Careers in Research at Nonprofits (feat. Samuel T. Frank, Eli Lansey, & Laura Ricciardi)
Alumni Aloud Episode 55
This is a special edition of Alumni Aloud that was recorded live at our Careers in Research at Nonprofits panel in October 2019. Two of our panelists, Samuel T. Frank (PhD Earth & Environmental Sciences) and Eli Lansey (PhD Physics), are alumni of the Graduate Center. Our third panelist, Laura Ricciardi (PhD Applied Developmental Psychology), is a graduate of Fordham University. At the time of this recording, Samuel was a climate curriculum researcher at the Billion Oyster Project, Eli was a researcher at Riverside Research, and Laura was a research associate at Metis Associates.
In this episode of Alumni Aloud, the panelists talk about their experiences in the nonprofit world and what sets nonprofit work apart from industry and academia. They also touch upon the different types of application materials (e.g., writing samples, technical talks) required for nonprofit research jobs, as well as the importance of translating technical, scientific reports into understandable and relatable content.
Listen to the episode below, download it, or stream it in Apple Podcasts (or your preferred podcast player).
VOICE OVER: This is Alumni Aloud, a podcast by Graduate Center students for Graduate Center students. In each episode we talk with a GC graduate about their career path, the ins and outs of their current position, and the career advice they have for students. This series is sponsored by the Graduate Center’s Office of Career Planning & Professional Development.
ABBIE TURNER HOST: This is a special episode of Alumni Aloud, because it was recorded live at our ‘Careers in Research at Non-profits Panel’ which I moderated in October of 2019. In this episode, we’ll hear from three researchers, who completed their PhD’s and then began careers in different types of non-profit organizations. Two of the panelists, Eli Lansey and Sam Frank, graduated from the CUNY Graduate Center. And Laura Ricciardi earned her degree from Fordham University. At the end of the moderated panel, we’ll hear a couple questions asked by the audience. The original recording has been edited for sound clarity as best I could.
Ok so we can start. Everybody, welcome to Careers in Research at Non-profits! We have three great panelists tonight. Two are GC graduates, and one is a graduate of Fordham, correct?
LAUREN RICCIARDI, PANELIST: Mhm.
TURNER: So we have Eli Lansey, Laura Ricciardi and Sam Frank. So I’ll start off moderating with some questions, we’ll introduce everybody, and then you will all get a chance to ask your own questions to the panel and we’ll wrap up questions around 7:20. And then you’re free to hang out, talk to the panelists, talk to each other. We’ll have the room till 8pm. Sound good, ok? Oh also I’m Abby and I work for the career office on the third floor. If you haven’t been, please visit us. Eli, why don’t you start us off?
ELI LANSEY, PANELIST: Sure.
TURNER: Let us know what program you graduated from, your degree, and then like what you currently do and where you work.
LANSEY: Ok, so my degree is in Physics. I work for, I’m a member of the research staff at Riverside Research which is a not-for-profit research company. The company itself does whole bunches of different kinds of research from high-frequency ultrasound, medical ultrasound, radar, optics, plasma. And I’m in the electromagnetics group. So I do research primarily in radar imaging, computational electromagnetics and metamaterials.
RICCIARDI: Hi, I’m Laura Ricciardi and I received my doctorate in Applied Developmental Psychology from Fordham University in December 2016. And I currently work at Metis Associates which is an independent research and evaluation consulting firm. It’s, it’s actually a national organization but we’re based in downtown Manhattan. And we work with a lot of non-profits. We’re actually not a non-profit but we work with a lot of them. And my research area really focuses on arts education but we really run the gambit and we kind of work with a lot of other educational organizations and social service organizations as well.
SAM FRANK, PANELIST: Hi everyone. My name is Sam Frank. I graduated from the Earth & Environmental Science program here four years ago. I specialized in climate change policy in that program. And nowadays I work at a non-profit organization called Billion Oysters Project. It’s a, it’s…we’re located on Governor’s Island which is a small little island right off the southern tip of Manhattan. And our mission in a nutshell is to restore the once plentiful oyster population in New York Harbor which was destroyed years ago by pollution and over-harvesting. But more than that, well equal to that and sometimes more than that, the other side of our mission is to tie up the restoration with education. So we’re connected to the Harbor School, which is a charter school located on Governor’s Island. And we have a program to educate and give a vocational education to middle school and high school students to get more involved in environmental restoration, in climate change education, which is what I’m a part of there, and also to sort of be educators themselves in how to restore water quality in New York City and beyond.
