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.
ANDERS WALLACE, HOST: I’m Anders Wallace, a PhD candidate in the Anthropology program at the Graduate Center. In this episode, I sit down with Chang Chung. Chang recently left his job specializing in policy analysis and program evaluation for the FDNY Foundation, the nonprofit arm of the New York City Fire Department. Chang Chung earned his PhD in Environmental Psychology at the Graduate Center in 2013. In this episode, Chang talks about the value of trying out unexpected things during your PhD program, the similarities and differences between academic research and working for a nonprofit, and the importance of being able to translate your research into actionable insights to make an impact in your chosen field of work.
Can you say your name and what you do for a living?
CHANG CHUNG, GUEST: My name is Chang Chung. I graduated five years ago from the Graduate Center from the Environmental Psychology program. My last job—since now I’m between jobs—my last job was a researcher for the FDNY Foundation as a researcher for policy analysis and program evaluation. So the Foundation is a nonprofit affiliated with the NYC Fire Department. The Foundation does quite a bit of different projects, but my duty was primarily to review the ongoing fire safety education and community outreach efforts: Were they effective? Were they not effective? And what I brought to that position is not just to look at that particular community outreach, but to also compare that to fire incident records throughout the city. So we do a need assessment and compare to where we provide our services.
WALLACE: Evaluating the effectiveness of these outreach programs to people in the public.
CHUNG: When we talk about fire departments, we still think pretty much about fire suppression. We haven’t proactively thought about fire safety education as fire suppression. Same thing as, years ago, when we talk about medical doctors, we don’t link medical doctors with public health. And then of course over the years we’re thinking about, you eat healthy, you exercise, you get immunizations—different ways to prevent you from getting sick. So this is a kind of progressive civil service, and not just in fire departments, but in other city offices as well, to use social science research methodology to analyze the current situation—can we develop some sort of policy initiative to prevent things from happening, instead of spending all of our time and energy in fixing the problem.
I would admit, it’s not an easy sell. Because the difference between such “nonacademic” policy research opposed to “academic” research is your nonacademic research is bound by how much resources you have—the capital and the manpower. Now, for my dissertation I used geographic information system; I used GIS to map gentrification, which I considered one of the problems of the availability of affordable housing in NYC and other cities as well. Now, if you look at this from a city government or federal government perspective, I could say, “Why don’t we just spend a lot of money building a lot of affordable housing—problem solved!” Anyone in government would tell you, “Well, we just don’t have that kind of money to build massive public housing.” Looking back, on a smaller scale, every city agency is very busy at fixing current problems. So when you’re there saying you can do something to prevent—they’re like, “Let me finish what’s on my plate first, then I’ll think what am I going to cook tomorrow.”
WALLACE: Could you talk a bit more about your academic background and what drew you to the field of Environmental Psychology?
CHUNG: I have been a Psychology major since undergraduate. Now I’ve always been interested in learning more about how people think, act, and make decisions. I actually went to the New School for Social Research on 14th St. first and I thought I would study Social Psychology. And I think everyone who studies social science would somehow come to face this situation: well, sure we study people in a well-defined environment in a lab, but when you put this into a “real” environment, it’s a different story. And this is when I came across the Environmental Psychology program at the CUNY Graduate Center. I said, “Oh, so they really do study people in the ‘real’ environment”—that’s something that I wanted to learn more.
So I think overall graduate school is a place full of opportunities. You might do something you didn’t think you’d be doing. I often tell younger cohorts in my program, “Spend a semester. Do something that you think, ‘I’m not going to do that before I leave.’ Give it a semester.” Because think about how long your career will be after you finish your dissertation. I know everyone—and I was one of them—when you’re at the Graduate Center you think, “If only I could finish the dissertation, my life would be all rainbows and ponies.” And obviously, this is a crucial stage for graduate students—I’m not downplaying that—but think about it, once you get your PhD, how long do you think your career will be? I’d say 20 years easy. Now, if you finish young—30-35—that’s not unheard of—your career could be decades long. So come back to when you’re at the Graduate Center. Let’s say you “waste” a semester doing something. At least you will learn something new and then you will decide, okay, I gave it a shot, this is definitely not what I want to do with my career. Or maybe you learn something and find, I didn’t know this could be interesting and you decide to follow it up. I think if there’s a lesson to be learned here it’s to look further beyond your dissertation.
