Zachary Garfield Ph.D.

portrait of Garfield

Postdoctoral research fellow at The Institute for Advanced Study in Toulouse, France and maintains an affiliation at Washington State University as Adjunct Faculty in the Department of Anthropology. He is also co-director of The Omo Valley Research Project.

What would you like to share about your background and/or experiences in the McNair program?

My path to the McNair program and to a career in academics as a research scientist was quite non-traditional. As a child and adolescent, I grew up in a low-SES, single-mother household, and was the oldest of four boys. No one in my extended family had received a university degree or had any substantive experience or knowledge about higher education. My family did, however, strongly value education. My mother especially always took every effort to support our education and would always try to find scholarship programs and other opportunities for financial assistance to support things like extracurricular activities, field trips, and other important opportunities for personal and educational growth that would otherwise not have been possible. I had always been a good student including in high school and it was generally expected I would attend university and would qualify for financial assistance. As a young adult I was also curious about the world and interested in the big questions. What was human nature? Why do we do what we do? What caused cultural diversity? Had humans transcended nature? Books such as Daniel Quinn's Ishmael kept me thinking along these lines, but I had no idea about anthropology.

As soon as I turned 15 I started working as much as possible, often about 35 hours a week through most of high school. I regularly bought groceries and paid utility bills at home and covered all my own personal expenses. I was very fortunate to attend a great public high school, Lincoln Southeast, and had many inspiring teachers and advisors. Overall, I had great experiences in high school, but as I grew older, I became increasingly frustrated at what felt like insurmountable and unfair economic inequalities between my family and the families of many of my classmates.

After graduation I enrolled at UNL, mostly out of a sense of obligation and expectations. I was an advertising major in the journalism college. I hated advertising. I suppose I thought it would be an opportunity to find a career related to my hobbyist interest in photography. That first freshman year did not go so well, so I left the university.

I spent the next few years working full-time, exploring various personal interests, and thinking about where I saw myself long-term. I kept coming back to those big questions. What does it mean to be human? Why do we live in societies that have such inequalities? What drives cultural diversity? I hadn't seen much of the world except for the strip of highway between Nebraska and Texas and I knew I wanted to travel.

My curiosities and interest in cultural diversity continued to grow as did my interest in long-term, international travel. But moving and traveling abroad is difficult. It felt like something only the wealthy and most privileged people really were able to do. I increasingly realized this was completely false. Books like Rolf Potts', Vagabonding helped me think differently about travel. Eventually I sold my car and most of the things that kept me attached to place and joined the World Wide Organization of Organic Farms (WWOOF) in Japan to volunteer at host families across the country. For six months I traveled across Japan and East Asia, volunteering on farms and various establishments, living with hosts, meeting travelers, and experiencing firsthand a different set of cultural practices and histories. While in traveling I also spent time with a friend who was teaching English in Tokyo – a position which only required a four-year degree. After six months I realized education would be a path to continue to travel and learn about the world and society in a different way than I might be able to do independently. Thinking about an undergraduate degree program and browsing the list of majors from my friend's tatami mat, I came across an unfamiliar term, anthropology.

I returned to Lincoln with a new-found passion in understanding human cultural diversity and an idea for how to go about develop these interests. My first course as an anthropology major was Dr. Raymond Hames' Introduction to Cultural Anthroplogy. Dr. Hames' lectures and stories from his field work in the Amazon were fascinating and we read a diverse range of ethnography, learning about cultural practices among populations in the Artic, Central Americas, and Malaysian forests and the relationship between, environment, culture, and biology. As I developed a rapport with Dr. Hames I came to learn that he was a leading expert in evolutionary anthropology and human behavioral ecology. We began to discuss opportunities in anthropology including research and fieldwork and graduate programs. Ray was a formative mentor across my undergraduate studies and in the McNair program. Working with Ray prepared me for my future graduate studies, both in terms of developing a research program from a general interest and in learning how to effectively communicate and work with a research mentor. I graduated from UNL with highest distinction, in the top of my class, and also applied and received a full pardon for my criminal record from the State of Nebraska, which included a personal letter of support from UNL's Dean of Students, Dr. Matt Hecker.

Do you feel the McNair Program prepared you for graduate study and research at the graduate level? If so, how?

