Matthew Krumholtz *15 (ENG) interviewed by Duygu Coskuntuna, GS (NES).
In the Trailblazers Beyond the Tenure Track series, current Princeton graduate students interview graduate alumni pursuing a range of careers beyond the tenure track. Collectively, these stories help graduate students develop a vision of the journey ahead by exploring the experiences of trailblazers who have gone before them.
My focus within English centered on narrative strategies developed in the 20th century and used by writers and filmmakers in the US to ignite and sustain social and cultural movements –from psychoanalysis to the Harlem Renaissance and the Civil Rights Movement. The main question motivating my research was how new forms of narrative were being developed and expanded in order to help build momentum and reach wider audiences around these movements. Currently, I am running MK Impact, my social impact consultancy that works with social sector organizations to amplify their reach and impact. I’ve worked with clients across a range of sectors, including digital media and philanthropy.
Laying the groundwork
I had three very supportive advisors who came at the question of narrative strategies and social change from very different perspectives and together, it was a helpful chorus that guided me through my graduate program.
I was on a rather traditional path thinking that I would move into academia from graduate school. As I was finishing the degree, I had an opportunity to take an internship at a Wall Street firm, a startup that was very much mission-driven and connecting new forms of capital with nonprofit organizations and other social sector organizations. It was maybe the last six months, when I was finishing my dissertation along with teaching a lecture class in the English department with one of my advisors, and I was shuttling back and forth between Princeton and New York.
The moment that changed everything
While I was in the midst of dissertation process and that internship, I was noticing that the narrative strategies that were the basis of my research connected so well to a practical application within this mission-driven environment. That was incredibly eye-opening to me to see just how many ways this body of research was relevant to other contexts outside of my field of study. The other overlap was that not just the content of my dissertation, but also the skillset I was building around it through the research and the teaching, which was also enormously transferable and valuable within other contexts outside of academia.
I followed a very traditional path up until that moment when I started an internship at a mission-driven organization. By taking that internship I really was able to see all kinds of new avenues and directions for my research and the skills I had developed over time in graduate school. Once I stepped out and took this internship, I saw a window open onto new possibilities.
Life beyond academia
From there, the internship became a full-time position for me as Director of Communications at that firm, helping to build out their communications strategy, but also solidifying partnership engagement with nonprofit organizations, which was a key pillar of their business model. And through those partnerships, through the network that I was building as part of this organization, I started to see clearly a path for myself outside of the academy, which was very exciting to me. Since all my contacts and my life were in New York City, it made a certain amount of sense to start exploring seriously other avenues. So, I started working as a consultant with a range of mission driven organizations that were really designed to have a positive social, economic and environmental impact, regardless of their status as nonprofit or for-profit organizations.
Then, I was hired by Arianna Huffington of the Huffington Post during her last few months as Editor-in-Chief, and she brought me on as a consultant to scale her last newsroom-wide initiative that was focused on sleep health and wellness. This work involved partnership development as well as content strategy and content production. I was moving from financial services into the world of journalism, from one fast-paced environment to another. I developed great networks, not only in journalism, but also across the social sector. When Arianna left in August of 2016, I connected with the Head of Impact at HuffPost, and together we joined forces to develop a whole new division of the HuffPost called the Impact team.
The ultimate goal was fundraising, bringing in large-scale philanthropic funding to help us develop editorial platforms that we couldn't do with our own resources. We created a funding strategy to bring in the resources that would allow us to take a year, or three years in the case of one platform, investigating deeply on a set of important topics that were core to our identity as a newsroom. Our first grant was from the Gates Foundation, and they gave us money for a year-long series around neglected tropical diseases that culminated with the publication of three virtual reality films that we shot in Africa. From there, it continued to grow, and the Gates Foundation coming on as a proof of concept really helped us to raise more funding.
I left HuffPost in December 2019 and since then, I have been focusing my practice on nonprofit organizations, which as a sector has been hit so hard by the pandemic. Budgets have been slashed and tough decisions have had to be made, even for those nonprofits that are in a relatively good financial position. Traditional funding streams are drying up, and organizations need to pivot and reimagine what it looks like to sustain themselves in this totally new environment.
I have worked with a range of organizations. One of them was in Connecticut, the Waterbury Symphony Orchestra. They needed leadership support as their prior executive director left the organization, and so I filled that gap for six months. A lot of that work was essentially donor engagement, making sure fundraising streams were steady or that we were evolving them to meet the needs of the organization. For instance, I helped to bring in our first live-streamed concerts, as a new way both to build our footprint virtually which a lot of music organizations are going to have to do to keep in touch with their donors, but also to connect with new donors and showcase our work to larger audiences.
Another organization that I am working with is a big NYC-based philanthropy that pools capital from a range of philanthropists to scale the operations of nonprofit organizations over a long period of time, so that they're able to think bigger and reach further than they otherwise could with limited resources.
All these organizations move quite quickly, and there's really dynamic, fast-paced work environments in each of these sectors from my experience. And it's not quite as patient and deliberative, amenable to deep, long-term thinking as the university provides, which of course is a great luxury. Moving from the one kind of cadence of work to the other, I am very much energized by this faster pace of work.
Another point of anchoring for me would be that this kind of work necessitates collaboration in an important way. In these dynamic work environments, whether it's in a philanthropy, a newsroom or a financial services organization, things are rapidly evolving, and you are responding in real time to urgent needs or changing conditions. There is a necessity to elevate the best ideas from wherever they originate. Also, building consensus about what direction you are going to move and reimagine your work for a changing context is crucial, especially in an intensely dynamic situation like the pandemic.
I don't draw a sharp line, however, between academia and the work that I've done outside of it on the basis of collaboration, because a lot of the work in the humanities is collaborative work, with your mentors and your advisors, both inside the university but also outside. It's about going to conferences and sharing your work with other scholars; it’s about looking at the whole ecosystem of the university and being able to translate your work in a way that is meaningful and significant to other scholars.
There’s a real need for a parallel language that hinges on being able to communicate clearly about the skills you've developed through your doctoral work, through your teaching and your research. It’s important to effectively convey the impact of the work that you were doing - zooming out from the technical shorthand of our fields of study and being able to communicate with a non-specialist about very complex subject matter in a way that's meaningful and can sustain engagement with them.
Best advice for graduate students
I would really start by thinking of mentorship within your academic field as expansively as possible. Often, we think first and foremost about our advisors, our defense committee. But that's one piece of a potentially very vibrant puzzle. Depending on how resistant advisors are to the exploration of alternative career paths, it's important to develop other sources of mentorship which could include graduate student peers, also in other departments, it could be a professor whose course you took outside of your home department, or an administrator. I think of these connections as concentric circles beyond the core group of advisors that anchor your work in the University, thinking of the breadth of the concentric rings that move out into the world beyond your field.
There's also the kind of networking aspect of the university, not only its current population of students and faculty and administrators, but also alumni - people who graduated 25 years ago and people who graduated two years ago. That’s the kind of network we are lucky to have at Princeton, connecting people who take care of one another. The full university has resources that you could access and use to enhance your dissertation or your teaching, but also where you can explore other avenues for where your research could make an impact.
This interview has been edited for clarity.