I am a recent graduate of the University of Copenhagen’s master’s programme in Anthropology and People-Centred Business. A strong advocate for the collaboration of anthropology and industry, I believe a classical anthropological perspective can uniquely address contemporary business challenges.
My area of focus is both on organisations and alternate perspectives towards risk. Currently, I am working on a project on the issue of tourist safety and crime prevention in Copenhagen, under the umbrella of the anthropological consulting firm, Gemeinschaft.
I wrote this article to share both my frustrations and hopefullness about life as an anthropologist after graduation. Sharing leads to learning, and so I hope you find it both entertaining and enlightening.
Together with a few friends, I sat in the canteen at the University of Copenhagen’s CSS campus. Only fifteen minutes earlier I had, sweaty-palmed, defended my master’s thesis. I now had a master’s degree in social anthropology! I allowed the accumulated stress of six months of thesis writing to wash away, helped by a healthy dose of Champagne saved especially for the occasion.
Bubbles in hand, we knocked our Styrofoam cups together and cheered to my recent matriculation, my graduation, and swift exit from the comfortable and reassuring halls of the academy and into a far less understanding, competitive world.
“You’re anthropologist now?” said several of my friends.
“Yes! Thanks!” I responded.
“Now what are you supposed to do?” they asked.
“Find a job” I responded.
I did not expect a slew of offers now that I had completed my formal education. I was prepared for a long and tedious period of writing cover letters. Based on my experience writing a stack of applications and only a few interviews with potential employers, I have come to the conclusion that anthropologists, especially new graduates have a job to do in order to…well, find a job to do. I write this from the perspective of someone who cares deeply about my discipline and believes that both the tools of ethnography and the theoretical trappings that together form the corpus of what we collectively describe as anthropology have much to offer the world. This includes, of course, both academic research, as well as “practical,” applied work, often in the world of business.
In order to continue my story, in which I hope to make a few points based on my experience as a new graduate, as well as, most importantly, generate a conversation, I should write a few lines about myself.
I completed a master’s in Anthropology and People-Centred Business from the University of Copenhagen in August of this year. Not from Denmark, my background is a result of both Canadian and American parentage – although I tend to emphasize the Canadian background
for reasons I will not go into here. Originally arriving in Denmark in 2009 as an exchange student, and solely as a fluke – Hong Kong was taken – I wasn’t sure what to expect. What I did not foresee is that I would return to Copenhagen to complete a master’s degree; however, I dare say I fell hard for the city and the country. Beyond a fuller appreciation for beer and several life-long Danish friends, I returned to Copenhagen because I wanted to use anthropology in the business world – not necessarily anthropology’s traditional venue. The programme at KU provided this promise, and was not something that I could easily find in Canada.
In anthropology we often talk about the importance of gaining the perspective of the people amongst whom we study. The principles of participant observation ask that we immerse ourselves in the daily life of our subjects, learning their customs, traditions, language… in a sense, coming to understand the multifarious ways they view and understand the world. So, it is with this in mind that I figure myself fairly adaptive. I imagined that this adaptability would prove useful in any new workplace that I would be lucky enough to find myself. I still believe this; however, what I did not expect was the difficulty I would face in finding a receptive and welcoming workplace in which to draw upon my adaptive talents. I recognize that to be a new graduate in this anemic economy could lead anyone to bitterness and frustration. However, my subscriptions to half a dozen online job portals advertise a plethora of available positions.
However, in my perusal of those available jobs, not once did I encounter: ANTHRPOLOGIST NEEDED. I started to joke with my friends that perhaps I had made a major error of judgement; I should have studied deep-sea oil exploration or some such easily identifiable, “practical” and appreciated academic pursuit.
I believe new graduates know more than we think we know. Or, to put it in another, but equally true and perhaps overly convoluted way: we don’t know enough to know we know more than we think we do. This is a message to both my peers – those fresh faced, eager anthropology graduates – and potential employers who are, to use an anthropological term, our “gatekeepers” to the job market. Many of us have been isolated by our time within the familiar womb of university. Despite the efforts of many of my peers to find professional experience alongside or even as part of their academic work (usually in terms of fieldwork for their master’s thesis), we still lack some of the operational lingo or practical knowledge possessed by those across the disciplinary divide – those instrumental thinkers who graduate from business schools and speak with such fluency.
