What you can REALLY do with an anthropology degree

The Brooking Institute’s Hamilton Project (because after Hamilton everything has to be named after Hamilton) has a new website examining the relationship between career path and college major — in other words, it shows you what people who major in one field do for a living. The site and its accompanying interactive data visualizer and reports affirms what I have spent the last three years telling undergraduate majors in my role as undergraduate advisor, so I wanted to take a second here and discuss what you can actually do with your major. What the data actually say.

Here is the standard speech I give students: There is no strong connection between your college major and occupation (at least for anthropology and most other majors). The purpose of an undergraduate degree is to give you general skills which will enable you to be a citizen of your country and the world. These same generalized capacities you need for citizenship are what you need for the job market. There is no point learning how to mechanically follow orders, since that just means you can be replaced by a robot. What’s key is the ability to learn quickly is key, since companies don’t really believe in training any more. You will be paid best if you can build or maintain the lives of the privileged. You will be paid poorly if you work for the poor or disadvantaged. The answer to the question “what can I do with this major” is not a fake list of job choices. It is ask “what do you want?” If you are waiting for your college professors to hand you a high-paid job, that’s not going to happen. And this is not our fault: it isn’t the educational sector that keeps blowing up the economy so the rich can get richer. College is not about choosing a major off a menu so that you can chose a job off a menu. College is about figuring out what you want to do and then seeing how possible that is in the world we live in today.

Now, the Hamilton Project doesn’t deal with the more philosophical liberal arts-end of my spiel to students. But it does underline one central point: There is no such thing as ‘anthropology job’ for anthropology majors. Take a look at this chart:

The most common jobs for anthropology majors are: law, management, teaching, and ‘postsecondary teachers’ which I think means ‘professors and adjuncts’. The body of the graph sorts these occupations by income, with the most lucrative on the left. But check out the bar on the left which measures how common each job is: 6.5% of majors are postsecondary teachers, 4.8% teach elementary and middle school, 4.1% are managers, and 3.8% are in law. In other words: even the most common job for anthropologists do not account for 93.5% of occupations for anthro majors. The top four occupations account for less than 20% of occupations. In other words: you can do anything with an anthropology major. But getting an anthropology major doesn’t give you skills for any job in particular. Except maybe being an anthropology professor.

The Hamilton Project uses the same ACS data data I’ve been using to advise students. When  I tell them the most likely thing that will happen is that they will be a high school teacher or a paralegal, they are often depressed. Partially this is because they have this idea that they’ll be issued a bullwhip and fedora along with their BA. But also this is because of the false and inaccurate statements made to them by the university. Universities today are increasingly telling their students that undergraduate degrees are vocational degrees. When asked to pick a major, students are given flyers listed ‘jobs you can do with an anthropology major’. These jobs are typically glamorous and involve a lot of international travel and helping people (aid work is popular). But there is no evidence — no evidence — that these job menu advertisements have anything to do with reality.

No one should tell an anthropology student that it is likely that they will go into a life of highly-paid, benevolent international travel if they get a BA in anthropology. Statements like this are 1) baseless 2) encourage students to imagine undergraduate education as vocational, not liberal 3) discourages imagination rather then encouraging it by giving students a list of possible futures rather than asking them to imagine their own futures 4) discourages students from studying what they care about (and thus cultivating a personal project that could get them an actual good job) and encourages them to study something which they believe (wrongly) has good job prospects.

Colleges and other groups — like the American Anthropological Association — do not concoct these job menu fantasies to help students. They do it to help themselves. They are the result of academic departments and associations trying to remain relevant as they compete with other disciplines for majors and enrollments. It is not too much to say that fantasy job menus constitute a sort of bait-and-switch by which future elementary school teachers are told they are going to work for the World Bank or Google.

The good news is that you can do whatever you want with an anthropology degree — but you have to know what you want, and then go out and get it. And the job may not be about making as much money as possible (although, to be honest, given the state of the world today that would probably be a good idea). Like most majors, anthropology is a welcoming discipline that will let you find your own way.

The bad news is that anthropology does not live to a life of adventure and excitement. In fact, most majors don’t. The world today is not a good place, and the prospects of well-paid, rewarding employment are not that great for most Americans. We owe it to our students to be honest with them about this fact, rather than subtly suggesting to them that declaring a major will somehow teleport them to an alternate economy of Endless Fulfillment. And if, on being told their future will be uncertain no matter what they chose, they get curious and start thinking about social stratification, politics, income and education, then… they might really be anthropology majors after all.



Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

11 thoughts on “What you can REALLY do with an anthropology degree

  1. It seems as though you overlooked using the ‘more tag’ on your post. I just read the posting rules and they specify not to take over the front page with one story. I’m sure it was not your intent?

