Advice to an aspiring anthropologist

This morning I got a note from someone who wanted to know whether a master’s degree in anthropology would be useful to his career as a consulting anthropologist.  

Here’s my reply:


Thanks for your note.

A couple of things spring to mind.

The anthropology consulting world does not sort very well, so the good does not rise nor the bad fall away. Partly this is because there are no real barriers to entry. Lots of people hang out a shingle, despite the fact that they don’t have credentials or any real clue.

Second, clients don’t seem to care that someone doesn’t have a substantial career training, education or accomplishment. Procurement just goes with the low-cost provider.

So I am not sure that a master’s degree makes as much difference as it would in another field.

The second thing: to judge from your background, you have a breadth of experience, and you have engaged with the world, and that means, I am assuming, you are prepared to go places other angels fear to tread.

Many organizations are saying things like, “Geez, I wonder if there is an opportunity/problem opening up in this new place, new industry, new community.” More and more, organizations are confronted with “unknown unknowns” and the best thing to do is to drop someone into the place/industry/community and have them think their way home again.  This takes a kind of pattern recognition (aka problem cognition) that anthropologists, some anthropologists, are particularly good at.  (My clients used to ask me for “to find the right answer,” increasingly they ask me “to find the right question…then the right answer.”)  

In my intro to Steve Portigal’s new book on ethnography, I praise him for being a Mars Rover, someone you can send anywhere to capture the culture in place. A lot of anthro-consultants would wilt under the pressure. So they eliminate themselves from the competitive set. (On this website, about 4 posts ago.)

This is not to say that I can identify the exact clients out there who would want to hire you. But I believe once you had established yourself as someone who perform this kind of problem recognition, you will have many clients largely to yourself. (For more on being a “self sustaining anthropologist,” see my contribution to Riall Nolan’s Handbook on Practicing Anthropology.

So my advice comes down to this.  In the absence of a really strong program and clients who are sensitive to professional credentials, it might make sense to take the year (or two) you would give to a master’s program, and spent in a “proof of concept” project where you go after a big problem and in the process deepen your skills and show what you can do.

Blog it, then turn it into a book.  And that’s your calling card.  Lead with a total, open, intellectual curiosity and an eye to problem-solving pattern recognition. (Lots of people can do the first or the second. Advantage goes to people who can do both.)  This is a “self invention” scenario, but if you trust your powers and experience, I suspect you can transform yourself more effectively than a Masters’ program can.  

I hope this is helpful. I hope you don’t mind but I am going to post this note to my website. Naturally, I will not use your name or pass it along.

Best, Grant

p.s., I am writing this from a Hilton in Columbus, Ohio where a philanthropic foundation has me for the week, talking to Americans about politics and community.  It is absolutely interesting.  I am listening to people reinventing their ideas of who they are and what community is.  In almost real time.  So keep at it.  This is a spectacularly interesting career.