woman digging

An anthropologist could...

Examine the bones of prehistoric humans to determine what their diet was like. bones Decipher the story behind paintings on an ancient clay pot. ancient pot
Record the music of an isolated culture to learn more about their history and customs. man playing flute Use DNA samples to map the ancient migration of humans around the world. world map
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Key Facts & Information

Overview Where do we come from? Why do we walk upright? Why do we behave the way we do? These are just some of the big and fascinating questions that anthropologists try to answer. Anthropologists study all aspects of human life, in every region of the world, throughout all time. They might focus on everything from present-day cultures and human behavior, traditions, and prehistoric cultures to the biology and evolution of humans, or the origin and evolution of language.
Key Requirements Analytical, meticulous, self-motivated, and sensitive to other cultures with excellent communication skills, good physical condition, and the ability to persevere.
Minimum Degree Master's degree
Subjects to Study in High School Biology, chemistry, physics, geometry, algebra II, pre-calculus; if available, computer science, statistics, physiology, foreign languages
Median Salary
U.S. Mean Annual Wage
Min Wage
Projected Job Growth (2014-2024) More Slowly than Average (3% to 6%) In Demand!
  • Watch this video to meet a forensic anthropologist, Dr. Diane France, who uses bones to help identify people who have died, and the circumstances surrounding their death.
  • In this article, you'll meet paleoanthropologist Dr. Donald Johanson, who discovered the world-famous, 3.2 million-year-old skeleton known as "Lucy" while he was listening to a song by the Beatles.
Related Occupations
Source: O*Net

Training, Other Qualifications

A doctoral degree in anthropology is needed for most positions in this field. Individuals with a bachelor's or master's degree sometimes qualify for research or administrative positions in government or private firms.

Education and Training

If you want to be an anthropologist, you should major in anthropology in college. As early as possible, you should begin training in the use of statistics, in one or more foreign languages, and in a field related to the area of anthropology that especially interests you. For example, if you want to go into archaeology, you will need knowledge of geology and geography. For physical anthropology, you should be trained in genetics and human anatomy. It usually takes at least eight years of full-time study beyond high school to get a doctoral degree in anthropology. Part of this time is often spent doing fieldwork. In addition, anthropologists are expected to continue reading and studying throughout their careers so that they can keep up with new findings in the field.

Other Qualifications

All anthropologists must be able to communicate their ideas to other people, whether these people are visitors to a museum, other scholars, or a management group in business or industry. They must be careful workers who have the patience to sift through bushels of earth looking for fossils and artifacts or to sort information looking for details about one area of human culture. Although much of their work is done independently, anthropologists should be able to work as part of a research team when necessary. They need to be adaptable people who can get along with people from cultures that are very different from their own.

Watch this video to meet 4.4 million year old "Ardi", one of the most important fossils ever found. Ardi tells us that our last common ancestor was not like a chimpanzee, overturning old ideas.

Nature of the Work

Anthropologists are social scientists who study the origin and physical, cultural, and social development of human beings. Anthropologists study the language, traditions, beliefs, possessions, and values of people in various parts of the world and formulate hypotheses to explain their research and findings. They generally specialize in physical anthropology, archaeology, linguistics, or cultural anthropology.

Physical anthropologists attempt to understand the physical or biological development of the human species. Some study fossils to trace the evolution of human beings. Physical anthropologists also study how humans have been influenced by their heredity and environment. They are interested in the geographical distribution of human physical characteristics. They study measurements, blood types, and other information about large groups of people. Physical anthropologists need to have some knowledge of genetics, human anatomy, evolution, and other fields of biology. In fact, many physical anthropologists work in medical schools or in biology departments in colleges or universities.

Some anthropologists are archaeologists. They examine physical objects, such as tools, clothing, homes, and art left from past human cultures. They use these objects to determine the history, customs, and living habits of earlier civilizations. Most often, archaeologists dig up objects that have become buried in the ground over the years. Archaeologists have made important contributions to the field of anthropology concerning the cultures of Native Americans, European cave dwellers, and early American settlers.

