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From PhD to Life

Transition Q & A: Kenna Barrett


Kenna Barrett earned her PhD in English with a specialization in rhetoric and composition from the University of Rhode Island. She returned to her doctoral studies after 12 years in nonprofit fund development, nine of those at Yale University in New Haven. She’s currently Director of Development for the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University. Find her on LinkedIn and see her website. You can also email her.

PhD_Nov15_Barrett_644 Photo by Kaveh Sardari.

What did you hope for in terms of employment as you completed your PhD?

At first, I really craved an academic position. At heart, I’m a writer, and I thought that scholarly writing was part of my life’s plan. But as I started to crunch through the economics of it, I realized that returning to my old field of expertise, development—armed with the additional knowledge and credibility that a PhD confers—would be in many ways much better than staying on the academic market. A relatively senior fundraiser can earn twice what a junior faculty in rhetoric and composition might. That mattered to me as a working parent of two children in an expensive part of the country. I didn’t want my family to struggle financially, and I feared that as an assistant professor earning essentially the median American income, I would in fact struggle.

Plus, I gradually realized that there were other ways to write and research, and be generally productive, besides being a professor. There’s a lot of symbolic capital wrapped up in being a professor but there is nobility and grandeur to be found in other professions as well!

What was your first post-PhD job?

I am a Director of Development at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

What kind of tasks do you do on a daily and weekly basis?

In my role, I get to meet with faculty, connect with donors, manage a team of five, and look for ways that SAIS can raise more funds to support financial aid, research, and other core needs. I strategize about presenting the School’s needs to the public and how best to structure and steward gifts. I’m working on a couple of special projects, as well. Fundraisers are generalists—they get to delve into all varieties of research projects. Travel is another perk of development. SAIS has international offices in Bologna, Italy as well as Nanjing, China.

What most surprises you about your job?

That there’s always more to learn. That a lot of folks who are highly successful got there by treating others well; so many donors are quite decent individuals.

What are your favourite parts of your job?

I appreciate seeing that my work makes a material difference to my university.

What would you change about it if you could?

I hope to nudge fundraising as a field to become more research-driven and open to staff who want to conduct and present research projects to a wider public.

What’s next for you, career-wise?

I plan to be at JHU for as long as they’ll have me!

What advice or thoughts do you have for post-PhDs in transition now?

Assess your motivations as you work through the transition–I actually wrote out pros/cons lists and calculated salary scenarios. Don’t be afraid to think about economics, even though one of the ideologies of academia is that money shouldn’t matter and it’s all about passion! Relative to our grad assistantships, a American tenure-track salary seems like a lot, but relative to other positions even in higher education, it may not be. I discovered that part of my motivation for staying on the academic market was fear of being a “failure” or a “quitter.” But when I honestly assessed what I was good at, enjoyed, and what would benefit my family long-term, fundraising rose to the top of the list.

Feel free to reach out to me if you’re considering fundraising as a career. Fundraising is in many respects a great field. It requires intellectual skill sets, it’s generally morally worthwhile, and it offers a very livable income. I’d love to help encourage more PhDs to consider this field, so please be in touch!

Jennifer Polk
Jennifer Polk is a career coach and entrepreneur. She earned her PhD in history from the University of Toronto in 2012. For more information and resources, check out her website:
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