WALLACE: That mentality, was that true in your experience as well?
CHUNG: It is very true in my own career development. So when I started in the Environmental Psychology program, we had three required courses in the first semester. And I was chatting with my adviser and he asked me, “Well, do you plan to take an elective?” And I said… well, this was back then I think I had just came to the US a few years… I said, “I know there are a lot of readings in those first year courses.” I said, “I don’t know; I think it’s better that I take it slow and stick with the required courses.” He said, “Well, I’m teaching an elective course called GIS and Environmental Justice.” He said, “It’s a workshop; we talk; there’s not much reading; we’ll learn the new computer software.” I asked him what that does and he said, “In a nutshell, it makes maps with computer software, but in reality it runs spatial analysis that traditional numeric statistical analysis couldn’t do.” He said to give it a try and if I didn’t like it I could always withdraw. And I figured yeah, A) that’s true and B) yeah, I could make a few maps for my dissertation. So I took the class, and the next semester I admit I didn’t touch it at all, but the following summer, he said, “The city is looking for summer interns who know the software.” And I said, “Oh, sure, let me put my name in.” And I got a summer internship at the fire department.
WALLACE: And this was in your second year?
CHUNG: This was between my first year and second year. Now once the summer was done, I thought: this was a nice experience. And they said they really liked what this technology could do for the department, would you like to stay? And I figured, yeah sure, why not? I live in Brooklyn. The fire department headquarters was in Brooklyn. It was a very short commute. I could always go work there in the morning and come to the GC in the afternoon. So I stayed and kept learning things. I witnessed how they utilized the technology more and more, as well as other city agencies. I didn’t realize that skill paid for my Graduate Center tuition, so not for nothing…. Of course I also worked for other professors’ research projects, but this one lasted the longest and was most convenient.
WALLACE: This skill obviously lead into your dissertation research and then after you finished your PhD you returned to work full-time with the FDNY?
CHUNG: So, I’m a foreign national. Now for foreign nationals to stay and work full-time, you need a work visa sponsor. City agencies don’t do that. And they say, maybe they could use the fire departments nonprofit wing to sponsor for a work visa. And then they explain to me [that] they’re really looking at people who could analyze big data. In this time and day, everyone’s like, “We have lots of data,” but no one can make out what the data is telling a story or not. So this is what they pitched me. They said they have lots of data—when I say firemen, everyone thinks fire trucks, fire suppression—how do these two correlate with each other? I say, well, they could use someone to run the numbers, put the results on a map in an easily comprehensible way—data visualization.
This is something, probably a skill I’d suggest graduate students at the Graduate Center to think about. When you work in a nonacademic workplace, you need the skills to convey your search results in layperson’s terms. When you go into a “nonacademic” workplace, it’s a different setting. And again, this doesn’t mean you know more than they do. In fact, I’d argue it’s the opposite. They have their terminology, their working methods. And I’d say that’s something we don’t learn enough at the Graduate Center. Not just the Graduate Center, but if you go to any PhD program, I think the main purpose is still to train you to apply for a tenure-track job at a 4-year college.
WALLACE: What was it like on a day-to-day basis working in the FDNY?
CHUNG: Is there ever a “typical” day? This is another aspect of difference between academic and nonacademic jobs. In a nonacademic setting, the situation is more fluid. Some will say it’s a little messier, because there are different needs for researchers.
WALLACE: Yes, the shortened time frame?
