Toolina Cove, Great Australian Bight, Western Australia

NGO Employment Pathways for Early Career Researchers

20 October 2021
Despite the increasing attractiveness of non-traditional career paths for researchers, the paths from academia to working in other sectors are not always clear cut. This short article summarises the expert advice given to University of Sydney HDRs and early career researchers at a recent workshop on pathways into the NGO sector.

The intersections of an increasingly ecologically destabilised world and the precarious university are leading to more and more early career researchers looking to the environmental NGO space as a possible alternative to the traditional academic career ladder.

Recognising this trend, SEI Deputy Director Michelle St Anne, and Associate Professor Thom Van Dooren recently convened a seminar to provide HDRs with some more information about working in the NGO sector. Three high-profile members of environmental NGOs offered an overview of their experiences working in the sector and how current students can set themselves up to be appealing candidates for future hires.

The following is a lightly paraphrased compilation of the advice provided by David Ritter, CEO of Greenpeace Australia-Pacific, Nathaniel Pelle, Business and Biodiversity Campaign Lead at Australian Conservation Foundation, and Alix Pearce, Campaigns Lead for the Climate Council.

Making the leap from academia into the NGO sector can take a bit of work. In order to find a way into the sector, it is a good idea to take available opportunities to become ‘part of the scene’ so that you are something of a known quantity to recruiters and their organisations. Tips for this include:

  • Turning up to events and getting involved in campaigns! Do not be afraid to be involved in roles which don’t immediately appear to be directly linked to researcher work.
  • If you are able, volunteering for the organisation, including in roles like serving on governance groups. This can be a great way to both get known and get to know more about how the NGO operates.
  • Taking on any internship opportunities that you can. While, much like having the time, energy and resources to volunteer, this is an inherently privileged ‘way in’ – the reality is that showing people what you can do is a good way to get in the door.
  • Making sure that your research is out in the world in ways which are accessible to non-experts, or people from the NGO world who are looking for you.

Making it easy for potential recruiters to spot you and identify what you could provide their organisation:

  • Hone and demonstrate the ability to translate your work for different audiences. This might include writing opinion pieces and publishing in places like the Conversation, demonstrating that you can translate complex research for non-specialist audiences.
  • Relatedly – it is a good idea to form relationships with the journalists who work your beat.
  • Alongside doing the above – get your work out there in the public domain! Building a public profile might include using social media like Twitter or Tiktok, getting involved in community education programmes, or whichever other fora makes sense for you and your work. In short: get your work to the people you want to use it.
  • Running on from this, and broadly in line with the volunteering/internship route set out above, it is important to remember that you can be doing the research work for/on causes before you are formally working in the sector. If you are already doing great stuff, it is very easy to see how you could be an asset to an organisation.

When you are applying for roles, make sure you take the time to translate your skills and experience into terms that make sense for the organisation you are applying to:

  • Being able to demonstrate an ‘intuitive grasp of power’ is worth its weight in gold! Thinking strategically is as important as thinking deeply.
  • NGOs think about campaigns and campaign issues; not disciplines. The inherent skills of the researcher are valuable rather than necessarily the specific subject matter. Have a nose for material! Dig that little bit deeper to find out what is going on. Having a knack for making a story some alive and making information beautiful is valuable.
  • It is a good idea to find out what theory of change an organisation uses and make sure that you are happy being a part of that. Different organisations will have different ideas about what a ‘win’ will look like, etc.

Do not make the mistake of assuming you have to be a subject matter expert in the area the organisation focuses on. Your skills as a researcher are transferable! It is not like academia, where becoming a niche specialist is often the goal.

  • Anecdotally – many existing researchers for NGOs have advanced degrees that are worlds away from their current research foci. You will be working with campaigners who need to rely on good research for their own work, so basically it is about trusting your transferable skills and working as part of a team.
  • Working in interdisciplinary teams in the academy is a good way to prepare yourself for working in these once you have move to the NGO sector.

Some useful links:

If people are interested in the Climate Council research volunteer program they can email with their CV, and “research volunteering” in the subject line.

The SEI Employment Pathways Workshop: NGOs was held on 21 September 2021.

David Ritter is the Chief Executive Officer of Greenpeace Australia Pacific (GPAP). He has been with Greenpeace for 14 years, campaigning to secure an earth capable of nurturing life in all its amazing diversity. Prior to GPAP, David worked in a senior campaigns position with Greenpeace in London for five years, working on the global issues of destructive fishing, deforestation and climate change. Prior to joining Greenpeace, David worked as an academic and a lawyer in both commercial and native title practices. He is an Honorary Associate of the Sydney Environment Institute.

Nathaniel Pelle is the Business and Biodiversity Campaign Lead at the Australian Conservation Foundation, transforming the way businesses value, manage, and invest in nature in Australia. He is an experienced campaigner and strategist who has led Australian and international campaigns on sustainable agriculture, fishing, corporate sustainability policy, commodity supply chains, and oil and gas exploration. He is the former head of Greenpeace Australia Pacific’s Oceans and Oil campaigns where he recently led its project to protect the Great Australian Bight, including a collaboration with SEI. He is an Honorary Associate of the Sydney Environment Institute.

Alix Pearce is the Campaigns Director for one of Australia’s leading climate communications, advocacy and research organisations, the Climate Council. Prior to this she worked as a campaigns and strategic policy consultant for a range of purpose-driven organisations. Alix has also been the Director of Policy and Campaigns for the Consumer Action Law Centre, leading a team of policy professionals, campaigners and communicators in the wake of the Banking Royal Commission. She was also Founder and Director of the Cities Power Partnership, the biggest climate and energy program for cities in the country. Alix was awarded Campaign/Marketing Executive of the year at the 2018 Third Sector awards and serves as a Board Director for Not-For-Profit Global Voices.