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5 Lessons for Jewish Studies Ph.D.s who are contemplating working outside of academia (and specifically in philanthropy)

Felicia Herman

Years ago, while I was writing my dissertation, I fell into a job in Jewish philanthropy. It was the best thing that ever happened to me, filling my life with meaning, intellectual challenge, friendship, and a deep sense of purpose.

At the time, it wasn't a purposeful step away from academia – it started out, rather, as a way to work part-time until the dissertation was done. But working in a Jewish foundation that created and invested in new Jewish ideas opened my eyes to the vast number of professional possibilities that existed for PhDs in the world outside of higher education – ways to put what I knew, and what I knew how to do, to good use.

More than 15 years later and after two jobs in the Jewish philanthropic sector, I find myself challenged, engaged, and fulfilled by a career path that I never knew existed when I was in graduate school. I'm glad to be able to offer some suggestions for ways to think through whether a job outside of academia might be right for you as well.

1. Expand your horizons: there's a wide world outside of academia that can benefit from the way that PhDs think. 
PhDs are trained to ask big questions, and then to seek all sorts of evidence – philosophical, historical, sociological, cultural – to find answers. We're trained to believe about most things that, as a graduate school friend of mine used to say all the time: "it's more complex than that." We're used to complicated subjects, to examining many sides of an issue, and to holding competing ideas in our heads simultaneously, until one wins out with a preponderance of evidence and reason. Most fields, not just philanthropy and Jewish communal organizations, can benefit from this kind of complex, nuanced, sophisticated thinking.

2. Market yourself not just as an expert in what you know – but also in what you know how to do. 
Once you divorce them from their particular academic context, the bread-and-butter skills inherent in academic training prepare you for many jobs in the contemporary economy. As you read job descriptions and go for interviews, focus on the ways that your academic training has enabled you to:

»  Read, distill and synthesize vast quantities of information

»  Ask good questions and be a smart, analytical thinker

»  Be able to contextualize contemporary issues through a historical, sociological, anthropological, literary lens

»  Write: never underestimate the value of being able to produce good, accessible, clear, engaging writing

»  Speak publicly, educate, teach

»  Facilitate group conversations, thinking through how to engage diverse participants in accessible ways

»  Break big, complex projects down into smaller, doable segments

»  Break big, complex issues down into smaller, understandable pieces

3. And It'll Probably Be Who You Know That Helps You Find a Job.
A colleague sent me the job description for my first foundation job because he heard I was moving to New York and that's where the job was. (At the time, I didn't even know what a foundation was!) My second foundation job, the one where I've been for more than 10 years, wasn't even advertised – it also came from the right conversation at the right time. In my seat, people constantly reach out to me to talk through their own job searches, to introduce me to colleagues who are searching, and to ask if I know people who might be right for positions their organization has open. So many people find jobs through word of mouth recommendations.

The lesson here is simple: think strategically about who you know who could be helpful in your search, and get on as many of their radars as you can. Ask for 30 minutes to hear about their work, their pathway to their current role, and ways your skills might be useful in their field. And then ask them to introduce you to a few more people. Reach out to a few recruiters, too – there are some that specialize in nonprofit searches, and you can also look at who's running the searches for jobs that look interesting to you and reach out to them just to let them know you're searching.

4. The contemporary Jewish community can be a rich, vibrant, creative, intellectually challenging place to work. 
Jewish communal organizations, like any sector, have their share of mediocrity. But there are bright spots – real bright spots that offer intellectual and professional challenges to rival those of academia. There's an entire ecosystem of young, innovative organizations that are creating new access points to Jewish life, developing new modalities for education, bringing Jewish values into the broader world, and expanding the boundaries of Jewish communities to be more inclusive. (For some examples, see Natan's list of grant recipients at

Many so-called "legacy" organizations prize innovation and excellence as well. I know dozens of executives of major "brand-name" Jewish organizations who are working tirelessly to steer their institutions into the future, to bring excellent talent on board and to take risks with their programs. There is, in fact, a widely acknowledged talent shortage in Jewish communal organizations in cities of all sizes. PhDs can bring a much-needed level of knowledge and rigor, and many organizations will be glad to entertain applications from this unexpected talent pool.

5. Making the world a better place is exhilarating.
I once asked a friend who had just facilitated a phenomenal professional retreat I had attended: "how do you deal with the fact that you deeply changed people's lives this weekend?" "I go home and cry," he said, "out of a sense of deep gratitude for being privileged to do this work." And then he added: "it's a calling."

The idea of "a calling" resonated with me deeply. The work is a privilege. A responsibility. Something I feel meant to do.

"You do not have to complete the work," as Pirkei Avot says, "but neither are you free to desist from it." Seeing my work as part of the grand sweep of Jewish history – the continuation of a people – small, tiny steps toward the perfection of the world – is my inspiration, day after day.

While there are many people who find that sense of mission in academia, I feel lucky to have discovered accidentally that there were other places I might find my calling, a wide world outside of academia where what I know and what I know how to do can make a difference in people's lives.

Felicia Herman is executive director of The Natan Fund.