TURNER: Great, so you all have touched on it and I heard you all talking to each other prior to starting about your individual types of projects. So you know and even if there’s a couple, maybe you could highlight one example of a project that you guys are working on? I think we’d like to hear a little bit more detail about what those look like. Eli, do you want to go ahead?
LANSEY: Sure, so one of the things I’m working on is sparsity in computationally-generated synthetic aperture radar imagery. So we, I don’t know what the backgrounds of the audience is here but we generate sort of like notional models, computer models and run it through a code to generate what, sort of the theoretical radar image might be. And then we apply some you know analysis techniques to try and determine if there’s information sparsity. So this would sort of map to how you could like take the same image with a reduced number of collections or a different frequency sweep and things like that.
Yeah so, Riverside Research is weird in that like, again, it’s a not-for-profit so we’re like halfway between academia and industry. So you know, I’m a theoretical and computational physicist. I don’t actually build things. So I’m sort of trying to prove out concepts to see if they’ll work and if they work, we’ll partner with someone who might try and do an experiment and you know some other people in our company will work together to do an experiment. But it’s to try and find new ways of generating radar imagery. So radar imagery is used for like a million different applications. But it’s just taking a picture with a different color of light basically.
TURNER: Ok great that makes sense. Laura?
RICCIARDI: So I work in consulting, evaluation consulting. And so I work on probably like at least eight projects at a given time to varying degrees. And one of the projects that I’m working on now, that we’ve actually been working on for the past few years, is an evaluation of Arts Intern. Which is a program of Studio Institute or Studio Arts School if you’re familiar. It’s an arts residency program, non-profit, and Arts Intern is one of their programs where they work with college students and place them in museum internships for the summer. And so we’re learning about what their experience is like in their internships from interns’ perspective and their museum supervisors’ perspectives. And how it may have affected their career skills, their career paths, their relationship to arts, their relationship to museums, whether it’s kind of influenced their decision-making long-term. We also get in touch with their alumni and find out how Arts Intern has affected them years into the future and whether they’re applying the skills that they learned in Arts Intern and during that time. And so we use focus groups, observations and surveys and some interviews and document review to answer all of those questions. So it ends up being a very large project but it’s really fun and it’s interesting, the work is really interesting.
TURNER: So you have about eight projects simultaneously you said, right?
RICCIARDI: Yes, yeah.
TURNER: And Eli are you on multiple projects as well?
LANSEY: Yeah I’m also on multiple projects at a time.
TURNER: Ok and Sam, what about you?
FRANK: Yeah, similar. My example is going to be sort of the multi-pronged, we have multiple sites around New York City where we are installing oyster reefs, artificial oyster reefs. And we actually sign up, it’s both a student and volunteer led project. So we have a site on Governor’s Island, in Fort George and Staten Island, Paerdegat Basin in Jamaica Bay, a number of other spots where we’re installing oyster reefs and we’re sort of seeding them with little tiny baby oysters called spats. And one of the things I’m most involved in is sort of pulling out the historical…researching the history of a lot of these sites so that we can tie in the way that sort of the history of these sites looked to students now. And how they can understand the impacts of sea level rise, environmental pollution, all these sorts of climate impacts that now play a role in what they’re seeing when they actually go to these sites and they’re covered in all sorts of pollution and moss and different things like that. And then they can actually install these oyster reefs and see what it is they’re actually trying to restore. You know, it’s really, it’s multiple different sites that are part of a single project.
TURNER: Great. Could you each kind of describe your journey from graduate school to getting your current position?
LANSEY: So I graduated in 2012 and was hired in 2012 at Riverside Research, so I’ve been there since I graduated. They picked me up right out of school.
TURNER: Ok great.
LANSEY: So I actually didn’t even know that they existed and I met someone at like a party who worked there and she suggested, said you know there was a position opening up soon for a physicist. So it was, it was very lucky but right place at the right time. And had to go through the whole interview process. But that’s how I got where I am.
TURNER: Great! Laura how did you end up where you are?