Despite lacking the requisite vocabulary and a perceived deficit in “operational knowledge” I proceeded in my job hunt with confidence, buoyed by my belief in what I have to offer. With an absence of advertisements for an anthropologist, I was forced to be creative, both in my approach and presentation. Far from picky, I knew that any vaguely suitable job was a step in the right direction. I was the torchbearer for anthropology’s usefulness in the realm of HR management, and at other times “the ideal” candidate to manage crew diversity on oilrigs.
Upon reflection I can allow myself a certain degree of humour to colour my recollection of the colourful language I employed in my attempt to at least score an interview. However, at no time did I ever feel that I had exaggerated beyond my own belief in my ability to successfully carry out a variety of jobs. Where does this self-assured confidence stem from? It comes from a belief in both the flexibility and ability of anthropologists. It comes from a certainty about what we bring to the table. And what exactly do we bring to the table? I have given this question some thought, even crowdsourcing my anthro friends, eager to gain a wider perspective. The simple conclusion that sets us apart from other applicants is our holistic perspective – our facility for complexity and ability to integrate a variety of seemingly disparate fragments in a unified solution. Combined with our appreciation for human and cultural factors, our perspective is one of the perennial outsider. This is where our value truly lies. We are trained to ask questions, to interrogate the seemingly obvious and look past our commonsensical assumptions. These are not mere platitudes designed to make us feel superior, but instead, describe a sizeable toolbox of skills and theoretical knowledge that can be applied to a variety of settings. If one questions the applicability of anthropological knowledge outside “pure” research, one ignores the diverse variety of settings in which anthropological research takes place. It is false divide to imagine anything but a porous wall between research and applied work. This means that anthropology can occur both with and amongst traditional stakeholders, but also in new areas and in different employment positions.
I speak to both my fellow anthropologists as well as potential employers. Even if we appear not to speak the “business dialect,” we are competent, innovative and I guarantee, surprising. Where others might shy from complexity or attempt shallow simplification, we see complexity as a means for gaining a deeper, more appreciative and hopefully a more fruitful understanding and subsequent solution to a problem.
I offer a few suggestions for my peers, our universities and those employers who don’t know all the talent their preconceptions might blind them to.
To my peers
If we want to find work outside the university, then I am sorry, but we have to act more like we went to business school. I say this with no ill will towards my friends at CBS. Instead, the sentiment comes from a place of admiration in their confidence and doggedness. Get on the phone. Go to networking events. Go to job fairs. Do what we are supposed to be good at: speak to people!
Be confident and show it. We can write 100 applications, but often it is one serendipitous meeting that makes all the difference.
To the University
I wrote about our large toolbox of skills, methods and knowledge; you provided us this. Now, teach us how to talk to employers; the words of seduction. Earlier I wrote, “We don’t know enough to know we know more than we think we do.” If you forgive the excessive verb and pronoun use, I feel an ability to speak (or at least know some phrases) the language used by employers would go a long way in alleviating a major problem graduates face, as well as strengthen our overall confidence. Whether this is how to read a financial statement or brushing up on commonly used lingo, we will “get along” better with the “locals” if we come quipped with some of this preliminary knowledge.
Finally, to employers
Take a chance. Challenge your assumptions and preconceived notions. Stop thinking about our “academic” background as ill-fitting to a business environment. Most of us have a master’s degree, so you can be confident that we are at least intelligent, quick learners. More than that, however, is that we do offer you something new, something fresh and something unexpected. I promise, you challenge us and we will challenge you – with provokingly valuable results.
What I have described here are my thoughts on getting through the proverbial door and widening one’s expectations for where we as graduates can imagine ourselves working. However, if one wishes to bring their anthropological self into the workplace, the battle is not won by simply making it past the entrance of office building. Indeed, in a paper on the subject, anthropologists Brigitte Jordan and Brinda Dalal, map the difficulties and tensions that arise from attempting to do anthropological work in a business setting 1. Maintaining one’s anthropological grounding, while also meeting the demands and expectations of one’s managers, present a variety challenges. This is only the tip of the iceberg of a larger conversation that requires that both anthropologists and employers alike are creative and open to new possibilities.
We can begin by sharing our knowledge, our experiences and the difficulties we face. There are spaces where this sort of interaction exists. Stay in touch with former teachers, advisors and classmates. I am working together with a fellow graduate of our master’s programme to help facilitate a group for the programme’s graduates. The group is intended to be a place where we can share experiences, contacts and even job announcements. This will be just one resource amongst many. Check out the group Antropologi i erhvervslivet (a part of the Antropologisk netværk); or even, this very site. We are not alone. Just because we may have completed schooling does not mean our career as professional anthropologists has stopped. For me, it’s just the beginning.