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A Future as an Anthropologist in Service Design

An interview with alumnus Philippe Teixeira St-Cyr

Text: Jorrit Blonk and Christine Yan

Philippe Teixeira St-Cyr finished the Master’s in Cultural and Social Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam in 2016. Since graduation, Phillipe has been looking for a position as Service Designer or UX Researcher in either Spain or the Netherlands but hasn't managed to find such a position yet. In the meantime, he is working another full-time job whilst picking up relevant side projects. Jorrit Blonk interviewed him about his job finding journey.

Can you introduce yourself briefly?

I’m an anthropologist from Montreal, Canada. I did my Bachelor’s in Anthropology at Concordia University of Montreal. After that I worked for a couple of years before doing the Master’s program in Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam. Currently, I do not work in ‘my field’, but there was a great attempt to do so following the Master’s. It was still a little bit unclear as to where I wanted my educational background to take me. So, I must say, I had a difficult time. But I also learned a lot of things during that time.

How did you experience your studying period in Amsterdam?

I loved it! It was amazing. Most of my classes were at the Oudemanhuispoort, I felt like I was in a Harry Potter movie. It was very magical being a student there. The onboarding programme was very well organized. It was hard to find housing, but for the most part living in Europe was incredible.

Before the interview you told us that during your Master’s you were surrounded by people that dreamed to work in academia. Did you also share this dream of working in academia?

That dream was more present prior to my Master’s. Upon completion I realized how important it is to be very clear, especially with academic pursuits, on what you want to get out of it. The Netherlands is a very popular as a PhD destination and I did look at PhD vacancies. I applied for one PhD, but following the Master’s, I realised that I really wanted to continue in the workforce, in which I already had previous working experience. But still, I felt a lot of pressure from myself to find a job to create more opportunities for myself.

After finishing the program, I stayed an additional year in Amsterdam. I was simultaneously looking for jobs within my field and supporting myself by working side jobs in music and tour operations. During this ‘job hunt’ I was mainly looking for work in the non-profit sector, but I felt my prospects were limited. Eventually I decided to go back to Montreal.

How did it go in Montreal?

My first job interview back in Montreal was at an agency that does qualitative studies for marketing reasons. I thought “this is great, I will become an anthropologist at this company”, but the company was actually looking for a host. So, I was invited because of my hospitality experience, not because of my Anthropology Master’s.

After that I tried to apply for internships, which was also not easy. To be honest, I felt a little defeated initially. I was looking for something more related to my interests in the non-profit sector, but at the same time I wanted to feel valued within myself for my academic choices. So, I was looking to enter the non-profit field as a qualitative researcher.

Eventually I found a job at a local organization in food security. I was working in ‘my field’! It was a large organisation engaged in food security, but they had small social-economic initiatives that sold services within the field of urban agriculture. We partly managed community gardens around the city, did workshops for companies there, and sold services to private health care institutions. Most of my job was within sales, communication, and marketing, but I also had the opportunity to discuss with people about the social impact of what we were doing.

How did it feel to have found a job within ‘your field’?

This was a real high point for me. It really opened some doors for me because my role was not only related to communications and sales but I was also reshaping how they projected their image online. This was my first experience with web design. It allowed me to use photography, something I already had a long-time passion for. Eventually this really shifted my idea of what I wanted to get out of my career. I got interested in the field of User Experience (UX) Research and Service Design, which are fully anthropological but operate in the universe of design itself. I finally found a job in which I could combine my personal interests with my academic background. But I did not have the papers for it yet. A few months after leaving the job I decided together with my partner to go back to Europe.

Can you tell a bit more about you interest in UX Research and Service Design?

The job itself has existed for long time, but Service Designer is a newer title. The curriculum of many of these design schools – not only service design, but also product design and UX design – they draw enormously from anthropology, there is no doubt about that. They teach anthropological research methodologies in these schools and alumni call themselves ethnographers.

It would be great to find a school of anthropology that offers classes in service design. During my studies no one ever mentioned things like this - helping develop cool products, UX, large scale services – whilst at design schools they are teaching participant observation, focus groups, and qualitative research. Why don’t they even mention it in anthropology? Anthropology is an ever changing and ever evolving field of study, but sometimes they fail to make a link with the world outside of academia.

How is it to look for a job within one of these fields as an anthropologist?

If a company wants a designer, they will hire someone who went to design school. I don’t really have that portfolio. But a service designer is basically an anthropologist who is a designer: you need to do qualitative research, you need to understand cultural differences, and how people situated in different areas are going to come in contact differently with different services. These are all anthropological questions. It’s about understanding humans from different perspectives. Even the design industry is becoming more aware of this. Designing goes beyond aesthetics: a good design is only a good design when it’s useful for the people for whom it’s intended.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years from now?

Currently I have a full-time day job at a call centre. I fluctuate between customer support and administrative tasks. The title nor my responsibilities have anything to do with anthropology or service design, but I’m entirely content with my current job: I’m quite happy that I’ve maintained a stable job through the entire pandemic in Spain.

On the side, I am doing the things that I am really excited about. I pick up smaller projects that are more related to my personal interests and I find myself injecting more and more things that I learned during the Master’s program. I am continuously trying to learn new things that could contribute to my portfolio, my experience, to open new doors. I still hope to attain a position as a Service Designer or a UX Researcher. Hopefully, the side things that I love doing now will open doors for me in the future. For example, I am currently working on a website for a film distributor in the Netherlands, helping them with the full process of designing a web shop. I am also still semi-active in photography. In five years, I hope to find myself in a position where my day job will be as fulfilling as any of the side projects I am doing nowadays. And these side projects all contribute to that!

Do you have any advice for anthropology students who are almost done with their studies?

Keep doing what interests you most and something will come out of it. We don’t always immediately find the job we want after finishing school. But don’t let yourself get beat by the system. If you can afford to do an internship: do one. And lastly, justify what you get out of your education background. Think about where you really want to work rather than work where you think you would fit in the market.

For everyone who is interested in learning more about Service Design (and how it fits with anthropology), Philippe recommends the YouTube channel ‘Service Design Show’.

Reaction from Marieke Brand, study adviser of the MA in Social and Cultural Anthropology:

“It was very interesting for me to read Philippe’s story on how he looks back on the master’s programme and the challenges he faced afterwards. In this interview Philippe mentions that while he studied at our university, there was no guidance towards the field of User Experience (UX) Research or Service Design. I understand the comment. At the same time, it is maybe good to know that we offer more room today for research into Service Design or related fields as well as in Digital Anthropology today in our Applied Anthropology track. But I do see that we can keep on improving and we will certainly also have a closer look at the world of user design after reading this interview. I hope that you will find a job soon that will align better with your interests, Philippe! Thanks for sharing your experiences and I very much agree with this advice: ‘Think about where you really want to work rather than work where you think you would fit in the market’.”

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