I Made Myself Indispensable – Day 2

Every piece of post-ac advice pretty much tells you to focus on the skills you need to transition to a non-academic job—both polishing and promoting those you already have, and gaining new ones that might not have been part of your graduate training. But what are those skills, and how do you acquire them?   Sometimes you have to start at the bottom, which is hard—but Stephanie’s story shows how starting at the bottom doesn’t mean staying at the bottom (and sometimes strategically mobilizing the academic credentials that you do have can be an effective way to gain authority in the new setting).

by Stephanie Day

Stephanie Day

After graduating with my Master’s degree in Anthropology, I moved in with my parents, and, determined to fill my time and get the all-important work experience, I took on an un-paid grant-writing internship, volunteered with several non-profits, and marketed my private tutoring services to pay my bills. I also spent time studying private-sector skills and re-crafted my CV into a serviceable resume.   Eventually, a temp service sent me out to work for a start-up ed-tech company doing basic data entry.

The job was painfully dull, required no high school diploma, and paid just above minimum wage– but it was full-time so while it was not enough to get me out of my parents’ house, it did buy me some time while I decided whether or not to bite the bullet and get a Ph.D. after all (which at the time still felt like my only other option).

What I found was that my boring 9-5 work was quite easy and undemanding.  I had time to ask questions, learn the industry, join in on lunchroom conversation with my higher-paid colleagues, sit-in on meetings I otherwise would not have been invited to. In other words, I became what I had been trained to be – a participant-observer.  While my Master’s degree in anthropology did not turn any heads in a world of developers, designers and MBAs, it turns out that being a good listener, showing genuine curiosity, and demonstrating an ability and connect complex ideas DID make me more interesting to my colleagues. They gave me special projects, introduced me to different people, and asked more of my time. I delivered, and in return asked for an increase in pay, while still under a temporary contract.

While I was becoming more interesting to my colleagues, my work was becoming more interesting to me.  I learned that rather than being driven solely by the bottom line, there are many, many passionate people working in the private sector who, like my academic friends, hoped to make a difference through their work.  It even seemed possible that the better-funded, quicker moving, more innovative and for-profit high-tech industry may be more capable of implementing change than the non-profit and academic jobs I had coveted.

About six months after I started temping, the company hired a new director who would become my future-boss. He asked to meet with me on his second day on the job. I had hoped he would want to interview me but in fact he just needed my help. He had already met with many people across the company and while he had received plenty of information, coming from outside the education industry he still did not have a clear understanding of the purpose our technology solutions served.  I grabbed a dry-erase marker and a white board and through a series of arrows, circles and squiggles, I walked him through each of our products, describing its purpose, the stakeholders and its role in the overall mission of the company.

None of the information I shared was my own original thought, but I had collected it, consolidated it, understood it and translated it in a way that was very natural for me as an anthropologist, yet ground-breaking for him. He offered me a job the following week on his newly-formed Pre-Sales team, a customer-facing group bridging the gap between sales and marketing. While my starting pay would be only a modest increase, he allowed me to write my own job description – which as it turns out is gold for a social scientist in the private sector.

Knowing that the company would have little idea how my education could apply to my work, I took the opportunity to write myself into a job that differentiated me. I included duties that I knew were needed – ranging from the technical to the administrative – but also included 1-2 bullet points that I knew I could align with anthropology. Perhaps for my own consolation, I included “Master’s degree” as the educational requirement for the position.

Over the next year I performed all of my duties and anything else asked of me. I gained tremendous technical skill and industry knowledge and earned the trust and respect of my other team members (all of whom dwarfed me in age and experience by 15+ years).

Rather than downplay my education as inconsequential, I talked frequently about my degrees and continued to read and share books combining social sciences and technology. I gave an original presentation on ethnographic sales methods to sales people, and spoke with undergraduates at my alma mater about what to do with their social science degrees. I spoke to anyone who would listen, practicing and perfecting how I conveyed the value of my degree to others. Knowing that a native understanding would require me to get into the “field”, I asked for and was granted permission to accompany account managers on their trips across the country to speak with potential customers about their problems, goals and needs, and delivered their insights back to the sales force in digestible, actionable ways.

Armed with new confidence, I requested and received a promotion after our small start-up was acquired by an educational giant.   Sure of my value but unsure of where to place me, my company once again allowed me heavy involvement in outlining my new role. In addition to a significant raise, I included responsibilities even more in line with what I was now referring to as “corporate anthropology”.  Three years later, my formal title is “Education Sales Strategy Consultant”, but most on my team know me as the resident anthropologist. My job today is not one I imagined while surfing Monsters.com on my mother’s couch, but it is one I know I do exceptionally well and continues to provide me with an interesting and challenging intellectual environment.

It still stings a bit to make my monthly payment to my student loans, but not nearly as much as before.  I hope to someday do “real” anthropology – but my definition of real anthropology has changed dramatically. I no longer envision working for a university, conducting highly-specialized research in remote corners of the world and writing articles that only my peers will read. Rather, I’d like to do Anthropology at Large – teaching new industries what my discipline has to offer about the highly ritualistic uses of technology, the cultural barriers to change and the value of shared memory and organizational narratives… and helping translate these lessons into real, organizational results.

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About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.


I Made Myself Indispensable – Day 2 — 8 Comments

  1. I really enjoy reading these AC pieces. Although academia is a beast that can and will swallow all motivation… being in grad school sometimes is a mixed blessing. Hearing about academic skills being used in other fields help me feel motivated to finish.

    I do have some suggestions for articles. What do you think?

    1. 5 or 10 things to do while in social science grad school to prepare for AC careers. (Maybe with a focus in industry?)
    2. What your advisor doesn’t know about non-academic jobs
    3. How to switch from writing filled with academic jargon to writing useful in industry (or in mainstream writing).
    -George Orwell’s piece on politics and writing is great and so is ‘Learn to Write Badly’ by Michael Billig

  2. Two disclaimers after reflecting on this piece:

    1) Indispensable does not mean irreplaceable. By indispensable, I mean to say my job is tightly integrated into the daily and future-thinking folds of the business. The important reality is that everyone in the business sector is replaceable, including myself, and that’s a good thing! I hope both my work and my company continue to evolve long after I’ve gone off to do bigger and better things.

    2)I worry that this article, taken as an excerpt from a larger piece, might make it seem as though this was all part of a master-plan on my part. In fact, I had no plan then and continue to have no such plan now. The point that I failed to make it’s okay to pave the path as you walk it, and the more of us who are willing to do so the clearer those paths will be for those who follow. I can only tell you what worked for me by looking behind me and making assumptions about which decisions were important and what events had meaning. At the time though, I was really just throwing it all at the wall to see what would stick.

  3. Hats off to you for doing one of the things we do best – creative problem solving. Anthropologists have valuable contributions to make in the whole spectrum of careers, but making our value known is tough work. So many organizations could benefit from an anthropological perspective, they often just don’t know there is a name for the magic that we bring to the team. Thank you so much for this piece, Stephanie, and for being such a trailblazer.

  4. Great post, Stephanie. A few words come to mind that characterize your successful approach (even if it wasn’t all a master plan): curiosity, initiative, creativity, flexibility. Oh yeah, and a healthy amount of self-assertion. Sometimes I think these are the very things academic socialization aims to beat out of us, all the buzz about great minds and original “inquiry” aside. Good for you.

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