Skip to main content

Careers of Famous Anthropologists

Choosing to be an anthropology major can be useful in life whether one's ultimate job title is "anthropologist" or something else, like "actor," "writer," "CEO," "elected official," or so many other job titles.  Just take a look at some of the famous people who credit majoring in anthropology with their success in life.

Daniel Radcliffe, the actor who plays Harry Potter, wants to major in anthropology and become an archaeologist! Well, of course, he does. What could be more exciting even than catching the golden snitch, snogging Ginny Weasley, and destroying Lord Voldemort? Why, becoming an anthropologist! Good choice, Harry!

And just as there are real people (who have played fictional characters) who want to be anthropologists, there are also fictional characters who majored in anthropology.  In the novels of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, the character of FBI Agent Aloysius X. L. Pendergast majored in anthropology at Harvard.  In the novels of Tony Hillerman, the characters of Navajo tribal police officers Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee also majored in anthropology, Leaphorn at Arizona State and Chee at the University of New Mexico.

The world famous author of Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton, was interviewed in Time Magazine. Asked the inevitable question about how his career as a best-selling writer developed, Crichton answered that he "went to Harvard in 1960 intending to be a writer. But the English department rubbed a blister on his soul (it was 'not the place for an aspiring writer,' he said; 'it was the place for an aspiring English professor'), so he switched to anthropology."

In fact, there are several successful literary types who began their careers with a solid foundation in anthropology:

