Episode 9 | Non-Profit Careers for Humanities PhDs

In this Episode, Dawn Opel, J.D., Ph.D., Director of Research & Strategic Initiatives, and General Counsel at Food Bank Council of Michigan joined PhD Futures Now for a conversation about the advantages and challenges of non-profit careers for Humanities PhDs.


Dawn Opel

Dawn Opel, JD, PhD, is Director of Research & Strategic Initiatives and General Counsel of the Food Bank Council of Michigan, where she oversees research, data, legal, and compliance functions of the organization. A lawyer and researcher, her career has included positions in academic, nonprofit, and government sectors, and broadly, she works to build strategic partnerships for social innovation. Dr. Opel’s particular focus is developing capacity in Michigan for food-as-medicine interventions in the clinical setting, and she is currently involved in the implementation and sustainability of fresh food pharmacies for chronic disease self-management in federally-qualified health centers (FQHCs). She holds a PhD from Arizona State University and a JD from the University of North Carolina School of Law. Dr. Opel is adjunct assistant faculty at Michigan State University in the College of Arts & Letters and serves on the Board of Trustees of Guilford College in Greensboro, NC.

Dawn can be reached at her Twitter handle @dawnopel. Go to www.feedmichigan.org to donate to hunger relief efforts by Michigan’s seven Feeding America-affiliated food banks.

Audio Transcript

Jason Mierek (Podcast Intro) 00:04

This is PhD futures now, a podcast on collaboration, career diversity and graduate education in the humanities. This podcast is a project of Humanities Without Walls, a 16 university consortium, headquartered at the Humanities Research Institute at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign, and funded by grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Maggie Nettesheim Hoffmann (Episode Intro) 00:34

Hello, and welcome to PhD futures Now! I’m your host Megan Nettesheim Hoffman. And on today’s episode, we are joined by Dawn Opel, Director of Research and Strategic Initiatives and General Counsel for the Food Bank Council of Michigan. Dawn, we are so excited to welcome you to the podcast and thank you for joining on PhD Futures Now!

Dawn Opel  00:56

 Well, thank you so much for inviting me. I’m thrilled to be here.

MNH  00:58

Quickly, we wanted to ask and just have you tell us a little bit about yourself, where you’re the work that you do for the Food Bank Council of Michigan, and a little bit about your educational background?

DO  01:10

Sure. So I’ll start with my educational background. First, I received a bachelor’s degree in history from Wake Forest University and I went straight to law school as many do with an undergraduate degree in history. I then, after my JD from Chapel Hill, I did a clerkship with the federal bankruptcy court for several years, then worked in legal aid and in many areas of nonprofit law, then I was a stay at home mom for several years. And then I started my way back into higher education, I adjuncted, took a couple of lifelong learning classes, and then decided to return and and get a PhD in rhetoric, composition and linguistics at Arizona State. So after that, I did a Mellon postdoctoral fellowship in the digital humanities, or we called it Transdisciplinary Informatics, also at Arizona State. So I was there for a year in my postdoc. And then after that, I went on the academic job market and got a tenure track job in Writing and Rhetoric at Michigan State University. I was there for four years as a tenure track assistant professor. And then two years ago, I left my tenure track post, to go in-house with a community partner that I was working with on a grant funded research project. And so I still have an adjunct appointment at Michigan State. And I teach from time to time, I’m still a research faculty on a couple of grants that are finishing up and sort of still stay involved. But I’m full time now with my community partner, the Food Bank Council of Michigan. And I’d love to tell the story of how that happened. Because people ask me all the time how I managed to do that. But I’m just really thrilled that I still have a foot in higher education. But also I’m now working full time in nonprofit.

MNH  03:14

Wonderful, one of the things we often talk about during our HWW workshop each summer, is that careers aren’t necessarily a linear line, right? Whenever we have speakers come in, they often share the the long journey that they all go on and and that they’re rarely linear or straight. And there is no clear from point A to point B, I do wonder if you could share a little bit about that discernment process that we often like to characterize as a discernment that helps people kind of come to their next position positions or as they think about their values and what they might find meaningful in the work that they do. So I’m curious to hear a little bit about your own transition from the Academy to go returning to the nonprofit sector.