Anthropologists who are known as linguistic anthropologists study the evolution of languages and their relation to one another. They sometimes visit communities with no written languages and study and record the spoken languages. Linguistic anthropologists also try to explain how the language is related to the ways in which the people in the community think and act.

Cultural anthropologists, who study the customs and cultures of living peoples, form the largest group of anthropologists. They study populations such as native tribes of Africa or America, people on remote islands of the Pacific, or segments of the populations of modern cities. Cultural anthropologists interview persons in the populations they study and observe their behavior. They often concentrate on one area of life, such as their religious beliefs, their music, or how they care for the aged. They keep careful records and try to draw conclusions about their ways of life.

Most anthropologists work in colleges and universities, where they teach and do research. Others work for museums. Government agencies employ a few anthropologists, usually in museums, national parks, and technical aid programs. Anthropologists also work for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Army Corps of Engineers. Some anthropologists serve as consultants to government or industry. For example, they may write reports estimating the impact that the construction of a new dam would have on the people living in a valley upstream from the dam. They may prepare an estimate of the value of the archaeological sites that would be flooded by the resulting reservoir.

Work Environment

Anthropologists who are employed by colleges and universities usually spend much of their time in offices, classrooms, and libraries. Their working hours are flexible but often total more than 40 hours a week. Most anthropologists also do some field work. This work may take them to study sites as diverse as the Arctic to study the Inuit or Eskimos, to Africa to dig at an archaeological site or observe monkeys in their natural habitat, or into a modern city to record the behavior and attitudes of members of a particular ethnic group. Anthropologists engaged in field work require good physical stamina. Most anthropologists find that the challenge of making new discoveries more than compensates for any lack of physical comfort on field trips. Anthropologists who work for museums or for businesses or government agencies face a wide variety of working conditions.

On the Job

  • Collect information and make judgments through observation, interviews, and the review of documents.
  • Plan and direct research to characterize and compare the economic, demographic, health care, social, political, linguistic, and religious institutions of distinct cultural groups, communities, and organizations.
  • Write about and present research findings for a variety of specialized and general audiences.
  • Advise government agencies, private organizations, and communities regarding proposed programs, plans, and policies and their potential impacts on cultural institutions, organizations, and communities.
  • Build and use text-based database management systems to support the analysis of detailed firsthand observational records or field notes.
  • Identify culturally specific beliefs and practices affecting health status and access to services for distinct populations and communities, in collaboration with medical and public health officials.
  • Develop intervention procedures, using techniques such as individual and focus group interviews, consultations, and participant observation of social interaction.
  • Construct and test data collection methods.
  • Explain the origins and physical, social, or cultural development of humans, including physical attributes, cultural traditions, beliefs, languages, resource management practices, and settlement patterns.
  • Conduct participatory action research in communities and organizations to assess how work is done and to design work systems, technologies, and environments.
  • Formulate general rules that describe and predict the development and behavior of cultures and social institutions.
  • Train others in the application of ethnographic research methods to solve problems in organizational effectiveness, communications, technology development, policy making, and program planning.
  • Create data records for use in describing and analyzing social patterns and processes, using photography, videography, and audio recordings.
  • Collaborate with economic development planners to decide on the implementation of proposed development policies, plans, and programs based on culturally institutionalized barriers and facilitating circumstances.
  • Enhance the cultural sensitivity of elementary and secondary curricula and classroom interactions in collaboration with educators and teachers.
  • Study archival collections of primary historical sources to help explain the origins and development of cultural patterns.
  • Apply systematic sampling techniques to ensure the accuracy, completeness, precision, and representativeness of individuals selected for sample surveys.
  • Identify key individual cultural collaborators, using reputational and positional selection techniques.
  • Gather and analyze artifacts and skeletal remains to increase knowledge of ancient cultures.
  • Organize public exhibits and displays to promote public awareness of diverse and distinctive cultural traditions.
  • Apply traditional ecological knowledge and assessments of culturally distinctive land and resource management institutions to assist in the resolution of conflicts over habitat protection and resource enhancement.
  • Examine museum collections of hominid fossils to classify anatomical and physiological variations and to determine how they fit into evolutionary theory.
  • Participate in forensic activities, such as tooth and bone structure identification, in conjunction with police departments and pathologists.
  • Observe the production, distribution, and consumption of food to identify and mitigate threats to food security.
  • Analyze and characterize user experiences and institutional settings to assist consumer product developers, technology developers, and software engineers with the design of innovative products and services.
  • Build geographic information systems (GIS) to record, analyze, and cartographically represent the distribution of languages, cultural and natural resources, land use, and settlement patterns of specific populations.
  • Observe and measure bodily variations and physical attributes of different human groups.