  • Harlem Renaissance author Zora Neale Hurston was a cultural anthropologist.  The Southern Anthropological Society's Zora Neale Hurston Award is named for her.
  • Noble Prize winning poet Octavio Paz was an anthropologist.
  • The famous science fiction authors Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Ursula K. LeGuin, Joan D. Vinge, and Chad Oliver are other examples of those drawn to anthropology.
  • Horror writer Douglas J. Preston was an anthropologist.
  • Mystery writers Aaron Elkins and Kathy Reichs were forensic anthropologists, and mystery writers Elizabeth Peters and Lynda Robinson were archaeologists.
  • Non-fiction writers Elizabeth Marshall Thomas and NKU graduates Donald Miller and Kathryn Miller Ridiman were anthropology majors.
  • Pueblo Indian authors, Edward Dozier and Alfonso Ortiz, were anthropologists.
  • Other anthropologists who have tried their hand as authors of fiction or poetry include Dorothy Allison, Jose Maria Arguedas, Laura Bohannan, Saul Bellow, Francois Bordes, Tim Buckley, Rebecca Cramer, Isadore Durant, Kathleen O'Neal Gear, W. Michael Gear, Tess Gerritsen, Amitav Ghosh, Michael Jackson, Bernard James, Oliver Lafarge, Frederica de Laguna, Ted Lewellen, Sharlotte Neely, Conrad Quintyn, Gregory Reck, Mary Doria Russell, Ernest L. Schusky, Joseph Shepherd, Gary Synder, Paul Stoller, and Stan Struble.
  • Steve Riggio, the founder of the Barnes and Noble mega bookstore chain, was an anthropology major.
  • In the arts, singers Tracy Chapman and Greg Graffin were also drawn to anthropology, as were directors Joan Campion and George Lucas, choreographer Katherine Dunham, TV hosts Joan Lunden and Jeff Corwin, stand-up comic Joan Rivers, and actors Gabriel Byrne, Glenn Close, Hugh Laurie, Tea' Leoni, Thandie Newton, Natalia Reagan, Dax Shepard, Cole Sprouse, Kerry Washington, and Ashley Judd.
  • Judd has been quoted as saying that the purpose of anthropologists is to "then go forth and make the world a better place." (She said this just before donating $50,000 to the Anthropology Department at the University of Kentucky.)
  • Actress Kerry Washington, who majored in anthropology, has been quoted as saying, "I always approach a role like an anthropologist.  So I like to lose myself in a culture and identity."
  • Internationally famous classical cellist Yo-Yo Ma has been quoted as saying, "[As a young man,] I knew nothing about the world, I knew I needed to learn stuff, and I needed time. So I thought, 'Wow--a university, what a great thing to do, what a great opportunity.' So I came here [Harvard], and I was a music major, but my great passion was anthropology."
  • NKU anthropology grad Greg Rust is an ethnophotographer, and former NKU anthropology professor Ken Tankersley is a documentary film maker.
  • Gary Larson, famous for his "Far Side" cartoons, took every college elective in science, including anthropology and archaeology.
  • In higher education, Crow Indian, Dr. Janine Pease, the former President of Little Big Horn Tribal College, was an anthropology major. And, anthropology professor Dr. Jan K. Simek was the interim President of the University of Tennessee.
  • Christopher Langton, computer whiz in the area of artificial life, was an anthropology major.
  • The first woman (and youngest person ever) to become Director of the Public Library system of Cincinnati (the largest public library system in the nation) and NKU graduate, Kimber Griffin Fender, was an anthropology major.  NKU anthropology major Vanessa Schumann Van Zant is the Director of the Cincinnati History Museum.
  • In the realm of politics and government, anthropology majors include the first president of Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta, and the U.S. senator from Ohio, Republican Rob Portman. In Madagascar in 2009, Eugene Mangalaza, a professor of anthropology, was appointed prime minister.
  • NKU anthropology graduate Rose Pfaff has served on the Highland Heights, Kentucky City Council.
  • Recently the former Ambassador from Pakistan to Great Britain, anthropologist Akbar S. Ahmed, now a professor of Islamic studies at American University in Washington, DC, commented in 2010 that he thought the transition of American generals in Afghanistan would be smooth because both Generals Petraeus and McChrystal embodied Scots-Irish values so prevalent in American society and that Afghans could relate to those values.
  • In the area of crime fighting, New York City police officer Frank Serpico, immortalized in the Al Pacino film Serpico, was an anthropology major.  Even McGruff, the Crime Dog (as played by NKU anthropology alumnus Carl Agner when with the nearby Florence, Kentucky Police Force), is an anthropologist.
  • Anthropologists show up at every end of the political spectrum. For example, nationally syndicated conservative talk show host Michael Savage is a medical anthropologist who worked throughout the south Pacific and got his Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley.
  • President Barack Obama's mother, Ann Dunham Soetoro, at the liberal end of the political spectrum, was an applied anthropologist who mostly worked in Indonesia and got her Ph.D. from the University of Hawaii.
  • In fact, anthropologists turn up everywhere. Football players like Matt Elam of the Baltimore Ravens, John Clair of the St. Louis Rams, and Monsanto Pope of the Denver Broncos and New York Jets were anthropology majors. 2014 Olympic gold medalist in ice dancing, Meryl Davis, was an anthropology major at the University of Michigan. Celebrity chefs Rick Bayless and Giada de Laurentis and culinary sensation Gail Simmons were also anthropology majors.
  • Roman Catholic priest Father Patrick Gaffney of Notre Dame University is an anthropologist. Evangelist Rev. Billy Graham was an anthropology major, too. For years, the late Jewish rabbi Edgar E. Siskin, founder of the Jerusalem Center for Anthropological Studies, did fieldwork with the Washoe Indians of Nevada every summer, leaving his congregation after confirmation and returning before Rosh Hashana.
  • There are even examples of royalty who are anthropologists in the persons of Prince Charles of England and Prince Peter of Greece and Denmark.
  • Primatologist Jane Goodall is an anthropologist. And Margaret Mead may have been the most famous anthropologist.
  • There are anthropologists who are archaeologists, environmentalists, applied social scientists, politicians, attorneys, police officers, crime scene investigators, forensic scientists, probation officers and other court workers, interpreters and translators, religious leaders, teachers, professors, librarians, genealogists, physicians, nurses, emergency medical technicians, photographers, actors and musicians, travel agents, flight attendants, park rangers, bankers, business people, zoo employees, primatologists, writers, farmers, factory workers, and royalty. And the list goes on.
  • But the real popularity of anthropology can be demonstrated by the fact that on the preschool educational cartoon show, Dora, the Explorer, Dora's mother is an archaeologist.  But Dora's mom isn't even television's first fictional anthropologist.  In the 1970s Jimmy Stewart played an anthropology professor on TV.
  • And on the 1950s TV show, Superman, the sister of Perry White (editor of The Daily Planet and Clark Kent's boss) was an anthropologist who needed to be rescued in Haiti by Superman.  And the character of Charlotte in the recent TV series Lost was a cultural anthropologist.

