Anthropologists in Practice: An Interview with Beth Schill, Research Program Manager at the Partnership for Public Service

Anthropologists in Practice is an ongoing series of interviews featuring anthropologists (and professionals with anthropology training) who work outside of the academy. 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.

Tell me a little bit about the organization you work for and how you ended up working there.

I previously worked at Deloitte U.S. Consulting’s Federal Government Practice for over five years, where I worked with a variety of Federal clients on issues pertaining to attracting and retaining the best people for their workforce. During my last year at Deloitte, I was a member of the GovLab Innovation Fellows program, and researched how innovative trends could be applied to government. This rekindled my love of research and led me to my current employer, the Partnership for Public Service, a non-profit in Washington, D.C., dedicated to inspiring a new generation of civil servants and transforming the way government works.

What is your role at the Partnership for Public Service? Describe your typical workday or some common tasks you perform.

I am currently a Research Program Manager for the Partnership. Our research focuses on topics that are important to the Federal workforce, especially in regard to challenges to workplace culture change. My role is to oversee all phases of research projects, including conception, methodological design, interviewing, data analysis, the writing of reports, and the presentation of results. I stay on top of common public policy pertaining to the Federal government and its impact on the workforce (budget sequestration is a huge item right now), and am constantly thinking about new research opportunities.  A typical day involves scanning the news about current policies that impact the Federal workforce, writing and editing content, and developing new research to help the people within the government workforce to be more fulfilled in their jobs. Our main methods include informational interviews and workplace observations.

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

I earned my B.A. in Anthropology and Social Theory at the University of Michigan. While there, I did a summer study abroad program in Tibet.  It was not your typical study abroad trip, and really focused on immersion with the local Tibetan culture. We stayed in Lhasa for nearly a month, and spent the better part of two months traveling around the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and Western Qinghai and Sichuan provinces, going from village to village, studying the culture, religion and geography of Lhasa.  It was during this trip that I became interested in the impact of tourism on the fragile ecosystem and sociopolitical landscape of the area. 

After college, I went to pursue my Master’s in International Development at the University of Cambridge. During this time, I kept up my studies of the impact of the tourism industry (and related multinational corporations – think the Marriotts and GE’s of the world) on developing nations and local cultures. One result of my studies was a paper I wrote for the Tourism in Asia: New Trends, New Perspectives conference in June of  2006.

In terms of my favorite courses – that’s a difficult one!  I still remember my Anthropology 101 course with Andrew Shryock. In 2001, during my first semester of freshman year, the attacks on the World Trade Center took place. I remember him teaching the class the next day about the concept of liminality (a state of personal or social ambiguity or disorder), which made so much sense and had such an impact on me given what had happened the day before.  I also got to do some amazing research with Beverly Strassmann, a biological anthropologist, assisting with her studies of the Dogon of Mali. In my role, I used Dogon concepts of wealth to determine the socioeconomic impact of wealth on maternal health and survival rates. This work opened up for me the connection between economics, culture, and development issues for the first time. 

Overall, my favorite courses were the ones about China and the Himalayan cultures with Eric Mueggler and Tom Fricke (who also advised for my honors’ thesis). I also took courses in legal and economic anthropology with Maxwell Owusu, which really helped shape my understanding of the modern day capitalist institutions that govern our society (for better or for worse), and how relative they are to other methods of exchange and legality. I used my old books from those courses to inform some of the work I did for Deloitte.

Do you have a favorite anthropologist?

I really admire those anthropologists who are online and taking their topic to a wider audience.  I met Carole McGranahan (a Tibet/Himalayas scholar) through Twitter and from there have been able to widely expand my network in search of folks who follow “all things Tibet.”  I have also kept in touch with Professor Fricke and was able to meet up with him at the last American Anthropological Association meeting. We talked about issues facing many anthropology students today (e.g., what do I do with an anthropology degree?) and some of the current sociopolitical challenges in the Himalayan region.

What are you most passionate about when it comes to anthropology? 

My own passions are about discovering the cultural confluence and conflict between corporations and cultural institutions, and what happens when the real needs of business come into conflict with the communities with which they interact. The business world often has its blinders on and thinks that the way in which it sees the world reflects the way the world truly is. This is correct to some extent, what with the role of money seeming to pervade every social institution with the global spread of capitalism and various forms of democracy. 

The world at this point has been largely shaped by Western institutions, which I believe is truly dangerous for the long-term success of capitalism and democracy.  The Founding Fathers of the United States believed that one must have an informed citizenry in order to have a functioning democracy. And part of that knowledge, I believe, is the ability to understand other people – and the richness in wisdom that arises from examining other ways of managing a business or running a government. 

