Pick Your Own Adventure, Finding a Career in the Nonprofit World

Emily Patterson-Kane

Emily Patterson-Kane, PhD, is a New Zealander who has gained research and teaching experience in Scotland, Canada, and America. Her core discipline is behavioral psychology' with a focus on animal welfare and humananimal interactions. Emily currently works for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and has authored articles and chapters on how to provide environmental enrichment, the causes of animal cruelty, and the provision of euthanasia.

My entry point into the field was an undergraduate psychology class presenting a radical behaviorist philosophy of psychology'. Despite being desperately unfashionable even then, something about the Skinnerian approach to science really' clicked with me. Behaviorist psychology', combined with my interest in animal welfare, mapped out the area where I wanted to have my career.

I earned my' graduate degrees focusing exclusively on research (first studying whether chickens can understand TV pictures, and then looking at how to provide and assess environmental enrichment for rats). I then pursued post-doctoral research, studying rat habitat design, assessing the accuracy of human assessments of emotion in pigs, and testing what kinds of enrichment pigs will work hardest for. The role of human-animal interactions crept in along the way.

I remember how, during my PhD, an undergraduate student asked if the rats are happy. It wasn’t an uncommon thing for students to ask. We had a stock answer that lab rats were healthy and lived longer than those in the wild and were well cared for. While technically accurate, for a reply by a psychologist in a psychology lab, it was somewhat devoid of. . . psychology'. On that one occasion, for some reason, I really heard the question as it was intended—and it occurred to me that I thought the answer was no. Happiness is a little more and different from health, care, and longevity. My' career goals changed around that time because I knew I wanted to make things better for animals, make them happier. And I wanted more people to take on that goal for the animals in their community' and their industries.

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My career could have gone a lot of different ways, and the factors that limited my opportunities were as important as the things that inspired me. I started out in research and had a classic academic career in mind, yet I struggled to find a permanent position. I realized it was time to begin looking for work outside of academia. First, I worked as an animal welfare scientist at the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). The month I was offered that job I got two tenure track offers (because apparently the universe is perverse like that) and I turned them down. I second-guessed that decision for many years, but now I am confident it was the right choice for me. Recently I was hired to be a research director at the ASPCA.

I have had many jobs over the last 15 years, and 1 would have to say that I have really enjoyed my work. It’s not that it isn’t often frustrating or annoying in some ways, but I believe in the overall goals I am pursuing, I respect the people I work with, and I feel like my work is appreciated and fairly compensated. One of the most important things that I have realized, looking back, is that my discipline identity as a psychologist was very important in giving me the toolkit I needed to do my work. However, out of five previous jobs I have held, only one was advertised as a job for a psychologist. Therefore, I would suggest casting your net wide when searching for vacancies and don’t overthink sending in an application if you find something unusual and intriguing.

I would encourage students and early-career people to make sure they keep an open mind about where their career might take them. This might include moving to another country or disciplinary area or looking for opportunities not only in academia but also non-profits, industry, and government or regulatory agencies (and more!). Some of these positions provide a unique opportunity to bring a new perspective and create change—but you must be flexible enough to learn the culture and pick up new skills as you go. (Keep in mind that they use difference terms and definitions in their job ads and may list required qualifications and experience that you don’t have, but you can show that you have something equivalent or better or the demonstrated ability to upskill rapidly.) Getting a good education means that you can continue to evolve into new areas; in my case including meta-analysis, project management, qualitative methods, and more! And you can often affect what your jobs duties are once you are in place by showing the relevance of topics that interest you to the organization’s strategic goals or mission.

In hindsight 1 wish I had known more about how to develop a career and realized that it is a skill like any other. I wish I had been more mindful of my options, how to network, and the flexibility of core skills. On the other hand, by doing things the hard way I have developed a real appreciation for having a meaningful job and a comfortable life. My career is a journey now rather than a destination, and I am enjoying the journey.

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