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Dealing with the reality of that dream job by Sally Carraher

Dr. Carraher is an applied medical anthropologist. She studies health and illness experiences among the peoples of the Alaskan and Canadian north. Much of her work is community-based and multi-disciplinary; bringing community members together with health providers, scientists, and policy makers to do research that leads to real-world action. Dr. Carraher emphasizes doing research to help improve health and wellness as envisioned by community members for themselves. Dr. Carraher also works as the Ethnographic Fieldwork Lead for the Canadian North Helicobacter pylori (CANHelp) Working Group ( Her current research focuses on the socio-cultural aspects of H. pylori bacterial infection in the Arctic; and community-activism around homelessness in Alaska and the North.


I was offered a tenure track position in Anthropology during the last semester of graduate school. That spring, I returned to UAA to teach as an adjunct instructor while finishing the writing of my dissertation and I applied for the position I hold now: I was working full time as an adjunct, writing my dissertation, and applying for a tenure-track job all during the same semester – all while couch surfing because I couldn’t afford a place to live at that time. It was very hectic! Luckily, I got the job offer, and later that summer, I successfully defended my dissertation and graduated (thus making me eligible to keep the job I was just offered).

I immediately fell ill the morning after my PhD defense, and I believe it was months-worth of stress catching up with me. In the following two years working at the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA), I came down with long-lasting bronchitis three times, which I also attribute to stress. So, while I am very happy to have the job I have, in the career field of my choice, I also empathize deeply with any student who is being run ragged by the demands and pressures of school and work – especially students who are also struggling with poverty or trauma. I carry this empathy with me and use it as a tool for advising my own students today. For example, I teach free workshops on how to apply for grants and graduate school programs, in which student debt, student health, and student happiness are put at the center of discussions on how to make informed decisions about educational and career pursuits.

I’ve wanted to be an anthropologist since age 18. Chasing one’s dream is exciting and rewarding, but it can also be daunting. Realizing one’s dream is an amazing experience, but then one has to learn to deal with the reality of that dream job – which is a real job in the real world, and the real world is messy and far from perfect. Is it worth it? My answer is, it can be, but you must decide how to measure that worth for yourself, taking into account your health and happiness and not merely the level of productivity you are able to achieve.

As a tripartite professor at UAA, my job involves teaching, research, and service. As an applied medical anthropologist, I find my purpose is to use the tools of anthropology to help people in communities articulate, communicate, and work to achieve their own health goals – whatever these may be. The most fulfilling aspect of this work are all the little moments when I feel like my work is helping people. It is seeing the light switch go off in a student’s face when they “get it” for the first time. It is hearing from a community member that a recommendation made from our shared research project was implemented and that people found it helpful. It’s a student who has come to me because they think I can help them (and I always try my best to do so!). It’s the Facebook pokes and tags from students, colleagues, and community members or the photos shared of a research activity in which people are smiling and laughing. In learning to live in the not-so-perfect real world of my dream job, I have come to measure my success through a formula that balances my happiness and my health along with my professional achievements.

I want only to write what I think matters and what I think is ready to be published. This can be really hard for an early career scholar because often our employment is evaluated by quantity rather than quality of publications; or because deadlines and funding requirements loom. What is fulfilling to me in this struggle has been finding peers who feel the same as I, and then creating meaningful collaborations with them in research and community service.

All of the research I do is community-engaged, and most of the work I’ve written also involves co-authorship, often with community members as co-authors. The review process (not to mention the writing process itself) can take a lot longer than sole-authored work, or work that doesn’t aim to be previewed by communities or participants prior to being reviewed by professional peers. But to me this work, and the prioritizing of community representation and collaboration, is worth it. To balance that against the expectation of quantity in my tenure-track job, I have written a few shorter pieces without community co-authors.


To other women-identifying people out there, and to people of other minority backgrounds and from marginalized communities, I would say we need you in Academia. There is still not enough representation or diversity in Academia broadly, or in anthropology specifically.

