I receive a lot of queries about my journey to and through anthropology, innovation, and industry; as well as requests for advice from people just getting started. I wish I had time to answer them all, but in lieu of that, I’ve decided to offer this post. I hope it’s both useful and engaging!
A circle of plastic chairs around a fiberglass table with an umbrella stuck in the middle—that was my ‘office’ for about three years. It was a very comfortable place for me; the smell of chlorine, the sound of flip flops scuffling along the pool deck, lawn sprinklers schtick-schtick-schticking in the distance. I started swimming in the first grade, and later worked as a lifeguard over summer vacations. I served as captain of my high school swim team, and continued lifeguarding as an undergraduate. I was wet—a lot.
I could usually be found at my ‘office’ between swim training sessions, entering notes into a PDA I used to keep track of client progress. On a typical day, one or two members would join me for a chat in the shade. Many of them were in the entertainment business— studio execs, actors, writers, choreographers, etc. Most had ‘hopped’ over the LA river from the row of studios where they worked in Burbank.
The people I worked with ranged from ambitious athletes looking to improve their stroke, to busy professionals who wanted to optimize the time they spent on cardio. They also included folks like the high-spirited writer looking for the next new experience, the studio exec who just needed a break in her day, and the furniture store owner with fierce dedication and sporadic progress. And then there was the Russian, who only wanted to learn how to swim as far as possible underwater. (I still think he was a spy, or maybe a method actor preparing for the role of a spy. In LA you never know.)
Anyway, this was my life during the last few years of grad school at USC. I had a dissertation writing fellowship, so my time was spent writing and swim training, swim training and writing—plus a lot of time driving back and forth along Hollywood Way between home and the pool. I loved it. My approach to training centered around helping clients build confidence and rethink their body’s relationship with the water. Much of the technique I used was derived from the total immersion method; but I quickly learned that the real key to helping people improve wasn’t teaching the mechanics of swimming. It was to understand my clients holistically, and to adapt the pace, cadence, and style of training to their individual frames of reference. The process was surprisingly ethnographic in a lot of ways, and involved getting to know clients well enough to understand their contexts, motivations, personal logics, fears, and thresholds.
Over time, many of them shared deeply personal thoughts with me as part of this process, especially when they lost concentration, or forgot something we’d covered in a previous session. They’d hang their arms over the edge of the pool, out of breath and defeated, searching for a way to rationalize their performance in their mind, “I’m just out of it today. I wish I knew how to deal with…” Of course, I wasn’t there to help solve their problems; but, I did listen.
One client liked to talk through the differences between a novel and a screenplay in an attempt to delay his first plunge into the pool. Another would run through the intricacies of business deals. But, many exchanges ran much deeper. Out of the blue, a client came out to me one day, and another broke down crying during a warm-up stretch. Eventually I realized that there was a very deep connection between helping people grow more confident with their bodies in the water and the personal transitions they were experiencing in other parts of their lives. It was truly inspirational to witness the changes they were experiencing.
I eventually finished my dissertation and graduated with a doctorate in Social Anthropology. I had no prospects for directly applying my ten years of graduate training (which encompassed both an MA and PhD), and had pretty much resigned myself to becoming some sort of ‘aquatic anthropologist.’ I was, after all, using many of the skills I’d developed in my training: facilitating conversations, listening deeply, building rapport, identifying patterns, developing interpretations, etc.
One day, a friend contacted me about an opening as adjunct professor at CalArts in their critical studies department. Within a month I was designing and teaching their visual anthropology and ethnographic methods courses. The students were great: all artists who were taking my courses because they were actually interested in anthropology (or in some cases how they might use ethnographic methods in their artwork). The bonus was that CalArts doesn’t assign grades, so I never found myself haggling over how many points someone should have received to ‘get an A.’ I even had a teaching assistant.
However, the pay was low, and it was clear that there were no real growth opportunities there. In fact, I continued to make more money swim training; but, for the time being, it seemed like the ‘logical’ thing to do with my degree. My mind began to wander, though, and I would often daydream about building a lap pool in my backyard and running training sessions from home.
About a year later, I ran across an online listing for a Research Scientist at Intel near Portland Oregon that caught my eye. I’d never seen a job description like it. They were looking for social scientists, and especially anthropologists, to develop a deep understanding of the role of technology in cultures across the world. My first reaction when I saw this was “Why has no one ever told me about using my training this way?” And then, “Why was the unstated assumption that the ultimate use of a doctorate in anthropology should be teaching at a university?”
I had some thinking to do. I’d always been drawn to anthropology precisely because of the way it requires a grounding in lived experiences, the way it necessarily privileges cultural relevance and context. This position seemed like a great way to engage that inspiration directly. But, was this worth leaving Los Angeles and my life as a swim trainer? I was certainly fulfilled, and felt a great deal of satisfaction from helping people build their confidence—both in the water and out.