DO  04:04

Sure. So I think that part of my discernment process has always been about what level of intervention in a particular issue I want to be engaged in. And so I did direct service work as a legal aid attorney. And you know, I do believe that that work is very valuable. I loved it. I worked really hard there, then thought, Well, I’m really interested in sort of the more macro, I want to take a step back and research the causes and historical, cultural social roots of how we got here. And so backed up, got a PhD really did that kind of deep dive. But I think that ultimately I vacillate between being a practitioner, and being a sort of observer or theorist and I tend to go back and forth and back and forth until I found this position which allows me to do both. And it took a while. And this job was kind of made for me in a way because I worked with this nonprofit for several years. So they got to know me as a person and sort of knew the various ways that I had been involved in anti-poverty work over the years, which started in law school. So you know, 20 years ago. So I think that part of it is really learning where you find yourself most valued, at what level of engagement in the issue that you really find yourself to be passionate about.

MNH  05:35

So I’m curious to know a little bit about the mission of the food bank Council of Michigan, how does your organization collaborate with community members or academics in its programs?

DO  05:46

Sure. So broadly, broadly speaking, the mission of the Food Bank Council is to create a food-secure Michigan through its unified network of seven Feeding America food banks across the state, and also partners across sectors. So we are a state association that has member food banks that are all a member of Feeding America. And my job and the job of the Food Bank Council is really to resource those members and also help them collaborate across sectors. One of the reasons why I found this job to be particularly a good fit for me and my background is that I’ve been doing team based collaborative research for years. And so identifying which partners need to be involved, how to engage them how to resource the project, how to, you know how to really understand the sustainability of a program or a service. These are things that I did, as an academic researcher, and at a state association are really valuable, because often I’m working at a very high level at the state level, to help local programs succeed. And so it’s a really exciting opportunity to work on an issue that’s very mission driven food security, anti poverty, anti-hunger work, but also, but in an abstracted way. Like I’m really thinking about systems at a systems thinking level, how to engage the state to do that work in a networked and collaborative way.

MNH  07:15

I do wonder, you know, sometimes, you know, the pushback we receive in these career diversity conversations will often say, Well, you know, they might look at your biography and say, well, Dawn has this JD, she’s an attorney. And you know, what can I do with a PhD in history that would qualify me to enter this type of work myself if I was drawn or interested in it. So I do wonder if you could share a little bit about the nonprofit sector in terms of qualifications, or skill sets that candidates might need to attain if they’re interested in joining, or in doing that type of work in the future?

DO  07:52

I think that a big part of determining where a person would engage with a nonprofit is really helpful to understanding what sort of skills and experiences that they would need to be involved in a nonprofit. That can vary tremendously. I do have, I am directing a research lab, so to speak. So a lot of my skills were directly transferable from the work that I did, particularly in my postdoc, when I and then also as an assistant professor, when I was working with teams of researchers in an interdisciplinary way. So that work was directly transferable project management, a lot of like budgeting, grant writing, team building, those are all things that I learned how to do on grant funded research projects when I was in graduate school and in my postdoc, and then as an assistant professor. So you know, but that’s, of course, I have a research and strategy job where that’s really, really a, you know, sort of a direct, seamless transition.  Other things, though, for me to continue to be successful in the nonprofit world are really specialized, and really focused on nonprofit management. So you know, so I think as we go along, and also looking at what, what area, you want to be involved in communications, marketing, fundraising, fun development, you know, programs, there are very specific courses that really can help, I think bolster the work that someone has done in a PhD, particularly in certificate programs around nonprofit management, which I did do one off and on serving on boards when I was a lawyer, but it wasn’t my legal training that got me to that it was really professionalization around being a board member. And that is sort of an expected thing to do when you are a lawyer. And it’s not necessarily as expected as an academic. And so I think that that’s something that that is not necessarily tied to the training, but it’s something that you know, that you really, it’s easily sought out and really complements the skill set of a PhD very well. So So I would say that seeking those out can often help you connect some dots across the work that you did in your PhD and the mission of a nonprofit that you may be really passionate about. And then what it’s going to take to do the work every single day like day to day how to be a part of a team of a nonprofit organization.

MNH  10:17

What can graduate programs do to better prepare their students for work in the nonprofit sector? In particular, or in particular, or especially in non faculty jobs in general, right? So if we’re thinking about this question of where is the connection between community engaged research, professionalization, and careers in a variety of sectors in and beyond the academy?

