NESI Blog: Straddling the academic and not-for-profit sectors in physical activity research

Leigh headshot

By Leigh Vanderloo, Ph.D., the Knowledge Translation Manager at ParticipACTION and an Adjunct Professor in the School of Occupational Therapy at the University of Western Ontario (Canada).

If you were anything like me in grad school, you likely experienced that the pinnacle of your training focused on preparing you for life as a professor.

I was groomed for a life in academia. As expected, I worked tirelessly, attended conferences, published regularly, networked, and managed to secure competitive research awards. I took every step to ensure I was as competitive and employable as possible in the field of pediatric exercise science and health promotion.

The only thing I couldn’t account for was timing. By the time the final 6 months of my PhD program came around, I quickly realized that there were no academic positions available at the time. Zero. And this didn’t change even as my defense approached. Two weeks before my “big day”, I came across a posting for a job at a national non-profit organization in the physical activity, recreation, and sport space. Specifically, they were looking for a subject matter expert who could help advance the ‘brand’ of the organization as a thought leader in physical activity. They wanted to ‘up’ their profile and footing in science and evidence. While not exactly what I envisioned doing post-graduation, there weren’t a lot of viable opportunities at the time; so, I threw my hat in the ring.

The process of applying and interviewing for a non-academic position was very different from what I had been preparing for my final year of my program. And fast! I interviewed for the role 2 days after my defense (a Friday) and was hired by end-of-day Monday. Before I knew it, I was settled in a new city, working in a fun, open-concept office, and my manager was not another academic, but rather an experienced journalist with very keen communication skills. I now found myself in a position where I was learning new ways to share research in fun, creative ways where the research I collated would then be brought to life by a team of communication and marketing experts. I was proud to be engaged with a number of different stakeholders and to consider thoughtful ways to reach the sector.

So, what about my dream of entering academia? Funny enough, working in the non-profit sector has still permitted me to be heavily involved in research in a field that I love – I not only get to generate new knowledge, but also get to find creative ways to help disseminate it. I also find it amusing that it wasn’t until after I entered the non-profit sector that I actually got to collaborate and ‘rub shoulders’ with some of the brightest minds that I had spent years citing in my research.

I was also fortunate that I had an extremely supportive PhD supervisor. Before I wrapped up my program, we took the necessary steps to ensure I was eligible to receive an appointment as a Research Adjunct Professor within my respective faculty. We figured this would at least allow me to keep my foot in the “academic door” and gain experience serving on students’ advisory and examination committees. This was definitely a bonus.

So, if you find yourself in a similar situation (or maybe if a job in academia never really interested you), here is some food for thought:

  • Maximize your transferable skills – people management, project management, data handling, evidence synthesis, subject matter expertise. Don’t pigeonhole yourself.
  • What gaps currently exist – who needs your expertise? There are so many organizations (be it in the private, public, or non-profit sector) that could benefit from your expertise and experience. What can you bring to the table that can help elevate those roles?
  • Find your allies – and this includes mentors in and out of your field.
  • Consider your values and overall professional mission – once you have a handle on this, you can start looking for organizations that align with your values and keep an eye on job vacancies.
  • And never forget…it’s ok to change your mind. Try something new!

Since crossing the stage 4 years ago, I have learned a lot – what I like, what I’m good at, what I don’t like, and what motivates me to grow (professionally, personally, and mentally). And these new learnings are what will direct my next steps…and that’s exciting.  

Main take-aways:

  1. Find a way to marry your passion with your skill set.
  2. Always put yourself in a position of perpetual learning.
  3. Find ways to be incremental vs. supplemental in every new role you take on.

Dr. Vanderloo is the Knowledge Translation Manager at ParticipACTION (national thought leadership organization in physical activity, sport, and recreation) and an Adjunct Professor in the School of Occupational Therapy at the University of Western Ontario (Canada). Her areas of research focus on physical activity and sedentary behaviours in the early years as well as knowledge translation as it pertains to behavioural science.

Twitter: @lmvanderloo