Carnegie Mellon University
May 18, 2016

Ph.D. in LCS & Rhetoric Alumni Land Jobs at Civic Nonprofits

Non-academic career options are an increasingly exciting and fulfilling option for Ph.D. graduates. Take for example, recent graduates of Carnegie Mellon University’s English Department’s Ph.D. programs, Kurt Sampsel (LCS’15) and Matthew Zebrowski (Rhetoric’15), who are both pursuing nonprofit careers in civic engagement.

As a student in the Ph.D. in Literary and Cultural Studies Program, Kurt Sampsel became interested in nonprofits, advocacy and journalism. Now as the Government Services Associate at The Center for Technology and Civic Life (CTCL) in Chicago, he helps local election authorities use technology to better serve their communities.

“The organization was drawn to my teaching experience, my research skills and the passion for politics and democracy that was evident in my research and my public radio internship at 90.5 WESA,” said Sampsel.

PhD in LCS alumnus kurt sampsel gives a presentation as the Government Services Associate at The Center for Technology and Civic Life (CTCL).

He said he joined the Literary and Cultural Studies (LCS) Program to engage with culture, politics and economics in an immediate way and CMU’s program allowed him to explore these interests in his doctoral dissertation titled, “The FCC, Media Policy, and American Culture (1944-1996).”

“What drew me to the Federal Communications Commission was that I realized it’s this place where there’s an intersection of different kinds of power: corporate power, government power and ‘people power,’” he said. “I wanted to see how this clash of power had played out historically and how it had shaped our media climate.”

Sampsel added that his LCS courses helped him develop his values, thinking and analytical skills—all of which shape the work he does today.

“I like the kind of person that I am as a result of my Ph.D. It made me smarter, but also more patient, open minded, empathetic and politically engaged,” he said.

When Matthew Zebrowski graduated from CMU’s Ph.D. in Rhetoric Program and went on the job market, he too wanted a job where he could make a difference in society. He’s now the Development Communications Manager at State Voices, a nonpartisan organization that focuses on civic engagement.

PhD in Rhetroric alumnus matt zebrowski is the development communications manager at state voices

With it being an election year, the organizations in the State Voices network are busy developing and implementing voter registration and voter protection programs, specifically for communities of color, young people and single women, who are engaged at a far lower rate than other populations. Zebrowski’s job is to develop effective strategies for communicating this work.

“I like that I'm using my skills to do work that has real, tangible impact—I'm able to be a part of a team whose work has results on the ground across the country,” he said.

Zebrowski said his job requires a lot of editing, and his experience as a writing instructor at CMU and Penn State University Greater Allegheny Campus helped prepare him for this role.

He said taking courses such as ‘Discourse Analysis’ with English Professor Barbara Johnstone and ‘Contemporary Rhetorical Theory’ with English Department Head and Professor Andreea Deciu Ritivoi, as well as being an Editor for the rhetorical criticism blog,  “The Silver Tongue,” gave him the tools to understand and describe rhetorical effects of communication.

“I use this knowledge daily when crafting documents and communicating with the various audiences my organization works with,” Zebrowski added.

Johnstone chaired his doctoral dissertation titled, “Activism Beyond Consumption: The Rhetoric of Contradictory Values in Food Marketing.” Zebrowski’s dissertation uses the organic food industry and food activist organizations as a case study for exploring the relationship between marketing and consumer activism.

“Matt’s dissertation was very interesting,” said Johnstone. “It was placed at the intersection of several fields: advertising, environmental rhetoric and food studies.”

Johnstone said she’s seen graduate students, such as Zebrowski beginning to think more creatively about what they can do with their Ph.D. and students should consider doing so.

CMU's Career & Professional Development Center (CPDC) is a good resource for Carnegie Mellon graduate students and alumni searching for a career outside of academia. The center reviews resumes, offers a personalized career development program and more. Sampsel and Zebrowski both worked with Diane Taylor, CPDC Assistant Director and Career Consultant for Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences students.

“She was great, helping me at every step in the process,” said Sampsel. “She gave me feedback on resumes and cover letters, helped prepare me for interviews and after I received my job offer from CTCL, she even helped me negotiate for a higher salary. I would strongly recommend CMU English Department students take the time to work with her."

By Amanda King

Photos: (Top) Ph.D. in Literary and Cultural Studies alumnus Kurt Sampsel speaks about communicating civic information through social media before an audience of election administrators in Sacramento, California. Photo credit: Whitney May.

Ph.D. in Rhetoric alumnus Matthew Zebrowski gives a presentation as State Voices Development Communications Manager. Photo credit: Alexis Anderson-Reed.

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