It’s not the beginning of a joke, but it could be the beginning of a career. In an attempt to learn more about their customers, corporations are increasingly hiring consulting firms to do research on the ways in which customers use, talk about, and feel about their products. Companies, in other words, are not just interested in the traditional quantitative analysis which analyzes what customers do and buy, but are increasingly turning towards qualitative consulting firms, which analyze what customers think and feel.
To do this kind of research, consulting firms are actively recruiting trained anthropologists, who have mastered the skill of describing and interpreting human behavior, be it in a very different context. In an article in The Atlantic (‘Anthropology Inc.’, March 2013) Graeme Wood discusses the rise of “corporate anthropology”, and the career opportunities it opens up for anthropologists. His primary case study is that of Absolut Vodka, which hired a consulting firm to research what their products mean for their customer. ReD Associates, the company that was hired for this assignment, dispatched anthropologists to bars and parties, with the mission of describing people’s narratives about their drinking habits and the drinks they prefer. Their conclusion: customers don’t just see liquor as a commodity, or a status symbol (if it is an expensive bottle), but care particularly about the stories and feelings that accompany their consumption: a good product, in other words, is not just an object with measurably satisfying qualities, but an item with an interesting story that elicits pleasant feelings. Observing consumers and talking to them is the best way to gather this kind of information, and many large firms, including GM, Dell and Microsoft now have a sizeable staff of anthropologists on their payroll to help them with this. Corporate anthropology, Graeme Wood concludes, is “the most intense form of market research yet devised”.
Ph.D.’s from other disciplines are also increasingly finding that their graduate training has given them the tools they need to be successful in the field of consulting. John Hannon obtained his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Chicago in 2011 and went on to found Justkul Inc., a consulting and strategic research company based in Chicago. When I asked John whether his own graduate training has helped him to sharpen his consulting skills, he responded with a resounding yes. He even hopes that his own company will be a “proof of concept” of the fact that PhD’s have many translatable skills that can make them highly successful consultants. “One of our key brand differentia”, he says, “is to bring the kind of critical thinking skills that one learns as a Ph.D. student to consulting and strategic research. We take an interdisciplinary approach that combines hypothesis-driven research with the best of creative and design-thinking, and philosophical and critical-thinking skills”. In two blog posts on his company’s website (here and here), John offers further reflections on the lessons he learned as a graduate student that have made him an effective consultant: “My experience learning philosophy”, he writes, “is what enables me to reframe client challenges at the very beginning of a project, to take difficult problems and reformulate them into simple examples, to seek out the underlying reason for a correlation, or to identify analogous situations to a problem at hand”.
If you are interested in identifying the skills that can help you launch a successful career in consulting or business, the Emerging Leaders Initiative offers various resources to help you. On Friday October 10, we will have a workshop on “Translating Doctoral Skills to Nonacademic Careers” (time and location TBD). In Winter Quarter, we will host a panel of speakers discussing how to navigate job listings, both inside and outside Academia. And at the end of Spring Quarter, we will host our annual Career Day, which will feature panels of UChicago alumni who have landed great careers in business as well as non-profit organizations and government. You can also browse the “Resources, Tools and Opportunities” on our website for further information. Is there are resource we are currently not offering, but that you would like to see? Let us know in the comments below.