RICCIARDI: So I taught for the first few years of grad school and decided teaching was not for me. *laughs* So during my dissertation I opted out of teaching and I got a full-time job. Not at my current job. I worked at a non-profit in midtown. And I was hired in September 2015 and I started as an evaluation analyst at a very small internal evaluation department. And a couple months later my boss left and I took her job. *laughs* And it was a little early in my career I felt to not really have anybody to learn from because it was not a research organization. So I stayed about another year and it was still a very valuable experience. But then I had known Metis Associates already and I was really interested in moving into consulting. I just wanted more variety, and not to be doing the same kind of study over and over again. So I saw a job opening come up for Metis in the New York Association of Evaluators job postings. And I applied and I went through one interview I think. And I was hired, I actually started two days after my defense. So that was December 2016.
TURNER: No lapse there.
RICCIARDI: *laughs* No. No lapse. Yeah.
FRANK: So my story was actually I mean, it’s similar to you guys in that I got lucky as well. When I was a student here, I was in a class called Perspectives on Climate Change. And my professor in that class ended up being one of the professors on my dissertation committee. I should say first, that this led to a job that immediately preceded the current job at Billion Oyster Project. It was for a firm called Climate Nexus, which is a climate change and clean energy communications non-profit. So when I was in this class called Perspectives on Climate Change here, I was in the early stages of my dissertation research. I wasn’t exactly sure what I was going to do for my dissertation but I knew it was going to be about climate change policy in the United States. Trying to look at specific policies that work and don’t work depending on the state because we were in a position then as we are now where the federal government wasn’t exactly leading on cutting emissions and creating a national policy on climate change.
And so one of the things that my professor at the time did for this class was he had friends of his, professional contacts of his, come in and kind of like entertain us for an hour and a half and give us their shpiel about what it is that they did. He had scientists, kind of like media people come in and give us their story about what they did and where they worked for the class. And so a guy came in called Bob Tanner who was not a climate change scientist or even necessarily expert. But he ran this outfit called Climate Nexus that specialized in non-profit strategic communications on climate change and clean energy. So he was talking to our class and you know from a very kind of relatable standpoint. Meaning it wasn’t overly jargon-y, he was really clear in how they took the science and actually scientists, and connected them with media and reporters. And was able to sort of facilitate their research getting out into the public in like a consumable, digestible sort of way.
Which a lot of scientists…and I mean I was immersed in a lot of the data and the sort of dryer elements of climate policy at the time, that it really sparked a, sparked something inside of me where I was like, there’s a way to kind of bridge this gap between the esoteric kind of jargon-y, though important, research that’s being done and the general public. So that was it and I you know got his email afterwards and said this is really cool. I had never really heard of climate communications before but it seems like something that is very interesting. And we just ended up getting coffee a few weeks later and getting coffee again about a month after that and then that ultimately led to him offering me a kind of like contract, like a project to do for Climate Nexus. Where he gave me this really boring, silly paper on like transportation emissions in part of California, not even the whole state of California. He said, “Ok boil this down into three paragraphs.” And it took me a little while to do because it was a little hard to understand what this paper was actually trying to say but I did it. And then that led to ultimately, as I was doing my dissertation, a fellowship which then turned into a fulltime position after I finished. So that was, that was the story.
TURNER: Yeah! That’s great, so you all have a little bit different journey. I’m wondering what the hiring process is like for your organizations. Eli you said you had multiple interviews?
LANSEY: So I had a like a phone screen first where I spoke to the guy who was going to be my boss on the phone for a bit and then they brought me for an in-person interview which first consisted of me giving a technical talk for about 45 minutes. And then a bunch of chatting afterwards.
TURNER: What kind of group are we talking about? In front of how many people?
LANSEY: So this was in front of the entire research group at the time. We’re a fairly small group, we’ve grown since but I think there are around six or seven people. And like our research group is a mix of computer scientists and electrical engineers and physicists and a bunch of different other kinds of people so you know I had to be able to communicate whatever I was talking about to people with you know varying degrees of technical background. So yeah there was that and then there were discussions afterwards so of like the standard interview questions and then, so I guess it was just a two-stage. I probably spoke to HR somewhere in the middle there also.
TURNER: And Laura what did you have to do? Just one?