DO  10:44

Sure, and this is tough, because I think that space has to be made in the curriculum to to allow for the kinds of experiences that you’re talking about. The difficult part is how to balance specialization and generalization. And and and I think everyone that’s listening probably understands that if you have a PhD program that ties you to the credit in your specialty, it is very hard to get the experiences that you need to be versatile in an alternative career path, or I don’t even like to use that word but but to work outside of the university, it’s very hard to do that if you haven’t had experiences outside of the university, in your PhD, much like our undergraduates that we teach, have internship opportunities, so that they are prepared for the workforce when they leave an undergraduate curriculum, I think that it’s the same thing, we have to make the same space. And you have to make space for PhD students to interface with people other than tenure track faculty. And that’s also very hard, because of the way we’ve designed PhD programs. But I do believe that there are certain places in which you can start to open that up. And one of which I think, is exposure to other disciplines, and other methods. Because the fact of the matter is that that working outside of the university, you are going to encounter individuals that have different epistemologies, different ways of doing the work. And that is I found that I was very comfortable with that, because I took a lot of methods classes in my PhD.

MNH  12:16

But one of the things at least at Marquette University, where I’m based in Milwaukee, our grant Dean is thinking about developing a type of common core set of courses for graduate students, that everyone no matter your discipline that all graduate students have to take that would help prepare them for the realities of what you were just describing Dawn, if you could, what types of classes would you design that would be could be unfolded in that type of core curriculum?

DO  12:48

Sure. So I think there are a few that and and what’s interesting to me is that my, in my postdoc, we really tried to find courses from my lab that did exactly what you’re talking about. So we said if we’re if we are this transdisciplinary space, where we want PhD students from across the entire university to calm what would we do here in this space that people could learn about? And and the first one that we tried was project management. And I think that that, and project management on teams, I know that we like to say that a dissertation is a project and you’ve all managed a project, but I’m sorry, a dissertation is that you do alone in your room is not the same as what you’re going to do out in the world with a team of five to 10 people. And, and learning how to manage a team of people is incredibly important to working outside of the university. We do nothing alone, I think that a lot of it is anything that you would do when a team writing a grant, for a team based project with, you know, ultimately, I would like to see that with like multiple disciplines involved, and what does it mean to put them together?  So you know, so it’s really taking taking students out of their comfort zone, in terms of one discipline, one person, you know, is really important, I think. So those kinds of experiences, I think, are really important. And I’ve learned that I had a team of postdocs this semester in working for me at the Food Bank Council. And one of the things that I think is really difficult is that they do really see research issues, for instance, in anti-hunger work, but they may not know how to align their interests. And I see this with faculty too, by the way, it’s not just students, you know, that they may not know how to align their particular passions with the ongoing concern of the nonprofit. And so, you know, so they’re thinking about their conference paper article, or, you know, and and the nonprofit is thinking about its, you know, its budget, its programs, it’s, you know, they’re trying to think about how to do work in the world and so, so for that reason, putting together Are these teams to do grant funded work, I think is the best way to get experience. And that leads us very nicely into Humanities Without Walls by the way, but, but those are the kinds of experiences that I think start to professionalize graduate students and faculty, to thinking about how to work outside of the walls of thinking.

MNH  15:19

So I know that we have a question about what it’s like to work in the nonprofit world itself. And a lot of the challenges that the sector faces, including some things that we’ve learned from our career diversity workshop, when we invited nonprofit practitioners to join us in that space, that most nonprofits in the nation have annual operating budgets under $500,000, they are incredibly reliant upon grant writing and finding grants to fund their work. And that often, staff who work in the nonprofit sector are really, you know, not making as much money as one as they would deserve. Right. So I wonder if you could talk a little bit about some of the misconceptions that exist around the nonprofit sector and what it’s like to work there, just so that because I often think that PhDs who are interested in working beyond the Academy are drawn to the sector is thinking that there’s some kind of inherent morality connected to it, or or that it’s something that they could, you know, naturally trance transition into following their degrees or following completion of their degrees.

