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The Disentanglement Project

By Rhiannon Mosher, Ontario Public Service

Anthropologists excel at taking into account the multiple perspectives of differently situated social actors and examining how broad social processes affect people’s everyday lives. We try to make sense of messy social worlds through rigorous research and thoughtful analysis. Through our enculturation into an anthropological sensibility, we frequently practice speaking across cultural boundaries – whether it’s explaining our research to other academics, to students, or to colleagues as professional, practicing, and applied anthropologists in non-academic settings.

In September 2015, I defended my dissertation and began teaching as a course director. Like many of my fellow colleagues, I loved teaching and being a member of the academic community. However, as I moved through the rhythms of the scholastic year, I began to examine my deep entanglement in the exploitative academic system. With each new course, assignment prep, lecturing and grading took my time and energy away from the research and writing that also motivated my desire for an academic career.

Whither alternative anthropological career paths?

Despite the long tradition of applied anthropology, often overlooked is that most professional anthropologists – those with MAs and PhDs – ultimately end up practicing anthropology beyond academia. The many voices of alt- or post-ac anthropologists are missing from academic conferences and publications; this lacuna shapes the understanding of what a professional anthropologist is and can be. Academic job insecurity has been a key thread of discussion since at least the “Precarity” issue of Culture in spring 2015. These missing voices should be especially concerning to those working in academia and training the next generation of anthropologists.

Precarious academic anthropologists (and many other PhDs ), often confront feelings of failure, confess to having lost confidence in themselves, and feel unsupported by their peers with more secure academic jobs. If we look at how the culture of academia (and academic hiring) has shaped our ideas of professional success in a context with extraordinarily limited opportunities, these feelings of inadequacy are hardly surprising. Yet, many lament the thought of leaving academia and a career trajectory that we have worked so hard to pursue. How do we begin to disentangle ourselves from the university labour market and what this might mean for a professional sense of self as an anthropologist?

The disentanglement project

The most empowering advice I give to precarious anthropologists and anthropology students alike is also how I embarked on my post-ac career path: As a professional researcher, approach your questions about potential career trajectories as you would a research question.

For me, this began as an exploratory project of disentangling what I loved about academia and anthropology from working in academia. During my undergraduate studies, I was drawn to anthropology because it combined my passion for storytelling with the rigours of research. What I loved about being an anthropologist was the discipline’s orientation to the social good, to making the world a better place through research; working through and communicating complex ideas; writing, editing, and presenting; mentoring junior colleagues and students. Revisiting what compelled me to choose social anthropology as my major and why I decided to pursue doctoral studies helped to inform what I wanted from my career.

I researched examples of anthropologists in non-traditional (i.e., non-academic) careers through my personal networks, in the news, on blogs, Twitter, etc. (many of which I shared on this blog, co-authored with Dr. Jennifer Long). I conducted informational interviews with people working in sectors or roles that seemed to embody the variety of activities, challenges and engagements that I wanted to experience in my career. These observations and discussions helped me to dig deeper into what the everyday lives of practicing, professional and applied anthropologists looked and felt like from their perspective.

Finally, I applied for a lot of post- and alt-ac (and very few academic) jobs – unsuccessfully. Ethnography is iterative, why shouldn’t career development be? In treating each application, written assignment and interview as an ethnographic experience, I slowly learned how to better present my skills and experiences in a way that made sense in different workspaces. I learned how to ask questions about what kinds of career paths would allow me to do the kinds of things I wanted in my work, although perhaps not in the way I had initially planned.


Currently, I bring my research expertise and an ethnographic perspective to my work as a Senior Policy Advisor with Ontario’s Behavioural Insights Unit. Rather than having to leave the things that motivated me in my academic career, I bring my desire to help others and make research matter into my work as a public servant.

I work collaboratively with my interdisciplinary team to apply perspectives and methodologies from psychology, economics, organizational management and, importantly, anthropology to help improve government programs and services through designing and testing low-cost human-centred solutions. Every day, I learn about and engage with new policy and program contexts. I problem-solve, project manage and build relationships with our team’s inter-ministerial project partners. My ethnographic expertise is valued by my colleagues as we bring a more qualitative approach into our regular project toolkit. I continue to translate and communicate complex research results to non-expert audiences and have taken on a mentorship role for co-op students on our team. I connect with colleagues doing similar work in other governments across Canada and around the world to share ideas and learn from their experiences. I have a job where I get to do all the things that I wanted from an academic career, but differently than I would have thought when I started my doctoral degree.

The current academic climate calls upon us disentangle what it is to be an anthropologist, to practice an anthropological sensibility, from working as an academic. Our skills are needed everywhere. In following that red thread of my career to make knowledge count, I ask us to commit to supporting future generations by rearticulating our discipline’s greatest strengths in ways that translate across the diverse workplace cultures in which we, anthropologists, practice.

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