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The connection between college and a future career is not always clear. Ethnographic methods can provide students with tools to learn about workplaces and envision career paths.

College students are bombarded with articles, news clips, and opinions about the relationship between college and work. As they begin their time at college, many wonder how this can translate into a career, when they are unsure what college even means to them. Many talk about feeling paralyzed with options as they move from high school to college. As one student put it, “The craziest part is people expect you to decide about what you want to do for the rest of your life and get so deep into debt at the same age you still must ask permission to leave the room to go to the bathroom.” Colleges and universities recognize that degrees are important for work and future careers, but it can be difficult to articulate to students that their degree has value beyond their first job. The goal for many colleges has been to build this into coursework, but in the Community College System of New Hampshire (CCSNH), previous efforts had been mixed, as had the results.

The model CCSNH incorporated was based on a series of courses from Guttman Community College, which enmesh anthropological techniques with career exploration throughout students’ first year at the college. But the original coursework relies heavily on the culture and community Guttman is embedded in, which is not easily duplicated throughout more rural New Hampshire. We took elements of the coursework and stripped it back to the core questions: What is workplace culture? And how does the study of that culture help people make informed career decisions?

The theory, tools, and techniques of anthropology lend themselves to this systematic study of the cultures of workplaces and how people define their space. Every activity is grounded in anthropological theory and methodology—students deconstruct and analyze interview narratives; examine intersectionalities and identities; and use critical observation, detailed note-taking, and qualitative analysis to examine space and how it is used. While the final product of the course is an ethnographic write-up on a career of their choosing, students spend the semester building the necessary skills to achieve this goal. As with so many aspects of anthropology, they start by considering their own investment and worldview.

Illustration of a topographical map

The initial autoethnography asks students how they ended up at the particular college, asking students to examine their own agency in their education and goals. For many, it is the first time they consider their past critically, sifting through life events and considering how a few have influenced their choices and view of why they need (or shouldn’t need) to attend college for a career. These autoethnographies provide a snapshot of student experiences across the last five years, highlighting student anxieties with what it means to become an adult in current society, how to achieve their goals, and how to finance their dreams. Many write about having to balance the need to be fiscally conservative but socially conscious while navigating society’s murky messaging regarding the value of higher education, the incredible cost of college, and the potential diminished social capital of attending the “wrong” college. Students have internalized a lot of the messages regarding the cost of education and question if the degree is worth the financial burden.

Students connect with the complex ideas in identity theories, grappling with their own intersectionality of identities. The nuanced ideas of social capital and cultural capital are reified through their own experiences, reinforced through scholarly articles, and grounded in a series of critical observation exercises. We ask students to go to locations that are familiar to them, to begin to push their world beyond passively seeing into questioning how the interactions of the world form and influence them. One student explains their experience:

The most profound lesson that I have learned this past semester is that doing things that make me uncomfortable, or that I am afraid to do, will result in obtaining positive outcomes that will help me in life. The first assignment that was given was an observation in a workplace of our choice. I was, at first, uncomfortable about the idea of sitting in a public place and observing people’s behaviors, I didn’t know what I could get out of watching people ordering a coffee or doing work in a coffee shop. Yet by surpassing those apprehensions, I was able to draw an interesting analysis of people’s behavior, and the commercial mechanisms of the workplace. I was also nervous about presenting in front of the whole class my research on the intersectionality project because I had never talked in front of an English-speaker audience, in another language than my native language. Yet by surpassing this fear, I received positive comments from my classmates, expressing their thoughts on my communication skills.

There were some bumps in the initial pilot of the curriculum—meshing college skill-building activities like note-taking, schedule building, creating SMART goals, and personal time management covered in typical first-year experience coursework into any course can be a difficult fit. Community college students are a varied bunch: For some, it is their first experience at college. For others, they are the first in their family to attend college. For others, it is their third attempt at figuring out how to navigate college successfully (and typically fiscally). Student insights throughout the course vary based on how they enter college, and much of the course is spent unpacking their preconceived notions of the world and how they see themselves fitting into it.

At the start of the course, many talk about the analysis paralysis they feel when they are asked what they want to do for a career or why they are going to college.

Over the semester, students work through questions of how their social class influences their decisions, how privilege can provide opportunities (even if one does not feel particularly privileged), how to create experiences at college to lead to potential careers, and how dissecting aspects of work and careers and examining the pieces can help them envision a future. The autoethnography assignment forms the foundation for future collaboration on how to shape the student’s experience at college with their concepts of a possible future career. They practice narrative deconstruction and construction, critical observation, thick description, and interview techniques to prepare for their research and construction of an ethnography into a potential future career. It also sets them up for success in transfer—since the course transfers as an anthropology course, it fulfills a need common at many four-year institutions and gives the students exposure to the holistic theoretical underpinnings of anthropology in their first semester.

Many students describe their world as noisy, anxiety-inducing, or overly bright. There are so many choices, they have trouble sorting through the pieces or prioritizing the information to make a decision. At the start of the course, many talk about the analysis paralysis they feel when they are asked what they want to do for a career or why they are going to college. By the end of the course, students express how they can sort through so many data points and so much information. Some find a focus in identifying the ethics and morals of a field, others focus on the community needs. One student explained their experience as, “This course, even though it didn’t help me figure out what I want to do with my life, still helped me a lot because it eliminated one thing off the list and narrowed it down so that I know where not to look in the future. The most profound lesson I learned in this course was how my future might look by dimming the options down.” These students have taken the qualitative methods of anthropology and distilled them to a series of skills that can be applied in multiple realms, using their identity and place in culture as a touchstone for how they would like to form their future.

But, as so many others have seen, the world looks very different as we struggle to find footing during/after a global pandemic. The experiences and emotions students currently describe are not new ones—the anxiety they feel has been encoded in their writings since the course began. But we are all facing new landscapes and notions of work as we try to answer the question, “What does work look like now?” It isn’t a new question, researchers have detailed the shifting work landscape for decades, comparing it to previous generations and commenting on how many students are looking for careers in fields that didn’t exist five years ago.

But now, even fields that did exist look different than they did two years ago. While previously students were nervous about the fear of failure or fear of striking out, now the whole world is as well. Perhaps the starting point can come from what the students have taken away from the class

The single most impactful lesson I learned from this class is that I am not going to be comfortable when looking and starting a new job. I cannot expect to know everything about the job, and I need to be okay with asking questions and communicating this either with my employers or coworkers. I struggle with a lot of social anxiety…I have turned away job opportunities because, while I dislike my current job, I know what the expectations are and what to do. But after this course, I have learned that I am going to have to deal with this anxiety no matter what.

This description resonated with my own instances of culture shock when doing research in the field. Navigating the world of choices has felt daunting before; the pandemic has created a shift in the culture of work that has moved it into the realm of “other.”

The idea of integrating first-year experience material into anthropological methodology and theory has proved successful. Administratively, students who complete the course have a high success rate, are retained at a higher level than those who do not, and tend to finish their associates degrees. I, though, am most impressed with the insights and reflections they have regarding their identity and how work fits into their life. The theories and techniques of anthropology have always been adaptive—they provide seasoned practitioners and new students a simple set of methods to interact with their world more deeply and critically. By approaching the world of work as if it was a brand new culture, students gain a more holistic view of their current world, but also how to shape it through their careers and choices.

Authors

Aimee E. Huard

Aimee E. Huard is a professor and chair of the Department of Social Science at Great Bay Community College in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. She earned her PhD in Anthropology from Binghamton University, SUNY.

Cite as

Huard, Aimee E.. 2022. “Exploring Careers with Ethnography.” Anthropology News website, April 28, 2022.

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