RICCIARDI: Yes, I think mine was a little easier. So I just had to submit a writing sample and had an interview with my boss, my now boss, and the man who is now sort of like my mentor.
TURNER: Ok. And Sam what did you have to do?
FRANK: Yeah I mean I kind of touched on it just now where I think, the formal interview process was not very formal at all. But I think it was the sort of stepping up from the, you know, “Ok I’m interested in what you’re doing.” And you, my potential boss, are interested in sort of seeing what I’m all about. To then getting an opportunity to show what I can do work-wise, research-wise. By being given this paper and being told to or being asked to you know summarize it, boil it down, make it understandable. And then that then led to, you know I wasn’t even sitting in a room with the boss and a couple other bosses and answering formal questions and that sort of thing. It was really a matter of, “We have a need for someone like you to do the boiling down of research because we have sort of the PR people on what side and we need more of the scientist people on the other side to do this sort of thing.” And it was a little bit of track record, a little bit of having the relationship established at that point already, that I was able to just hammer down the full-time job after I graduated.
TURNER: Great. And now I want to ask you guys, in your opinion, what are kind of the benefits, maybe the advantages, maybe the disadvantages of working in this sector? And I know Laura you’re not really a non-profit but you have a lot of experience with it and you’re working, your clients are non-profits. So what do you guys view as the good parts, maybe the bad parts, of being in non-profits?
LANSEY: So, I really like that…like I did some internships both in my undergrad and one or two points in graduate school in like sort of standard industry. And they were so hyper-focused on whatever their main product was or whatever their business was. Everything had to have this sort of like very clear business case. Whereas in the not-for-profit because we’re like somewhere between academia and industry, we can sort of scratch at problems that are more fundamental, more interesting that don’t necessarily have a business case like in the traditional sense. It might be a business case in the sense that you can find a grant from someone that’ll let you take the idea further but it’s not like you know, I need to sell ‘x’ number of widgets and you have to invent a new way to make this widget manufactured better or something like that. So I like that a lot. That you know we can focus on basic science and we can poke at interesting problems.
Also because it’s a not-for-profit, the company you know when it makes money from you know consulting or you know, you know grants or whatever. So whatever profit the company makes gets folded back in on company-sponsored research programs. So it’s not just like writing grants the whole time, the company has a bucket of funds. So if you have an idea and you float it up the chain, they’ll be like, “Oh that’s interesting. You know here’s a hunk of cash and go do research on this for a year and come back to us and see what you found.”
TURNER: So it sounds like you have a lot of flexibility there too.
LANSEY: Yeah, I mean we have projects that we need to that we’re on contract to do or whatever but there is this ability to do internal research, something that interests you, some idea you’ve thought up and you want to see if it works. So I like that a lot. And in the not-for-profit you know because we’re sort of chartered to do scientific research in the public interest, the notion of doing stuff that you know benefits the public writ-large is also, personally I find that valuable. Rather than just I made someone’s bottom line better and the stockholders all got, I don’t know, whatever, I don’t know all the finance stuff…more money at the end of the year than before.
TURNER: Cool, yeah, yeah. And Laura what’s your experience in non-profits like?
RICCIARDI: Well I mean, I would start with the negative and then end positively.
LANSEY: Oh, I didn’t talk about the negative. *laughs* Negative is just less money.
TURNER: *laughs* Yes.
RICCIARDI: Yeah. That would be one of the negatives. And then also at some non-profits, people are often over-worked, they’re often under-staffed so that can be kind of tough. But, you do have the benefit of working on really amazing, meaningful work. And knowing that the work that you did is impacting other people’s lives in a positive way is pretty powerful. And even though I no longer work for a non-profit, I work with a lot of non-profits and we evaluate their programs and give them recommendations and it’s really amazing to hear along the way, a lot of stories and see data points that show their programs are effective and that they’re really impacting people’s lives. And then also to hear back from our clients after our evaluation report saying they’ve implemented some of the recommendations we’ve given them is really exciting.
FRANK: Yeah I mean I have to agree with you both. It’s the difference between where the standard of success is bottom line and shareholder growth and issues like that. Which is, you know there’s nothing wrong with that and we all kind of depend on that in one way or another in the world whether we like it or not. But working for a non-profit where you know the funds to operate the business are kind of, they’re there, we have people who are fundraisers. I mean I’ve done some grant-writing for the organizations I’ve worked for, but for the most part not. So I’ve been, I’ve had the luxury of being able to rely on other people to do the fundraising so that makes me and others free to do the sort of work that we’re hired to do where the standard isn’t making money but making an impact.
