How general degrees can lead to meaningful work
16 Aug 2016
Being a student or graduate of a general studies degree can trigger an array of questions from others: What will you do after graduation? You didn't specialize, so what types of jobs are out there?
Though it's undeniable that your career path will be much broader than someone who graduated from medicine or finance, it's important to note that acquiring classical training can lead to just as meaningful a career.
The idea would be to really get immersed in what that discipline really is, and what it's about, says Michael Thomas, who earned his graduate degree in cultural anthropology. “You'll inevitably find where it's applicable. Having a classical discipline is really important.”
Today, Thomas works for the Ford Motor Company in human-machine interface, research and planning. Day-to-day, he's responsible for exploring and addressing complex issues within the socio-cultural context of Ford vehicles. But for Thomas, making the link between anthropology and automotive came from his past work experience in design and his budding interest in understanding the way people interact.
Applying anthropology to automotive
Anthropology was very broadly applicable, says Thomas.
Coming from a previous background in industrial design, Thomas conducted people-centered research and was responsible for solving user issues through his designs. From that experience, he learned how vastly different people viewed the world through the contexts of their daily lives. This sparked a hidden passion in Thomas, ultimately encouraging him to pursue an anthropology degree often considered a general studies degree and the payoff wasn't far fetched.
“One of the ways I look at it is to see that the problem with automotive is not merely a technical problem of how to make the operation of cars easier, he explains. It also becomes a social and cultural issue as well. You start thinking of things like ‘what is it like for people in China to own a car?' or ‘what does it mean for someone in India to have a car and how does it operate within their social network?'”
Thomas further explains that with this new understanding, it led to a plethora of entry-points into the automotive industry from an anthropological standpoint.
“When you look at things through an anthropological lens, it's such a broad perspective because it covers so much ground, he says. You can really find a lot of different angles to tackle a problem and [understand] what's going on in the world.”
Today at Ford, Thomas takes on multiple automotive design projects with a heavy focus on research, collaboration, and problem solving. With the preliminary planning and research completed in-office, he also has the opportunity to take his two passions in anthropology and automotive and apply them to foreign sites.
“At this point, you might be in the field and doing a study on automobile ownership in China, he explains, meeting with respondents doing ethnographic-type of research, which is basically deep immersion and observational research.”
And the work doesn't stop at how people interact with cars; Thomas explores it from all angles. “What you really want to do is get immersed in their lives to understand the big picture of how the car will fit in. That's the really fun part because you get to be a part of people's lives who you would have never otherwise met - it can be a really enlightening experience.”
Once the remote work is completed, Thomas says he makes his way back to the office to dissect all the information gathered from respondents, ultimately looking for patterns in behavior and aspirations, then presenting his findings to his wide-eyed colleagues.
“[Anthropology] is interesting from an academic perspective, but it's also interesting from an applied and practice-oriented view,” he explains, which is evident in the knowledge he's applied to his career at Ford. “I was sure of the fact I could make a good contribution.”
Megan Santos, jobpostings.ca
Photo: XIANGYANG ZHANG