What Can You Be with a PhD? – Science Outreach and Non-Profit

  • January 10, 2022
iJOBS Blog

By Natalie Losada

WCUB with a PhD? The answer is nearly everything. Once again, an iJOBS collaborative event successfully conveyed the myriad of career opportunities you have with a PhD skillset. Every other year, Rutgers iJOBS co-sponsors this event with NYU’s Grossman School of Medicine, this year on the virtual Whova platform. This is the largest symposium in the country and this year included over 40 sessions from: Academia, For Profit & Industry, Communications, and Non-profit & Government.

With so many insights from over 100 speakers, this article prioritizes topics infrequently covered in iJOBS articles: careers in science outreach and careers in non-profits.

Careers in Science Outreach and Informal Communication

The chair for this session was Dr. Jeanne Garbarino, Director of RockEDU Science Outreach at The Rockefeller University. Dr. Garbarino explained that in her current role, she has made scaffolds at every level of the university (student, professor, administration) to train and prepare people for the research mentor process. To establish mentorship opportunities, funders and students need to be contacted. This role requires agile communication skills to change how you describe the programs to funders versus the students.

The first panel speaker was Dr. Maria Strangas, an evolutionary biologist and working as an educator in science outreach and education at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). She described science outreach as being its own field – it’s not teaching and it’s even different from other forms of science communication. It’s a quickly changing field depending on what does or doesn’t work with the community, echoing Dr. Garbarino’s mention of agile communication. Dr. Strangas described the teaching approach used at AMNH as “asset-based”. This means approaching people in the community as having something to offer instead of thinking about what they’re lacking. The don’t have a deficit of knowledge but do have a unique perspective to offer to scientific problems.    

Panelist Dr. Latasha Wright, is the Chief Scientific Officer of BioBus, Inc. At her company, they take on the task and responsibility of explaining science to the lay community while providing a trusted source to go to when they have questions. The internet has become difficult to navigate due to the ease of adding false information into a trustful-looking site. BioBus and Dr. Wright ensure that their information is verified and easy to find.

The final speaker, Dr. Diana Li, is the Public Programs Associate at Columbia University’s Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute. She leads programs that educate students about neuroscience. Dr. Li promptly expanded on Dr. Garbarino’s explanation of building the proper scaffolds for mentorship in outreach programs. She stressed that you can’t just think about which minority group you would like to help. You need to find mentors and/or teach people how to be good mentors, and for that you need a well-built system. Dr. Li has witnessed student mentees are often very well prepared to learn, however the right mentors aren’t always available.

  1. Recent tasks the panelists completed at work:

Dr. Strangas has recently been developing multiple programs including: high school internship with the museum, communication skills workshops, mentorship workshops for inclusive topics and a machine learning workshop.

Recently Dr. Li has been strategizing with high school teachers on lessons and lesson plan development. She’s also started an initiative for scientists to practice their talk and she will listen and give critical feedback about how it will sound to non-scientists.

  1. How did you get your current job?

Half of the responses to this question showed how important it is to know people who know you and your interests. As a postdoc, Dr. Wright took yoga classes and told her classmates that she was STEM researcher. After connecting with a classmate, she volunteered at a company and was later hired. Dr. Strangas knew the person posting the job advertisement and knew ecologists at her university who volunteered at this museum. Her past experiences running a mentoring program and the good word from her colleagues assisted her in getting the job. Dr. Li found her job from a Stanford list serve and Dr. Garbarino learned her friends were working on outreach programs and made one at her own university.

  1. What skills did you need but not learn in your PhD?

Dr. Li noted that people management is not taught and how all types of management eluded her during the degree. You must learn to be a good teammate as well, and it is often not preferred to mention you have a higher degree than others. Dr. Wright learned business and project management skills she needed from attending business school, not during her PhD. You can always find the skills and expertise you need, even if you didn’t get them directly from your research.

