Anthropology careers

This Friday I went to the old Department of Anthropology’s annual Career day. This is where old anthropology graduates return to their alma mater to tell soon-to-graduate students about life outside the university. In the so-called “real world”.

The study advisors arranging the event had set the minimum attendance to ten, and required all participants to confirm that they would be there. They got precisely ten confirmations, and the show went ahead as scheduled, yet on the day we were only five hopeful students present to receive the pearls of wisdom from the anthropologists who had fashioned careers for themselves outside of academia. And since there were 8 anthropologists giving short presentations, there were actually more people giving presentations than there was to listen to them. Apparently, budding anthropologists aren’t that keen on a career in the “real world” these days…

But the few of us who were present were treated to a lot of good insight on how to present the anthropological craft to people who know little of such matters, yet are in positions to hire you to work on interesting things. Here I’ll present the insights of each presentation, but in nowhere near the original order of appearance. Mostly because I think it makes better sense in this way.

The old career paths
Inger Merete Hansen is now close to 60, and has spent 30 years working as a teacher and, until recently, a consultant on multicultural issues in Danish primary schools. She began studying anthropology in 1966, when there were very few anthropology students at the University of Copenhagen. But as the discipline grew in popularity during the late 60s, Inger began teaching undergraduate classes, among them later well-knowns such as Kirsten Hastrup, while taking her post-graduate courses, and she says that the best way to learn anthropology is to teach it.

She finished her degree in 1974, and wanted to go on teaching, but at that time, the only jobs available to anthropologists were low-paid positions in academia or at specific museums. Instead, she decided to combine her anthropology degree with primary school teaching, slowly fashioning her career around the meeting of cultures in the Danish school system. Anthropology gave her both a method and outlook which proved vital to her work, especially in order to work against the heavy-handed and indirectly racist school bureaucracy and work towards new ways of integrating immigrant children into the Danish society.

User-driven innovation
Kirsten Becker is employed by the Department of Anthropology as an enabler of sorts. She works to build relationships between the department and the “real world” outside. The department has found out that people in the real world has begun to take notice of anthropology and what it has to offer, and it is her job to showcase those capacities as best as possible.
She refers to a recent radio interview with Jørgen Rosted, the leader of the Danish government’s council on Innovation, who argues that technology on its own won’t be enough to make Denmark a successful player on the global market in the future. Rosted calls for user-driven innovation, arguing that we need to understand the depth of people’s actions and the inconsistencies inherent within these in order to improve on our daily lives. And vital to such an effort are qualitative disciplines such as anthropology and sociology.

Kirsten grins at this, but says that it’s quite true: Anthropology is being hyped at all of the conferences on innovation these days. “Before, nobody really paid attention when I spoke at conferences, but now everybody shushes and listens to every word. Being an anthropologist is like being a shaman – the industry thinks we have some secret magic they need. My job is to maintain that impression.” Another grin.

Her finest success story of showing the industry how they can use anthropological analysis and knowledge, is Coloplast, the Danish producer medical supplies, most notably the stomi bag. Kirsten initiated a test collaboration between the company and the university researchers, using ethnographic interviews to gather data on how typical patients use their stomi bag. And they broke new ground in showing that even though the patients say everything is fine, there are still situations where the bag can be improved. Now Coloplast is actually looking to hire anthropologists to integrate this perspective in their design work.

Talking to users
Camilla Kehlet is a (lone) qualitative consultant with the Danish branch of MediaCom, a big media agency which helps companies to communicate with their customers – not only figuring out who the customers are, but also how they best can appeal to them. It is an industry which has been dominated by quantitative statistical data, but now they are starting to focus on the latest hot thing, called “Consumer Insights” – or basically, qualitative, personal, empathic data. When she applied for the job, she had to convince the recruiters that an anthropologist actually would be able to perform such tasks, and, as she says with a tired smile, she has entered a very different world. One in which she spends much of her time explaining what her work is about and how she wants to do it, convincing all of the business school people in the company that the qualitative stuff is not just some gloss to be sprayed on a survey, but something useful in its own right.

“Who are you? What can you do? What do you want? What relevant work can you do for us? What relevant work can you do for our customers?”

