From PhD to Philanthropist

This is a guest post from Sofia Rasmussen.

A PhD throws many doors wide open, from teaching positions with the chance for tenure and wide acclaim among colleagues to research jobs with governments or large organizations where the paychecks can be hefty and the work is cutting-edge. These opportunities make it all the more remarkable when a new PhD from one of the best traditional or online doctoral programs gives up on such chances in order to enter the nonprofit world. It happens, though, and in surprising numbers. The education and experiences of doctors or professors make them ideally suited to deal with social problems, often to the point of rolling up their sleeves and getting their own hands dirty.


At a basic level, the connections that PhD wielders have often make it easy for them to donate or even start particular causes. Take for example Dr. Meymandi Assad, a psychiatrist who holds both a private practice position, a professor position at the University of North Carolina, and a seat on art boards throughout the state. Despite his busy life, Dr. Meymandi manages to donate to a wide variety of performance and display art causes and has supplied funds for new concert halls, exhibits, tours, and positions.

Of course, you don’t need to be a tenured professor to invest in the community. Many famous business leaders, such as Jon M. Huntsman Sr. use their higher education degrees to become influential and wealthy industrialists or CEOs, then turn around and spend that money on causes. Huntsman himself, who gives generously to schools, social causes, and cancer research, has been awarded over a dozen honorary doctorates but still suggests that the wealthy should give at least 80 percent of their income in pursuit of noble causes.

Charity Careers

Other philanthropists use their PhDs to join nonprofit organizations and work for the good of communities around the world. This option often appeals to doctors moved to use their skills to help the needy in local communities or nations unable to afford advanced medical practitioners. None of these nonprofit professionals make a large amount of money – indeed, their very organizations depend on donations and grants to survive. These doctors work in tough conditions, often spend long periods away from their families, and may see little widespread social change, but still labor for the difference they can make in people’s lives from day to day.


Effective philanthropy involves making wise decisions on the distribution of funds and talent to the right causes, at the right times. This involves a myriad of social and economical choices, so it is no surprise that PhD holders find themselves uniquely suited for the job. Even better, a number of universities are beginning to offer PhDs in Philanthropic Studies for these exact reasons. In 2008, the first four people in the United States graduated with such a degree from the Center of Philanthropy at Indiana University. These degrees give professors the ability to move excellent decisions with their own money while contributing to a global body of knowledge on how to give properly and efficiently. These professors are also well suited to consult with major corporations on the ways they can support social justice and local communities, spreading the philanthropic wisdom around.

As PhDs continue to be awarded in record numbers, those in need around the world stand to gain more from the philanthropy of academic experts.  From donating their time to tutor underprivileged children  to donating hundreds of millions in profits from their hedge funds, PhDs are giving back and doing what they can to ensure a healthier, happier, more educated future for citizens around the world.

Sofia is a graduate student in journalism based in Seattle.  When she’s not reading or writing about education and technology, she enjoys exploring the Pacific Northwest by bike.


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