Fountain and clock tower at The University of North Texas in Denton (credit: pinterest)
For finishing undergraduate students interested in applied anthropology, and particularly in business, technology, and design like myself, there are very few options for graduate school. The Applied Anthropology program at the University of North Texas (UNT) is currently the only master’s program in the United States that offers an online program option. Even though this is great news for students, nobody likes to have their options limited in such an important life decision. To set myself at ease, I decided to conduct a short, informal survey of past and present students, as of 2015, in order to learn more about student perceptions and outcomes of UNT’s applied anthropology program. This article is my attempt to summarize and share the results of that survey for others who are also interested this program.
The Applied Anthropology program at UNT offers both a Master of Arts and a Master of Science and is projected to take between 2 to 3 years, depending on how many classes students take per semester. More importantly, UNT offers the program completely online, as well as on-campus, making it the first and only online graduate-level applied anthropology program in the United States. Students must complete an applied thesis that involves conducting a research project for the practical benefit of a real-world client, which they must locate themselves.
The Department’s graduate program overview webpage explains their main goal is to “prepare students for employment outside academia,” while also enabling students to transfer into a doctoral program. All of the student responses describe this program objective in action as an “amazing hands-on experience” and an “actionable education that puts theory into practice,” “from designing the research, fielding it, analyzing it, and presenting it” to “real clients throughout the program.” The UNT website explains that the faculty are dedicated to building professional networks and collaborating “on projects with a variety of local organizations, from corporations to social service agencies” (UNT). Past clients of the program range from Nissan, Motorola, and Microsoft to the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport and the Regional Approaches to Climate Change project. UNT’s commitment to establish partnerships between academia and industry offers students an opportunity to build out their resumes during their time at UNT with real client-based projects, while allowing industry leaders a chance to see the real value of ethnographic research for their business.
With an annual intake of only 15 online and 15 on-campus students, this collaborative dynamic extends into the classroom and provides students with what they describe as a real sense of community and camaraderie. “Cohort,” the term they all seem to use to address their fellow classmates, might be a conscious choice meant to convey their sense of belonging and companionship. Respondents highlighted classroom discussions, the support network available for their coursework and thesis, and the intermingling of disciplines within and between classes as some of the best aspects of their experience at UNT. While there were few online students who responded to the survey, they expressed pleasant surprise at how involved and well connected their cohort was. Often becoming good friends with the other students while sharing the experience and attending conferences. In fact, students are encouraged and even expected to attend conferences, such as the Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference (EPIC). As some respondents point out, this is because one's professional network will be an important factor while studying and preparing for their applied thesis, not to mention being integral when looking for a job after graduation. The faculty were described as accessible and enthusiastic in sharing their network connections and resources with students as well. Based on the respondents’ overall assessment, the faculty and staff at UNT “encourage students to be proactive and take initiative” in their professional development while making themselves available to provide guidance and support to students both inside and, perhaps more impressive, outside of the classroom, such as at conferences. The small class size of the Applied Anthropology program at UNT makes this possible, and enables students to view their cohort as a community of colleagues and friends.
The respondents described the applied thesis as both a challenge and an opportunity, as it requires students to approach local companies and organizations as researchers. To complete the applied thesis, students must find and get their foot in the door of a local client, propose a project that will be of practical benefit to that client, and then design and conduct that project over the course of a semester. While some respondents expressed regret for not beginning their search for a client sooner, such as in the first semester, every respondent felt the applied thesis instilled in them a sense of purpose and accomplishment in real practical terms. As one respondent put it, the applied thesis “gave me a reason to approach companies to hire me as a researcher… and people were willing to speak with me because I was asking for an internship that would benefit them.” It was also critical to some in obtaining their first job after graduation, as another respondent explained, the applied thesis “gave me a way into the company and allowed me to illustrate my value at low cost/commitment to them, but once I was finished, they asked me to stay.” Through the applied thesis, students are able to present themselves to potential clients and employers, demonstrate the value of ethnographic research to businesses within their own community, and ultimately to gain real-world skills and experience in order to hit the ground running after graduation.