When any one group begins to think that its way is the only way to success, and views other ways of conducting government or business as backwards or wrong, that group (or society) runs the risk of shaking the very foundations of democracy.  In that light, I believe that anthropology provides the connective tissue that can allow business to understand the full implications of its actions and make decisions that don’t just focus on the fundamentals of business that are taught in a MBA class.

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?

The skill I have used the most is the skill of observation.  At Deloitte, I was surrounded by Type A personalities (of which I am one myself) who would quickly jump into a client situation with “the answer”, only to end up irritating the clients. On the other hand, my approach was to spend the first week or two at a client site asking questions and making observations. Doing this would often help me garner support from other people to implement programs and policies. 

At my present organization, we do a lot of participant observation and interviews for our research.  It requires us to understand the cultures of particular government agencies, their rules and structures, relationships and rituals, and then uncover new insights that hopefully help them become not only more effective stewards of taxpayer dollars, but better places to work. My anthropology training definitely shapes how I approach all aspects of the research process and has become the lens through which I view the world.

How have you navigated your workplace as an anthropologist? Do you define yourself as an anthropologist or use another title?

I definitely felt like the Ugly Duckling at Deloitte – never really fitting in anywhere.  I described myself as an anthropologist first, and a business woman last, and I believe that my own labels in some way shaped my identity at the firm. I have always been one to question why a culture is the way it is – and what I found is that when I questioned longstanding policies (something as simple as the amount of hours worked), I was branded as a bit of a rabble-rouser. Yet I found a few other people who were also “rebels in the workplace” – seeking to impact the company culture from the inside.

One benefit of this approach is that as a consultant, you change clients every three to six months – and each time you have to go through a rapid ethnographic dive into the unique culture of the organization. Unfortunately, many consultants approach their work with the belief that that they “know everything” and the client, by virtue of the act of asking for help, knows nothing.  Many of my colleagues remarked that I was quite easily able to enter a new client site and within a week or two understand the stakeholders, relationships, power structures, and language, which enabled me to connect with the clients on a personal level.

I used this skill to my advantage, trying to teach my colleagues about anthropological observation techniques whenever I was able (and often to great success). For instance, a few years ago, one of my clients was the group in charge of implementing President Obama’s High Speed Rail initiative. While there, I was deeply embedded with my clients, traveling with them to various states and learning about the scientific, engineering, ecological and legal processes involved in railroad management. Along the way, we were able to chat with each other and develop personal relationships that last to this day. 

Ironically, one of the partners cautioned me against “going native”. In the consulting world, this is an informal term used when a consultant begins to identify too closely with the client to the point where he or she acts like an employee of the client, as opposed to his or her actual employer (this is also a term in anthropology that refers to an anthropologist who loses his or her so-called anthropological “objectivity” and adopts the worldview of the community he or she is studying). At any rate, my ability to connect with the folks at this agency gave me a very unique and personal perspective from which I was able to understand their workforce issues, and it helped me find solutions to their problems that they actually appreciated. And, no, I never truly “went native.” 🙂

What is one of your biggest workplace accomplishments?

At Deloitte, I was very passionate about the inclusion of people with invisible disabilities. At this company, the way you made money was by charging clients using billable hours. As a consulting firm, the culture was incredibly fast-paced, and not being able to work a 60 hour workweek was seen as non-normative. Clearly, this could be difficult for people with disabilities that prevented them from working this much, but they could still work 40 hours a week. By using the language and unspoken rules of the organization, and through building relationships with decision-makers within the organization, we were able to build a coalition of individuals at the company to advocate for those individuals, and prove that their 40-hour work weeks were just as valuable for the productivity of the company as the 70-hour work weeks put in by other employees. This effort also helped to take the conversation about disability to a higher level of leadership. 

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?

If at all possible, take a few very rigorous statistics courses, or get a minor in math, economics, or statistics. In this age of Big Data, knowing how to transverse the lines between data and the very human people and cultures behind it would make any anthropology student a powerhouse.  I think it’s really helpful any time we can back up our qualitative research with quantitative studies.

Secondly, do not let your degree define all of who you are. I believe that to be successful in a consulting or research job you have to be able to do two things. One, you need to think critically and independently, drawing new insights from disparate areas of research or information.  The other is that you must communicate those insights to others. Quite honestly, I cannot think of any other degree that prepares a person so well for this necessary skill than anthropology. The key is to understand that this is what organizations are looking for, and to market yourself accordingly.

Editor’s note: Are you an anthropologist who practices outside of academia? If so, I am currently looking for additional participants for the Anthropologists in Practice series. If you are interested in doing an interview, please get in touch!

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