At Climate Nexus you know the standard for success wasn’t how much money any given project or article that we wrote made, but it was how many you how many other organizations benefitted from it and how can we actually measure that impact based on, I mean, and in a lot of ways it was based on social media and just general connections and how we actually just grow the research that we’re doing and measure the amount of impact that it has. But at an outfit like Billion Oyster Project, we’re really, we’re tasked with doing research and then letting it have an impact on students and then seeing them graduate and then seeing what they do with that sort of information. So, so you know the benefit from that comes in a more or in a less tangible sort of way. But it still is very present and very important to see.
TURNER: And do you find the disadvantages are more hours? What do you think?
FRANK: Well I think that, what I just described if it made any sense, can also be a disadvantage. It’s hard to put a sort of hard metric on what counts for success or failure in a situation like that. So I think that’s sort of like a you know, part of the agreement that you sign up for when you’re working in a non-profit. Where you’re doing it for like a cause, a socially-beneficial cause but it’s not so black and white as to what the gain is, what the growth is.
LANSEY: So interesting that my experience in the not-for-profit is that I haven’t, I mean like when I was first hired there was like programs that I just kind of like got stuck on to. But I’ve been involved in like writing technical proposals for you know new work and things like that. So it’s not just like the grant-writers and then you know.
TURNER: Sometimes it’s many hats.
LANSEY: Yeah so you know because we’re doing research, we’re the technical experts, we’ll actually have to like actually write what we want to research and convince someone to you know to fund that research. So it’s not like, you know at a big company it’s like alright you know, Exxon Mobile’s research and engineering budget is ‘x’ many gazillion dollars and here’s your piece of it, go research whatever we tell you to. It’s well, you have this idea and now you have to convince someone that it’s worthwhile. So you do have, at least in my experience you do have to convince a little bit of time convincing other people that your work is worthwhile in order to get external funding for it.
TURNER: Great, ok. Now I want to kind of talk about the skills that you guys are most using in your positions. Because I think Laura you’re doing consulting and it sounds like you’re doing program evaluation.
TURNER: Sounds like you have to do a lot of communicating, Sam and Eli. So you know technical writing for the masses. Or maybe not so much. So anyway, maybe you can describe better—what are the skills you’re using day to day most often in your position?
LANSEY: So, on a good day I’m just doing science. *laughs* So it’s just whatever my science skills are. But I do spend a lot of time, you know we need to be able to communicate to you know sponsors of our research, you know what we’re doing and why it’s important. So yeah, communication is really key. And that was actually part of the interview process. The reason they had me give you know a forty-five minute talk was they wanted to see that I could communicate what it is that I did and why, you know it was sort of like they gave me this open question of, “Speak 45 minutes on a topic of mutual interest.” Which is like, alright figure out what is mutual interest and then convince them that what I did, what my research was, was important to them. So yeah communication and being able to take a complicated scientific concept and make it understandable to someone whose just a program manager and maybe just has like a vague sense of what you’re doing but not the nitty-gritty detail. And how to make them you know understand it. Again, when it comes to writing proposals you have to take a complicated thought and make it a paragraph or less so.
TURNER: And when you say, “doing science…”
LANSEY: Yeah so sitting and actually doing the research. Like math, physics, computations, writing code, running code.
TURNER: Ok great, you get to do all that kind of stuff.
TURNER: And what about you Laura what kinds of skills are you using?
RICCIARDI: Well thankfully I use many of skills I learned in grad school on a very regular basis. So like I said, I work at a lot of different projects at a time. They’re all in different phases of the project so on any given day I can be out in the field collecting data, I can be designing research measures, I can be meeting with clients, I can be conducting focus groups or interviews or gathering surveys or analyzing all of those data. And I write up a lot of reports for clients and funders. And so another skill that I would have learned through consulting is speaking with clients, how to manage client relationships and manage client expectations for the work. And how to write reports in a way that is understandable to people in non-profits who are busy and don’t have time to wade through really long technical reports. But they want actionable steps. So those are skills that I’ve been working on more in consulting that I didn’t necessarily learn in school.