Careers in Non-Profits and Foundations

The first speaker, Dr. Samantha Hutten, is the Director of Research Programs for The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research. She explained how she worked in various fields like consulting and science writing before moving into the non-profit sector. In her current position, Dr. Hutten oversees the holistic Outcome Measures portfolio and strategy, where they study and develop potential biomarkers for Parkinson’s disease.

Speaker Dr. Ken Shatzkes is the Senior Program Officer of the Foundation for Opioid Response Efforts (FORE). He leads the grant-making and programmatic activities for FORE and helps acquire funding for patient-centered solutions to address the opioid crisis in America.

Our final speaker in this session was Dr. Pamela Feliciano, Scientific Director of SPARKforAutism.org. SPARK helped build the largest research cohort of autism in the country. Her program collects genotypic and phenotypic information on autism. SPARKforAutism is run by the Simon’s Foundation Autism Research Initiative, which conducts research, provides grants, and runs longitudinal programs that can’t be run by grants, like this program.

Careers in the non-profit sector are similar to other non-traditional careers as it doesn’t require the benchwork students train for. Dr. Hutten reminded the group that PhD candidates develop problem solving and strategic thinking skills applicable to all careers during their training. However, something Dr. Hutten said during the PhD she wished she learned how to be comfortable not being an expert in everything. In non-profit careers, you will come across a lot of material that doesn’t fall in your specific field of knowledge. However, you can use the skills you do have. Dr. Hutten brought up a specific example where she needed to recruit people for clinical trials with large amounts of data. She wasn’t familiar with either, but she knew how to find the experts and organize all the information in a coherent manner.

Dr. Shatzkes’s general advice for graduate students was: communication skills and learning how to process new information is what you’re actually getting from a PhD. Your specific topic of study isn’t relevant unless you wish to stay in academia. Dr. Shatzkes encouraged students to dive into knowledge outside of your work because it could still be useful. For example, with the opioid crisis, you might learn about the science in academia, but if you learned about the policy around the drug and how those in need can acquire it, you can then understand the problem as a whole and work towards a systematic solution.

In this career field, you are part of the grant awarding process from the funders side, thus the conversation drifted to the most difficult aspects of being a grant awarder. Dr. Feliciano said that one of the more difficult things is communicating with the PIs whose work gets rejected. She explained that you learn a lot over time, and the process works. You have to trust that in the end you made the right decision. Dr. Hutten explained how she remembers why a particular grant was important on a very high level, to help guide her decisions. She learned a lot from watching successful grants from their start to finish. Dr. Shatzkes brought the topic home by describing their job position as a “PI for the PIs”, because PIs report to them on the research progress. However, this is not a linear hierarchy. Everyone has the same goal: solve the problems addressed in the grant.

Dr. Shatzkes bluntly summarized what non-profit companies look for when hiring. He asked, are you ready to learn? To work fast-paced?  To wear many hats? Are you ready to be uncomfortable with new material?  Additionally, all agreed that having passion and enthusiasm, along with communication and analysis skills, were priorities. In some ways this field is like many others, but passion goes a long way here. Understanding the meaning behind the work is the most important, and the most rewarding part.

Concluding Remarks

In both sessions there was a clear, vivid excitement from the speakers in passing on their knowledge. Non-profit careers are one of the most elusive for recent graduates because of their lack of representation in academia and customer-facing for-profit careers. For both science outreach and non-profit work, the speakers recommend pursuing any volunteer opportunity. It’s hard to know if you like it until you start doing it because these careers come in different shapes and sizes.

Start thinking about how you portray yourself to the outside world. Promote on LinkedIn, inform your friends, and mention to your colleagues that you are interested in a specific career. You might make connections without looking for them!

I cannot recommend it enough – go to this event and as many other similar ones as you can. They are networking opportunities and enlighten you about careers you didn’t know about. And speaking frankly, they’re a great way to get rid of some of that imposter syndrome, because they remind you of everything you have learned, and how to apply it.


This article was edited by Junior Editor Gina Sanchez and Senior Editor Samantha Avina.