As a child I went on my first international trip to Mexico, where I was enchanted by the Maya/Toltec ruins at Chichén Itzá. Other vacations kindled my desire to see the world. But my stockbroker father never considered archaeology a viable career, so at first, I majored in Political Science/International Relations. Most of my fellow students were pre-law, which held no interest for me. But I loved the anthropology courses I took; they inspired me to learn about cultures different from my own. By the end of sophomore year, I had switched majors to anthropology.

Chichén

I wanted an academic life, so I fought my way into and through graduate school, landing a tenure track job. I took non-academic jobs found by networking with fellow graduate students to pay the bills along the way, including applied anthropology work at market research firms and full-time program evaluation for a school district. I found all of these jobs by networking with my fellow grad students. Little did I know how valuable these experiences would be later in life. As I told my students—no experience is ever wasted!

Once I got that tenure track job, it took perseverance and personal sacrifices to become a full professor of anthropology at a research university. I enjoyed nearly 20 years as an anthropological archaeologist, conducting research in Latin America, mostly on the north coast of Peru. (I must give credit to my beloved mentor, Dr. Carol Mackey, for bringing me to Peru and guiding me through my dissertation project.) By then I had a family and no path forward in higher education. I had always expected to move into administration, yet five years of applying internally and externally brought no success. Relying on that previous practical experience, I switched focus to Business Anthropology, sought more applied work, and started a program at my university.

Eventually I made the difficult decision to leave academia and rejoin the business world, trading lifetime job security for greater opportunity. It was worth it! I started as a qualitative research director at a small market research firm, a position advertised on the EPIC job board. (EPIC is a non-profit membership organization that promotes ethnography in businesses and organizations.)  A couple of years later, at my wife’s recommendation and able to rely on her as a contact, I transitioned to user experience research at the large Fintech (financial technology) company where she worked.

By now you may be wondering, how does a career digging in the dirt and teaching classes translate to high-tech? There are many skills you need as an archaeologist that are quite useful in the corporate sphere.

  • Archaeologists are usually trained in both quantitative and qualitative methods. We have a solid understanding of the research process and scientific method. These fundamentals give us an advantage over some market or UX research professionals without as much deep research experience. With that foundation, you can easily learn new methods and adapt to a business environment. Even the frequent documentation, organizational techniques, and time management skills that archaeologists develop in the field overseeing profuse and disparate data prove useful in documenting, organizing, and managing projects in applied settings.
  • Archaeologists generally work in interdisciplinary teams, therefore learning to lead and develop management skills. This translates to invaluable experience for working with cross-functional teams and becoming an industry leader. As archeologists, our timeframes and budgets are limited. We hire local workers to supplement student teams and specialist colleagues. This is great preparation for managing staffing, budgets, and resources.
  • Archeologists need excellent project management skills, which are essentially the same whether you are running an archaeological dig or a UX research project. We often source, buy, use, and train others on highly technical equipment and software for tasks such as mapping sites, cataloguing artifacts into databases, and analyzing elemental composition (among others). We can apply this technical acumen to understanding the software and information architecture of the tech world.
  • Archaeologists must navigate government permitting processes for field work, so adapting to regulated industries like banking and government agencies is familiar. Like other anthropologists, archaeologists often work outside their native countries and languages, which can be advantageous in corporate employment. The willingness to travel, learn new languages, and make connections with new people is useful in almost any applied profession. At more than one of my corporate jobs, I was the only fluent, non-native, Spanish speaker. The ability that anthropologists have to adapt to new cultures also helps us adjust to the business environment.
  • Even skills that might be considered highly academic such as systems thinking, conference presentations, university level teaching, and scholarly writing can be useful when you are upskilling your team, offering research to partners or clients, and understanding the connections between platforms in a tech organization. Archaeologists employ visuals such as PowerPoint presentations in their teaching and at conferences, just as creating slides is a frequent activity in industry.

So don’t be afraid to make the leap to industry, my archaeology friends. You have strong, applicable skills and ways of thinking. In your first 90 days at the new job, try conducting your own informal ethnography, using your anthropological lens to gain both emic and etic perspectives of your new organization. You may uncover some intriguing finds!

Also, take a look at these ACRN tools:

 

About the Author: Melissa Vogel

Melissa Vogel
Melissa Vogel is a Business Anthropologist, Co-founder of Great Heron Insights and a User Experience Research Director at Capital One. She is a Professor Emerita at Clemson University, where she founded the Business Anthropology program after 20 years as an archaeologist studying the Casma culture of Peru. She is passionate about DEI, human-centered technology and helping companies improve their organizational culture.