DO  16:31

I think there are a lot of misconceptions around that as sort of a centralized working in the not for profit world as though it’s there’s one experience and, and sort of, like you describe Maggie that you know, that you won’t make any money, and that it’s we’re always strapped for, you know, it limits the ability to do certain things. And I actually find that not, I find that there is much more diversity in the not for profit sector, in terms of career experiences, and also the size of, you know, the size of a nonprofit organization. What you’re describing sounds a lot like working for a small nonprofit, and, you know, a very, you know, there are many, many, many less than 10 employees, you know, very much, you know, has a very, you know, day to day just making it through the month, that is absolutely what a what a lot of nonprofits, that is the that is the lived experience of a lot of them. What I would say is that there, there’s also there’s also a completely different experience, and I probably have what would be a very different experience of working at a state association that that is well funded, and that does, you know, a significant amount of, of advocacy work and, you know, is, you know, with highly specialized and differentiated roles. And I think that that is also an experience that you can have in nonprofit, I, I think that that part of this comes from not having a real understanding of the for profit world, either which many academics tend to do not really have really anyone you know, for I’ve met, you know, I say more graduate students than not don’t have an experience outside of the academy at all. And I think that that is that is very limiting. Because as a result, you know, you might have see, like particular tropes on television and say, well, that’s a law firm, and that’s a hospital. And this is, you know, and this is what it’s like. And, and I would say that they’re like, when you’ve seen a nonprofit, you’ve seen one nonprofit, they’re all different. And they all I will say that they all sort of rise and fall on leadership in a lot of ways that, you know, that because they are so agile, flexible, you know, contract and expand based on funding, it means that they tend to be highly driven by the individual that is running them. And that and that is that is absolutely the case. It’s the same with with with many corporations as well.  But you know, what I would say is that the best way to understand what a nonprofit is, is to is to really experience a few to a few things, I would say, going back to what I talked about earlier, taking a nonprofit management course, to sort of know what the core functions of a nonprofit are, but they’re like all businesses, you know, yes, some have very small budgets, some have very large budgets. I think that understanding, you know, serving on a board of directors and trying to understand what it means to be involved in the governance of a nonprofit organization is also very helpful or shadowing one. So you can see sort of the fiduciary duty of a board and you know, the ways in which they function and but but there’s no getting around sort of the core functions of fund development, marketing, communication, HR, finance, you know, these are this, they run like a business. And you know, and I think that from outside people tend to really focus on the mission or what they think the, you know, the the problem that we’re trying to solve or The, you know, the politics or the ideology, but but actually, at the end of the day, it’s a business. And so those functions are, you know, it’s the it’s in the sweet spot between the subject matter expertise in the area, and the core business functions of a nonprofit that I think a graduate student can really find their way in that. And that just takes a little bit of exposure. And asking, you know, really asking questions and doing informational interviews and really learning as much as possible about the particular nonprofit. And you know, and it is really about finding the one that works for you, and what your comfort level is with risk.  And that sort of gets to another conversation that I love to have about, you know, being kind of controlling steering the ship of your career versus, versus thinking that your career happens to you. And I and I see that a lot, particularly with humanities PhDs, that they feel like their career has sort of happened upon them. And again, I think that is largely from not having experiences outside of the academy, and maybe going straight through school, it’s very hard to sort of see these these larger trajectories without that.

MNH  21:12

So are there any books that you might recommend to PhD students who who’d be interested in learning more about it?