CHUNG: The shortened time frame. There will be certain things, like, you will step into the office, your phone will ring, and your boss will say, “This just happened last weekend, think about what we can do.” So this usually needs to be done in a very short cycle, sometimes even 48-72 hours. You need to analyze the situation, come up with a solution, and you’ll need to present it to your boss, his boss, and they’ll say, “Yes, this is doable, let’s follow it up” or “No, we cannot do that, try something else, back to the drawing board.” This is what I call the short-term project. Then there are projects that will be more midterm that will be days, weeks, or even months, which is more like academic research. There will be well-defined stages: you define the problem, do a little bit of research, crunch the numbers, come up with a solution, and write a position paper or policy brief.
And then there is the strategy plan, which usually goes for years. And this is similar to when you’re thinking about your dissertation. So the strategy plan—not only for the fire department, but other city agencies and some private sector companies as well—let’s say three years down the road, you want to get this done. So you’re going to have midterm goals or quarterly goals or quarterly reports about your progress. Now obviously it’s heading towards something, and your quarterly reports evaluations, midway checking points. So you can see that, usually you work on your midterm and long-term projects, but every so often you walk into your office, your phone rings, or there’s an email, “Well, this just happened, we need to come up with something quick.” Not necessarily dirty, but we just need to respond, because non-response is not acceptable. And I think this is something that at the beginning I would become very anxious. Sometimes you walk into the office at 9 o’ clock and the boss would say, “Could you whip out something by 4?” And we’d sit down to talk it through. And if we can kick it out then great. and if not we’d tease out a few ideas that you can work on this tomorrow and hopefully by the day after or day after that we can have something I can bring upstairs.
WALLACE: What do you enjoy about the work you did with FDNY compared to academia?
CHUNG: Even with all those pressure points and stuff, it’s when, based on your research, you come up with some policy recommendation, people love it, it got implemented, and you observe positive impacts on New Yorkers’ lives. I think that was the most rewarding. But let me not sugarcoat it. Of course there are also incidents when, it went out, it kind of didn’t work as we planned. I would say, well, that’s another learning experience. You learn why it doesn’t work. Sometimes it makes sense on paper; it seems logical. But somehow it went into the field and it didn’t work. You just don’t know, and like I said, this goes back to my Environmental Psychology training—when you do things not just in a lab, but in a real environment, there are a lot of different variables. You just didn’t know.
WALLACE: Did you have to learn skills for your role in the FDNY or did you find that your GIS and statistical training was enough?
CHUNG: I wouldn’t say a different skill, but how you apply your academic skills into their environment. You know, we have all these “academic” skills, but when you walk into a nonacademic workplace, usually things are done or have been done in different way. I think one of my bosses said it the best, “Chang, I’m not looking for a 20-page literature review. Just run the numbers and tell me what have we been doing? Are we on the right path or not?” or “Based on your number-crunching, do we want to try something else?” Especially now, there are more and more think tank nonprofits that have been doing this, and they sometimes would take on projects for government offices or write their grant and their own policy brief. I would say, read those. I would consider them a bridge between real policy briefs and academic publications. They are somewhere in the middle. They do carry out the literature review and serious statistical analysis, but they also come up with real policy suggestions.
In my own case, I studied gentrification. During my seven years of doing the research, I never really considered, “What’s my solution to fight gentrification?” When we design or propose a dissertation, I think we always think: you pass the defense, that’s the end. I’m gonna throw it out there [that] that’s actually the beginning—the beginning of the career—whether you go for an academic job, you’re gonna give a job talk; people are going to ask you what’s next. If you go to a nonacademic job interview, people are gonna say, that’s great that you did all this for your degree, but what kind of skills do you have or what have you learned from your dissertation that could help our situation?
I would say that probably the biggest challenge for me or lesson I’ve learned over the years working in a nonacademic workplace is how do I translate my findings. People say, “Oh, you play it down.” No, I would say, if you think that skill is easy, I’d say it’s the opposite. You need to use limited phrases and wording, but at the same time explain your research results. Imagine that you’re explaining your dissertation to high school students and I think that’s probably the biggest challenge I have in my workplace. Your explanation needs to make sense to them because if they don’t understand what you’re talking about or if you’re not making sense to them, I’m sorry to say, but all your efforts are wasted. It doesn’t reach out, it doesn’t make a positive impact. I think this is especially true because CUNY, as public university, the students who are attracted here—we all feel we have a certain civic duty. But I would say it’s just different career choices.
