Careers in Nonprofits

What is a nonprofit?

Nonprofits include think tanks, scientific societies, foundations, and professional associations.

What comes to mind when you think about nonprofits? The organizations that come to mind may not strike you as ones that need scientists, but nonprofits include a wide arrange of organizations, many of which rely heavily on PhD level scientists. Some examples of nonprofits are think tanks, foundations, academic or scientific societies, professional associations, service organizations, patient associations, charities, and trade unions. Learn more about careers at nonprofits in this Science Careers article. The National Council of Nonprofits is a great resource to start learning more about nonprofits and the topics that they focus on. For more basic information on nonprofits, including nonprofits in countries other than the United States, check out the Wikipedia page for NPOs. You can learn about how much money a nonprofit has, how they spend it, and how efficient they are at GuideStar.

Scientific societies

Scientific societies, such as ASCB, ASM, ACS, AAAS, and Society for Neuroscience, serve scientists and hire scientists. PhD-level scientists are commonly hired in the areas of science policy and government relations, communications, education, publications, and executive positions. In many of these areas, PhD-level scientists are needed to translate scientific topics into content that can be understood by lay audiences, such as the public, students, and politicians. In executive positions, PhD-level scientists serve members through leadership, where oral and written communication and scientific expertise to talk with funders are key. Many societies also manage their own scientific journals, where PhD-level scientists are hired as editors. The experience you gain in a scientific society also translates well to other jobs in science policy and academia.


In foundations, PhD-level scientists have the ability to catalyze research through organizing resources, setting priorities, and working closely with stakeholders to make science happen. That said, jobs at foundations can vary a lot, and there is no common "track" for foundation careers. One dimension of this variation is the aim of the foundation, which may be quite broad (such as the Rockefeller Foundation), or specific to a certain disease. Foundations may support research by giving grants to scientists at universities, or they may rely on their own professional scientific staff to organize the research that the foundation wants to support. Increasingly, foundations use the latter method, which allows PhD-level scientists to work with academic scientists, biotech and pharmaceutical companies, and patient advocacy organizations to build infrastructure and teams of experts to solve problems in a more focused way than could be accomplished in an academic setting (where scientists also have to run labs, get grants, write papers, teach, etc). Teams like this can even require that negative results are published! The source of the money also impacts how the science gets done: private foundations often have little bureaucracy and can be very nimble. Learn more about foundations at the Health Research Alliance.

Think tanks

Think tanks are organizations that do research and advocacy work around topics including social policy, political strategy, economics, military, technology, and culture. Most think tanks are nonprofit organizations. Some think tanks may be more familiar, such as the Heritage Foundation or Brookings Institution. According to The Economist, "think tanks aim to fill the gap between academia and policymaking". Academics grind out authoritative studies, but at a snail’s pace. Journalists’ first drafts of history are speedy but thin. A good think tank helps the policymaking process by publishing reports that are as rigorous as academic research and as accessible as journalism.” Thus, many think tanks are more focused on influencing government policy. This article from 80000 hours includes a review of careers in think tanks, including pros and cons of this sector, tips for getting hired into this industry, and some personal factors to consider regarding these positions.

Nonprofits - The Fundamentals
Get a quick overview of nonprofit careers from UCSF alums working in the field

Nonprofit Alumni Career Paths Panel featuring UCSF alum Sarah Blake. Recorded in September 2021.

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