The diversity of student interests and the applicability of anthropology across a broad-range of fields make it harder to address job and salary expectations for any one student. Past and current student interests range from video games to outdoor gear and from rural communities to spaceflight. Alumni of UNT reported working for technology companies, digital marketing agencies, non-profits, design agencies, architectural agencies, product and service design (including a toy manufacturer), and other large corporations. They worked within operations, human resources, branding, user-experience teams, and corporate sustainability and responsibility departments. Their roles included research leads, designers, strategists, and consultants. Within this broad diversity of application of their education at UNT, the expected job positions and salaries of graduates are hard to pin down. Given this wide-range of possibilities, one respondent notes “one would be remiss to only pursue job postings for ‘anthropologist.’” However, the general consensus amongst respondents is that a job applicant's experience, knowledge, and expertise will make all the difference. One respondent's advice to prospective students was particularly cogent in this regard, instructing them to “figure out the areas that interest you and get exposed to them… talk to people in those areas, read blogs, look for related classes outside of anthropology [and] bring things back into anthropology.” In order to stand out, researchers need to “demonstrate clear value to a company and their experience,” which underscore respondents’ suggestions for prospective students to know what industries and areas interest them early in their school career. However, working alum who responded to the survey all assert that the client-based projects and hands-on experience at UNT helped them to “focus on getting what stakeholders need out of the research” and gave them the ability to speak with authority “about participant observation, focus groups, etc.” right out of school.
The practical, client-based approach of the Master’s of Applied Anthropology program at the University of North Texas allows students to connect with a community of peers, to build their resumes and to experience first-hand what it’s like to be a practicing anthropologist in the field, but it also addresses a bigger issue as well. The reality today is that there are very few positions within business that specifically request a degree in anthropology or experience in ethnography and many times such positions are simply casting wide nets as a strategy to lure a diverse group of experts ranging from design researchers, anthropologists, HCI professionals, experimental psychologists and sociologists without ever differentiating between these distinct fields of knowledge. This suggests that while there is a small but growing interest, the value of anthropology in the twenty-first century still largely goes unrecognized in the business world. Practitioners and committed institutions are actively engaged in raising awareness of the value, benefit, and importance of the anthropological perspective today. The faculty of UNT’s Applied Anthropology program is at the forefront of these efforts with the first online master’s program in applied anthropology. The online option of the master’s program in applied anthropology at UNT makes it the most accessible program in the world and offers students who cannot relocate to Texas an opportunity to pursue their interest in the field.
The collaborative partnerships formed at UNT between academia and industry put their students in front of business and community leaders in order to demonstrate how anthropological research can have a direct and positive impact to their organizations. This is a testament to the experience and expertise of the faculty at UNT. Dr. Christina Wasson is a founding member of EPIC and her research investigating how technology facilitates communication between geographically separated people is a real advantage for students who are considering the online program at UNT. Dr. Ann T. Jordan is a pioneer in business anthropology, including organizational anthropology, and is the author of the groundbreaking book Business Anthropology. Dr. Susan Squires is a recognized expert on customer insight research and is the author of the popular book, Creating Breakthrough Ideas: The Collaboration of Anthropologists and Designers in the Product Development Industry.
For students interested in pursuing a career in business, technology, and design, the programs online option makes it the most accessible program available, it provides current students with opportunities to gain practical, hands-on experience while at school, and allows business and community leaders to realize first-hand how the field of anthropology can provide real benefit to their organizations. Prospective students who are considering the online option will need to take into account the differences between a distance-education program and an on-campus education in the broader sense. There are some limitations associated with relationships and communications mediated by technology over a distance, and some elective courses outside of the department will not be available to those students in an online format. However, with a cohort drawn from across the world and which has ranged from Singapore, Malaysia, Haiti, India, and France, online students have the opportunity to hear from a greater variety of perspectives and to discover more diverse worldview's - a real advantage in an anthropological discourse. Furthermore, elective courses can be taken through other universities with the approval of a student advisor.
The collective expertise of the faculty in the areas of distance communication and user-centered design, the practical hands-on experience of the course work, the local-based applied thesis, and the utilization of professional conferences helps to address concerns regarding distance education as well. Ultimately, the online option is a net benefit for those who would not otherwise be able to pursue their goal of a postgraduate degree in applied anthropology. The resoundingly positive response to the survey question asking both past and present, as well as online and on-campus, students, if they are satisfied with the education that they received at UNT suggests that all students believe that the program is effective in preparing them to become practicing anthropologists. I am still not completely content given that my choices for graduate school are so limited, but the results of the student survey has convinced me that UNT would be one of my top choices regardless.