Interest in and respect for anthropology has been growing significantly since the mid-1990s, and by 1995 more anthropology degrees were awarded in the United States than in any other previous year. The number of anthropology students continues to rise. According to the American Anthropological Association, in the ten years from 1987 to 1997, for example, the number of anthropology majors nationwide increased 109%. (At NKU the increase was closer to 300%.) The number of Master's degrees awarded went up 60%, and the number of Ph.D. degrees by 35%. During the same time enrollments nationwide in undergraduate anthropology classes increased 78%.  And anthropology is still ascending.

National Public Radio reports that the World Bank is restructuring and plans to hire fewer economists and more anthropologists. Anthropologists, it is felt, will best be able to understand the financial needs of businesses in other countries. It is assumed that anthropologists will make the projects of the World Bank more relevant and more cost-effective.

The 1999 edition of Newsweek's "Career and Graduate School" guide lists "anthropologists" as a career that's "up," one of the "hot careers" of the future. The November 2001 issue of Cincinnati Magazine makes a similar claim for anthropology careers and says that "employers have been snatching up anthropologists as if they were nuggets at the Gold Rush." According to the magazine, among the companies who hire anthropologists are Sapient, Intel, Kodak, Whirlpool, AT&T, General Motors, and Hallmark.

While we at NKU have become accustomed to telling our students that job ads rarely state that a particular company or agency is specifically hiring an anthropologist, we have had to modify our position.

In the past, we have told our students, that companies or agencies will list the kinds of skills that anthropologists have. Lately, we have had to tell our students that more and more job ads do specifically state that the individual hired should be an "anthropologist" or an "archaeologist."

Not only do contract archaeology companies advertise for "archaeologists," but so do government agencies like the National Park Service. Brighton Center, a social services organization in nearby Covington, Kentucky, recently advertised for an "anthropologist" to evaluate their effectiveness in the community. Hallmark Greeting Cards has advertised to hire an "anthropologist" who can conduct an ethnographic survey of when and how Americans use greeting cards. In fact, there are more than a dozen published books on careers advice for anthropologists, including Blythe Camenson's recent one, Great Jobs for Anthropology Majors.

Recently the Kentucky Council on Higher Education conducted a survey of business and industry leaders throughout the region. These business leaders evaluated the skills most important in anyone they hired. High on the list was the ability of an employee to work well with people from diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds, a skill typical of anthropology graduates.

The August 16, 2002 issue of USA Today ran a letter to to editor praising liberal arts subjects like anthropology. "Many of the country's top professional employers recognize the value of a liberal arts education," wrote accountant Christina Hardin. "They hire liberal arts graduates because they demonstrate a combination of academic preparation, intellectual versatility and strong leadership skills that makes them indispensable in the workforce."

The February 18, 1999 edition of USA Today ran in its "Money" section a cover story titled "Hot Asset in Corporate: Anthropology Degrees." USA Today concluded that "as companies go global and crave leaders for a diverse workforce, a new hot degree is emerging for aspiring executives: anthropology."

