People of UCA: Duncan McKinnon

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In the liberal arts world, it’s often difficult to imagine what career opportunities are possible outside teaching.

There are countless punchlines mocking liberal arts degree recipients for teaching or waiting tables post-graduation. It’s snidely regarded as a failed backup plan for those without the ambition to find a higher salary job. Anthropology professor Duncan McKinnon had a high-paying job for 10 years. He lived the money-making professional life. Yet, he found his way to happiness in a direction some would scoff at.

“I spent 10 years working in high technology hardware and software sales throughout the ‘90s and early 2000s at various companies in Austin, Texas,” McKinnon said. “One afternoon during lunch while working at Apple, I had what could have been a very serious car accident…I don’t remember a thing. I woke up in the hospital, got a few stitches and that was that.”

The accident proved to be life-changing for McKinnon. He gave up his comfortable salary to pursue a liberal arts degree at Texas State University, where he grew to love anthropology. He graduated as an anthropology major and geography minor in 2006, and his studies focused predominantly on southeastern Native American culture and the “art and iconography expressed in archaeological contexts.”

From there, he began training in and conducting fieldwork with one of his professors and began to establish himself as an active anthropologist.

“What began as a difficult choice to quit a high-paying career turned out to be the best thing I ever did,” McKinnon said. “Sure, the money was good, but it wasn’t about the money for me. It was about sanity and enjoyment in what I do.”

Before UCA, McKinnon’s graduate research assistant fieldwork led him to “the darkest night [he]will ever experience in the remoteness of Tiwanaku, Bolivia where light pollution does not exist.” He went hiking in stretches of remote wilderness, camping in intense thunderstorms, tornado warnings and—accidentally—on a pilot’s grass airstrip. He even appeared on a North American archaeology PBS show called “Time Team America.”

He loves his new life, the work he does, the cultures he comes across and the benefits of traveling with his job.

“When I travel to do fieldwork or travel with my wife on vacation, we seek out local breweries and collect beer memorabilia from these breweries,” McKinnon said. “We have a bottle collection with around 3,500 bottles, [over]80 growlers, 200 or so cans and tons of other beer-related items. Maybe it’s the social Scotsman in me, but when I travel I feel the best way to learn about the people…is the local watering hole.”

This article appeared in the Oct. 28, 2015 print edition of The Echo. 

image via pbs.org

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