Beyond Academia asked Ken Himmelman, Chief Program Officer and Interim Chief Development Officer for Partners in Health. Partners in Health is a pioneering global health organization that provides high quality health care to the world’s poorest people. Find out how Ken transitioned from being a Literature PhD to working in a management position at one of the biggest health NGOs in the world!
BA: How did you transition from a PhD in Comparative Literature to your current position at Partners in Health (PIH)? Did you do work or other activities during grad school—outside of your academic research—that helped you obtain your position (networking, training, skill development, etc.)?
Ken: I made the transition to non-profit work straight out of grad school, though it took me a long time to get to PIH. I was finishing my dissertation and had gone on the market ABD (all but dissertation). I was a finalist for a couple of tenure-track jobs but did not get one that year. However, I got the chance to work for a relatively new non-profit organization through a friend of mine and I decided to take that job while I finished my dissertation. I have to say, one of the most important things I did was stay very committed to finishing my dissertation that year that I was working. I went back on the academic job market the following year once I had finished my dissertation, but I did not get a final interview anywhere. At that point, I was going to be two years into working in the non-profit sector. I was having some success and decided to stay on that track. From there, I started my own non-profit with a partner of mine called Community IMPACT! USA, which trains young people to address educational and economic issues affecting their neighborhood. Then, I was recruited through a mutual acquaintance to become Dean of Admissions at Bennington College. From there I came to PIH.
I did not do any particular skill building outside of my academic training, but I think the training I received as a teacher very much helped me in my first non-profit role of developing curriculum. I stayed within education in the broadest sense, and this made the transition a bit easier. I also just networked with people I knew once I had to get a job. I think the main thing was that, appreciating how difficult it was to get an academic position in my field, I started looking broadly for different kinds of jobs. I applied for the Foreign Service, and I started talking to people about jobs in non-profit, school administration and other related fields.
BA: How do you think your PhD helped you thrive at PIH? What limitations did you have to overcome, and how did you adapt?
Ken: My PhD taught me many, many things. Most of all it taught me how to make sense out of complex circumstances, how to think deeply and to understand issues, and of course how to write very, very clearly. Given the nature of Comp Lit, which is very interdisciplinary, I feel that my training also helped in forcing me to move across departments to get the various academic content I needed. That is good practice for working across teams, departments, or locations in my current work. Still, I would say most of what I learned in the non-profit sector I learned on the job. But I was comfortable figuring things out for myself. And that core skill I definitely honed in graduate school.
BA: What are some of your responsibilities as Chief Program Officer and now as interim CDO at PIH?
Ken: As Chief Program Officer I work with all of our sites around the world to help develop strategy, build teams, and structure systems. The role cuts across all domains of the organization—finance, development, communications, supply chain and more. As the interim Chief Development Officer, I manage a team of over 40 people and we are focused on building a large operation to raise the money we need to operate. I interact a lot with donors and with our senior leaders to craft the message of the organization and to build relationships with people who generously support our work. I feel comfortable doing this because of the knowledge that what we are doing programmatically is fundamental to bringing donors and partners into the work we do. What I enjoy most with the Program work, though, is being in the field, working with the teams on the ground. I think if there is a long-term theme to the kind of work I’ve done, it is the connection to teaching. Throughout my non-profit career, I have tended toward roles that involve teaching, learning, and training. The basic notion of human capacity building is something that resonates for me and was part of why I loved teaching – which in any case I always favored over research when I was in graduate school.
BA: What advice would you offer humanities PhDs interested in NGOs and nonprofit work? What can they contribute, and how do they pitch themselves? What obstacles should they expect to encounter, and how can they prepare themselves for them?
Ken: I think PhDs in the humanities are well prepared to work in the non profit sector in general. The hardest barrier to overcome is our own mindset about what we think we should do in the world of work. If we think of ourselves as writers and teachers and collaborators, there are many different ways to help non-profits with their mission. The best advice I can give is to keep doing multiple things even as you get your degree. Find non-academic things to do with your summers. Volunteer for non-profits during the school year. Get outside the bubble. The networking you have to do at conferences as an academic is good training for the networking you have to do in life. The more you get to know people and experience different things, the more options you will have. You can still pursue your academic career if you volunteer at the soup kitchen or work at a summer camp – but doing those other things keep you grounded and connected to life outside the Academy. I think academic careers themselves, except for the rare standout, are going to be much more hodge-podge almost no matter what. So it’s best to start planning for that from the outset. Then, if you get a great academic job, fantastic; but if you don’t, you’re still ready to do other things and feel okay about it.