Eventually, my curiosity got the best of me. I applied, was offered the position by Genevieve Bell to join her Digital Home Group, and decided to jump into an entirely new role and life. I remember saying goodbye to my clients, some of whom I’d known for years. A few of them treated me to lunch, and gave me some parting gifts. I still cherish one in particular: a DVD of Wes Anderson’s Life Aquatic.
I had no knowledge of chip architecture, use cases, or even customer segmentation when I walked into my job talk at Intel. I just focused on what I knew and what inspired me. The talk was titled “Narratives, Networks, and Cultural Landscapes”—themes that spanned across my work with Radical Faeries, the Earth Liberation Front, and the people of Jalcomulco. Those themes drove much of my work at Intel, and still do today. I learned the rest on the job.
So, when people ask me how they can transition from academia to industry, I’m often caught a bit off guard. I never considered my decision to join Intel a departure from my approach to life as an anthropologist. As I argue in Ethnographic Thinking, I believe that training in anthropology distinctly (and permanently) changes how you approach the world and your role in it. From the swimming pool to the strategic plan, thinking like an anthropologist has become inescapable for me.
That said, there are some adjustments from academia to industry I experienced that may be useful to readers of this post. For better or worse, a large portion of doctorate training in anthropology is a solitary venture. After coursework in ethnographic methods and a deep dive into the literature of the discipline, you usually define your dissertation research topic, focus on a geographic region, select a field site, and establish the theoretical grounding that will inform your work. Only then do you set out for the field, nearly always alone. While there, most budding anthropologists earnestly collect copious amounts of data (likely too much), return from the field to analyze it, alone, and begin writing their dissertation, again alone.
My experience in industry has been quite the opposite. Collaborating with peers and within interdisciplinary teams is critical to success in industry-based research roles. There’s a reason for that. As cognitive psychologist Robert Weisberg argues, collaboration introduces divergent forms of thinking within groups and speeds up “chains” of connected ideas that trigger and accelerate creative new approaches to challenges. Other dynamics that come from effective collaboration include things like building and maintaining project momentum, increased flexibility, and accelerated problem solving. With collaboration tied so closely to innovation and effective team performance, there’s little room for the maverick.
Fortunately, many of the skills ethnographers acquire in their training are actually quite useful for collaboration and supporting healthy team dynamics. In order to build rapport with participants, most ethnographers have honed skills in empathy, facilitation, and deferring judgement. All of these can be applied directly to the relationships they have with fellow team members. Time in the field also teaches ethnographers to expect the unexpected and to adapt accordingly. Flexibility in industry settings is an incredibly valuable skill, since market shifts often drive changes in strategic priorities. Fieldwork also priorities a mindset of participatory learning and the ability to function and focus in unfamiliar settings. These are incredibly valuable skills for helping teams think outside of their internal practices and priorities, and to integrate analogous models into their work. Finally, a healthy dose of reflexivity combined within a holistic understanding of the relationship between researcher and participant helps keep ethnographers working in industry focused on how they’re embedded within cultural systems they investigate, and not just as representatives of an organization or client. This kind of perspective shifting is critical to building a broader cultural understanding of an organization’s offerings.
Another important adjustment from the academy to industry is the difference in time frames. In general, the academy tends to think of research in much longer terms. This is understandable, given that research in academia often runs parallel to teaching and publishing responsibilities, most of which are the solo responsibility of the researcher. However, in industry, insights from research tend to have a much shorter shelf life. Pair that with the fact that research questions are often addressed by teams in industry settings, resources tend to be more readily available, and shifting strategic priorities change based on economic contexts, and the result is that you can easily find project durations in industry settings that span from half to a quarter (or less) of those in most academic settings.
However, this doesn’t mean that research in industry settings is necessarily less rigorous. What it does mean is that researchers need to be better prepared to think collaboratively, to delegate, to coordinate, and to synthesize and interpret data that may easily shift in terms of its relevance to the organization’s needs. It also means that it becomes more important to be able to accurately and frequently scope and scale research, to ensure that it aligns with the needs of the organization (not just your interests).
This brings me to the final major shift I see between the academy and industry settings. Within the academy, research outcomes tend to focus on contributing to a body of scientific knowledge of one sort or another. This might be an area of investigation that has lasted for years, or even decades, and its form of execution often centers around models of peer review and theoretical debate that can last just as long. In most industry settings, you will find that there can be significant value placed on cumulative knowledge-building and even some theoretical debate; but at the end of the day, the greatest value is from the impact research outcomes have for the organization under current (and near term) market conditions. In short, your insights need to be relevant to a much broader range of stakeholders than other researchers.
There are certainly more considerations to take into account when transitioning from the academy to industry, but careful attention to these should help any anthropologist or other qualitative researcher think about the primary adjustments they’d need to make.
Shifting focus to industry also means tapping a different (and broader) set of resources. Some of my favorites are listed below. This list isn’t anywhere near exhaustive, so if you have any additions, please add them in the comments below, so that all readers can benefit.