Transitioning out of a career you worked hard to build can be unmooring and heartbreaking. It leaves you feeling lost about how to proceed. Yet, uncertainty can be a doorway to possibility. If you create an internal compass to navigate the change, you could reorient your life towards a future you craft. For anthropologists changing careers, I share my story and a process for finding your way.  

A Story

For me, the clarity came after an interview for a postdoc at Harvard. It crystallized on a winter night, as I walked onto a snowy quad with an unmistakable sense that I had to leave. I had spent seven years working towards a PhD in anthropology on a project that had captivated me. At the interview, I sat in front of a faculty panel and described what I found during fieldwork, how it revealed ways to reimagine work and labor. Except for one person whose smile showed me he understood, I spoke to a frosty room. I walked away, alienated, and unsettled. This was a familiar feeling for me in academic spaces–a sharpening sense that I was working hard towards a future I didn’t want.

The turning point came the next day. I had been drawn to spaces of deep listening and creativity and was learning conflict resolution and design thinking. The day after the interview, hungry for something different, I met two mediators. As we exchanged reflections on empathy, I slowly felt myself come back alive. By following an academic trajectory, I had kept the parts of me that felt most like me at the periphery. Deep contact with work I loved on the heels of an alienating experience brought it to the center. This felt like yes. The clarity came in the contrast. I walked out that night and breathed in the crisp air, touching possibility–I didn’t know how, but I wanted to create spaces of mutual recognition where people could feel seen, heard, and understood.

What unfolded as a result, I could not have anticipated. At first, there was confusion. My interests were eclectic. While each had career trajectories, there was no job description for mediation, empathy, ethnography, and design. I would have to make a life that centered this mix to discover what it could bring. It was a scary, risky process of finding my way. It would take me to the heart of what I wanted to do. Six months later, I met my collaborator, a designer. We started the Lab for Listening, where we teach people how to have difficult conversations, to hear each other’s needs, and co-create solutions. Through this, I saw the deep inner barriers that prevent people from creating the lives they want. I began a coaching practice to help clients build careers that actualize their aspirations. While at first, my constellation of interests didn’t seem to fit together, by combining them, I developed my process for coaching.

This process deepens, showing me new possibilities. Each week, at the Lab, I see the beauty of facilitating mutual recognition between people, of witnessing the movement from conflict to connection. The questions that drew me to anthropology–about work and alienation–continue to stay with me as I explore them with my coaching clients as we design careers that are in alignment with the lives they want to lead.

I share my story here for anthropologists who are leaving the academy or reconfiguring the career paths they have chosen. My journey has shown me that the things that drew us into anthropology and the interests we kept at the periphery can become the very tools we use to craft the new shape of our lives.

About the Author: Nethra Samarawickrema

Nethra Samarawickrema
Nethra Samarawickrema is a consultant and a coach. She supports clients with career coaching and relationship coaching and works with companies in listening for needs using Nonviolent Communication, Design Thinking, and Ethnography. She has a PhD in Anthropology from Stanford University and trains UX teams on the Emergent Research Process, a method of ethnographic research that facilitates discovery through empathy. She has a passion for teaching teams of researchers, designers, and engineers listening skills so that they can build in a way that is attuned to the needs of those they design for. She lives in Sausalito, California. You can follow Nethra on Linked In, hear her podcasts, and attend her weekly workshops.