My experiences working with Dr. Hames, learning about research methods and the field of anthropology was complimented by the McNair program. The McNair program taught me how to structure my academic work and introduced me to the importance of interdisciplinary communication. In the McNair program and at our events I had to think about how to communicate the ideas and concepts we use in anthropology to a diverse audience of scholars. This was a major advantage, especially now, looking back. Behavioral science has become increasingly interdisciplinary in recent years and now I work in a truly interdisciplinary department. The McNair program forces scholars to shed their disciplinary blinders, so to speak, from the beginning and this is an incredibly valuable skill to embody early in your career.

What do you like most about working in your current position?

Currently, I'm a postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Toulouse. It is, without a doubt, my dream position. At IAST I work with and learn from scholars across the social sciences, and I have complete freedom to pursue any topic or project I am interested in. These three-year, independent postdoc positions are perfect for scholars like myself, interested in a broad range of topics and with a large research program. And of course, living in the South of France is incredible.

Looking back at your time as a McNair Scholar, was there anything that prepared you for your current position?

Being forced to think outside of my disciplinary comfort zone and unpack the jargon of my field, at the time as I was learning the jargon and developing my disciplinary skills was hugely beneficial. Ultimately, our goals as scientists include trying to better understand the world in meaningful ways and communicating that understanding to other scientists and the public. The McNair program equips young scholars with both advanced methodological skills, as well as skills in interdisciplinary communication.

As an undergraduate, did you have any positive mentor experiences that shaped your outlook on mentoring?

As an undergraduate I had amazing mentors. Dr. Hames and Dr. Wayne Babchuck helped me realize that scientific research is not an individual task, but rather a collaborative process. Doing your best work in academic research also involves being a good collaborator and valuing the project and the process more than any individual accolades or benefits.

What advice would you give in regard to searching for graduate programs? What characteristics did you look for in a school/how did you search for programs?

I knew I wanted to do fieldwork so I was looking for graduate programs and advisors with active field research programs and particularly departments that valued field research and were home to several researchers who had published empirical, field work based research in recent years. I think it's a huge benefit if a prospective department is home to two or three researchers whose interests overlap with your own. This will help you develop a very productive and strong committee, but it also gives you the chance to have strong relationships with faculty other than your chair. It's also a bit of a safety net if you need to make a change, which can happen for a variety of reasons. My undergraduate mentor was key in shaping my search for graduate programs. The field of evolutionary anthropology is quite small, and Dr. Hames knew just about everyone in the field and was able to give me detailed information on how he thought working with various researchers would be. There are always pros and cons and strengths and weakness of any department or advisor and having someone with experience in the field can be a huge benefit in developing your search. Also, the academic societies your research most closely overlaps with may curate lists of places to study and attending their conferences as an undergraduate can be very useful for getting a broad survey of the field including ongoing projects and the work of current graduate students.

Did you go directly from your bachelor's degree to enrolling in a graduate program without stopping out?  If so, what advantages do you think that provided? If not, why was this the right choice for you?

I enrolled in an MA/PhD program directly after undergraduate. For me, I was already a non-traditional undergraduate who had traveled and had some relevant experiences through my volunteer work. Also, following my undergraduate research I felt I had the right momentum to carry those research questions and practices to the graduate level.

Looking back, was graduate school more or less demanding than you expected?

In my experience, graduate school started off incredibly demanding. But it got easier with each passing year. Partly because you become adjusted and your knowledge-base is continually growing. But also, as you complete your core coursework and transition to more a research focus, your time demands become less distributed and your able to focus more on your particular interests and work. There is also a huge reading demand in graduate school and it takes some time to develop the skill in reading and skimming effectively and knowing what material you should digest in depth and what material you can spend less time with. In a core course on Evolutionary Methods and Theory taught by chair, Dr. Ed Hagen, we were assigned Darwin's On the Origin of Species and Paley's Natural Theology – two massive, foundational books – to read in one week. Two unlucky students had to present a summary and lead discussion, but we all had to be prepared to critically discuss the full texts. Obviously most students can't digest every word from all the hundreds of pages but tasks like this help you develop the skills to digest scientific literature efficiently.

What was the most rewarding part of graduate school?

