How to Get a Job as an Anthropologist

Stop being an anthropologist.

Some of my mentors, none of which are in anthropology departments, prefer to say “trained as an anthropologist, so and so, investigates…” as opposed to “so and so is an anthropologist.” If you are on the job market this may be hard to do as you are likely to have just become a PhD wielding anthropologist for the first time in your life and quite proud of the moniker and achievement but the shift in self-definition is important for you and your future academic home, I would argue.

I just went through the whole job-hunting process before signing a contract on Monday to become a Lecturer in media and cultural studies in the Sociology Department at Lancaster University. I was able to apply for a silly amount of jobs, get a bunch of interviews and campus visit requests, and have some choices and grounds on which to do some humble negotiating. I think my trick was post-disciplinary research and (a considerable amount of) cross-disciplinary publishing. I could apply to communications, media studies, anthropology, information studies, STS, sociology, television studies, American studies, and internet studies. If I were desperate I could apply for archaeology and film production positions. Postdoctoral positions, particularly those financed by the Mellon, are all about interdisciplinarity as are jobs looking for digital humanities scholars.

So I’d encourage my fellow freshly minted ABDs and PhDs to begin seeing their research and their teaching across at least 4-5 large disciplines. Be able to realistically apply to 4-5 departments. One can put this together variously by publishing in different journals, collaborating with colleagues from different fields, or simply working the boundaries of one’s discipline in necessarily interdisciplinary ways. (All I can say is that I hope this is not my internalization of the precarity of neoliberal governmentality in the education sector.)

And there is something said for responding (in non-trendy and timeless ways!) to emergent patterns in industry, politics, and social movements. The departments recognize that what is in the news is what the students want to study. In my case this amounted to a recursive loop from the hype surrounding new media –Arab Spring, Anonymous, Wikileaks, SOPA, PIPA, and Occupy– to departments requesting applicants with expertise in social media and political movements. Oddly enough, if the academic job thing doesn’t work out this type of preparation in the now prepares oneself better for a post-academic profession. In academia the joy of investigating emergent practices is that there is no syllabus. You get to design your own. And in the classroom you are not pulling teeth, the issues are on students’ minds. It is relevant.

I may sound heretical to some of you by suggesting that post-anthropological disciplinary affiliations are necessary. But one gains much less than one loses by fundamentally aligning oneself with the orthodoxy of a specific discipline. One one hand, the qualitative and critical social sciences are converging. Critical theory and ethnographic or textual methods run across all the disciplines above. On the other hand, replicating the discourses specific to a discipline is important for the survival of that discipline and I am glad some people are monogamously “physical anthropologists” or whatnot. But my argument is that this practice of disciplinary orthodoxy is dangerously myopic for a discipline and puts the job hunter in a situation with few options. I preferred to bring scholarship from other disciplines to anthropology, and though it proved difficult to buck anthropological tradition by studying contemporary technoculture in America, it provided me a wider repertoire of skills that apparently translate into numerous disciplines and a blessed job offer.

Good luck! Tell us how it goes for you.


Adam Fish

I am a cultural anthropologist and media studies scholar currently teaching and researching in the Sociology Department at Lancaster University, UK. I investigate media technologies, digital finance, and network activism. @mediacultures

16 thoughts on “How to Get a Job as an Anthropologist

  1. I appreciate your point of view so much. I’m still in the MA-Phd limbo…so, a long winding road ahead. But I’ve already begun to broaden my interests to different perspectives and disciplines (communication studies, sensory studies, museum studies…). Your advice should be given to all of the anthropology students in the world who feel like they’re going to be paid for their wonderful, exquisitely cultural orthodoxy (like you called it). Probabily the fact that I’m Italian (no Phds, no scolarships, no updating) has helped me…

  2. All that being said… my last job (not in academia, but as an applied anthropologist. Also, i am not a PhD) came about because i was an anthropologist, and i even got “Anthropologist” on my business cards. This after one of my grad school professors said that would never happen 🙂

    i also remember being told in undergrad if i wanted to study online culture, anthropology was not for me. The only way to prove that wrong is to be an anthropologist, studying online movements and cultures, and be loud about it. i’m not saying we shouldn’t incorporate other discipline’s ideas and methods, on the contrary i think it’s important to be interdisciplinary, and be loud about that too. However, the more we bury the term “anthropology” the more we weaken our discipline. i’m tired of going on job interviews and being told that they don’t have any skulls for me to dig up, or questioning how my skills are with a whip. Or, worse yet, being told they don’t work with dinosaurs. How can we educate people as to what anthropology is, and strengthen the discipline, if we aren’t proud to call ourselves anthropologists?

  3. Kethryvis, whoever told you that was so very wrong! I have my job, teaching as a visiting lecturer in anthro, specifically because my research was in digital culture and digital ethnography. Forward looking departments understand the very applied nature of what we do and welcome the opportunity we give them to move in other directions. But, like Adam, I applied to positions in communications, media, cultural studies, and ICT (okay, half-heartedly and while In was still ABD). But no matter what position I hold, I do so because I am an anthropologist and identify myself as one. We do need to see ourselves through different lenses and expect that our employment will go places we never expected. Seriously, even Google and YouTube are looking for folks with qualitative research and ethnographic experience.

