COVID-19 Update: To help students through this crisis, The Princeton Review will extend our “Enroll with Confidence” refund policies to cover students who enroll on or after August 1st. For full details, please click here.

A Day in the Life of a Anthropologist

Anthropologists examine, analyze, report on, and compare different cultures and how they grow, develop, and interact. How people live offers insights into modern life and how significantly (or, more often, how little) we have changed and how similar we are in our basic systems of interaction. Anthropologists can travel to exotic lands and spend time in primitive conditions or work in developed countries, such as the United States, comparing regional concerns. Cultural anthropologists may compare the culture of the medical world to that of the financial world, or the culture of professional athletes to that of legal professionals. Some anthropologists take a cross-disciplinary approach to the field, studying linguistics, chemistry, nutrition, or behavioral science, and apply the methodologies of those disciplines to their study of culture. Qualities that encourage success in this field include a nonjudgmental, inquisitive mind; patience; and the ability to make inferences from incomplete information. Unlike in other sciences in which significant funding and sizable research teams are usually necessary, an individual can make discoveries while working alone. Most anthropologists are employed by universities; they teach and review others’ work to earn their daily bread. It is rare for an anthropologist to spend more than 15 percent of his or her career outside the university setting. An anthropologist spends a lot of time writing, editing, doing fieldwork, teaching, consulting with other professionals, and producing papers for professional journals. Anthropological research relies on the funding decisions of the federal government, universities, and foundations, the three major and nearly exclusive employers in the field. “Don’t go into this profession unless you’ve got the stomach to play politics,” warned one professor. “It never gets any easier, and it never gets any better.” The immediate return on an investment in anthropology is impossible to quantify, and therefore, hard to justify as a spending item. Anthropology is a competitive field, and those who wish to succeed in it must find creative ways of having their skills recognized. Successful anthropologists quickly learn successful grant-writing skills, find areas of unexplored anthropological concern, and publish articles, essays, and books as early and as often as they can.

How to Become an Anthropologist

Many aspiring anthropologists work as assistants who conduct ground-level research and write surveys before they have earned advanced degrees. College coursework should include anthropology, sociolinguistics, sociology, biology, and language (for those considering anthropology in foreign locations). Specialization takes place very early on. Anthropologists typically must have PhDs. Graduate students choose to study linguistics, sociocultural anthropology, biological-physical anthropology, or archaeological anthropology. Many graduate students associate themselves with an undergraduate or graduate professor for their first field job, while others work with museums, research groups, or government programs to launch their careers. Candidates must have an open mind and strong communication skills to succeed in the field.

Present and Future Outlook for Anthropologists

Anthropology has existed since ancient Greek times, although it only began to flourish with the rise of mercantilism and the age of exploration. Contact with other cultures and histories led to the development of archaeology and social sciences. The growth of anthropology also has been linked to that of sciences such as geology, biology, and sociology, as each tends to overlap the others. Anthropology, like many fields, is becoming smaller and more specialized. Those with strong ethnic studies and science backgrounds are being asked to develop their language skills; those with a background in language and cultural studies are asked to learn scientific and statistical skills. Subcategories of study, particularly those with applications in current issues of the day like race relations or economic structure, often follow current trends and gain popularity for brief periods of overexposure and then wane. Funding uncertainties make any venture into this field a calculated risk—but one whose reward can be very satisfying.

Quality of Life


Many aspiring anthropologists make initial connections with professors in college or graduate school and work as administrative assistants on research projects. Typical duties include reading and digesting publications for the anthropologist’s review, handing out surveys, and coordinating the assimilation of data, transcribing tapes, and proofreading papers. More than 20 percent leave the profession in the first two years, frustrated by these severely proscribed duties; however, the anthropological community is said to be “intensely understanding and supportive.”


Five-year survivors focus on getting published in academic journals or writing successful grant proposals. Many industry professionals at this stage move to secondary collaboration positions with established, high-profile anthropologists. Duties include interviewing, writing, and reviewing and analyzing data. Many five-year veterans serve as mentors to entry-level assistants, giving them daily direction on duties. The majority of fieldwork is done in these beginning years, where hours are dawn to dusk. Salaries rise. The life gets more trying, but the potential rewards and interest level are sky-high.


A select few anthropologists remain in the field after 10 years; their anthropological achievements have been well documented and well publicized. The majority of the professionals return to university settings, teaching anthropology, working through government research grants, or working as adjunct professors under foundation grants. Some 10-year veterans act as consultants to government outreach programs and offer advice concerning international industrial concerns. Less than 3 percent leave the profession after 10 years.