Getting started in the field of anthropology is no easy feat. I questioned what future awaited me as an anthropology student. Usually, undergrads first encounter anthropology through their professors, many trained in the “lone ethnographer” approach to fieldwork. So, what is an anthropology undergraduate to do?

At the early stages of anthropology careers, we need professors to invest in us. A lot. We need their time (to train us) and their money (to pay us), both difficult to obtain. As a student, I did not realize how many demands professors have on them and how much time training in methods, theory, and hands-on practice takes. After three years—first as a research assistant and now as a research coordinator—my supervisor still invests in my research training. Additionally, when professors fund their research through external grants, they do not always have money to hire an assistant, especially one with little or no experience. Given these two challenges, how can undergraduates make the “yes” easier for a professor they want to work with?

Maximize Research

The most consistent way I found success in convincing professors to take me on was to offset one of the two forms of investment I needed. I could not replace their time investment, but with some creativity, I found ways to replace the finances. The “yes” comes easier when you provide your own funding, and there are often resources for undergraduate students. A first step might be looking for a Work-Study position with a professor or a university summer research program. Both a Work-Study position and a research program are likely to provide more structured learning by joining a professor’s study. Other times, class credit can be a good substitute for funding, adding another option in the toolbox. Class credit will replace the professor’s financial commitment, but still provide a student with mentorship. Such classes might include research-based courses, senior thesis/capstone projects, and study abroad research programs. Make sure to consider the ethics of a study abroad research program before committing. Look into the details and ask questions! If you want to try something more independent but still under a professor’s guidance, universities sometimes offer grants through their research office that allow students more freedom to conduct their own, small-scale projects.

Even with these funding strategies, you may still need to stretch opportunities to their maximum potential. Oftentimes, a small opportunity can turn into a bigger one. However, recognize that it takes time to become integrated into a research project. Professors will often start students with small tasks, such as data entry or citation management. Do not worry! Starting small is normal, and it lays the foundation for future opportunities. Over time, your professor might be willing to give you more responsibility, especially if you ask for it and have done well with your assignment. Starting in data entry may later get you pulled into data analysis because of familiarity with the project. Even if you cannot expand your research responsibilities on a particular project as you had hoped, the relationship with your professor can still be a big help for future opportunities.

Finally, here is an example using my research journey from undergraduate student with no experience to post-grad working in the field fulltime. My first opportunity came in a data entry position on a biological anthropology research project that I got through federal Work-Study. It involved entering 0 for “no” and 1 for “yes” in a spreadsheet listing dozens of survey questions given to hundreds of participants. I gained experience and networking opportunities, which led me to a summer research program at a medical school where I was able to select a mentor. Luckily, there was an anthropologist on the list of potential mentors, so the choice was easy. I learned so much that summer, but my mentor did not have funding to keep me on when my program ended. However, because we had worked well together, she offered to hire me as a research assistant when more funding arrived and to supervise my senior thesis if I based it in her lab.

Until then, I returned to my data entry job, and I studied abroad on a research-based program. When I returned, the anthropologist at the medical school hired me part-time. I also started working on a senior thesis for course credit. In my final summer of college, an undergraduate research grant enabled me to work full-time on my research. When I graduated, I started a full-time position with the same supervisor.

All this is to say, the path might be non-linear; the relationships with mentors can get you far; and mixing and matching opportunities can expand your research experience.

About the Author: Lindsey Kaufman

Lindsey Kaufman
Lindsey is a Public Health Research Coordinator at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. She works on multiple regional and international projects focused on care, historical memory, hospital ethnography, HPV vaccination, and research with youth. She is passionate about collaborating through multidisciplinary team science and using visual methods, such as photovoice.