Where can a graduate degree from the University of Illinois take you? In this monthly series, we catch up with one recent Graduate College alum and ask the question: "Where are they now?".
Alison D. Goebel graduated from Illinois with a PhD in Anthropology in 2011. Now, she's the Executive Director of the Greater Ohio Policy Center. This small non-profit advocates for state-level policy reforms that will help Ohio’s rustbelt cities stabilize and thrive.
What was the transition from graduate school to a professional career like for you? What surprised you about it?
My mantra with every big life change has been “fake it till you make it.” I had worked alt-academic jobs through grad school, but I still felt like I didn’t have the experience or qualifications to jump into a full time, non-academic job. So I tried to be a quick study in that first job and, really, with every advancement in my career since then. After graduate school, one thing I had to reprogram myself on is that asking for help, mentorship, and advice is not seen as a sign of weakness or incompetence. Peers and senior colleagues want to help! I certainly found support in graduate school, but “making it” became easier to do when I began asking colleagues for advice on how to “fake it.”
What are some of your main responsibilities, and what does a normal day or week look like for you?
As Executive Director I work with my board of directors to decide what policy issues Greater Ohio will take on. My job is to make sure we have the financial resources, qualified staff, and the right partners to achieve our goals. During a typical week, I might email a program officer at a foundation about a project I’d like them to fund, make a presentation to local government officials about a policy recommendation we’re working on, do a final review of a research report that another staffer wrote, meet with a legislator, call a colleague for their “on-the-ground” perspective, attend a coalition meeting, and phone in payroll. No two days are ever the same!
What has been the most valuable skill you gained from graduate school?
Critical thinking—every day in my job I need to be able assess information to determine how it can help the staff at Greater Ohio advance our work. Sometimes this means connecting the dots between topics or conversations that haven’t been brought together before, other times this means recognizing how best to frame a message so that it motivates a policymaker to action.
What is the most interesting, rewarding, and/or challenging aspect of your job?
The most rewarding aspect of my job is knowing that my organization’s research and lobbying efforts have real life impact. For example, since 2010, Ohio’s struggling communities have received over $145 million to demolish empty, blighted homes. These funds have removed thousands of dangerous, eyesore houses that become magnets for crime and pull down surrounding property values. My organization advocated for these funds and provided expert advice to the state agencies overseeing the funding. We made recommendations, which were adopted, on how to structure a program that ensures local communities are getting the greatest bang out of each buck. As a result, dozens of neighborhoods around the state are coming back and beginning to flourish again.
What do you wish you had known when you started out in your current position?
While I have been with Greater Ohio for nearly seven years, I have been at the helm of the organization only six months. Before accepting the Executive Director role, I wish I had truly known how nerve wrecking it feels to be entirely responsible for raising the organization’s budget. That said, it’s a great feeling every time a funder or client notifies me that our grant application or project pitch was successful and a check is in the mail.
How has your job changed since you started at Greater Ohio Policy Center?
When I started working at Greater Ohio in 2010, I was a part time contractor and my only duty was to write grant applications. In November 2016, I was appointed Executive Director and am now responsible for the output, reputation, and financial health of the organization! Beyond the change in responsibilities, more broadly, the political and cultural landscape has changed and Greater Ohio has had to change with it. Local and state politics, like national trends, have become increasingly polarized and fractured and successfully navigating that means I have to be even more nimble and thoughtful than I was when I first started.
What is one piece of advice you would give to graduate students at Illinois?
Find non-teaching opportunities — employers want to know you can do more than just lecture, grade, and obsessively research one topic for many years. Even if you plan to go into academia, those non-teaching skills will make you stand out from the 200 other applicants with similar academic credentials. You can’t just tell a prospective employer that you’re a really good event planner or are an expert project manager — you need to have evidence on your resume or CV of those skills. Take graduate assistantships with administrative duties (like serving as the department’s undergraduate advisor or supporting the editor of an academic journal) or find jobs or volunteer opportunities outside the university (like redesigning the website for a local nonprofit or joining the planning committee of one of the many festivals in the area).
This interview is part of the monthly Grad Life series called "Where Are They Now?" which chronicles the career paths of recent Univeristy of Illinois Graduate College alumni. This interview was conducted by Derek Attig. Derek is Assistant Director for Student Outreach in Graduate College Career Development. After earning a PhD in History here at Illinois, Derek worked in nonprofit communications and instructional development before joining the Career Development team. A devotee of libraries and all things peculiar, Derek is currently writing a book about bookmobiles.