Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Transitions

After my last post, I've received a number of emails about how I managed to transition from anthropology to advertising. It wasn't as swift a move as it sounds. My entire academic life has been geared up towards being a teacher of some kind. Between my undergraduate degree and MPhil, I taught English literature at a well-regarded boarding school in the foothills of the Himalayas. My dream then was not simply to teach, but to immerse myself better in Indian culture having been born and brought up in the very English Kentish countryside. I hadn't even been fortunate enough to have had an Indian friend growing up, so suddenly finding myself surrounded by Indians as an Indian was wonderful and life-transforming.

As an undergraduate, I was inspired by my supervisor to read some books on Native North Americans. So when I decided to study for my PhD in anthropology, it was a no brainer for me to choose a research topic in that area. By this time I had decided I wanted to lecture at university level and essentially pursue an academic career. My parents were beside themselves with pride - education being highly-esteemed among West Bengalis.

A PhD requires original research. To do this I had to get my head out of the books, my arse off my seat and go to the source. To Pine Ridge Indian and Cheyenne River reservations in South Dakota I went, camera in one hand, tape recorder in another. Unlike my blonde, blue-eyed friend in the previous post, my life among the Lakota Sioux was easy - the elders particularly were tickled pink by the fact that I was a real Indian and we joked about it often. The fact that I was brown and even looked a little American Indian myself, opened all sorts of doors. Once, in New Mexico, I was even asked by a Navajo if I was Navajo! My parents stayed with me for a few weeks there and had long chats with my Lakota friends about the similarities between American Indian and Indian Indian cultures. My mother in her sari had the children at Crazy Horse School on Pine Ridge virtually crawling all over her in excitement at her exoticness.

Many of the educated Lakota I worked with were keen on disseminating their own stories, their own descriptions of their culture, and their own political views - fed up and frustrated by the constant filtering of their lives to the world by white anthropologists. Though I was not white, I was a guilty anthropologist nonetheless. I sat with them as they set out their own messages off- and online. It was my first real engagement with new media and political advertising. It was also my first exposure to web programming.

After a year, I returned to Oxford and my PhD; I delivered papers at conferences and published them; I became a lecturer while finishing off my thesis. But a seed of doubt had been sown. I began feeling uncomfortable in my role as an anthropologist, writing endless papers and teaching - basically pontificating on a culture that firstly wasn't mine and secondly that had its own educators, writers, lecturers.

A lengthy break from academia due to illness allowed me to pursue other things. I pursued getting better, and I pursued web programming. When I was able to complete my PhD and re-enter the job market, I started to apply for new media posts - chancing my luck because of my lack of experience in that field and keeping my lecturing career open as a fallback option. I was primarily applying to charities and, luckily, most people were intrigued rather than put off by my experiences. I guess I was a refreshing change from the usual geeky IT or internet applicants.

Charities run their off- and online marketing activities just like their for-profit counterparts. Their goals are the same: to sell something, whether a campaign, a belief, a product or a service. When I felt the need for another change, a few years later, I discovered that the leap from non-profit to commercial advertising and marketing was not that difficult. Interviewing for my current job in the commerical sector was enjoyable - my colleagues are still intrigued by my anthropological background and I like to think it gives me insight into my clients.

7 comments:

Southways said...

My partner X is an academic and I am constantly surrounded by academics. In the last three months, 3 of our friends have quit academia. It is a difficult career to remain enthused about....

Planethalder said...

My husband finished his chemistry PhD and left academia to be a lawyer, another of our friends finished his chemistry PhD and left academia to be a lawyer, another friend finished her PhD in English Lit and left academia to be a UN consultant. For us, this is not a failing of academia - many friends are still happily in academia - but because other opportunities came our way (or we got in the way of other opportunities!).

BTW, so happy you found a way to comment on my blog as I enjoy reading yours. Perhaps I should do a little post alerting people to the fact that they can actually comment. No wonder I get so many emails and so few comments!

Southways said...

I am not biased at all so I think your husband made a brilliant decision ;-)

Silent One said...

My husband too is an astrophysicist turned quant.. and is in his second corporate job in his life !!!
Very interesting transition.. and I love reading your blog too.
I was looking all over your blog for an email, but I cant find one..

Planethalder said...

Southways: LOL, ;-)

Silent One: Another defector - London's full of us!

Premalatha said...

I just figured out we can comment in your blog. But how do people email you? I couldn't find your email id. (just curious on how do they do it :-) )

I used to be an acadmic too. kinda life changed itself. I loved being academic.

Planethalder said...

Hi P, I used to have it in my sidebar . I guess I should put it back up there! P