When posts pop up on my LinkedIn feed by UX (user experience) anthropologists stating they were laid off, my heart breaks. Announcements by anthropologists who have found, sustained, and suddenly lost jobs in UX and other industry domains are appearing frequently these days. The newly unemployed express a mix of emotions: surprise, disappointment, and resolve to move forward and land their next job. LinkedIn comments flowing after these updates range from solace and advice to outrage that an organization acting in self-interest would inflict harm on a highly qualified and dedicated employee. I understand the anger, although the vilification of organizations that reduce headcount sometimes seems unfounded to me. Many companies must restructure periodically to reflect their evolving needs or to safeguard their future. Besides, it’s wise to refrain from criticizing corporations on social media when you might seek employment at one down the road.

My purpose here is to offer two threads of counsel to the recently unemployed. After your grieving ends, instead of rushing to update your resume, look objectively at your employment sector. If it is shrinking, consider two types of lateral career shifts: (1) move to a healthier industry domain where you could apply your anthropological competencies and (2) work in alternative job functions where your broader intellectual and practical aptitudes could open unexpected occupational vistas. Jobs in a new field might not tap your anthropological knowledge immediately but they would help pay the rent and might eventually enable you to apply your anthropological abilities. Among the other advantages to lateral career moves: You will learn new skills and expand your professional network. If a reduction in your compensation is the price you must pay when moving laterally, the long-term benefits will likely deliver a solid return on your self-investment.

By way of illustration, if you worked in UX, you will probably look into obvious options such as design. However, you might want to consider market research, corporate customer insight, and advertising account planning, which require many of the same anthropology-related skills you have been applying. Anthropologists in design can also migrate to these areas. If you have engaged in research on organizational culture, think about human resources or management consulting. Examples of alternate job functions are even more expansive. Explore cognate fields or even simply ones that interest you, conduct an audit of your applicable skills (the Anthropology Career Readiness Network site has excellent tools here for transposing your anthropology knowledge), and arrange informational interviews. Reflect on how your personal qualities and intellectual acumen could help you fit in at a target organization and enable you to stand apart from other candidates for the job you want. Customize a new industry-aligned resume.

I speak from experience. After earning my doctorate in anthropology, I enrolled in a program with MBA-level courses that refitted social science and humanities PhDs for industry jobs. Our class of 60 was encouraged to mine not our specific academic skills, which would limit our job opportunities, but, instead, our overall thinking, writing, and presentation capabilities. I was drawn to advertising, but not advertising research, which did not embrace anthropology. (This was a long time ago!) I launched my advertising career in account management, a position that ensures the work of the agency gets done on strategy, on time, and on budget. In that role, I learned about every component of the advertising business. After several years, I engaged in advertising research and strategic planning, sometimes incorporating anthropological methods and concepts. Still later, I segued into market research when I co-owned a mid-sized market research company. By then, I was explicitly and emphatically a business anthropologist. Eventually, I returned to the university classroom part-time; now I teach market research – often with an anthropological spin – at a business school. I’ve also written books and articles about advertising, market research, and anthropology.

There is an analog to the lateral career moves described here: the passage between college teaching and a non-academic career that is championed by the Anthropology Career Readiness Network. Those transitions can work both ways, as many of us know. Timothy Malefyt and I spoke about that in our workshop, “How to Straddle Academic and Industry Jobs” at the Anthropology Career Readiness Network’s 2022 Building Careers in Anthropology Conference.

In Gillian Tett’s 2021 book, “Anthro-Vision” she lauds the lateral thinking of anthropologists in contrast to the tunnel vision that plagues so many industry managers. Tett applies that observation to anthropologists on the job; lateral vision also applies to finding a job. At the very least, thinking about your future employment laterally will unveil fresh occupational terrain for you to explore.

About the Author: Robert Morais

Robert Morais
Robert J. Morais is an anthropologist with a 35+ year career in advertising and market research, and a Lecturer at Columbia Business School. His books include Advertising and Anthropology; Ethics in the Anthropology of Business; The Language of Branding; Refocusing Focus Groups; and Social Relations in a Philippine Town. His articles have appeared in Forbes, Advertising Age, Huffington Post, American Anthropologist, Human Organization, Culture and Organization, Journal of Business Anthropology, Teaching Anthropology, and Philippine Studies, among others. Morais holds a PhD in anthropology from the University of Pittsburgh and a certificate from a program for PhDs at NYU's Stern School of Business.