Source: BLS

Companies That Hire Anthropologists

Explore what you might do on the job with one of these projects...

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Have you ever seen or heard of the movies The Mummy or The Mummy Returns? Mummies have always played a part in nightmares for Western cultures, but in ancient Egypt, mummification was a serious religious ritual. They believed that preserving human remains was necessary so that the previous owner could enjoy the fruits of the afterlife. In this science fair project, you will learn about the rituals and science of mummification by mummifying a hot dog. Read more
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Although some of us may not like to admit it, everyone's afraid of something. Big dogs, thunderstorms, public speaking, heights: what are you most afraid of? Do you think grown-ups have the same fears as kids? How about first-graders and sixth-graders? Find out for yourself by doing this project. Read more
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Do people treat someone differently based on his or her appearance? Specifically, how are their behaviors affected by the clothes a person wears? For instance, if somebody wears a formal suit, do you think others behave differently when interacting with that person compared to if he or she were wearing casual clothes, like blue jeans? In this science project, you will get to try and find out! Read more
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What causes the most stress for teenagers? Is it school? family relationships? peer pressure? worries about the future? Design a survey to find out what contributes to teens' stress levels. Possible variations include: How do teenagers deal with stress? Are today's teens more or less stressed than their parents were as teenagers? Were the sources of stress the same for your parent's generation or different? (Idea from De Biasi, 2003) Read more
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If you compare products made primarily for boys with products made primarily girls, you will probably notice differences in colors for the two groups. Why do you think this is? Is it the marketplace responding to gender-based color preferences? Do you think it's the other way around, and the products create gender-based color preferences? Design a survey study to find out if gender actually make a difference in color preferences. Here are some questions you might want to consider when… Read more
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Have you ever wondered if some shapes have certain "sounds" to people, even if they have different native languages? For example, does everyone match certain physical characteristics, like sharpness or roundness, with certain sounds? Are there certain human sounds with meanings that can cross the language barrier? In this science project you will investigate this by testing the Bouba-Kiki Effect—will it turn out that abstract visual properties can be linked to sound? Read more
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Have you ever stood close to a fossilized T. rex skull and counted its razor-sharp teeth? Or, have you seen a fossilized stegosaurus skeleton and thought about how it defended itself with tail spikes and armored plates? A trip to a natural history museum lets you imagine what dinosaurs looked like and wonder what life with them on Earth was like. Fossils give us information about animals and plants that lived long ago. Certain places around the world contain more fossils than others. Why?… Read more
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How do you feel when a friend comes too close to you? How far away or close do you think is necessary to have a conversation with someone? The answers to these questions are dependent upon the size of your personal space. Some people like to be within a foot of each other when having a conversation and others feel that being 3 feet apart is still just a little too close for comfort. Personal space is defined as the protective area surrounding a person's body (not necessarily spherical in… Read more
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Are there some songs that always make you feel sad when you hear them? How about "Scarborough Fair," George Gershwin's "Summertime," or the Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby"? All of these songs are in a minor key. Minor keys have more intervals, or halftones, than major keys do. Some musicologists (people who study music) maintain that minor-key songs are more likely to be perceived as sad, while major-key songs are more likely to be interpreted as happy. You can research the competing explanations… Read more
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Did you ever wonder about your ancient ancestors? Who they were? Where they came from? In this science project, you will investigate the secrets of your distant past as revealed by your DNA. In order to obtain a sample for DNA analysis, you will scrape a soft swab inside your mouth to collect cheek cells. The cheek cell sample will be sent to a lab for processing, and the results of the analysis will be sent to you. Based on the genetic markers in your DNA, the ancient clan that your… Read more
