Friday, June 24, 2011

Reflections of an Un(der)employed Anthropologist

Yes, I drew this awesome picture using MS Paint.

A discussion over at the AAA LinkedIn group got me thinking more about my own current situation with unemployment and underemployment as a newly minted anthropologist. The individual who started the discussion posted this question:

Are there any other un- and underemployed anthropologists out there? When I speak of the underemployed, I mean individuals not working as adjunct or contract faculty. What are we doing to survive?

[Please ignore the funky formatting issues in the next paragraph; I can't seem to fix them.]

First of all, yes, I am technically currently unemployed. I have had to take up odd jobs like watching people's kids and chickens (not that I haven't enjoyed it!) and making PowerPoint presentations for my favorite Luddite professor (I mean that in the most endearing way) to barely make ends meet. And even those jobs are scarce. I am not only complaining but also making a statement and an observation about the reality of the job market today. It just doesn't seem right that anyone should have to face this situation, but it all goes back to the crappy economy, the poor return on investment for advanced degrees, budget cuts, a lack of appreciation for/understanding of what anthropologists actually (can) do, etc., etc.

Second, I want to say that I consider myself to be a practicing anthropologist, in the sense that I am not an academic anthropologist and will eventually find the majority of my work in the professional realm outside of the university. But I have just gone from unemployed to underemployed, because (ironically) I recently embarked on a new part-time consulting project (it's been slow to start) that may require me to become an employee of the University of Memphis, but this is still in the works.) I often flinch when I tell people I'm a practitioner because I haven't been doing very much practicing lately, except for a very small pro bono project for a local workers' rights group regarding issues of wage theft.

The situation, as I commented over at LinkedIn, has been nothing but frustrating, disheartening and discouraging. Okay, not completely, but I'll say the negative before the positive. I mentioned to someone close to me today that I have lost much of my post-graduation job-seeking motivation, partially because I haven't gotten many responses, and those that I have gotten haven't really led to much. Also, the effort and energy I have put into this job search, as well as the lack of structure and purpose in my life right now, have made me exhausted, unmotivated, and somewhat pessimistic about the future.

At the same time, I have continued to remind myself that it's not me, it's the economy. I think in a good economy, with my credentials and experience and skills, I would have landed a job right out of school. The reality is that's just not an option for many of us at the moment, especially new grads who are lacking in real-world experience. I am lucky in this respect because I had many opportunities for hands-on, agency- and community-based research projects as a student. But even though yes, there are jobs out there, I think it's the right of the individual to determine what jobs will suit him or her best, not only in terms of skills and training but also, and this is important, in terms of interest and passion as a practitioner.

So far I have applied for about 50 jobs. Maybe this isn't a lot in today's toilet bowl economy. But it takes time and energy to fill out applications, to search for appropriate and fitting positions, to re-write cover letters, to send thank you notes, and to do all the other necessary research and preparation that is required. After doing this for a few months, it gets tiring. You tend to lose motivation. You get sick of filling out forms asking you for the name of your high school or what months you worked that one job five years ago.

I have had some luck and a handful of positive responses to my applications and interviews. I have been fortunate to land even a few phone calls and emails in response to my resume, let alone a single in-person interview. Recently I found out that I did not get what basically amounted to a dream job in consumer research at a Fortune 100 company. I was definitely disappointed because I wanted it but also because the one month I waited to hear back was extremely excruciating, worse than waiting for a college admittance letter. On the other hand, I was also happy because I was one of the top two choices for the position and because I was told that the three individuals who interviewed me were highly impressed with my application. Plus, this company flew me out to their headquarters, all expenses paid, for a day-long interview experience that I totally rocked (in a spiffy new suit, I might add). That definitely boosted my confidence.

What advice would I share with others who find themselves in similar situations? Stay motivated. I commented to a friend the other day (he is also looking for a new job) that logic doesn't seem to apply when it comes to the job search, which is really an exercise in willpower. It's also all about patience and luck, or at least that's what it has felt like. Being patient and waiting for people to get in touch with you. Being in the right place at the right time. Expecting the unexpected (e.g. don't hold your breath on a job, even if you submitted the best cover letter you ever wrote with your application; e.g. expect a rush of inquiries when you've almost given up all hope. Etc.) When I first seriously began applying for jobs back in March I wasn't getting much. But then an email or two would trickle in each week, and some would move forward, others would be stagnant. Again, it's also about willpower. And that's what I need to remind myself of, too. I need to maintain the will and continue filling out applications, sending in resumes, writing emails, networking, searching through listings, etc., etc. I need to rediscover the motivation I had when I walked across that stage and received my empty diploma case, which gave me the confidence to go out there and look.

Another thing is, although I've applied for a good number of jobs, I have actually began to apply for fewer jobs as I've become more practiced at the art of finding the positions I really want and those I would really enjoy doing. I think this is one of the benefits of being involved for an extended period of time in a job search. You come to know what you are really looking for. You come to understand what search terms to use and what job descriptions meet your skill set and personal requirements. For example, I applied for a research assistant position at a historical preservation office with a Native American tribe in the southeastern United States. I met all the requirements and gave it a shot, and after the first interview was invited to fly down for a second, f2f interview. But I declined. Some may ask why I didn't take advantage of the opportunity, but I had a number of reasons. Aside from the 2-hour daily commute, I am in no way interested in archaeology or managing research files. It didn't sound like a job I would enjoy doing or one that I could become passionate about. And the fact that they were unable to pay for my expenses to come interview did not help, as it's difficult to afford such things when you don't currently have a job! This was also one of the jobs I had applied for early on in my search, when I wasn't exactly sure what I was looking for and when I was applying for anything remotely related to my degree.

My point is that I have been able to get a better grasp of what's out there and not waste as much time applying for stuff just because I don't have something, for jobs that I know I won't be happy with or am overqualified for or for which I don't meet the requirements. The decrease in applications I've submitted over the past few weeks is partially a result of this, but is also the result of losing steam, running out of juice, and of putting all of my eggs into just a few promising baskets, only to not get those positions in the end.

All I have left to do is get back up on my horse and keep riding until I get to my destination (did I really just type that?) In other words, I'll keep reminding myself of a mantra I adopted after discovering it in a fortune cookie at a Chinese restaurant, which I taped to my laptop to get me through comprehensive exams and the final months of the semester. It says:

You will obtain your goal if you maintain your course.

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