What is it really like to be an anthropologist?

This is the time of year in New Zealand when potential university students start thinking about future career options and what they’d like to study. Last week I received this email from Hannah asking what it’s like to be an anthropologist:

I am at that point in my life where I need to decide what it is I want to do with my life career wise and I have a shortlist of things I love to do and would love to do as a career, Anthropologist is one of those things.
I have  done a bit of research into it but what I would really like is to know what it is really like to be an Anthropologist on a day to day basis and in the long run?
I would like to know this so I can decided if this is what I really want to do so I can choose my study for next year at Uni.
I would greatly appreciate any information you can give me on the life of an Anthropologist.

Hannah said the replies I sent her were helpful and gave her a lot of food for thought in terms of her future career. I asked her if I could share them on my blog in case other students might also find them helpful. She agreed, so there they are!

1-What is the most rewarding thing about your job?
Constantly learning new things, experiencing new challenges, meeting interesting people, getting to try out new teaching techniques, being able to follow my passions, and being paid to read and write (things I love to do anyway).

2-What is the hardest thing about your job?

I have worked as an anthropologist in universities (as a lecturer) and as a research consultant and in all jobs the hardest thing is doing all the work required so you can meet deadlines. I am usually juggling several large projects at once so good time management skills are very important.

3-What is a typical day like?
This is a difficult question to answer as it depends on what I’m doing at the time and how many courses I’m teaching. Right now my typical day starts at 9am when I arrive at work, check and respond to emails and prepare for my lectures at 10am (which happen every day except Friday). Then I give my lecture (except for Tuesday, when the lecture goes from 9am-12pm) and spend a bit of time after that talking with students. I have a number of different projects happening at the moment (writing a journal article, book chapter, editing a special issue of a journal, trying to find a publisher for my book, organising seminars, starting a new research project, marking essays, supervising Masters and PhD students) so I usually work on those as well as prepare lectures and attend seminars around the university to find out about what other academics are doing. In the evenings I usually work again between 7pm-10pm. I keep Fridays just for my own research and writing. I quite often work on a Sunday too.

When I am doing fieldwork (usually research overseas), my days are quite different. For example when I was in India or Papua New Guinea, I was alone (no family to look after!) so was able to spend the whole day interviewing my research participants, hanging out with them, taking photos, and being involved in the kinds of things that they do. In the evenings I would write about my experiences in my fieldwork journal (we call this taking fieldnotes) and do a bit of research as well, usually reading journal articles or books.

When I was working as a consultant, my days were similar to what I currently do at the university although I was full-time and worked at home rather than in an office. I would spend about 10-12 hours a day doing research, writing, and managing projects.

I also make sure I have time to go to the gym, hang out with my family and friends, and go to band practice.

4-How and Why did you choose your job?
It is extremely difficult to get a job as an academic so I feel very lucky to have this one. I didn’t plan to be an academic and actually left school before the final year to train as a secretary (my life’s ambition). I became a secretary and loved it, but after about four years I developed serious problems with occupational overuse syndrome and my doctor told me that I needed to look for a new job or I would lose the use of one arm. I didn’t really know what to do so headed to university, took an anthropology class by accident, and loved it. I started working as a tutor when I was a graduate student and enjoyed interacting with other students in this way. I then got a series of short-term contracts to teach anthropology (usually filling in for someone who was overseas doing research) and enjoyed the work. If I wasn’t doing this I would be working either as a research consultant or as a researcher, probably for an organisation involved in international development (although those jobs are hard to get too).

5-What do you wish you knew about your job before you started?

Three things:

  • how difficult it is to get permanent, full-time work as an academic;
  • how anthropologists usually end up working everywhere else EXCEPT in universities;
  • and how important it is to get the best grades you possibly can all the way through university so that you can get a scholarship for graduate study (scholarships are very competitive).

6-What are your typical working hours?
I am part-time at the moment, which means I am paid for 22 hours per week, and I probably work closer to 40 hours per week. When I am full-time I work around 60 hours per week.

7-Can you balance work and family?

Yes! I have a 2-year-old and could not do this job without the support of my extended family and my wonderful husband. It takes a lot of work, planning and communication, but I think we do a pretty good job of balancing things to meet everyone’s needs. We’re certainly getting better all the time.

8-Would you choose this job if you had to choose again?

9-What education requirements are needed?
To work as an academic, usually a PhD. To work as a researcher, probably an Honours degree at the least. A Masters degree is preferable as it shows potential employers that you are capable of handling the kind of work they are likely to throw at you.

10-What University would you recommend?

All of the anthropology departments in New Zealand are different and have different areas of specialisation. I would recommend taking a look at the courses on offer at each university. The anthropology programmes all have websites (listed below) you can visit to see what the staff are interested in and the kinds of courses they teach.

11-What are the working conditions like?
There is quite a bit of pressure and stress involved in this job – academics need to publish a lot, try to win grants to fund new research, as well as teach and do other bits and pieces. But I feel like I have a lot of support to help me achieve these things. I also have a nice office, friendly workmates, amazing students, and there are always people around ready to go and have coffee and a chat.

12-What are the most important skills/abilities needed?
Critical thinking, time management, creativity, communication, research, and of course writing.

13-How much money do you get when you start out and how much can you expect to get when you are more experienced?

This is a hard question to answer as it depends on the job you have. This report has some information on academic salaries: http://www.universitiesnz.ac.nz/files/University%20Staff%20Academic%20Salaries%20and%20Remuneration%20-%20Final.pdf

You can also do a Google search for this information and see salary scales for each University in New Zealand.

14-Any words of advice?

Keep asking questions!


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