Study Cultural anthropology, anthropology with specialty in culture
Key Responsibilities Conduct cultural field studies, compile & interpret cultural data, write/present research papers
Job Growth (2018-2028) 10% (for all anthropologists and archaeologists)*
Median Salary (2018) $62,410 (for all anthropologists and archaeologists)*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

What Attributes Should I Develop?

You should be open-minded, inquisitive, attentive to detail, socially aware and good at active learning. Anthropologists are expected to show a breadth and depth of knowledge, and through formal education they explore art styles, politics, history, geography, religion, science, fashion and even food of various cultural groups worldwide. Savvy for software and an intuition for statistics will make your life much easier. Above all, a cultural anthropologist needs patience, both to learn difficult material and to engage with, study and document peoples and cultures that are sure to make little or no sense initially.

How Do I Start?

It's a good idea for you to take as many high school classes as possible in psychology, philosophy, religion and sociology. Next, you'll want to enroll in a 4-year college that's nationally accredited and offers a major in anthropology. You'll take a broad scope of anthropology courses, but specializing in social and cultural aspects through elective choices is essential. Usually, by the time you begin your capstone or senior research thesis, you will be writing at or near the level necessary to be published in a peer-reviewed journal. You'll likely to have developed research area and topic focuses. Be sure to take advantage of any colloquiums, guest lectures and semester abroad programs your school has to offer, since anthropologists highly value outside perspectives.

At this point, you'll need excellent references, contacts and prior research experiences to prepare you for applying to graduate schools. You'll need to articulate a clear proposal regarding the topic you'd like to study and apply to schools with faculty that specialize in your areas of interest. While some students opt for a master's degree, the best careers inside and outside academia for cultural anthropologists require a doctoral degree.

Most Ph.D. programs have two main components. In the first few years, you will extensively study major trends and thoughts in historical and contemporary anthropology as well as hone fieldwork methodologies. You will select courses that relate to your emphasis and may perfect your abilities in the language of the culture you'd like to study. After you complete comprehensive examinations, you'll spend several years researching and writing your dissertation. Once it is approved by all of your advising professors, you'll be ready for a career as a cultural anthropologist.

What Does a Cultural Anthropologist Do Every Day?

The life of a cultural anthropologist is found all over the map. You could be in the mountains studying resistance to high altitude, in the desert studying plains settlements, in coastal enclaves studying marriage rituals, in the ocean talking to various sea-nomadic people groups or in a library reading about how all of these people dress, eat, communicate or worship.

However, you won't just study remote or little-known societies like the anthropologists of the past. You may also investigate contemporary ideas or evolution of culture situated in your native country or even your hometown. You'll compile the data from your fieldwork on a computer to analyze trends and to prepare for publications, reviews or documentaries. From time to time, you'll give presentations at museums, universities and conferences. All of these activities could be done while employed for the government, a non-governmental organization, a corporation or an academic establishment.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

Related careers include economist, historian and sociologist. Economists study the trends and patterns of product distribution and our economic system. Historians perform in-depth research and analyzation. Historians might also write about the historical context of various entities and institutions. Sociologists study the development and interactions of social institutions. All fields require a master's degree for entry.