Anthropologists in Practice: An Interview with Stacey Burgin, Research Associate in the School of Social Work at UNC Chapel Hill

As part of a new series at Anthropologizing, I’ll be posting some interviews in the upcoming weeks with practicing anthropologists about their jobs, backgrounds, and how they’ve been able to apply their anthropology training in the workplace. I’m starting off with a friend from grad school, Stacey Burgin, who is now a Research Associate in the School of Social Work at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.

Tell me a little bit about the organization, company or institution you work for. How did you end up working there? 

I work for the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, NC. Specifically, I work in the School of Social Work. I ended up here over a year ago somewhat randomly. I was basically applying to every job I thought was somewhat relevant to my skills in the NC Triangle area.

Talk about your role/title/job in more detail. Describe your typical workday or some common tasks you perform.

My job title is Research Associate.  I basically support a small feasibility study which is implementing an intervention in local mental health courts. My daily tasks include following up with study participants, entering data, organizing data, and enrolling people into the study. The position is part-time so I only work up to 20 hours a week, and I supplement my time with temporary positions.

Tell me about your anthropology background. What were some of your favorite research projects, subjects, courses, or experiences as an anthropology student?

I first got my bachelor’s degree in anthropology at the University of South Carolina. That program gives students a broad perspective of the four-fields of anthropology, with a limited ability to specialize on a particular subject. I focused on cultural anthropology and tried to take as many relevant medical anthropology classes as I was able. My master’s degree was in applied medical anthropology at the University of Memphis. 

My favorite research project was a joint project with an Master’s of Public Health student. We were looking at the existing healthcare systems at the local prison and jail. This project allowed me to really look at the way some of the most vulnerable people in our society access healthcare. The thing about anthropology which drew me to the field and kept me engrossed in it was the perspective – looking at a system in a holistic way. I love trying to understand how different people look at the same phenomena in different ways, which can be especially important in healthcare. Moreover, generally in anthropology we try to record and measure phenomena and perspectives in a systematic way to ensure what we are reporting is accurate.

How have you been able to use your anthropology training in your current job? What specific training, skills, experiences and competencies have been most useful to you?

In my current position I use my anthropological skills particularly when I am collecting data. I often have to probe subjects to give clearer and more relevant answers to the questions I am asking. I also created a structured interview to follow-up with study staff as the qualitative portion of data collection. I also use skills I learned in graduate school to analyze descriptive statistics using SPSS.

How have you navigated your workplace as an anthropologist? How do you define yourself (i.e., as an anthropologist or with another title?) Have you taught others about anthropology’s application to your organization? If so, what has this process been like?

The research team on this project is very small, so I haven’t encountered too many barriers identifying as an anthropologist.  Generally when people look at me with a confused look on their faces when I say I studied anthropology, I explain that it is very similar to public health, but with more of a focus on the way culture interacts with healthcare and with a stronger emphasis on qualitative data.  Sometimes this still loses people, so I just shrug and say, “it’s hard to explain.”

What advice would you have for current anthropology students when marketing their skills to prospective employers? Is there something you wish you had done as a student to prepare yourself for the workplace?

I wish that I had started out looking at different ways anthropologists can fit into a variety of job positions, and understood what those positions look for when hiring. For example, I feel that many anthropologists could be excellent at working in human resources, particularly in multicultural organizations, but I do not know where to look for those types of positions.  Additionally, I do not know how to best market myself to that sort of position because I do not know the language or experience they generally look for when looking at applicants’ resumes. I guess the best advice I can give to students is to know the field you’re applying to and be very specific about past experiences – steer clear of assuming your potential employer understands what anthropology is.

Is there anything else you would like to share?

I regularly go through mini existential crises wondering if this is really what I am supposed to be doing and if this is the track I want to be on in my life (career-wise), and inevitably it keeps coming back to this: I love anthropology and I love trying to make it relevant to the job that I’m doing. My dream job is out there and I think my anthropology degree has prepared me better than almost anything else (although I might want to take a few business classes)! 

Note: I am looking for additional participants for the Anthropologists in Practice series, so if you are interested in participating in an interview, please get in touch!

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