DO  21:19

I’m gonna, I’m gonna rock your world a bit, I will not recommend a book, but I will recommend a blog. It’s called Nonprofit AF. And it does all of the things that you are describing. So a lot of the questions that you start to ask when you start working in nonprofit, like, who came up with this? Like, you know, what, who why is this board this way? Why, like, why can’t we? Why can’t we do things this other way, instead of the way it’s always been done? You know, why are reporting requirements the way they are? Why, you know, on and on, and on and on. And I feel like that blog app, it is so helpful for trying to undo, you’ve probably heard of an expression called toxic charity or, you know, some some charitable organizations are, you really get yourself into some questions of is this charity helping or hurting the people that it is intending to benefit? And, you know, a lot of questions involved in who gets to make decisions? What are the you know, humanists love this stuff. So like, so that blog is all about it. And I think and then I think the difficulties in engaging in a very institutionalized a different one, just the same way that we’re asking all of these questions right now about higher ed and the future of higher ed, and where we are right now, the same thing is going on in the nonprofit world where, you know, we’re, we’re asking all of these questions of institutions, and nonprofit is no different. And I think that, you know, it’s, it’s hard, there’s no purity in any career, where you’re going to be pure of soul, and like, you know, that every day is not going to be rife with, with real questions that you have to ask yourself about, Am I doing the right? Is this the right, you know, I sort of think of it as is this the right intervention? Like, is this? Is this where we should be acting? And you know, and who am I to even be the one to decide what that is? Right? So, you know, it’s, it’s in the questions of, why do these foundations get to choose who gets the grants and get to choose what work we do? And with whom, and, you know, there’s, there’s fascinating, fascinating questions being asked, and they’re really important, and I think it’s a big part of being involved in nonprofit is to say, what is the future of it going to look like and who’s going to get a seat at the table and who gets to choose, you know, where these vast this vast amount of money gets to flow? Often, one of the hardest parts, I think for, for particularly humanities, PhDs that are that are aligned with the mission of, say, an anti-hunger organization, is that if their work has largely been critique, trying to build something that inevitably is subject to critique, which is what policy is, right. So, you know, so in many ways, every program that we’ve tried to design and implement say, during COVID You know, relief efforts, they are subject to critique, we’re doing the best we can right but of course, if I sat back and really you know, it is very possible to always see the you know, the holes in what we’re trying to do. But the but the the hardest part of working in nonprofit is you still get up every day and do it anyway. And you try to make it better, knowing that there’s no perfection and there’s no real purity in it and that and sometimes the idea, you know, the mission statement seems so pure, but you know, but getting into it, there’s no, you know, it’s, it’s almost like, there’s no way you do a good thing for someone, it’s going to have some sort of collateral damage to someone else, there’s like no way to avoid it. And so you know you have so the the sort of comfort in knowing that you’re rolling up your sleeves and working on it is really what has to sustain you working in nonprofit, that the thing that I’m told by employers most who employ graduate PhDs or grad folks with master’s or advanced degrees, I’m told most often by nonprofit employers, that their, their desire for perfectionism actually just robs them of the ability to do the work every day. And I think that that’s is it is ingrained in you from dissertation writing that it has to be perfect. In our world, the idea has to be good, and it has to be communicable, you have to be able to say it. And if you can, then you know we’ve moved on, it moves to its next place. And that’s a hard shift, it’s a hard shift, when you’re used to the level of the sentence being perfect. Often, I get, I have days where I have to turn in a piece of writing and I have 20 minutes. I mean, that’s it, that’s all we got. So you know, so we do the best we can. And I think that that’s it, but it is a hard shift after dissertation writing to be comfortable, with good instead of perfect when it’s for but it is for a greater good. So the so the excitement is that you want to get to the project, right? Like you want to get past the writing is just one part. But often for Humanities PhDs, the writing was the whole thing. And so now the writing is just the gatekeeping exercise to get to the work. And that’s very hard. Also, the idea that there’s a world out there that you write the thing, you get it, and then off you go, and you go do the things. And that is it’s a shift, but it’s exciting to watch when, you know when you get to really apply. And, and I hate if I have sounded in any way critical, because I think that these PhD students are the best once they once they get that, that you can shift, and you can relax and you can, you know, really jump in and and you know, just jump in, in and that just in time actually is great. It actually is great in a in the world that moves that fast.

MNH  27:30

So we have a question, as we get close to wrapping up the interview. Do you miss the tenure track?

