Anthropologists in Practice: An Interview with Susanne Salehi, Healthcare Data Analyst

Anthropologists in Practice is an ongoing series of interviews featuring anthropologists (and professionals with anthropology training) and their varied work experiences. The goal of the series is to provide a source of information and inspiration to other practitioners and (potential) students of anthropology, and to illustrate the wide variety of jobs, skills and competencies held by anthropologists for employers and anyone else who is curious about what anthropologists actually do. While the interviews all follow a similar framework, each one is unique in its reflections on anthropology training and education, workplace applications, and advice for current and future practitioners. This week’s Anthropologist in Practice is Susanne Salehi, a data analyst working at a small healthcare company in the South.

Tell me a little bit about the organization you work for. How did you end up working there? 
I work for a very small healthcare company in the South. The company is a subsidiary of a larger insurance company. We work with high-risk pregnant women in order to help delay their pregnancies, and operate through telephonic education and face-to-face outreach visits.

The president of the company has worked with students from my graduate program before, so when one of his employees moved out of state, he sent an e-mail to the chair of the anthropology department, requesting recommendations for the position. She forwarded the e-mail to some candidates she thought were appropriate, and I happened to be one of them. When people tell you “connections are everything,” it’s true. It took me awhile to realize that making a good impression on everyone you meet is critical, because you don’t know when they might have a job opportunity you’d be interested in.

What is your specific role at this organization? Describe your typical workday or some common tasks you perform.

The job title I have is long-winded and doesn’t say much about what I actually do. Essentially, I’m a data analyst/administrative catch-all. I work on a variety of projects, some lasting months and some just for the week. I do statistics for the company for internal performance metrics, using both SPSS and Microsoft Excel. I also do literature reviews and administrative tasks like writing up workflow policies or data entry. Last but not least, I create PowerPoint presentations and am occasionally called upon to train other employees on new software.

Tell me about your anthropology background. What were some of your favorite research projects, subjects, courses, experiences as an anthropology student? Do you have a favorite anthropologist? What are you most passionate about when it comes to anthropology?

My Master’s is in medical anthropology, and I also have a Bachelor’s in anthropology. Both degrees are from the University of Memphis. As a student, I really enjoyed the unique perspective anthropology gave me, as well as the more practitioner-focused classes I took, like Data Analysis or Research Methods. I still maintain my love for medical anthropology, specifically for issues surrounding reproductive rights. I don’t have a favorite anthropologist, but I’m endlessly fascinated by linguistic anthropology and the way language reveals cultural attitudes.

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?

My training in data analysis has been the most useful, as I use SPSS frequently. The writing-heavy focus in my grad program was helpful, too. My ability to take copious amounts of notes for hours on end has been valuable. I’ve had to do transcribing also, so all of my experience with focus groups and interviews has come in handy.

How have you navigated your workplace as an anthropologist? I.e., What has been the reception of your coworkers/managers/clients to your anthropologist identity? Do you define yourself as an anthropologist or use another title? Have you taught others about what anthropology can do at your organization? If so, what has this process been like?

I guess my biggest complaint about my job is that I do not feel that I am making a difference. My anthropology training is either ignored or misconstrued. No one here understands what anthropology is, and when I try to explain they aren’t really interested. My boss just wants someone to “do SPSS.” While he seeks out medical anthropologists to work for him, he doesn’t seem to care to know what anthropology entails. He prefers to maintain his belief that the sum of the discipline is that anthropologists “do studies.” I have not had the chance to work directly with our high-risk patients, design interventions, or assess our programs, all things I have been trained to do. 

While at work, I am referred to as “the anthropologist,” though no one really gets what it means. I often have to follow that up with “data analyst,” since that is the essential function of my job. In my personal life I think of myself as an anthropologist, maintaining the core disciplinary and ethical beliefs.

What advice do 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?

My advice is to emphasize the skills you have, rather than your title as an anthropologist. Unfortunately, anthropology is still widely misunderstood. Definitely take the time to educate people, but begin by talking about what you can do. 

As a student, I definitely should have been more active and sought out more opportunities to engage with organizations and community members. I had a graduate assistantship, practicum experience, and a four-month stint as a research assistant on a small grant, but I don’t think it was nearly enough. I also wish I had finished my nonprofit certificate program, as it would have really helped. Any software you can learn – do it. GIS, SPSS, Photoshop, anything to set you apart from the probable hundreds of other applicants for your dream job. Travel might help too – whatever looks neat and interesting on a resume. 

To summarize: I wish I had focused on resume development and building connections more, and also been more actively aware of the “real world” and the fact that I would have to convert all of my experiences into words on one piece of paper that an HR manager will glance at for 10 seconds.

Is there anything else you would like to share?

For everyone out there that’s desperately unhappy with their job, take heart. I am very unhappy here, but I’ve recently had several interviews with organizations that seem much more anthropologically-inclined. There are other options – anthropology jobs do exist outside of academia. I think that for me, this was the hardest thing to accept. For a long time I struggled, because I didn’t know if I could find a job I could love that would fit my skill set and training.

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!

1 Comment

  1. One thing I appreciate about this interview is Susanne's reflection on the ups and downs of being able to "do anthropology" in the professional world. Clearly some of us are more lucky when it comes to our roles as employees, and the extent to which we can "apply" our training and skills to our work in the ways that we want to. Her responses provide a good example of the obstacles one is likely to encounter, especially when the employer has misconceptions about anthropology or cannot see the need for a more in-depth use of its applications. While Susanne doesn't feel she's "doing anthropology" in the way she wants to, I think she is to some extent. I've come to realize in my professional experience that "doing anthropology" goes beyond some of the more unique traits associated with the field (i.e., ethnography, the thing that probably excites us the most) to include a wide array of skills like Susanne's knowledge of SPSS and quantitative data analysis, her ability to locate and synthesize useful information in literature reviews, and the interpersonal skills she likely applies when training other employees in software. To avoid this sort of situation when applying for jobs, it's good to make sure that you're going to be able to do what you want to do (do this by asking good questions during interviews). Understandably, job descriptions evolve, needs change, and sometimes we have to take positions that are not ideal, so it doesn't always work out for the best. This interview is a reminder that the public perception of anthropology (and therefore the limitations to its application) does not often match our "idealized" perceptions of what we would like to do as anthropologists and what we know we are capable of (cool stuff like ethnography, which also seems to be the method that is most difficult to sell). It is also a reminder that we have to do better at educating people about our skills and competencies so that their understanding of the discipline as applied to real world problems is expanded and that we have more opportunities to showcase just how awesome and useful anthropology can be.

Share your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s