Alumni Profile: Houman Oliaei, Anthropology
January 13, 2023
Anna Valcour | Graduate School of Arts and Sciences
Houman Oliaei earned his PhD in Anthropology from Brandeis in 2022 and is currently a Mellon postdoctoral fellow at Kalamazoo College in the department of Anthropology and Sociology. During his time as a PhD candidate, he was awarded two Connected PhD student experience grants. In 2020, Houman took a course in geospatial data management offered by Esri Academy, a training wing of the Environmental Systems Research Institute, where he earned his ArcGIS certification. Building on his first grant experience, Houman worked as a researcher and consultant for the Yazda Organization, a global Yezidi non-governmental advocacy and relief organization, in the summer of 2022.
How did you hear about the Connected PhD grants for student projects and why did you choose to apply?
I was introduced to the Connected PhD program through one of my professors, and I also remember reading a couple of emails when the program first launched in early 2019. At the time, I was working on my dissertation and as part of that work, I had created some maps to visualize the experiences of my interlocutors, and because I wanted to experiment with other methods in addition to traditional ethnographic tools. I had already taken courses in GIS and mapping at Brandeis the previous semester, and I was really interested in learning more about GIS mapping and ArcGIS software. I was encouraged by one of my professors to take more advanced courses at Esri, a company that specializes in this type of geospatial mapping software (ArcGIS). For my first Connected PhD grant, I took that course because I wanted to learn more and had already been looking for jobs outside of academia. I wanted to find a job working with non-profit organizations, international NGOs, and other major organizations, like the International Organization of Migration (IOM), or UNHCR, the UN agency tasked with protecting refugees and displaced people. It was one of my first efforts in trying to expand my network, learn transferable skills, gain new experiences, and explore alternative career paths.
How did these projects enhance your skills and demonstrate your abilities beyond academia?
One of the things I really enjoyed and learned a lot about was database management. I was familiar with ArcGIS software, but I didn't know how to work with large datasets and databases. So, that was one of the things that I learned; it’s a skill that is really going to help me going forward, especially in landing a non-academic job.
Have you seen yourself building upon this experience and what have you learned for it for the future?
I have learned a lot from the ArcGIS course and my volunteering work with Yazda. My work with Yazda was born out of my first Connected PhD grant experience. My dissertation research was on an ethnoreligious minority in the Middle East, called Yezidis. Yezidis were forcefully displaced after the attack of the so-called Islamic State on their homeland in northern Iraq in 2014. For ethical reasons, when I was in Iraqi Kurdistan to research lived experiences of displaced Yezidis, I decided not to work or volunteer for any humanitarian organizations. When you’re working with one of those organizations, your interlocutors, who rely on them for their living, may think you are one of the humanitarian workers and consequently, may fear endangering their access to humanitarian resources if they do not participate in your research. Because of that, I didn't volunteer to work for any of those NGOs in the camps when I was in Iraq. Because of this decision, I did not have the opportunity to gain work experience in the humanitarian sector.
To fill this gap, in the fall of 2021, I contacted Yazda because I knew they were looking for researchers with knowledge in GIS, mapping, flex, and other similar methodologies. Yazda is a global NGO funded by Yezidi activists and volunteers and is one of the most active NGOs that seek to address the plight of Yezidis.
A few months into my Connected PhD experience, Yazda asked me to collaborate on a report on the issue of missing Yezidis; currently, there are 3,000 Yezidis that are missing, abducted, or kidnapped by ISIS, and we don’t know where they are. The report, The Unknown Fate of Missing Yazidis: 8 years on and still waiting, was an evaluation of the efforts of national and transnational stakeholders in responding to this issue, and was published in September 2022. It was a very productive research experience and good introduction for me in learning about NGOs and how they operate. That was a really productive experience!
How has this experience facilitated networking opportunities for you?
I interviewed a lot of different NGOs and connected with some human rights activists. I also had conversations with Yazda about the possibility of volunteering for their future projects. In late September 2022, I presented (virtually) the findings of the report to Iraqi officials, UN representatives, and members of local and transnational NGOs. This helped me expand my network in the non-academic job market.
Did you have a favorite part of your experience?
Meeting new people has been an interesting aspect of this experience. During my dissertation research, I had briefly met some of those people, but I did not have a lot of time with them to learn about their insights. With the second project, I had the opportunity to spend more time in conversation with them.
Additionally, one of the most rewarding aspects of this project was when, after presenting the report, I received feedback from Yezidi survivors and activists who expressed their satisfaction with the report and the presentation.
What advice do you have for current students as they propose their own Connected PhD projects?
My advice to future students is to encourage them to think outside of their research. One of the initial problems I faced when writing my original proposal was that I was only thinking about my own dissertation and research. So, I would really encourage students to explore opportunities that might be related to the research, but not directly. Yazda is one of the organizations founded by Yezidi activists, and my research was with Iraqi Yezidis. There are some connections between my research and the work of Yazda, but what I volunteered for was completely different from my dissertation, and that’s a really great way for students to find other opportunities outside of academia, consider other ways to market themselves, and learn new skills.