Kenna Barrett, alt-ac PhD and fundraiser for Johns Hopkins University, on how to enter the high-flying world of university fundraising.

I quit grad school around the time Toyota stopped manufacturing the Tercel. It was a good sort of car, one befitting a frugal philosophy student, and I was sorry to see it go. Toyota soon came out with some new entry level models, about the time I reinvented myself in the world of nonprofit fundraising. Eventually I landed at Yale University.

But the memory of an unfinished dissertation lingered, even as I found success in my new career. So, some thirteen years after leaving the academy, I re-entered it, abandoning a six-figure job to enroll in a new PhD program, this time in writing studies.

I beelined my way to this new degree, knowing that as a working parent I could only spare the time for one conference a year and one academic publication. I took adjuncting jobs closer to home, and gave up the TA-ship with the 1.5 hour commute. I worked furiously to get on the market and land a tenure-track job. My CV had pedigree; my letters were from respected leaders in the field.

But here is where my story turned funky: I didn’t get any of the 25 academic gigs I applied for in my first year on the market. It became clear that my CV needed to feature the kinds of experience I couldn’t easily get as my family’s primary care-giver with financial and time constraints: tutor in a writing center, attend more conferences, teach courses in my area of specialization.

As I contemplated a second year on the job market, the old reluctance crept back. Could I schlep my family to a faraway state, or a landlocked state, or even a state with no Dunkin’ Donuts? For a $50K job? And, to be honest: would I want to teach at the regional comprehensive universities that were hiring people like me?

The same pragmatism that urged me to finish as soon as I could brought me one afternoon last summer to jot down numbers in a notebook to better understand the economics of staying on the academic job market in a field like rhetoric and composition. Combing through salary tables from Academe revealed that I would never catch up to what I would earn in fundraising. Tenure-track jobs in rhetoric and composition start just north of $50,000, fairly typical for the humanities. Working from a round figure of a $100,000 fundraiser salary, I would forego another $50,000 a year; a million dollars in lost wages over a 20-year horizon.

Why might so many of us not appreciate that in academia we earn no more than an average Joe? Besides the myopia produced by trying to survive on far less than the median family income while in school, something more insidious abounds. I’m talking about the cultural reverence for intellectual labor: the vast store of symbolic capital associated with being a tenured professor. The bottom has fallen out of the market for many fields, yet we wear prestige-filled glasses that filter out the economic reality of our posts while letting in the light of reverence. We’re elitists at heart.

I am not bearish on academia tout court. The freedom to teach as one pleases, research what one pleases, and set one’s work hours are just south of priceless (although I’m aware that these freedoms are far from absolute). And symbolic capital is capital after all. Even if you can’t buy lunch with it.

What I am saying is that it’s OK to take off those prestige-tinted lenses if you’re finding that academia is not for you and explore the other kinds of capital that can be gained from productive careers in other industries.

When you don’t get an entry-level job (not to mention 25 of them) you certainly don’t expect to get an awesome one. But that’s exactly what happened to me.

First came an invitation to speak at Columbia to a group of fundraisers, followed by a call from an old colleague looking to hire for a development position at a top ten school. A couple months and a few more connections later, I had an offer letter from Johns Hopkins—for a job in my old career of fundraising.

Fundraising is not the kind of alt-ac field that has a well-tread path from academe but the path, once spotted, becomes easy enough to follow. Fundraising has two main branches: individual and institutional. Many of you may be familiar with the institutional side of the business that includes grant-writing and corporate sponsorship. On the other hand, individual fundraising involves encouraging alumni and others to make gifts of their own private resources and represents the largest source of philanthropy by far in the U.S.

Fundraising is deadline-driven, marching toward a concrete goal of bringing dollars in the door. The simplicity of a financial bottom line can be jarring for those graduate students who have just finished dissertations, say, critiquing corporate capitalism or advocating a more just world order. For any new PhD, stepping out of theory and into practice can be disruptive. On the other hand, there is something relieving about walking in to a structured position after the inchoateness doctoral work.

Here are three steps you can take if you are interested in exploring fundraising as a career:

  • Reach out to people in your institution’s development office. Request an informational interview. Development folk are generally a receptive bunch. While not necessarily the norm, I’ve known new PhDs or junior faculty who were hired by their own universities in development positions.
  • Ask for names of others in the field. Sign up for a university extension course in fundraising. Friend colleagues on Linkedin who have jobs you’re interested in.
  • Join online communities. CASE (the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education) manages some discussion fora. One job I was actually hired into came through an informal job announcement on a listserv for corporate and foundation relations professionals.

And finally, don’t be afraid to reach out to me or other development professionals, even without an introduction. While we may seem like types who drive Infinitis to work in our capitalist power suits, the truth is that many of us once owned a Tercel.