  2. Came out of grad school in a Canada as an anthropologist in the early 1980s. No non-academic job of “anthropologist” existed. Fell into a career in management as a human resources director/executive. Happily discovered over the last 30 years (just retired) that much of what I did could be called applied anthro – org culture; people and their behaviours in groups etc. Not a day went by when the anthro knowledge skill or perspective wasn’t used. Ironically, post-retirement I am teaching HR at a community college…finally became an academic through the back door! Once an anthropologist, always an anthropologist.

  3. Wonderful, sobering article. Thank you. Now to continue the hard, ongoing work of figuring out what it is I want professionally. (Ten years and counting…) Gotta be honest, though, what I really want to hear more about is this “alternate economy of Endless Fulfillment.” 😉

  4. I like this article alot, because from what i was told early on was to select as specific as possible so that i could potentially secure a job faster out of obtaining my BA. I think that a applied anthropological perspective is always in high demand with various industries and job markets world wide.

  5. “High demand” is problematic. There is some demand and we know when, i.e., when employers/clients find themselves stuck and previously used methods fail to produce solutions to problems. The search for fresh insights and new angles opens the way for anthropologists, perceived rightly or wrongly, as people who go where others don’t and are likely to see what others miss. If you track the conversations on the Ethnographic Praxis in Corporations (EPIC) site [https://www.epicpeople.org], you may notice that this opening is being squeezed from two directions: Design Thinking and Big Data. The former preaches “fail fast, fail forward,” prototyping and testing with rapid iterations until the answer is found. The latter offers pattern-recognition, using enormously fine-grained data, on how people actually behave. Both short-circuit the understand->plan->execute process that creates an opening when decision makers seek understanding before they plan.

  6. Hi, Rex – why the gratuitous swipe at the American Anthropological Association? Yes, we want people to join and renew, but not by “concoct(ing)…job menu fantasies.” Our association offers a variety of professional development services – as a service to members and to the field of anthropology as a whole. I completely agree with you that an anthropology degree and the training it reflects will be great preparation for a wide variety of career paths. One can make a decent living with this training, but really, there is a reason it is called “work”. And incidentally, I daresay that anyone who travels internationally for work would almost certainly not use the term “glamorous” to describe what that kind of travel is like these days. But why such a bleak outlook? We learn to take the long and comparative view that helps build an enlarged context for understanding the ongoing stream of social events unfolding before us, and that forms a repertory of knowledge and skills that will serve us well in many regions of the world of work.

  7. Well I think it’s fair for you to push back on this Ed. I guess when I was writing my post I was thinking of this poster


    which very carefully states in small print that “anthropologists are everywhere” but in large print presents a list of high-profile institutions which do employee anthropologists, but which most people in the US will probably not work for in their lives (Netflix, Google, the Smithsonian). Equally, very very very few people get to do professionally any of the things listed in the ‘anthropology in action’ section. I think you should change that heading to “things you can study as an anthropology major, but will probably not get a job doing”. That would be more accurate. Regarding international travel — I hear you. As someone who lives in Hawai‘i those long-haul flights get less and less enticing each passing year. But we need put our weary cosmopolitanism in perspective. There are many young people who aren’t as privileged as us who would love to learn to navigate an International airport, much less actually leave one and be in a foreign country. We shouldn’t forget how good we have it.

  8. Rex, I simply don’t share your skepticism. if you do a simple search on LinkedIn using the terms “anthropology” or “ethnography”, and excluding “higher education” from current industry sectors, there are more than 90,000 individuals employed in research, marketing and advertising, information technology and services, museums, financial services, or design fields. The fact that Netflix, Google, and the Smithsonian hire people with anthropological training actually bodes well for the employment prospects of today’s students. In my experience and direct observation, when one employee puts their training to work in a way that contributes to their employer’s success, it INCREASES the likelihood that hiring managers will look favorably on subsequent candidates with similar backgrounds.

  9. My post is not based on skepticism, Ed. It is based on evidence. My claim is that, for most majors, there is no strong connection between major and occupation. For this reason, I claim, getting a major in anthropology will not necessarily increase your chance to get a high-paid, enjoyable, and influential job. Why? Because there are very few of those jobs. It may be the Netflix and Google will hire more anthropologists in the future. But that increase — dozens? hundreds? — will not appreciably raise the chances of anthropology majors in general of getting those jobs. Because there are so few of them relative to the large number anthro degree holders.

    I have not claimed that it is impossible to get a job in research, marketing and advertising, information technology and services, museums, financial services, or design fields if you get an anthropology degree. I have claimed that getting an anthropology degree does not lead in any significant sense to being more likely to get those jobs than if you have an English degree or a history degree. Overall, my claim is that social inequality in the US is rising, and that it is wrong of us to suggest to students we can guarantee them a way out of that situation if the chose to major with us.

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