Among the companies with anthropology majors among its executives, the article listed Citicorp, Hallmark, Hanseatic Group, Hauser Design, Koss, and Motorola. Anthropologist Katherine Burr, CEO of the Hanseatic Group, an investment company, was among the first to predict the 1998 Asian financial crisis. As a result, her investors made profits while the clients of other money managers lost out.

The October 15, 1996 issue of CIO Magazine ran a story titled "Joining the Culture Club," which made similar points about anthropology careers. In the article sociologist Tom Davenport says that when it comes to corporate research, "not just any ol' social scientist will do; you should look for the real anthro thing" because important research cannot be gained "by gazing at a computer screen." Among the companies Davenport mentions who make use of anthropologists are Motorola, Nynex, Hoffman-LaRoche, Xerox, National Semiconductor, Sun Microsystems, and the Institute for Research on Learning. Motorola even trains its employees to do "anthropological analysis." He goes on to say that "smart companies will hire anthropologists in the future, and corporate anthropologists are already in demand." In fact the problem may be in finding enough anthropologists since "universities don't turn out a whole heap of anthropologists each year."

The November 1996 issue of Fast Company ran a story titled "Anthropologists Go Native in the Corporate Village."  In that article the conclusion Kate Kane came to regarding the popularity of anthropology was that "the field's 'holistic' approach -- one that draws on evolutionary, cultural, linguistic, and biological perspective -- matches the growing complexity of business itself."

In 2001 The Christian Science Monitor published an article, "Anthropologists on the Job," by Shira Boss.  The article begins with the image of a shocked parent whose college-age child has announced his intentions to pursue a career in anthropology.  As the parents gets more information, however, they realize "anthropologists are just as likely to be well-paid corporate consultants as they are to be hanging out with monkeys in the rain forest," not that there is anything wrong with hanging out in the rain forest with monkeys.

The average annual starting salary for someone with a four-year college liberal arts degree, no matter what the major or university, is in excess of $30,000. The median starting salary for those who majored in anthropology is $36,800.  By mid-career the median salary for those who majored in anthropology is $61,500.  Average college graduates over the course of their working lives will make one million dollars more apiece than average high school graduates.

Most people realize too that whether the economy is good or bad, a college degree, in just about anything, increases one's lifetime earnings and decreases the chances of unemployment. (According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the difference in the earnings gap between college and high school graduates is 60% and growing; a New York Times study of job losses shows that it is high school graduates who account for 66% of all people who have lost their jobs.) And according to Joseph J. McGowan, Jr. of the Association of Independent Kentucky Colleges and Universities, "the liberal arts [such as anthropology] have been, and will continue to be, the most effective preparation for the leaders of tomorrow."

So college is a good idea, but is anthropology the career path you should take in college? You need to decide whether you want a career in anthropology and, if so, what areas of anthropology offer the most promise. An even more important issue: what would you enjoy doing for the next forty or fifty years of your life?

While the least a career should do is offer you a salary and some security, I think it should offer so much more. Therefore, I ask you to consider this advice. Before you ask the questions of where are the most jobs and how much money you can make, I suggest you ask yourself what you enjoy. If you think what you would enjoy doing in life is anthropology, go for it.

I love being an anthropologist. At times it offers all the excitement of an Indiana Jones story and all the challenge of a Tony Hillerman mystery. I will never forget riding horses in Canyon de Chelly with a Navajo guide in search of Anasazi ruins or living in a remote, haunted cabin on the Cherokee reservation. I have danced around a campfire, my face painted with magical designs, and I have slept under the stars. I have climbed inside the Great Pyramid in Egypt and stood atop the Pyramid of the Moon in Mexico. As an applied cultural anthropologist, I have researched and written a report that stopped a highway from barreling through an Indian reservation. And every time I do something like that, I marvel that I actually get paid to be an anthropologist.

If I won the lottery tomorrow and never had to work another day in my life, I would not quit my job because the money is only one of the reasons I am an anthropologist. I suggest you ask yourself the question of what gives you so much pleasure that even if you won the lottery, you would not quit. I think that question should be the first that you ask yourself in your quest for a career.

