I entered my doctoral program hell bent on becoming a successful tenure-track anthropology professor. A little way in I realized that this dream meant jeopardizing my own and my family’s financial and emotional well-being. So, a few years before I finished my PhD—and not without a little soul-searching—I decided to pursue a career in industry. I attended webinars and programs from organizations like Beyond the Tenure Track and Beyond the Professoriate. Perhaps most importantly, these organizations reassured me I was not alone. Their resources were invaluable since I did not feel my department was a safe space to discuss career options outside academia. The organizations also provided much-needed frameworks and actionable advice which I summarize below:

Academia to Industry Steps: Career Pivot Advice

  1. REFLECT: Think about what you love and are good at beyond the framing we are accustomed to in academia
  2. EXPLORE: Research career fields and do informational interviews
  3. FOCUS: Pick a field and network within it
  4. EXPERIENCE: Get applicable work experience
  5. PREPARE INDUSTRY-SPECIFIC MARKETING: Ensure your application materials are legible and compelling to your chosen field

The Steps I Followed

I began focusing on the steps, as numbered above, although admittedly out of order.

  • Step 1:  When I reflected, I realized that many of my priorities, talents, and sources of inspiration were not being met in academia. For example, I need financial security to support a family, I thrive on collaboration, and I am inspired by seeing and feeling the real-world effects of my work.
  • Step 4:  I sought out opportunities to expand my experience:
    • University funding-support office: While helping graduate students market their research, I was afforded ample teamwork and project management opportunities, and mastered shorter task timelines.
    • Research Consulting for an NGO (Non-governmental Organization): I worked collaboratively in a mixed-methods team and learnt how to write research reports and present them to high-level NGO executives.
    • Fortune 500 Consumer Packaged Goods company: I accepted an internship as a qualitative researcher. I learned to see myself as an expert and market my insights. The position also introduced me to corporate jargon, values, and norms.
  • Steps 2, 3 and 5:  I did these steps less successfully for three key reasons:
    • There is a deep disconnect between anthropology’s obvious applicability to non-profit, government, and business settings and mainstream university teaching to eschew discussions of applied anthropology. This disconnect between theory and practice can have a paralyzing effect for students. The holistic nature of the discipline means anthropological expertise has countless potential applications in myriad fields from consulting to policy, user experience research (UX) to communications. Yet it is difficult to assess what are viable career options for the near future when your education has not provided opportunities to explore these pathways.
    • PhD students are stretched too thin. Whereas I could incorporate steps one and four into existing tasks, I felt that I didn’t have the time to meaningfully do steps two and three.
    • It is difficult to successfully market yourself for a particular field without understanding it well.

The Lessons I Learned

  • Lesson 1:  Not investing enough in steps two and three had dire consequences. I applied to jobs across too many disparate fields. Because my network was thin across these fields, I did not learn about or have easy and timely access to specific job openings. I also was unable to take advantage of internal referrals or gather feedback on my application materials.
  • Lesson 2:  Almost every time I invested in networking and conducting informational interviews, it reaped benefits. Sometimes they helped me begin to see how to shape my application. Just as useful were straightforward conversations that helped me see why I would not be a competitive candidate.
  • Lesson 3: There was more support within anthropology than I knew. In the end, it was the support and advice of ACRN members that helped me to land my current position.

My Advice for Current Students

  • Tip 1: Discover workplace options. There are too few academic jobs. Every PhD student needs to do some version of the process I propose for discovering opportunities.
  • Tip 2: Follow the academia-to-industry career pivot advice.
  • Tip 3: Do not wait until the last moment. Do it in parallel with your coursework.
  • Tip 4: Draw on resources and support within anthropology and your university:
    • Identify mentors who know about the job market and are willing to support you.
    • Utilize the resources freely available to you. ACRN, NAPA, EPIC, AAA, and SfAA are some key anthropology organizations with practicing anthropology resources. See if your university subscribes to certain career-readiness programs such as Versatile PhD or Beyond the Professoriate.
    • Seek out practicing anthropologists who recognize the challenges of transitioning to practice from academia and want to help. The anthropology organizations mentioned above are but a few of the organizations to find such people.
    • Meet with professionals in your campus Career Planning Office and explore their resources.
  • Tip 5:  Get workplace experience (e.g., paid work, internships). Following tip 4 will help you understand what experiences are most relevant to you.
  • Tip 6:  Know that practicing anthropology offers a world of options that are interesting, intellectually rigorous, and socially meaningful. In my new role as an organizational anthropologist, I finally feel recognized and inspired—with fair compensation for my work and contributions.

About the Author: Dawn Wells

Dawn Wells
When I co-founded an environmental organization Quit Coal in Australia in 2010, I was fascinated to understand why urban and rural activists with overlapping interests struggled to build successful alliances. Using anthropological research methods, I uncovered that the different ways they framed issues hindered their ability to trust and respect each other and I produced materials to support communication. This fascination was driven by a belief that has guided my work ever since – that understanding people and the cultural assumptions that shape their behavior is key to policy improvement, driving progressive social change, and better organizational functioning. My doctoral research demonstrated how the US immigration system has created a separate, privileged system for white, middle-class and elite migrants. Since then my research focus has included people-centered innovation in the Consumer Packaged Goods industry, refugee services, and organizational alliance-building. I love approaching projects with an eye to the larger life of insights and their relevance to the strategic tensions that organizations face.