  4. Denice, oh yes, she was very very wrong. i knew she was when she said it. Even when i started grad school, at a different institution than I’m at now, my research topic was looked at with amusement and I didn’t feel they took me terribly seriously. Now I’ve got advisors who take it seriously and see it as important. Everyone else just needs to get on the darned bandwagon!

    A *lot* of big sites are needing our skillsets. My last job was with a large Top 5 website, which is rather disliked among the academic set. I was hired due to my identification as an anthropologist, and my expertise in online communities. Best job ever. And i hope to find another like it when I finally finish my Master’s thesis!!! (and hopefully another place that will let me have Anthropologist on my business cards!)

  5. All above. I am arguing that your success is precisely because of your post-anthropological identity. Your engagements with technology and entrepreneurialism is exactly the type of non-orthodox practices which I am attempting to celebrate as a way forward. However, I have little of the romantic affinity to capital A anthropology. That is the kind of sentimentality that I am opposing and seems to me to be the death-knell for the field and a road block for employment.

    Not to be all Latourian and give agency to things, but why all the sacrifice for the defense of a discipline that has little concern for your gainful employment and resists its more experimental insights into the future of social science?

  6. “Not to be all Latourian and give agency to things, but why all the sacrifice for the defense of a discipline that has little concern for your gainful employment…”

    What? Are you telling me that I’m not going to be getting any love letters from the discipline of anthropology when I finish this PhD thing? Curses! Foiled again!!

    But seriously, this is a good point you bring up Adam.

  7. I really sympathise with your blog, Adam. Even still, there are movements in Anthropology heading in the other direction: of reviving the distinctive benefits of an ‘anthropological perspective’, whatever that may be, and of creating new ethnographic theory rather than borrowing from sociology/cultural studies, etc. While there is something to be said for this, when it is theoretically justified (vague, I know, but that’s how it works, right?), there is also something of a disciplinary defensiveness/egotism going on. Anyway, I’m all for open scholarship: use theory and theoretical traditions as a cache for your social analysis. Invent new constructs when they shed new insights, but this shouldn’t be a disciplinary pressure. That’s a path to the trenches.

  8. Vic. Thanks. Ya, that is just gate-keeping shlock. If it lasts the discipline will be an artifact studied by archaeologists. Anthropology is too adolescent at 100 years old and too linked to a colonial moment whose affordances no longer apply (I hope) to worry about defending its youthful theories and simple methods.

    My new colleagues in the UK seem to retire around their early 60s. Its apparently in the culture. Therefore they have more turnover and churn. In the US retirement of academics rarely happens. Think about that….

  9. It is already the case in Britain and France and has been for a while that most anthropologists who find jobs do so in interdisciplinary programs. So your Lancaster job is the norm, Adam. Good luck there and give my love to Ashton park.

  10. Trick of the memory. Ashton Park is in Preston. I was thinking of the Ashton Memorial. Whatever, Lancaster is a nice place and the sociology department there is really good.

  11. I am becoming increasingly interested in cognitive sciences. There is so much interdisciplinary work that can be done!

  12. Congrats on finding a job! One of my colleagues graduated from sociology in Lancaster and even though she doesn’t call herself an anthropologist, the training she got there is certainly very anthropological!

  13. Well, as someone with a PhD in STS, I’m even a further outlier. I won’t say that everyone should quit being an Anthropologist, there are certainly programs looking for those more traditional Anthropologists.

    But there are WAY more programs looking for people with some sort of rigorous methodological/conceptual approaches to studying lots of things. Anthropology can be one of those methodological/conceptual approaches. I certainly lead with, “I’m an anthropologist of game development,” when I explain to others what I do. It actually simplifies things a great deal. It tells them instantly my methods and my empirical field (and for many it even signals that I probably care about political-economy / power / …). Of course if they start talking to me then the STS really comes out we/re to conceptual frames, but even STS as a field has a pretty heavy anthropological bent.

    What you’re really advocating, is a post-disciplinary notion of academic self-dom, which we should all already have. 😉 It should have been part of the dissertation. It should have been part of the dissertation proposal. “What fields do you want to spend the rest of your life talking to?”

  14. Congratulations on finding a job Adam!! I tell people who ask me ‘yeah, but can you get a job with that?’ (after the weird look when you say you are an anthropology student), ‘yup, but you need to research an area where people need research done’. Obviously if you are studying some very obscure area jobs will probably be scarce. Tenured anthropology professor jobs seem very hard to come by and at the end of the day most anthro students will not be heading that way and we do need to be paid eventually (you know, to eat and stuff).

  15. This David Graeber interview comes to mind, amidst all this discussion of how to turn one’s anthropology degree into a job:

    It makes me question, yet again, what the value of education in general, and an anthropological education in particular actually is. Both the espoused ideals (especially in relation to antiracism and social justice), and the reality ( it’s really all just about getting a job in the end).

    I guess everything is about marketing these days–the brand is you, as Linked In’s founder writes/says, right?–all about making oneself appear as one wants to be seen (publicly). Sad that education for its own sake is really not a ‘marketable value’.

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