The paradigm of a PhD career path, it’s still there, some would say it’s become more competitive, some would say it’s simply you have more opportunities elsewhere. Some people would say opportunity is knocking at your door and some would say just stumble out of it and realize, hey, this is something interesting to do and pay the bills. While you are still a student at the Graduate Center, I think you need to consider this trend of the job market you’re going to face when you finish at the Graduate Center, which is, there are likely to be more of you graduating than there are open full-time teaching positions. So your cohort could be your competition in a few years.
So this is why I say that perhaps, during your time at the Graduate Center, spend a semester or two—try work at a nonprofit or even, the dark side, a private sector. Give it a try and maybe you’ll find something you find interesting or maybe you can really say, “Nope, did that for a semester, cross that one off the bucket list.” But now you know for sure. So this is a family story, that my maternal grandma, she used to babysit us and she’d say, “Try this food, try this or that food,” and we’d say, “Oh no, that looks funny, I don’t want to eat it.” And she’d say, “What’s the worst? You bite into it and if you don’t like it you spit it out. What’s the worst?” And I think that’s actually a good life lesson—thank you grandma! I’ll steal your idea. So everyone at the Graduate Center, spend three months, try something that you think, ”Oh, I don’t like that or I don’t consider that for my career choice.” Give it three months. It’s that saying that hindsight is always 20-20. If you ask me, “Did I try enough things while I was at the Graduate Center?” I’d say, compared to my cohort, I tried more than some of them. What did I not do? I didn’t teach as an adjunct. And is it now coming to bite me in the ass? Well, kind of. Because now I’m looking for full-time jobs and they always say, “Oh, we’d prefer someone with teaching experience.”
WALLACE: Even in the evaluation world?
CHUNG: Even in the evaluation world. If you say, “What I would do differently?” I’d say, I should’ve spent a semester or two, even just driving myself crazy time-wise, but teach. And there are also people who tell me that, “Well, you know what, we can find someone with adjunct teaching experience much easier, but you have more than ten years’ experience working in this, using this particular software. And that’s exactly what we need.”
WALLACE: So there’s always pros and cons.
CHUNG: There’s always pros and cons depending on how you look at it. I think one of the things we learn in graduate school is that very few things are cut and dry. It depends on where you stand, how you view it, and how you plan to spend your time and money. Be comfortable with ambiguity, be comfortable with uncertainty, and keep the doors open. Now people ask me, “Would you like to keep doing that?” Now I’m standing at an intersection. Now I sort of consider myself not at the middle of my career, but at least at the 1/3 career after the Graduate Center. Now some people might say, “Oh, Chang, you’ve wasted years. If you go that more academic route, you are now probably working trying to go from assistant professor to associate professor.” I have a bunch of cohorts, I joke, did you work this hard when you were writing your dissertation? And I don’t think so. We all know that to jump over that hoop to become associate professor isn’t easy. And yes, I have cohorts admit to me that if they knew it would’ve been this difficult, they’d have gone for a nonacademic job. But you just don’t know until you try. And I think the biggest lesson is to not close the door before you stick your head out and see what’s out there. And not to see your time here at the Graduate Center as a very lenient progress towards the dissertation. If you are on the road trip, your dissertation is just a rest stop before you go on to the next destination.
WALLACE: That’s a wrap for this episode of Alumni Aloud. I want to thank Chang for coming on the show to share his experiences in nonprofit research and program evaluation with our listeners. Also, we’d love to hear from you. Tell us about your experience listening to Alumni Aloud by filling out our survey. Just click the Alumni Aloud link on our homepage. Remember to stay tuned for more episodes of Alumni Aloud, published every other week during the Fall and Spring semesters. Subscribe on iTunes and you’ll automatically be notified when new episodes are released. Also check out our Facebook, Twitter, and Career Planning website at cuny.is/career plan for more updates from our office and to make appointments with our career counselors. Thanks for listening and see you next time.