FRANK: Yeah I think there’s a theme developing. Which I mean, same story. A lot of what I’ve had to professionally over these last few years is really try to make whatever technical information comes before me not only understandable and relatable but sometimes interesting if it’s a rather dryer or esoteric subject. At Climate Nexus, a lot of what we did was pitch stories. So if there was a new IPCC report out of the UN, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, about you know two degrees Celsius is going to tip the scale for climate impact and make sort of the emissions reduction that a lot of countries are doing a lot harder to come back from. You know, all these, all of these sorts of issues that don’t necessarily catch the eye of your everyday newspaper-reader. We had to sort of find the hook and create a very short, like Eli just said, like a paragraph’s worth summary to really catch the eye of a reporter so that they’re going to write something about it and make it much more graspable by the everyday subject.
Same thing with Billion Oyster Project except that what I’m trying to do is really boil a lot of this stuff down to make it digestible for school kids. I mean kids, high school students. So that they can then take that and run with it in their own projects at what they’re doing at the Harbor School. So you know it’s funny and I’m sure my dissertation professors would love to hear me say it, but when they would pound me back in the day about, “this sentence or this paragraph or this chapter is too, I mean it’s too in the weeds.” It doesn’t click and it’s you know I understand what you’re saying but can you say it in a better, more relatable sort of way. And that would be the hardest work. I mean it’s sometimes easier to put it all out there, put it on paper and let it kind of exist as you first understood a subject or you’re connecting a number of subjects together. But it’s a lot harder to go back and edit it and make it more tight, make it tighter. And make it more fun to read. You know, doing that work then I think served me well in a lot of the different research projects that I’m doing now.
TURNER: So the graduate education was all worth it?
TURNER: Yes? Ok.
FRANK: Sort of.
TURNER: What kinds of professional development do you guys get at work or are you personally doing? Kind of those skills that you’re maybe trying to build after graduate school.
FRANK: Good question.
TURNER: Any ideas?
LANSEY: Professional development for me has basically been proposal writing and it’s been learning how to take…like the difference between writing a scientific paper and writing a proposal. Which is, like a very different exercise where…scientific paper you’re sort of just trying to summarize your results and explain them to people whereas a proposal, there you’re trying to convince someone that your research is interesting. So that for me, it took me awhile and bunch of rounds and comments from my peers and my bosses and so on to like get better at it. So that’s something that’s been professional development on the job.
TURNER: So how do you get that feedback loop when you’re in a professional setting?
LANSEY: So I work in a very collaborative group.
TURNER: Oh nice.
LANSEY: So we’ll often like get an RFP out and all sit down and try and figure out what our approach will be. And then chop up a proposal into pieces and we’ll all take a swing at it. And shove it together at the end and then we’ll review each others’ work. So it’s kind of like peer review but your actual peers as opposed to some random anonymous person at some other school. And it you know so, that was very useful. And the company itself like when there’s a proposal out, they’ll offer, you know they have training available for people like how to write a good proposal, what’s style and things to look out for. Again, differences between a scientific paper and proposal to write a scientific paper. So like so it was informal as well as some formal training.
TURNER: Cool. Laura what kinds of things are you doing?
RICCIARDI: Similar to what Elie said, we work on teams at Metis and we’re very collaborative. So there is like a constant feedback loop and we have reviews pretty regularly, several times throughout the year. So I found that the longer you’re at a job, the less time there is for PD [professional development] in that sort of like intentional way. But we do have a PD committee at Metis as well, so we have PD opportunities throughout the year. And then I’ve still, I present at conferences every now and then so I still get to attend some conferences, attend some sessions.
LANSEY: Yeah we got to conferences as well. So both speaking at them as well as just attending them.
TURNER: Oh great! And what kind of conferences are you doing?
RICCIARDI: I am going to be heading to the AEA conference which is American Evaluation Association in a couple of weeks, I have a couple of presentations there.
TURNER: Ok and which ones do you do Eli?
LANSEY: A variety of Physics conferences. IEEE conferences.
