• August 30, 2014

Careers For Ph.D.'s in the Nonprofit World

After earning a doctorate in English from Harvard University in 1997, Douglas Stewart took a tenure-track job at Oglethorpe University, a small liberal-arts college in Atlanta. He liked his colleagues and he liked Atlanta. What he didn't like was his job.

"Teaching drained me of energy," he says. "I didn't like the power structure in the classroom. I didn't have horizontal relationships with anyone, including the other faculty." Looking for a little less hierarchy, Mr. Stewart left Oglethorpe after a year and spent the summer of 1999 looking into alternative careers. Eventually he settled on grant writing.

"Grant writing requires a skill set that matched mine: research, argumentative writing, communication skills that you get from teaching," Mr. Stewart says. With that goal in mind, he took an unpaid internship at Hands On Atlanta, a nonprofit organization that connects volunteers with community-service projects. Within six weeks his internship turned into a full-time job. "It's a great environment," says Mr. Stewart, "very collegial, with a real value placed on helping each other."

When it comes to nonacademic jobs, A.B.D.'s and Ph.D.'s who are out of work or unhappily employed have often looked to business and government. But the nonprofit arena -- or the third sector, as it's sometimes called -- is becoming more and more attractive. The term "nonprofit" covers a wide range of organizations, including health, religious, arts, and charitable organizations as well as advocacy groups, professional societies, and research institutes.

The three best reasons to work in the nonprofit world: a focus on a mission rather than on making money; a casual, collegial work environment with like-minded people; and a well-educated staff. The disadvantages: loose management structures that can be inefficient and salaries that tend to be lower than those in the corporate sector and sometimes lower than in academe.

But for many Ph.D.'s, the chance to use their skills in a collegial atmosphere wins out over money. "You're treated with respect and have well-informed colleagues working toward common goals," says Linda Bachman, who is finishing up her dissertation in English from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and is director of foundation relations at the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation in Princeton, N.J.

Like many people opting for nonacademic careers, Ms. Bachman started gaining experience in her current line of work well before making the move from graduate school. As an undergraduate at Bryn Mawr College, she was active in campus affairs, and her experience there led to a full-time job on the college's fund-raising campaign once she graduated in 1990. She held the job for two years before beginning her doctoral studies at Michigan, where she continued to work in fund raising.

When she heard about a job opening at the Wilson foundation last fall, Ms. Bachman was intrigued -- drawn, she says, by the quality of the foundation's work and by the leadership position that it has taken on the very issue of alternative careers for graduate students in the humanities.

"I was a poster child for that," Ms. Bachman says. It didn't hurt matters that the president of the foundation, Robert Weisbuch, had been one of Ms. Bachman's professors at Michigan.

To be happy in the foundation world, Ms. Bachman and others emphasize, it's important to believe in the mission of your organization. "Especially in the smaller nonprofits where the resources for good salaries aren't there, you need to make sure you're not doing charity work for something you don't care about," says Ms. Bachman.

In her experience, salaries at established foundations are slightly above academic salaries at comparable seniority levels. But at small and community-based nonprofits, the pay can be much lower. It's a tradeoff that some are willing to make

"You feel strongly that you're making change in the world," says Daveena Tauber, who is A.B.D. in English at Rutgers University at New Brunswick and who worked for several small nonprofit groups before and during graduate school.

Ms. Tauber hasn't given up on a career in academe yet, and plans to search for a position on the West coast. But, she says, she could see herself doing progressive political work in a nonprofit organization instead. Wherever she ends up, she says, her nonprofit work has been a great skills-building experience.

"I've done successful grant writing, and that's something I can put on my résumé," Ms. Tauber says. "I've done successful outreach programs."

Because of their low pay and high turnover, it is relatively easy to get work with small nonprofits, Ms. Tauber says. "If you're interested in an issue, go down and volunteer to do something," she recommends. Small nonprofits often draw from the ranks of volunteers when it comes time to hire staff members. "You don't necessarily have to put in years of drudgery to get a position with a lot of responsibility," Ms. Tauber says. "On the other hand, the highest-paid position in the organization might still pay less than an assistant professor's salary."

Indeed, Ms. Tauber says, pay and management are serious problems for many small nonprofit groups. "Many of them are started by people who are focused on an issue," she says. "They go into it thinking about a goal and not thinking about setting up a workable infrastructure, and the result is that the staff ends up disgruntled."

The looser management structure of a foundation may hold a lot of appeal to Ph.D.'s, but they need to be aware of the downside. "Things are run much more democratically here than in a college setting," says Mr. Stewart of his work at Hands On Atlanta. "There are real benefits to that democracy, but it also brings a degree of inefficiency. There are too many e-mails back and forth about things that could be simply solved. It's not always clear who's supposed to make a decision, so sometimes the decision doesn't get made in a timely way."

On the positive side, a looser structure means that employees have more access to the top officers at the foundation. "When I worked at Handgun Control Inc., if I needed a policy decision I could, more often than not, walk right into the office of the organization's president and get an answer," says Will Winton.

He joined Handgun Control's communications department after earning a master's degree in American studies at the University of Maryland at College Park in 1996. Eventually, he also became a researcher at the organization, and its resident artist. He left that group last year to work as a Web developer at Netifice Communications, where he earns a salary that he says is 65 percent higher than his pay at Handgun Control.

His typical day at the foundation involved sorting through news stories about guns, gun violence, and gun legislation, working on the organization's Web site, conducting online research projects, and doing graphics design for the group.

"I enjoyed the access to all levels of government that working for the cause gave me," Mr. Winton says. "It's not every job that allows you to walk into the House Majority Leader's office and spend 20 minutes one-on-one with his chief of staff. I could do that at Handgun Control because, instead of paying for lobbyists, we generally used in-house lobbyists."

Mr. Winton says that besides being a good destination for some graduate students, the nonprofit world serves as a stepping stone between academe and the business sector for others. "A key to success in transitioning from the academy is developing more organized work habits," he says. "In academia, deadlines tend to be flexible. That's not true in the nonprofit world and certainly not true in the for-profit world."

In moving from academe to the third sector, it's important to shift your mode of thinking from the intellectual to the pragmatic. "You have to invest your ego differently," says Ms. Bachman. "You have to make the shift to doing collaborative work -- to write a draft, share it, have it altered, and not be offended. But I love working with the people here -- we do great work together."

Gwendolyn Bradley, a doctoral student in English at Rutgers University at New Brunswick, is an assistant editor of Academe, the bimonthly magazine of the American Association of University Professors.


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A guide to Web resources on careers in the nonprofit world

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