Political Science PhD, Kristy Belton, Talks about her Work at a Nonprofit

Kristy A. Belton is a writer and storyteller whose work focuses on issues of belonging, human rights and social justice, especially as pertains to the Caribbean. She holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of Connecticut and serves as Director of Professional Development for the International Studies Association. Kristy is the recipient of numerous awards for her work on statelessness and migration, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees 2015 Award for Best Doctoral Research on Statelessness. She is the author of Statelessness in the Caribbean: the paradox of belonging in a postnational world (Penn Press, 2017), as well as numerous book chapters and articles. She has worked with policymakers and the NGO community on issues surrounding statelessness and forced displacement, and currently serves as an editor for the Statelessness and Citizenship Review. She may be contacted at kbelton@isanet.org.

What kind of work do you do at the International Studies Association? What energizes you about your career?

Some of my work falls under the rubric of “professional development” proper – such as the management of career courses, early career scholar programming and practitioner-academic engagement – and then I have work that does not fit neatly under this umbrella. For instance, one day I may be editing material or reviewing proposals for funding; another day I may be figuring out where best to place program items so that our globally dispersed participants may be able to readily participate. At other times, my work includes working on new projects, such as podcasts and virtual engagement. One thing I love about my work is that no day is ever the same as the one before.

Moreover, the work I do for ISA evolves and this is important to me. My job looks quite different to what it was when I first started, although certain elements remain stable (such as my programming responsibilities). We have a very supportive working environment that allows for each of us to take on or create new initiatives that excite us, which also benefit our members.

In essence, no matter what type of work I am doing, it’s about facilitating connections, whether people to people, programs to people, or ideas to people. How can I, along with my colleagues, best serve our members so that their connections run deep and strong? How best can we communicate our members’ stories to each other and to those who are not members? It is the fomenting, and strengthening, of these connections that drives me in my work.

What did you study in graduate school? Can you say a little bit about your research?

I completed my PhD in Political Science (subfields of International Relations and Comparative Politics) and obtained a Graduate Certificate in Human Rights. My research focused on statelessness, or the condition of not having citizenship from any State. I had long been disturbed by the injustice of an imposed international system of States that prevented millions of people from being a part of it. So I wrote about “rooted displacement” – how one can be displaced in place – and the individual, societal and international ramifications of this. My research now is headed down a different path, as is the way that I express it, but it still centers on questions of belonging and how we treat each other.

Why and when did you choose to pursue a career at a non-profit?

I had always wanted to be in a position where my work could be of service to others. When I first started my tertiary education, I wanted to join the Peace Corps, but I was not a US citizen and so could not. I was also really interested in the UN’s work, as well as the work of human rights organizations, and thought I would potentially wind up working in one of these spheres. Instead, I work for a non-profit that encompasses service and scholarship, and whose members’ work touch upon so many areas critical to human rights and living in peace with others.

Like many graduate students, I was groomed to think I would – and should – land a job in academia. I had a rude awakening, however.

It is of note that I did not actively pursue a nonprofit career. Like many graduate students, I was groomed to think I would – and should – land a job in academia. I had a rude awakening, however. My postdoctoral fellowship was coming to an end and I had a Visiting Assistant Professorship offer. At the same time, my spouse was presented with a wonderful career opportunity. After some consideration, I turned down the VAP offer and soon became aware of an opportunity at ISA HQ. It was not the kind of work I had envisioned for myself. I had to let go of particular kinds of dreams and open myself up to the unknown. Now, on the other side, I can tell you that the unknown ended up being a wonderful place.

In what ways did your doctoral training help you in your career? 

ISA exists to connect members and their work to each other and to the broader communities of which they are a part. Many of our members are academics who have advanced degrees. As a PhD with funding, publishing, fieldwork and teaching experience, I understand many of the concerns of our members who work in academia. I can speak and understand their languages. That said, because I know what it is like to seemingly do “things right” as an early career scholar (ECS) and yet be unable to secure a job within the academy, I have a strong desire to raise ECS’s awareness of the multiple career paths that exist outside of academia. Our experiences, skills, knowledge, and drive are needed in as many walks of life as a person dares to take.

Do you have any advice for PhD students considering a career at a non-profit?

My advice would be to look within and figure out what it is you truly love to do. Whatever that is, it is not restricted to a career in academia. Be open to possibilities that do not, on the surface, appear to be “what you want.” And, remember, the only person holding you to a particular conception of your life is you.

APSA’s Career Paths series explores the wide range of career trajectories that political science PhDs can take and provides specific career advice for graduate students entering the job market, as well as other political scientists at all career levels who are looking for new career opportunities. Individuals interested in contributing to the series should email Dr. Tanya Schwarz, APSA’s Director of Teaching & Learning, tschwarz@apsanet.org