Being able to work closely with my PhD advisor Dr. Ed Hagen was perhaps the most rewarding part of graduate school for me. Ed is an amazing advisor. He invests a lot in student development, training, and teaching his advisees the skills they need to conduct cutting-edge anthropological research and to get a job after graduation. Seeing how he works was informative and inspiring. Also, being able to conduct field work in Ethiopia was a dream come true and was one of those moments when I transitioned from studying anthropology to doing anthropology.

What experiences did you seek out as a graduate student to prepare you for working in your current career?

I worked hard at developing a professional network of anthropologists and other scientists while a graduate student, across all levels including professors, postdocs, and senior graduate students. So much of academic work and scientific research depends on getting feedback on your work and ideas and knowing who you can reach out to for advice or to recruit as your collaborators. The sooner you develop your social network of possible collaborators the sooner you can benefit from this social capital.

What's your best advice for McNair scholars about graduate school?

On day 1 of graduate school, that's when the job starts. That's when you become an anthropologist, or an engineer, or a biologist. You're in training. But seeking training is part of the job. The sooner you embody that mentality the sooner others in your field will see you as an active and contributing member of the academic community. Ultimately you're your own boss. It's up to you to stay focused, find your work-life balance, develop your workflows, and hold yourself accountable. Also, because you are an active and contributing member of the community, but early in your career, you need to be active in making connections to leaders in your field and people whose research most overlaps with your research and your interests. It's easy to be intimated by the "big names" in our fields, but it's important to not forget, they're just people and researchers in the field, just as you are a researcher in your field. In the vast majority of cases, senior researchers will be eager to receive a well-thought out and engaging email from a junior researcher or graduate student. These emails open dialogues and can develop into connections and possibly into collaborations.

How has your life changed since you earned your PhD?

I've already begun to take on a project management role in some of my work. I know how productive scientific enterprise operate and I know how my skill set can fit into a collaborative team. I've expanded my own view of my research. Finishing your Ph.D. is an important first step, and as graduate students we tend to get tunnel vision on a narrow range of topics, which is good. But afterwards, for myself, it has been important to zoom out and organize my interests and methodological approaches in a more integrated research program in a way I can communicate at the macro-level. Concretely, I've moved to France, I've expanded my field research program in Ethiopia, I co-founded a scientific and philanthropic non-profit organization, and I've increasingly shed my disciplinarian identify and embraced the world-view of an interdisciplinary behavioral scientist.

Are you currently involved in research, and if so, can you briefly explain your research? What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishments?

Currently, I'm working on many cross-cultural projects, similar to the research I conducted in the McNair program, including on cultural diversity in punishment, moral violations, leadership, conflict resolution, reputation domains, and oratory rhetoric. I'm also working to develop new field sites and build the infrastructure to expand my field research program across populations in Ethiopia's Omo Valley, for social, biological, and health research.

What, if any, advice would you give student who are thinking about stopping out before beginning graduate school?

There will always be many paths for you to consider, at every stage of your career. It won't always be clear which path is the best at any point in time. It's best to seek advice from your mentors, colleagues, and family and friends and try to make decisions considering a wide range of inputs and outputs. But ultimately you need to follow your passions. A career in academia will always be a 'labor of love,' but if you think you've found a professional path you truly love, working in academy and being involved in scientific research is an incredibly rewarding experience. Honestly, if I had a huge personal financial windfall and could pursue anything I wanted, I would essentially keep doing the scientific work I'm involved in now, granted, with much less worry about funding. But I'm right where I want to be professionally and scientifically. I think those are good signs you're on the right path.

Do you have any advice for students on the fence about applying for the McNair Program?

Through the McNair program you gain support and skills that you cannot get within your discipline. It's much more than a line on your CV. As you continue in academics you realize so many very important "soft skills" none of us are trained for in graduate school. Being in the McNair program does provide you with some such training. And once a McNair scholar, always a McNair scholar. You'll have a professional network to organizations all across the United States through universities' McNair programs and their affiliates.

Are there any final words of wisdom you'd like to share with our McNair Scholars?

It's important to keep in mind your PhD is not your career. As much as a doctoral program is about producing novel and useful scholarship it's also about learning how that process works. Your dissertation won't be perfect, but you should learn the skills you need to be a productive scholar.

Keep your conceptions of success flexible. It's important to have some idea of where you want to be, professionally, during and after your graduate program. But there will be many unexpected developments and it's important to reassess your goals and expectations along the way.