DO  27:39

Oh, I love that. It’s so hard because it is such a different life. And I feel that it’s it really is an apples to oranges comparison. There are parts of it, I do not miss at all. And there are parts of it that I miss very much. So I missed the time to think. But I do not miss that same time that causes you to worry and procrastinate. So it is it feels Janus faced, because you know, because you can say, oh, you know, I had all the time in the world, I could, you know, really get to this great thought. But then I also remember that in that same moment, I was stressing terribly over 50 deadlines and grading 90 papers. And, you know, so I feel like it’s a very difficult question to answer. And I also don’t want to make light of the fact that it is such, it is such a goal for so many and it is it is volted as this like, it is seen as this exalted ground and it and I do believe that it is because it is a scarce resource. And I frequently tell graduate students that the Do you love this? Because not many people can do it? Or do you love it because you really, you know, this really is what you really want to do. And you know, and I and you’re being you know, and you somehow feel as though you are not getting the opportunity that you felt promised by your graduate program. And and I think that is very important to ask of yourself, I actually find that the more the longer I go in granted, I’ve become more of a mentor now for students who are interested in a career outside of the academy. But I do think that if you really ask yourself what you really want to do, most people really want to help people and make change. They really do. And I think that that’s a really important thing to you know, to really connect with inside yourself. I do think that when you ask students to interrogate what drives them, and also what do they really like to do every day I think that when you really get down to it, you can really find that answer within yourself. And a lot of times, I think, if the pursuit of external validation is the reason that you have, you know, continued to go through this, no one really loves that. And I don’t think that this is the right game. If that is also you, so either way, it’s not, it’s not really a winning, I think formula. But it is, it does require some real, some digging really deep. And the hard part is the sunk cost. I think, too, that you know, that if you’ve spent 6, 7, 8 years doing one thing, it is so hard to come to the realization that you won’t be able to do that thing as a career. And I do think that that is really hard to move past there’s a grief and a mourning period that has to take place. And even I felt that leaving, you know, I love what I’m doing. I absolutely love it. But there isn’t, you know, every once in a while, there’s still that, you know, there’s that moment of, you know, but I, what about all of this? You know, like, what about this thing, no one’s ever gonna ask me to give a talk on, you know, my dissertation topic ever again. But you know, that’s okay. It just, it just takes some getting comfortable with, you know, and really understanding sort of what the opportunity cost is either way, because everything in life has that.

MNH  31:27

So I will say what you just articulated, really demonstrates, I think what we’re trying to do through H WW, or what is happening at UI you see are all of our consortium schools on at Marquette to is that this is about reforming graduate education and training, so that it expands what doctoral students especially can see and think through in relation to what they’re doing with their research, and where they go with their life post post degree. So thank you for articulating and expressing that that thought.  We also wanted to highlight a little bit about maybe upcoming events are the work that the food bank Council of Michigan is currently engaging in. So if you want to share a little bit about what you’re doing currently, we’d love to hear love to hear about those events and your projects.

DO  32:18

Oh, goodness. Well, thank you for that opportunity. I appreciate it. Well, right now, I feel though, for the audience, there’s a lot to be learned, both from our national organization Feeding America. And you can you can find out more about Feeding America from feeding america.org. We are here at the state level, we are always looking, we are always looking for folks who are interested in donating to help help fight hunger in Michigan. And you can do that at feed michigan.org. I’m always happy to talk about collaborating to work on projects, both in Michigan and across the country to address food security. We’re working right now with our Governor Whitmer on a Food Security Council. We’re almost ready to make final recommendations to her for policy changes to improve the health and wellness of Michiganders, and there are a number of states working on these kinds of measures. And I would encourage anyone who’s on the who’s listening who is interested in these issues, to look up what we’ve been working on. You can find our website, I’m sure it will also be hyperlinked to this podcast in many ways. But on our food bank Council website, we have our interim COVID report, which was a research report that I wrote. So I’m happy to promote it. But I’m also happy that I worked with a team of 24 taskforce members from across industry, nonprofit government, we worked with several Departments of State Legislature legislators, and it’s an amazing group that is really working to try to address issues of food insecurity in Michigan. So I’m always happy to to drive people to our website, but also to read about some of the things we’ve been working on.

MNH  34:04

So Dawn, we just wanted to say thank you so much for coming on to PhD Futures Now!, and we look forward to future collaborative conversations with you. Thank you so much.

DO  34:13

Thank you, Maggie. Thanks for having me.

Deepthi Murali (Producer Outro) 34:17

This is the last episode in our mini-series on exploring careers outside the tenure track. Links to websites mentioned in this episode are listed and hyperlinked in the full audio transcript available at www.PhDfuturesnow.org. In our next full episode, we will talk to two of Humanities Without Walls Grand Research Challenge alumni about their experience collaborating on humanities research projects, and how collaborative research has helped them with their careers inside and outside academia. Before we sign off, we have a request for you as well. Please subscribe to this podcast on your favorite podcast streaming channel. Thank you for listening. See you soon.