Those are the questions she meets every day, and though it is hard work to convince all those MBAs to allow her to do more than just focus group interviews. But her ideas are growing on them, much to her satisfaction. She points to other leading lights within the field of corporate anthropology, such as Microsoft’s Anne Kirah as her inspiration and proof that anthropology can become a central part of industry practice.

Working on your own
Many anthropologists spent a long time studying and have grown accustomed to the freedom and open-endedness of this way of life. This often leads them to start out with their own small consulting businesses. Anders Dahl and Susanne Branner Jespersen have both done so, continuing in the thematic veins of their fieldwork, one has specialized in sex and gender issues following a fieldwork among male prostitutes, the other in conflicts and conflict resolution following a fieldwork in civil-war torn Guinea-Bissau. They write articles, do consulting work, arrange seminars, hold talks, teach the odd university course and generally keep enough projects going and keep themselves open to new opportunities to live off of it. It’s good work, but somewhat difficult to separate from their private lives. Anders’ main point of advice was: Get a good accountant.

Consulting – the dissection of data
Jakob Stoumann has gotten both of his two full-time consultant jobs to date by sending in applications on advertised positions. He has found that he uses anthropological methods constantly, but most important in his work is being able to get an overview of a lot of data, pull out the essentials and focus on that – especially with regards to writing fieldwork proposals. He has found that when consulting companies bid on various assignments offered by various institutions, what they submit is very much like a fieldwork proposal: Summing up the relevant literature on the field, suggesting methods to be used, making a budget… in short: Designing a project, an outline for further work. Quickly developing such an overview over a given field is essential for this sort of consulting work, and having been designed and undertaken his own thesis fieldwork has prepared him for what would otherwise have been a very daunting task.
As Inger Merete Hansen put it, “anthropology prepares you so that you aren’t scared at having such a giant animal in front of you, while you consider how you best go about dissecting it.”

More personality than paper
Anne Weber is in the curious position of working as a recruiter, and she gave general advice about what to consider when applying for jobs as an anthropologist. She argued that anthropology is just as much a way of personal development as it is an academic discipline. This is because we invest ourselves so much in our work, learning new ways of being present, of observing and of being surprised. Indeed, our “professional curiosity” which helps us wonder at situations others take for granted is our prime quality as anthropologists. It allows to build bridges between otherwise separate life worlds while at the same time positioning ourselves politically and academically within that field.

Thus, for an anthropologist, it is much more a matter of personality that it is about grades and recommendations when applying for jobs in the real world. It is all about whether you and your personality is a match for the organization where you are applying for a job. Thus, when applying for a job, you should write about who you are – not what you can do (because at first, you can’t do anything relevant anyway).

And you shouldn’t just tell about how nice a person you are – you need to show it. Show not only what you can offer, but also what you are looking for in a job. Use your resume to support this by listing activities that show that you have interest in the things that say you are interested in (as Anders Dahl said “I can easily present my life so as to make it look very purposeful!”)

In short: You need to burn through: Make yourself the obvious choice based on who you are.

Creating your own job
Susie Skov did this in a different way, since the jobs she wanted weren’t on offer. Instead, she went directly to the organizations where she wanted to work and started building networks around them. Investing herself in them through volunteer work and meeting the people she wanted to work with. In the end, she ended up going straight to them and saying: “I’m passionate about this work [work with young 2nd generation middle eastern immigrants in Denmark] – how can I get a job working with this?” And she ended up getting a job based on her prior commitment, and her ability to raise funds for the projects she had been involved with.

Representing anthropology
Through-out the career day, we heard lots of refrains. On the importance of anthropological reflection, on presenting yourself through what you do and who you know. But the most repeated and probably most important refrain was not to accept the category of the all-knowing expert by offering instant analysis and easy solutions which would be sure to disappoint people (eventually, at least), and instead do what anthropologists do best: Not offer up some shrinkwrapped solution, but saying “I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know how to find out.”

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Hi Andreas,

thank you for summing up these presentations. As a postgraduate anthropologist still searching I found this information inspiring and helpful.

Have a beautiful day


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