For over 40 years, I have been a full-time anthropology practitioner. Although my anthropological training and fieldwork have prepared me for various jobs, no employer has hired me as an anthropologist.

I have always been the only anthropologist on the team, department, or even the entire organization, typically unknown to my co-workers. I have designed and managed projects and programs, managed staff and operations, written funding proposals, drafted organizational strategy, and spoken with thousands of beneficiaries and partners of our programs.

As background, I specialize in humanitarian assistance, emergency management, disaster response, and recovery and resilience for the U.S. government and a number of international and US-based non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Among them are the US Agency for International Development, CARE International, Save the Children, International Relief and Development, Relief International, Chemonics, and Crown Agents.  In most of these organizations, I was full-time staff while for some I was on contract.  For the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) where I work now, I am full- time staff.

How does anthropology help the work I do? Designing humanitarian programs requires accounting for existing social, economic, and cultural norms, along with ideas of self-sufficiency and pride. Using my skills, I can help to avoid accidentally imposing approaches, processes, strategies, or even materials that might interfere with those norms. I leverage local knowledge, skills, capacities, and forms of resilience to build upon, rather than replace, established ways of life. I have to collect qualitative and quantitative data rapidly, and then synthesize and analyze my findings to design tangible actions and implement solutions for disaster-related challenges affecting people.

My work has demanded extreme versatility. In the same day, week, or month, and across the globe, I have been involved in food delivery, emergency health and sanitation, providing potable water, and building temporary shelters, along with writing grant proposals and recruiting staff.

Increasingly, academic anthropologists conduct research that aligns with the issues I deal with: livelihoods, shelter and housing; food and food security; agriculture; public health; water and sanitation; and displacement. I can sometimes use their research to guide me in a current situation, which also has the benefit of reconnecting me to anthropology while demonstrating to teammates with whom I work the value of an anthropological perspective. Also, my work teammates from other disciplines would not normally have found this guidance on their own, nor even know it exists, and may not know how to apply it to their work.

In disaster and humanitarian work, water is often a critical factor: access to clean water for drinking, and water for sanitation, livestock, agriculture, and emergencies. Responses to flooding such as displacement, shelter, and loss of livelihoods are critical preoccupations. A recent issue of Human Organization (82:3, Fall 2023) included applied research on water, information that can sometimes help inform responses. But more importantly, my work requires learning from the current situation, understanding local systems, and applying available strategies and resources effectively.

I have also had to realize the importance of learning multiple technical vocabularies from water engineers, agronomists, or shelter design experts. We anthropologists need to understand what our colleagues mean and how we can mesh our observations, conclusions, and recommendations with theirs. Speaking their jargon intelligently enables us to increase the likelihood that colleagues will take our recommendations and strategies seriously. How do I learn the jargon? I use participant observation among colleagues and listen, ask questions, read reports, attend webinars, and go along on field trips and site visits.

How do anthropologists get started in a practitioner career? Honestly, it can be a long and sometimes frustrating process. Controlling my pride, I worked my way up. Over the years, I have seen numerous recent graduates (not usually in anthropology) arriving with MAs or PhDs who want to enter a mid-level management position. Yet, they have very little actual work experience. As a hiring manager for various organizations, I know they are unlikely to be successful.

I would like to recommend some career strategies here, based on my experience.

Look for opportunities from within entry jobs and work upwards. Even after earning my PhD, I worked as an intern—at first unpaid (so I needed a second job to pay the rent), and later, very poorly paid.  I edited a newsletter, summarized reports, took meeting notes, and yes, even ran for coffee. That internship provided access to key people, organizations, and networks, and an invaluable knowledge of how the working world operates.

In another early (low paying) job on a short-term contract, I matched staffing plans to people in a resume bank and reviewed technical reports and budgets—unglamorous and unfulfilling work. However, the exposure and experience were invaluable, adding many marketable skills to my resume, such as grant writing, budget analysis and review, staff planning and recruitment, editing, and presentation preparation. Remember, also, that taking a job off target can eventually lead to a career on target. For example, taking a position in water hygiene may eventually lead to a profession in public health.

I found both the internship and job mentioned above through the almost-cliched approach of networking.  In my case, in Washington DC (where I attended grad school) I joined local professional organizations and chapters, both anthropological—such as the Washington Association of Professional Anthropologists—and in other fields such as international development—the Society for International Development. I attended their meetings, met people, learned about where they worked, and kept asking if they knew of entry level jobs.  It took time, patience, perseverance, delicacy (to not become a pest), and frustration, but it worked.

Do not rely solely on writing and publishing to get practitioner jobs since experience surpasses academic publications. Practitioners mostly write internal reports, documents, analyses, and proposals. Although I have published in journals and books, I published on my own time; I devote my work hours to my employer.

In summary, here are few takeaways from my experience:

  1. Convert research and analysis skills into “lightening” (ad hoc) data collection
  2. Transform information into strategy and action planning
  3. Link needed situational knowledge to existing applied anthropology research
  4. Pivot and multi-task: be flexible
  5. Acquire multiple technical jargons and principles
  6. Prioritize learning and gaining experience before pride and excitement
  7. See these two ACRN tools on job titles anthropologists hold and on how to network.

Using anthropology in disaster and program management work differs significantly from academic employment.  I have found it to be extremely fulfilling, in part, because it offers an immediate and directly observable demonstration of my work that assists people in a positive way during their darkest times.

About the Author: Adam Koons

Adam Koons
Koons has been a full-time practitioner for 40 years. He currently works for FEMA. He has worked primarily on international programs in over 40 countries focusing on poverty reduction, food security, emergency response, and humanitarian assistance, and most recently disasters and disability. He has held senior management and executive leadership positions at a range of international NGOs, as well as USAID. Koons served on the SfAA Nominations Committee twice, and twice on the SfAA Program Committee. For the Washington Association of Professional Anthropologists he has been president twice, and held numerous other positions. He holds a PhD in Applied Anthropology from American University.