Community Spotlight : Kimia Ferdows-Tournois, Anthropologist

Disenchanted with academia and considering an alternative career after your PhD? Drum roll, please, for Dr Kimia Ferdows-Tournois, a social scientist who took a leap of faith and never looked back. In this Community Spotlight, hear from the Head of Research of InProcess what a career in industry is really like. Anthropology, designing relationships, focus groups, town planning, online house sales, working in an old chocolate factory… Kimia evidently loves her crazy job, and why wouldn’t she? Rise and shine, social scientists, industry beckons…


(Find the newsletter this is written for here.)

Feel free to connect with Kimia and discover more about her research here.


Nia Cason: Hi Kimia, could you introduce yourself in a few words?

Kimia Ferdows-Tournois: I’m Kimia, and I’m an anthropologist who works at InProcess, which is an agency for innovation – it combines human sciences and design. I’ve worked here for the past four years and have been the Head of Research for one year. We use Design Thinking, which is kind of fashionable concept that all companies working in innovation now talk about – but InProcess have been using Design Thinking for 15 years!

Our team of researchers have very different profiles – I work with sociologists, psychologists, semiologists, and ethnographists. This diversity of profiles is really rewarding and I learn new things every day. It’s a real strength of our team. And… our office used to be a chocolate factory.

NC: What inspired you to choose this research topic – anthropology in design?

KF: I was a PhD student in anthropology at the University of Nanterre, and the subject of my thesis was design and innovation issues, so it was a natural step, really. I’d been intrigued by one specific discipline of sociology – the sociology of work – during my thesis. Social sciences and design is a quite new concept, and I was interested by that, too. What fascinated me about that was the tension between art and industry, and it reminded me of my thesis.

NC: Could you describe your current research?

KF: My job is to find insights about a project, essentially by representing the voices of the people that we observe. So, I interview people in their homes to understand what their daily routine is in relation to a specific product, or even a relationship, and I then work with designers and clients to find a happy medium between the ‘ideal’ experience and the ‘real’ experience of people for our clients, which leads to insights about what we can expect to see for a product or relationship in the future.

For example, one client, HABX, wanted to create a platform for people to buy apartments online. I worked with designers to see how people might engage with this idea and what they’d require to do so (such as control over the layout of their apartment and contact with an actual human) – we use focus groups to get an idea about these points. Since then, HABX has been ranked 100th in the top 100 Real Estate Tech Start Ups in the world – we’re very proud!

NC: What problems did you encounter during your thesis?

KF: One problem was that I worked alone a lot during my PhD. I felt isolated in my work, and I also felt like my subject was too theoretical – I wanted to see the concrete applications of my work and to link it to companies. This is quite different from my current post, which is stimulating for me in a way that University wasn’t. 

Another problem was the workload. I had a grant from Cifre, which provides financial help in collaboration with the industry – so I did my thesis at Nanterre University in collaboration with the Agence pour la promotion de la creation industrielle (APCI), which is interested in promoting design in innovation. I worked at the APCI for three years and did my thesis at the same time – so I basically had two jobs! But it was also a rich experience nonetheless – I was very lucky to find this grant, and I was also quite free in my research.

NC: Why did you pursue a career in industry rather than in academic research?

KF: Actually, I did want to be an academic researcher when I was doing my PhD – I wanted to become a Research Professor, but I became… disenchanted by academia. As human science academics, we want to have an impact rather than just writing stuff that just stays inside a very closed community. I also taught at the university when I was doing my thesis, and I loved it – but I was disappointed with the general views about teaching. Students aren’t educated about the links between their subject and industry, and many professors were more concerned with the ‘best’ students staying in academic research, which goes against my idea of what teaching is.

When I learnt that companies such this (InProcess) are open to social scientists, I was like, ‘Me!? Really? I can do this?!’ and I then understood that industry is a real, feasible option for people looking for alternative careers after a PhD – companies need experts in human sciences, more so than ever before!

NC: What scientific events do you recommend?

KF: Well, the large number of deadlines means that I don’t have that much time to go to conferences, but I can recommend a couple. First, there’s EPIC, who show how companies use ethnographics; they host a lot of conferences and have an online review – we love EPIC! I’m also interested in conferences combining humans sciences and technology/industry -  I went with InProcess to VivaTech last week, for example, which is more focussed on the technology side of things, and also Printemps des Etudes – so it’s often focussed on methodology, and there’s interesting conferences and contacts to be made. And maybe we’ll host a conference one day!

NC: What scientific personalities do you follow online?

KF: Well… we don’t! We don’t have time to read as much as academics might. We’re more interested in interviewing individuals for our projects –  we get in touch with and interview experts directly rather than following them online. For the HABX project, for example, we interviewed a town planning expert to understand town development, and so forth. But we do have a team member, Laurent Mertz, who’s a PhD student (also under the Cifre grant), which means that he’s kind of our source when it comes to new literature. He’s a member of InProcess’s lab, Exalt Design Lab, which works in collaboration with a design college, Strate College and Telecom ParisTech. So Laurent’s our scientific personality!


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