What You Can Do With An Anthropology Degree

This is a transcript of the talk I gave on November 9, 2016 at Grand Valley State University.

Hi, good afternoon everyone.  I’m Veronica Kirin.  I’m a graduate of GVSU class 2009 from the Anthropology department – my focus was Cultural Anthropology.

I’m here today because I wish someone like me had spoken to my class.  Anthropology is regularly rated as one of the top ten useless degrees — which is silly and untrue.

I want to start by asking you why you are here.  What drove you to get a degree in Anthropology?  Also, what do you plan to do with it at this point?  All answers are valid.  Please state your name, too.

*students answer*

Wow.  You guys are so cool.  Can I be your friend?

I think you know by now that Anthropologists are really good at a few specific things, so I’ll be preaching to the choir, but hear me out.  Typically those who are drawn to the degree path are already open minded, but the course of study opens our minds even further.  We get really good at research *laughs* and are trained in critical thinking.  Of course, we’re usually pretty good at people as well — if not in front of people, then in understanding them.  We’re taught to remove ourselves from our own perspective in order to remain unbiased.  That’s not something most other disciplines get.

A typical career course for us is academia.  Become an Anthropologist, choose a field of study, choose a group in which you’re passionate about, and stick with that.  Write papers, books, etc.  Preserve history, and, in may respects, translate it to others.  That may look like university work, but it also could be work at a museum.

Another path is through Applied Anthropology — using our knowledge and abilities (dare I say superpowers?) to translate between two cultures.  The best worst example is the military, especially in Iraq.  This, as you know, is frowned upon since we have a ‘do no harm’ mentality.  We’re not meant to disrupt or exact change, only observe.  This is a bit hard these days with a Global Society, but we do our best.

Finally, many of us recognize corporate opportunities, but probably aren’t very interested in them (yet).  GM is the best example.  They make products for international use, which need to work within the cultures they sell to.  I believe (Dr. Weibel will correct me if I’m wrong) they were, at one time, the largest employer of Anthropologists in the United States.  Someone in this department told me that so I know I didn’t make it up!

Anyway, that’s not a lot to chose from, and it sells our degree short.

Here’s an example of an experience I had shortly after starting my career.  I was discussing work at a networking event with an owner of a PR firm and happened to mention that I’m an Anthropologist.  He stopped and told me that he would rather hire an Anthropologist over a Marketer any day of the week – for a marketing job, mind you.  I was really proud of my degree at that moment.

But he’s right.  Anthropologists are kickass at anything that involves thinking about humans — which is pretty much everything!  We’re really good at understanding others and translating to them.  Within our own culture there are subcultures, and businesses need help speaking to those groups.

Even more, we really can do anything we set our minds to.  We’re excellent chameleons because we have learned to remove our own priorities in order to better understand others.  With our researching prowess, we really can learn our way to anything.

So here’s my experience doing just that.  I started in the disaster relief world as a case worker.  Immediately my degree was at use, not just with how to do a good ethnographic interview and truly listen, but also to empathize with what was happening without getting caught up and making their stress my own.

When I completed my term of service, I wanted to do more.  Here’s where the research comes in.  I decided to start a tax exempt nonprofit organization all by myself.  I didn’t have a board to support me or cofounders, just an idea and the drive to make it work.  I researched my way into the Articles of Incorporation with the State of Michigan, researched how to complete the 40 page 501(c) IRS paperwork, and (finally) researched how to build a board, including bylaws and code of conducts.  I lead two volunteer teams, researching how to create expectations and volunteer forms in the process.

Today I’m a serial entrepreneur.  My first and main business is website design, development, and maintenance.  I had no clue how to code — but I researched my way into it.  I researched how to build contracts, handle employees, and guide clients through the development process.

In doing all this (and much more… it’s addicting) I learned an important fact.  Anthropologists are being hailed as the new Design wave because of how we can think about users.  WIRED Magazine wrote an article all about this.  Instead of approaching a user interface or product from the point of view of the function already developed, we approach it with the humans in mind.  This makes us way better at Design Thinking and Human Centered Design.  As tech fields grow, we’re going to be in high demand.

Finally, I want to leave you thinking about the two side projects I have going.  The first is a book (hopefully to become more of a main thing).  I used my research and interviewing skills to interview elders born before 1940 about how technology is changing us.  It’s a blend of ethnography and nonfiction writing, and it is not sanctioned by a university.  I just decided to do it, figured out how to fundraise on Kickstarter, and am doing it.  The lens with which we begin to see the world due to this degree allows us to truly explore other perspectives — and, again, bring them to others.

My other side project is a temporary one.  I am managing a crowdfunding campaign for a woman named Zahra, an Afghan refugee here in Grand Rapids.  Her mother and sister are still in Afghanistan and, with no male guardian, are in real danger.  They were all child brides, and have various levels of disability due to the beatings they’ve received.

Not only was I able to research how to develop this project, I am able to represent it in a way that donors can resonate with while still remaining culturally and historically accurate.  I’m sure there are a lot of people who can strive toward this, but I know that my background in Anthropology makes me all the better at it.

Now let’s talk about you.  Have I gotten any wheels turning?  Any new ideas popping up?