As a woman who physically presents a certain way, I have been judged for the most ridiculous things. My hair, my tattoos, and how “young” I look (which is often code for “naïve” and “inexperienced”). Reviewers have discussed how my voice sounds when they were supposed to be assessing my achievements and potential as a scholar. One of my mentors once wrote a letter of recommendation for me, and in it warned the graduate program I was applying to, to “not judge her by her appearance, I assure you she is qualified” – Never mind that no one at the school had ever seen me in person before. And then one day at UAA, a student came up to me privately after class and thanked me for “being true.” Having taken classes from me, she said she realized university isn’t just a pipe dream – that someone like her could be an anthropologist and go “all the way” in her education. That meant a lot to me. It was more than recognition. It was validation.

Women of Color and Indigenous women are often scrutinized even more severely than I and my white cis-women counterparts – for wearing natural hair styles, dressing in cultural attire, for how they speak, or for any other range of things that have nothing to do whatsoever with one’s ability to be a scholar. We need more WOC, more Indigenous women, more transgender and gender-non-conforming people, more queer people, and more disabled people in Academia. Because representation does matter, and because our struggles in this generation will help break down barriers for the next generation. I want future scholars to have no idea what it feels like to be judged for your body or your identity over your scholarly ability. But in order to get there, we have to build up a much more diverse and compassionate Academy. So, you go to school. You apply for those jobs. You get yourself in there!

A more diverse Academy doesn’t just benefit the marginalized peoples who become scholars. Scholarship itself benefits from diversity. Using my own discipline as an example: Anthropology started paying attention to motherhood, childrearing, coming-of-age, and gender studies because women anthropologists thought to start that work. Male bias in archaeological ideas of “Man the Hunter” and anthropological ideas of why patriarchal societies appeared to be so much more common worldwide than matriarchal or gender-equal societies were questioned and re-examined. Our theories of what “Culture” is and how society functions were refined and improved, based on evidence and critical praxis. This benefits not only gender studies, but all of anthropological theory.

More diversity among scholars leads to asking new questions, and old questions in new ways. It leads to the traditional biases of white male dominated scholarship to be illuminated and called out. It leads to ethnocentrisms and heteronormative androcentrisms masquerading as established theoretical principles to be unpacked, dismantled, and refuted. Women in anthropology are often using the same skills of their male predecessors and contemporaries: ethnography, cultural comparison, and the pursuit of a holistic perspective. What women (and WOC, Indigenous, transgender, LGBTQ, and disabled) anthropologists bring is a different lifelong-informed understanding of how the world works, based on our experiences being on the receiving end of social inequalities. So, you shouldn’t only pursue your dreams now so that maybe things will be easier for the future generations. But also because Academia will be all the better for it. Fueling your professional training with your experiences and insights will make scholarship better for the world.


First, remember when sizing up your own scholarship, to take your health and your happiness, as well as your achievements, into account. You don’t have to have the most publications or attend the most conferences. Find ways to write what matters to you (op-eds and blogs are a good place to start if your early career doesn’t leave much freedom for what you write). Make the most out of the conferences you do attend. Work up the courage to talk people up, and join interest groups that are important to you.

Second, I would say find your voice (in how you write, how you work collaboratively, as well as how you speak to colleagues and students), and use it, and never be ashamed of it. Remember your roots and continue to draw strength from, and honor, these in your work.

Third, find your allies and supporters, and call on them when you need to. In building our professional social networks of colleagues, mentors, and peers, remember to consider people’s ethics and accountability alongside their scholarly interests and productivity. Join professional organizations and collaborative teams that have standards of ethics that align with your personal ethics. Go to conferences and find your people, and join their groups. Start your own group – be that a writing group, a research group, or an advocacy group.

Fourth, be an ally to others of different marginalized backgrounds than from which you come. Remember always the struggles that have shaped you, and consider these when you work with students, who undoubtedly have struggles of their own and could use an ally from the higher ranks.

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