my own idiosyncratic job trajectory

David Beer (U60055@UICVM.BITNET)
Sat, 4 Jun 1994 13:40:11 CDT

I have read with interest the discussion of jobs and graduate degrees
in anthro. I am almost finished with a PhD in cultural anthro from the U
of Chicago, but the project has dragged on for 13 years. I am 42 years
old, married, and have five children, so there has never really been a
prospect of doing nothing but write. And then there are those student
After returning from the field (Pakistan, traditional medicine) in early
1983, I spent several months translatingtexts and getting organized to
begin writing, then started teaching part time at a local state university
to make a few bucks. I applied for numerous permanent jobs, most of which
responded "finish the PhD first." (some just said get lost). I saw an
add for a job as a project coordinator on an NIMH research project being
run by an anthropologist, and I applied (it was a three-year stint, less
than 20K, full time, well full-time and a half). I gave a couple of
presentations on my work during that time, but mostly did what I was
being paid to do. The job gave me a chance to learn something about
computers, and I actually made a fair amount of extra money teaching
classes at a local community college on Lotus 1-2-3 and other business
software. I also made some contacts at the place the grant was located,
the Erikson Institute for Advanced Study of Child Development in CHicago.
I helped with some other research projects there, providing some data
analysis and setting up some systems to help store data and manipulate it.
The NIMH study was extended by one year, then I started looking for jobs
everywhere. My most successful efforts (I had a number of interviews)
were in the growing area of microcomputer support. When Erikson began
to see I might actually leave, they put together a package of research
and computer support and gave me a substantial pay raise. I coordinated a
monthly research council which met to hear presentations, taught in the
Ph.D. program, did internal evaluations of intervention projects in
infant mortality, develpmentally-appropriate pre-K and primary school
curricula, emergent literacy, computer-assisted early literacy, and
company-sponsored day care for employees' children. I helped write a
book about child development and obtaining information from children
for use in adult settings (e.g., the juducial system). And I bought and
supported the installation of microcomputers for the faculty and staff,
and did training on the use of software and hardware. One afternoon I
received a phone call from an anthropologist in the Department of
Occupational Therapy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who wanted
a hand writing a proposal to do an ethnographic study of special education
delivery to minority elementary school children in Chicago. I only
contributed about a page to the proposal, but ended up working on the funded
project as an employee of Erikson Institute, which ended up being a
subcontractor on the project. After I had been working with the project
for about four months, the Department of Occupational Therapy began to
suggest that I move over full time, as an adjunct faculty member, with
two ideas in mind: (1) that I would bring in research money, and (2) that
once I finished my Ph.D. they would put me on tenure-track. While I
realized that the first of these two conditions was more likely to come
to pass than the second, I decided to make the move anyway. Erikson
had been a great opportunity (since it had been the only opportunity),
but I had realized that making the transition from staff member to faculty
member was difficult at best and, in my case, never likely to happen.
The good luck continued. Based on a referral from someone at Erikson
Institute, a not-for-profit called me and offered me a three-year,
$180K grant to do the evaluation of a project they were intitiating at
four Head Start centers in the Chicago area. The project and my adjunct
appointment actually began at the same time. I have become successful in
getting other awards since then (the first project is just wrapping up, and
four more are in process). Two faculty members left the department un-
expectedly, I went through a formal search procedure, and will be appointed
assistant professor after my PhD is completed. Such applied and non-anthro
activities have kept bread on the table for over a decade now.

Now there is lots and lots of luck in this story. But there are a few
other things that were of help in staying employed and eventually
ending up with an academic job. One was being willing and able to learn
new things, especially about education, child development, and computers.
Another was being willing to mix academic and non-academic work. A third
was learning to do a form of research for which there is a major market
in a major metropolitan area, evaluation. Eve Pinsker's point about
telling people you are an anthropologist is one I heartily endorse. When
I meet people to talk about evaluating their projects and tell them I am
an anthropologist, they generally breathe a sigh of relief. I guess the
"other" evaluators have developed some sort of reputation. Living life
this way has been exciting--I have often felt that I was staying about
20 minutes ahead of the people I was working for. But always at least
20 minuts ahead.
One other comment in this already-too long saga. Over the years I have
hired a number of anthropologists to work for me, on one project or
another. Those who have been willing to make the adjustment, be practical,
think about how to present what they do to others who are not in the
least interested in arcane theoretical arguments, and learn something
new, have done very well. Others, insisting on remaining academic
anthropologists, have not fared as well, and have quickly found other
things they needed to do more than make money.
Dave Beer, Dept of Occupational Therapy, University of Illinois at Chicago