FRANK: So that was going to be my answer. I mean I don’t really have…the closest thing I have had to professional development is going to these conferences, networking with people, talking about what I do, hearing about what they do which is often really, really different. Some of the best examples—a year or two ago I went to a Department of Energy conference in DC, which was like a couple thousand people from all over the spectrum. People working on renewable energy, people working on efficiency, storage, emissions reduction, all sorts of things. And one of the things that I learned there is sort of just an off shoot of the work that I do in general. Which is, like you need to be able to communicate, you need to be able to explain to people what it is that you’re doing. Even though you’re in the same you know banner-head conference, you might end up doing very, very vastly different things.
I mean one of the benefits to that is, most of the time people are really genuinely interested to figure out why it is that you’re there and why you’re standing you know together having coffee over the same you know panel group at a given conference. You know there’s going to be a reason and you have to kind of find that through line that connects you with this person or these people that you’re talking to. And I think that that’s professional development in the sense that it you know broadens your scope about the very diverse group of people that are actually working in the same space that you are. Whether you understood it or not before, it really opens your eyes to sort of…I went to a Bloomberg energy conference in the city here a few months ago. And you know it’s a lot of finance people, it’s environmental people, it’s like a really, really wide range of people. And if you start to talk to them you realize that there’s a lot of overlap in what people do that would otherwise seems really, really different.
TURNER: Ok, great, thanks! So this is all the questions that I had prepared, that I had in mind so I’m going to open it up to our audience. Does anyone from the audience have specific questions they have for our panelists?
STUDENT: Hi, how much creative control do you have in your research for your organizations?
FRANK: Let’s see creative control…it’s a good question. A lot of time I’ll come up with a proposal and we can explore it. Sometimes we actually end up creating a product out of it and sometimes we don’t. I mean as far as my experience, I’ve had the most creative control when I was able to connect a brand-new project to something that we already had in the works. So you know I think for the most part, people who are controlling these sorts of organizations, you know the executive directors, the managing directors, they want to just speaking about how we were talking about these organizations don’t necessarily go by money metrics necessarily. But how much of this particular product that we’re putting out is connecting with lots of other organizations that are partners of ours or whatever. If you can convince a director in your organization that your new research idea, proposal has something to do with what we’re already doing that is important to the bottom line of the organization, then you’re going to have a lot more control over that.
RICCIARDI: For me it really depends on the project and the organization. So sometimes organizations come to us with very specific RFP’s with exactly what they’re looking for. And oftentimes they’re based on what the grant requirements are, the funder requirements. So we kind of stay in that lane. And then it depends on whether I’m managing a project or not. So I’m on several projects that I’m not managing so I have much less creative control. And then on projects that I am managing, I will put together a work plan with a design and my boss will look it over and we’ll work on it together.
LANSEY: So similar to that, like you know I have a certain, you know, reasonable amount of creative control. Certain projects are more open-ended and it’s like, “have at it,” see what you come up with. Sometimes you can have a crazy idea and re-direct the way a project goes if it’s a good idea. And sometimes they’ll shoot it down if it’s a terrible idea. And then because we have this method of internal funding, if I have some crazy idea I want to chase down, I ca you know get funding to do that just internally. And again it depends, certain projects if I’m a technical lead. So then I have a little bit more creative control than if I’m supporting someone else’s you know project. And then it’s like I just need a physicist to do this little piece for me please like help me out with this so I’ll be able to do that. As opposed to like here’s you know, solve this giant problem and figure out how to do it with all the people you have.
FRANK: The one thing I wanted to recommend coming in here to talk to you guys. Which is, I mean it’s just what I plainly benefitted from when I was here. I mean probably, arguably the most important thing I benefitted from. If you, if you can solicit a professor who you’re taking a class with to you know, ask their contacts and their people to come in, talk to the class for fifteen minutes, maybe the whole class about what it is that you’re doing. That could then create, it could inspire, it could create new connections that then that could lead to who knows. But that kind of little alchemy that goes on there is often really beneficial.
You can’t just be like hey, Dr. professor so and so, can you really just open my mind, open my world up by bringing in like half a dozen of these brilliant people who are hiring. It might not be that simple. But try, give it a shot.
TURNER: Yeah, definitely, students should advocate for that.
STUDENT: What are the other departments, like you’re at a very physics one but I think you mentioned like computer science.
