Prior to Brookings, Cernea worked at the World Bank, starting in 1974 as the Bank's first-ever sociologist and serving as its senior adviser for social policies and sociology until 1997. He elaborated several of the World Bank's fundamental social safeguard policies, including the involuntary resettlement policy; some of these have been subsequently widely adopted by many other multinational and bilateral development agencies. He also carried out development work and field social research in several countries in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America.
Cernea's teaching activities include his current position as research professor of anthropology and international affairs at George Washington University, and his former positions as a visiting professor at Harvard University and a resident fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. Since 1992, he has been an appointed honorary professor of resettlement and social sciences at Hohai University, Nanjing, China, and in 2011, he was also appointed as professor emeritus of resettlement at China's Three Gorges University in Yichang.
For his scholarly contributions in sociology, Cernea was elected in 2012 as a full member of Romania’s Academy of Sciences (Academia Română). The American Anthropological Association and the International Society for Applied Anthropology have honored his work on crafting public social safeguard policies with the Kimball Award for Public Policy (1998) and the Bronislaw Malinowski Prize (1995). Cernea has written more than 20 books and monographs on development issues, as well as numerous studies on social organization, land tenure systems and social methodologies for development. He developed the internationally-used analytical, predictive and diagnostic model on the "Impoverishment Risks and Reconstruction" in population displacement and resettlement. His books include Putting People First: Sociological Variables in Development (Oxford University Press, 1985), Anthropological Approaches to Resettlement: Policy, Practice, and Theory (Westview Press, 1993), Social Organization and Development Anthropology: The 1995 Malinowski Award Lecture (The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development/The World Bank, 1996) and The Economics of Involuntary Resettlement: Questions and Challenges (The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development/The World Bank, 1999). Three of his books on resettlement have been translated and published in China. His most recent book is Can Compensation Prevent Impoverishment? Reforming Resettlement by Investments and Benefit-Sharing (Oxford University Press, 2007).