But you should also know that I enjoy the more contemplative tasks that go into being an anthropologist, too, at least as I define anthropology. I enjoy teaching, even topics like kinship terminology, and watching the faces of my students as they "get it" for the first time. I enjoy analyzing my research and the thrill that comes when I "get it" for the first time. I enjoy writing books and articles about the people I have studied and realizing that long after I am dead someone will pull a dusty book I have written from a library shelf -- or punch it up on the Internet -- and feel some of the same wonder I did so long ago.

How do you define anthropology? What would give you pleasure? How will you make a living out of something that gives you satisfaction?

Some areas of anthropology are more popular than others. Most of us, often as children, have read the story of archaeologist Howard Carter as he gazed upon the treasures of King Tut's tomb for the first time. Archaeology is a subfield of anthropology. Forensic anthropology is another popular subfield, and I realized recently just how popular when I ran across a children's book, The Bone Detectives: How Forensic Anthropologists Solve Crimes and Uncover Mysteries of the Dead. Archaeology and forensic anthropology both seem like such interesting ways of making a living. Is that possible? The answer is yes and no.

For archaeology the answer is a loud yes. There are more than half a dozen contract archaeology companies operating right here in the tri-state and hiring people at every college degree level from the Bachelor's degree to the Doctorate. Throw in local universities and museums that hire archaeologists, and the job market is even bigger. And that is true of archaeology all over the world. So, if your interest is archaeology, go to it.

What about forensic anthropology? Exciting? Yes. Jobs that pay money? Only for the lucky few. There are only about 150 forensic anthropologists in the United States, and only about 15 of them work full-time as forensic anthropologists. The rest of them do forensic anthropology part-time and support themselves working in related areas of anthropology, biology, medicine, or criminal investigation. Part-timers might get only one or two grizzly cases a year. If your interest is forensic anthropology, you need to decide how the availability of work affects your career choice.  Could you be happy in the broader area of crime scene investigation?  Could you be happy earning your living in a related area of anthropology where there are numerous jobs and doing forensics here and there?

Other job prospects in anthropology lie somewhere along the continuum between archaeology and forensic anthropology. Applied anthropology, public anthropology, medical anthropology, and environmental studies lie closer to archaeology along the job continuum. College teaching has slipped toward the forensic anthropology end of the continuum when it comes to new jobs as a professor (although that may be changing for the better). Could you be happy teaching in college part-time and making your living as a contract archaeologist or an applied researcher?

My mission is not only to give you the answers in your career search but to help you pose the questions important to you? What should your strategy be in your quest for a career in anthropology? That is something for you to decide. But I can tell you what I would do, with what I know now, if I were just starting out.

I would have a two-pronged approach. I would prepare myself to go after the career in anthropology I most wanted, job availability or not. But then for me, when it comes to career, I am willing to be a risk-taker. But even risk-takers hedge their bets. The second part of my approach would be to amass as many job skills as possible in every area of anthropology and related fields, especially those areas where jobs are more readily available. The most important question you can answer for yourself today is what your approach should be. We want to help.

Follow your heart, but in a pragmatic sort of way. Take courses that will develop important skills, anthropology courses like ethnographic methods, museum methods, laboratory methods, and archaeology field school and courses outside of anthropology like statistics, a foreign language, computer skills, workplace writing, historical research, photography, and sociological methods. Accumulate work experience, even if at first you have to do it on a volunteer basis, with museums, contract archaeology companies, and human services organizations. NKU's Career Development Center reports that it is easier to get a job if one has "real-world" work experience. That experience can be gotten through internships, practica, co-op jobs, work-study programs, part-time work, summer jobs, and volunteering. Start your career search or search for a graduate school program at least a year before you graduate.

We wish you all the best in your career quest, and stand ready to help you along the route you choose.

by Sharlotte Neely
Professor Emeritus, NKU Anthropology