LANSEY: Yeah so our, my group in particular has physics, computer science and electrical engineering are the primary like cohort of people that make up our group because we do computational electromagnetics. So that involves people who can run the code, who are electrical engineers, people who can figure out what the code should do which is physicists and people who know how to write code which is computer scientists. And then all of us have research things. Computer scientists have computer science stuff, electrical engineers research engineering stuff, physicists physics stuff. But other groups in the company, so we have people that do like plasma physics, we have people that do medical ultrasound for medical applications. So again, each group has their own mix of expertise. So optics, there’s an optics and photonics group, you know again full of…
TURNER: Are there any other kind of branches? Do you guys have any humanists or social scientists over there?
LANSEY: Not to my knowledge.
TURNER: *jokingly* No education research?
LANSEY: We have some linguists.
TURNER: Oh ok!
FRANK: Wait didn’t you say there were six or seven people in the…
LANSEY: So my group now is like thirteen people.
FRANK: Oh ok.
LANSEY: So we’ve grown a lot in the last couple of years.
TURNER: And Laura what kind of research groups do you have at Metis? How is it organized?
RICCIARDI: So we’re organized by teams. There are three teams and my team does all the arts education, or the vast majority of it. We do sometimes take on projects that are not arts education but that’s kind of our focus area. And then the other teams both sort of work on, I guess one if a little more educational focused and they work with a lot of like magnet schools. And just general education programs and policies. And then we have another team that I would say works with more of like the public program, social programs.
TURNER: What about the research for you, Sam?
FRANK: I mean my previous firm was much more separated out in different teams. There were probably like half a dozen teams. Like a media team, a climate signals team which focused on every time there was a giant heat wave or hurricane or something like that and connecting it to climate change using science. My team which was the renewable energy team. Now at Billion Oyster Project, it’s a little more diffuse. I mean there’s a, there’s a pretty wide separation between the people who are teaching you know underwater welding and stuff like that versus people like me who are more on the curriculum side, environmental education, climate change, that sort of thing. But we’re pretty small. I mean we’re less than twenty people so you know there’s always a lot of overlap in terms of what we do. So yeah.
TURNER: Yeah, Sarah.
STUDENT: I’m wondering what a typical day looks like in your workplaces. Like what are the nuts and bolts of your job?
LANSEY: Varies wildly depending on the day. You know some days I’m working six different projects and I’m just running like back and forth, back and forth. And some days I can sit and focus on a particular project and stare at pages of math all day. It really it varies. You know some days if we’re in like a big development push it’s a lot of you know software development meetings, making sure that you get in like any, any other software development sort of environment. And some days it’s just physics arguments. Three-hour arguments with white boards with peers. And like really, every day is fun because every day is different. I don’t have, I don’t usually have the same thing that I’m doing day in and day out, day in and day out.
RICCIARDI: For me also it varies quite a bit. So yesterday I worked in front of a computer all morning and then all afternoon I was on an observation in the Bronx and then running a focus group there. And then today I was on my computer all day doing some qualitative analysis. I’m not even sure what tomorrow is even going to be but you know it just varies. And it varies also depending on the time of year so like the end of the school year, and even in the middle or end of semesters I guess. We have a lot of site visits so we can be in the field like most days of the weeks doing observations or focus groups, survey collection. And then we might be at our desk for awhile doing all the data analysis and report writing.
FRANK: Yeah I mean similarly it varies a lot. If you’re writing something, you know whether you like it or not you’re in front of a computer. Even when it’s collaborative, it’s a lot of Google Docs and comments and stuff in the side bar so that is, that’s sort of just like part of the job. But then a lot of times I get to get on a boat and go out to Jamaica Bay or do other kinds of fun stuff. Like we have a volunteer program where people come and help assemble artificial oyster reefs So we can do that with people who come, do some connecting pieces of metal with nuts and bolts and even welding sometimes. And also just working with students so you know there’s always all sorts of fun stuff that comes up then. So it really, it day by day it varies a lot.
TURNER, VOICE-OVER: Thanks again to our panelists for coming in to visit us at the Graduate Center and sharing their careers with our attendees and Alumni Aloud listeners. If you’re in the Graduate Center community and you’d like to attend something like this career panel, I have great news! Our office holds several of these throughout the school year. Check out events page at cuny.is/careerplan to see what’s coming up. You can also follow us on Twitter @CareerPlanGC for updates. Thanks for listening!
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