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Careers at Nonprofits and NGOs

When we think about jobs at nonprofit organizations (NPOs), we're likely to envision those big international entities that help displaced populations relocate after a natural disaster, or immunize children in developing countries against common diseases. While these nonprofits -- many also classified as NGOs, or nongovernmental organizations -- are very visible and play an important social and humanitarian role, they are only the tip of the employment iceberg. NPOs, which can make money and even generate surplus funds but must use those funds to serve the organization's mission, encompass a very broad range. Charities, foundations, service organizations, patient associations, trade unions, professional associations, and academic societies are almost always NPOs. Most private research institutes are nonprofits, too, but those jobs fit better in a discussion of academic careers.

Just as NPOs take many forms, so do the careers of the Ph.D. scientists who work there. Still, some generalizations make sense: Many of the people who work in NPOs do so because of a deep commitment to the goals those organizations pursue.

The work that needs doing is endless; the needs of the sick, poor, and others are never fulfilled. Wars start and natural disasters strike all too often. Yet, paid jobs are few and very competitive, the work is often difficult, and pay is low. Still, many people who work in the nonprofit sector talk of abundant rewards and a sense of purpose.

Over the years, Science Careers has explored the careers of many scientists working in nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations. This collection is our one-stop shop for advice and insight on how to enter a committed career.

A range of research careers and alternatives

Scientists can make a difference in the humanitarian realm by carrying out solid research in NPOs, whether it's documenting human rights violations, measuring child poverty, or planning responses to health emergencies in developing countries.

Scientists are involved in carrying out research and running international development programs to help malnourished populations gain access to food, and to protect natural resources and biodiversity.

NPOs and NGOs implement a broad range of international development programs in fields including health and education and rural infrastructure.

Scientists with the right credentials can do field work. Those with clinical training can provide medical aid. Scientists with a forensics background can document crimes against humanity. Public health offers many career avenues, for clinical, social, and basic scientists.

Teaching is another big area of activity for nonprofit employees. Some NGO employees, for example, work to expand the scientific capacity of less well-off regions.

Nonprofit careers can be found in science policy and advocacy and international diplomacy.

Ethics is an area in which scientists may also develop a nonprofit career. Bioethicist Jennifer Miller launched her own NPO to help the medical industry grapple with everyday and exceptional ethical questions.

Internal communications and public relations (for example, at the British Society for Immunology or the U.K. Institute of Physics) are two nonprofit career avenues for people who are trained in science.

Some scientists, like Margarita Escaler, are also able to find jobs in which they make sure that scientific knowledge and advances are shared with developing countries.

Sometimes personal interests, like supporting other young scientists, can lead to a nonprofit career, like it did at the time for Marta Maczel, who helped set up the main office of the World Academy of Young Scientists (WAYS) in Budapest.

Career advice

Mastering your Ph.D. columnist Patricia Gosling explores the advantages and disadvantages of working for NPOs and highlights some career entry points.

Biomedical engineer Sowmya Viswanathan explains her choice of the middle road: neither academia nor industry but, rather, an NGO that maintained close links to academia, government, and industry.

Volunteering and traveling widely helped environmental biologist Shilpa Tawari find jobs in development agencies.

Having entered nonprofit administration, former neurochemist Susan Fitzpatrick offers advice on how to make the transition to nonacademic careers.

Science Careers talks to two scientists who say their volunteering experiences for NPOs changed their worldviews and career plans.

Combining good works with an academic career

Mathematician Begoña Vitoriano Villanueva combines her work as a university researcher with designing computer tools to support humanitarian aid organizations.

Johannes Refisch describes his experience working as a biologist in the realm of international cooperation, contributing to nature conservation and the transfer of knowledge.

During her doctoral studies, Nicole Oehlrich and her husband launched the largest German-speaking Web site for cancer patients.

There are postdoctoral fellowship opportunities in numerous NPOs for climate change scientists with interdisciplinary or translational interests.

A group of Latin American scientists in the United States launched an NPO to support development and research in their home countries.

Want more? A search in Science Careers for “volunteering” currently returns 301 articles; “nonprofit”, 235; “not-for-profit”, 48, and “nongovernmental” returns 17 articles.