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What do rocks and clocks have in common? Both keep track of time. Yes, radioactive isotopes present in rocks and other ancient material decay atom by atom at a steady rate, much as clocks tick time away. Geologists use those radioactive isotopes to date volcanic ash or granite formations like the giant Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. Anthropologists, archeologists, and paleontologists also use radioactive isotopes to date mummies, pottery, and dinosaur fossils. Does this sound abstract… Read more
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What do you consider creepy? Clowns? Zombies? Video game characters with jerky movement? In 1970, a roboticist by the name of Masahiro Mori suggested that people are "creeped out" by robots that are almost, but not exactly, humanlike. He called this phenomena the uncanny valley. But researchers are still exploring and defining the uncanny valley. In this science project, you can do your own exploration—just try not to creep your friends out too badly! Read more
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Male or female? Fat or skinny? Outgoing or quiet? What is your stereotype of a "gamer"? Do your friends have the same mental picture of gamers? How about your parents? This science fair project will help you examine whether the stereotypes of "gamers" actually matches the reality of who plays video games. Read more
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It's hard to imagine a world without paper. You wouldn't have things like books, cards, comics, newspaper, construction paper, notebooks, cereal boxes, or that nice sound of shredding wrapping paper on your birthday. There was a time, though, when the only thing people had to write on were slabs of soft, squishy clay. When these slabs dried in the sun, they preserved simple ideas, but they were heavy, like carrying around a load of rocks. Not exactly easy to put in your pocket and carry around.… Read more
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There are many different types, also called genres, of computer and video games, including racing, fighting, sports, adventure, and puzzle games. Do some genres of games appeal more to males and other genres more to females? Survey your classmates and find out in this science fair project! Read more
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The concept of beauty changes over time and often differs among societal groups. How strongly do societal conceptions of beauty shape an individual's self-image? There are many fascinating questions you could choose to explore with surveys on this subject. For example, how well do girls' ideas of what is attractive in boys agree with boys' expectations about what girls find attractive (or vice versa)? Try your survey with different generations to see how conceptions change over time. If you… Read more
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You have probably seen figures showing how human beings are related to chimpanzees, gorillas, and other primates. In this genomics science fair project, you will use bioinformatics tools to generate your own primate family tree. Read more
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The author of this project hypothesized that movies often disappoint readers because book-based movies tend to "dumb down" the works on which they are based (Fuhrman, 2002). Naturally, selective compression is necessary when telling a story as a movie, or no one would sit through it. (Hey, maybe there's an idea for a different experiment!) Selective compression is not necessarily the same, however, as simplification. There are ways to objectively measure the complexity of written language… Read more
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Did you know that people eat with their eyes as well as with their mouths? Food presentation—also called plating techniques or garnishing—makes food appear more appetizing. Checking out how the food looks is the cook's last task and the diner's first. Food that is well-presented is beautiful, colorful, and captivating. Not only does it make the diner really want to eat, but good presentation also allows the diner to identify the food ingredients, their quality, and the technique… Read more
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Have you ever noticed an old stone wall and wondered how long it has been there? If there is lichen growing on the wall, the lichen has most likely been living there since the time the wall was made, so if you could figure out how old the lichen is then you could deduce the age of the wall. Geologies use this method, called lichenometry, and other methods to establish dates and temporal sequences as they seek to construct a history from the available evidence. In this geology science project,… Read more

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