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The Nonprofit Science Career Path

Hydrologists are often taught about career paths including academia, industry, and government agencies. I’m missing something, right? Nonprofits! Though often overlooked, nonprofit science jobs are one option for hydrologists who want to do science and not get too bogged down in bureaucratic politics.

I recently attended a webinar about career development, focusing on non-academic career paths. A recording of this helpful webinar is available on the CUAHSI youtube channel and is a great resource for learning how to develop a career in an organization or government agency. The panelist discussed how non-academic jobs (like nonprofits) can allow you to pursue your science passions outside of a university setting. However, many of these research positions are funded by “soft money”, which means the researchers have to continuously apply for grants to support themselves. This differs from positions with a more guaranteed permanent salary such as some government and academic positions.

A career development webinar about non-academic hydrology jobs you cannot miss!

Three months ago, I started a postdoc at the Stroud Water Research Center in Pennsylvania, USA. The Stroud Center is a nonprofit science institute that has had many major discoveries in the scientific literature including the River Continuum Concept, long-term temperature tolerances of aquatic organisms in streams, and the impacts of streamside forests on aquatic ecosystems. It is also involved with watershed restoration and environmental education. I’m working on a project examining causes of long-term trends in water quality for National Parks in the Washington, DC area, including Rock Creek and Catoctin Mountain parks. I will be attending conferences and publishing papers, while at the same time helping the National Park Service evaluate monitoring protocols and procedures to ensure data are of the highest quality. This aligns very well with my science passion of using data to answer innovative questions and solve problems with freshwater resources.

A large building with solar panels that houses science education programs, while the brick building to the left hosts important events.

The nonprofit Stroud Water Research Center campus is a collection of labs studying stream ecology, water chemistry, and geomorphology in eastern Pennsylvania, USA.

While here, I’ve observed two things about the nonprofit career path. One thing I enjoy about this organization is how open and interconnected the office feels. For example, the directors of the organization have their offices just a few doors down from mine. When I have questions, it can be quickly resolved. No wading through layers of organizational charts or tedious university policies to find my answer. This seems to facilitate efficient and flexible decision making to meet the latest cutting-edge science needs like instrument design and modeling frameworks. A downside to this position is that much of the science work is externally funded from foundation or government grants (the soft money research position from the webinar above), so it may be more difficult to get a permanent position than it would be at a university or government agency with larger internal funds. For instance, my postdoc is a temporary 2.5 year position that will end when the current grant runs out, unless more funding can be acquired to keep me on longer. To me, it is all worth it to practice my science and contribute to causes I am passionate about.

The entrance to the science institute campus with a big sign.

Working at a nonprofit like the Stroud Center can allow you to pursue your science passions without wading through tedious organizational charts.

Even if you don’t end up working for a nonprofit, you should still consider them for opportunities to collaborate on research projects and volunteer for causes you are passionate about, like science education. Nonprofit research centers value scientific research. They see it as critical to advance their mission and can offer expertise and capabilities on a wide range of science topics.

A pretty creek flows over rocks and has a net and measuring tape in it for a scientific study.

Monitoring the fish communities and water quality of a National Park stream near Washington, D.C., USA.

Is the nonprofit career path right for you? One question to ask is if you are passionate about the organization’s mission. Does your scientific expertise make a good contribution to this mission? Getting more experience grant writing (which I need) would be a plus too.

And, it just so happens that H3S has an exciting grant writing webinar coming up on October 20, 2022! Follow H3S on twitter, subscribe to our email newsletter, and register for the webinar to learn more.

Written by Dan Myers. Edited by Dylan Blaskey.

#careers #nonprofits #ProfessionalDevelopment

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