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Activist careers for those with a geek background

This is an Ask a Geek Feminist question for our readers:

I’m a doctoral student in physics, currently writing my thesis and I’m going to be looking for a job come summer. The problem is that I’ve had a long, shitty, depressed time of grad school, and I don’t really want to keep doing physics, at least not right away – I got involved with trans* activism while I was transitioning and didn’t have a bathroom I felt like I could use, and since that I’ve also done safe space trainings, small-scale community organising, and successfully got the university to adopt a trans-inclusive student health plan.

At the moment I’d much rather continue my activism than get a postdoc or whatever, so my question is what sorts of jobs might be available to a geek activist with a doctorate in physics (rather than something more directly applicable), or where should I even start looking?

So, what I did here (or rather, what Valerie Aurora started and we did) was found an entire non-profit from scratch to employ our geek selves as feminist activists. Possibly that wasn’t what you wanted to hear though, it’s not the easy way to a career in activism. If there is one? Can anyone shed light on this that doesn’t involve applying for tax exempt status in the United States?

6 thoughts on “Activist careers for those with a geek background

  1. Jenn

    Same situation! Well, getting a degree in chemistry (with a strong biology background) and I just can’t think of actually doing chemistry. I’ve been thinking about hard science as a day job, hopefully something with a flexible schedule or maybe even 4 days a week. I’m hesitant to start a non-profit or join forces with one because I think there are serious concerns with the way they are financed and how that limits the scope and impact of their work. (See The Revolution Will Not Be Funded for the long version of that– not all non-profits are ineffective or seriously flawed, but that’s something I have to think about.) I’m most interested in fundamentally changing the health care system so that it’s not toxic and coercive for non-normative bodies (fat, trans*, queer, nonwhite etc), but that’s such a huge task. Where to start? And how? Patient advocacy? Join forces with a queer health center? Too many big questions spinning around my head to make figure out what I want to do, let alone do it.

    1. Susan Sim

      For making big changes like the ones that you are interested in, writing a book is a good route. A good way to get started is to start blogging, because you will need a platform to get a book contract.

  2. Laura James

    Define activism :) There’s opportunities in hacking for charities (places like Amnesty need websites, online platforms and so on) – they hire employees and contractors just like companies.
    There’s lots of options in open source related to activism too – for instance, I work at the Open Knowledge Foundation, one example of what we do is we make open source tools to support govt and spending transparency which are used by activist groups and journalists and so on. Maybe that’s more indirect than you were looking for :) WIkimedia, Creative Commons. If you want some more hard core tech, how about supporting projects like Tor (the onion router) to enable activists to work securely?

    If you’re looking to do good but maybe not actually campaign as such, would projects to support the developing world, maybe through or with technology, be worth a look?

  3. Susan Sim

    I went through a similar process recently. I have a PhD in computer science and I can’t face working in a university any more. Consequently, I have a lot of advice.

    The short answer is that you have to invent your new job. Your new job may be a consultant, freelancer, working in a nonprofit, or even founding a nonprofit. I recommend avoiding the last one if this is your first foray in making activism a full time job. If this is what you want to do eventually, it’s better, for now, to work with an existing organization.

    There are basically three activities that you have to undertake in parallel.

    1. Make a catalog of your skill set and make a point of identifying any special talents or gifts that you have. These are the assets that you are going to leverage to invent your new job. In other words, instead of thinking about yourself as a PhD in physics, think about the things that you can do. Based on what I know about graduate school, you can write reports, synthesize literature, give presentations, write proposals, manage projects, write computer programs, analyze data, etc. All of these skills are in high demand. If you have a special gift for, say making data visualizations, put this prominently in the list, because this will be what distinguishes you from anybody else.

    2. Do some soul-searching about what causes or activities you want to get involved in. For me, this was the hardest part, because my interests are so diverse and I’m easily distracted. It sounds like you are already involved in trans* issues, so this might be the easy part for you. But don’t be afraid to think broadly about problems that you’d like to address.

    3. Do some research on what kinds of needs are out there. This is a bit like market research. The most successful freelancers, consultants, and charities are ones that tap into a real need or impulse among volunteers. This step is necessary, because no matter how altruistic you are, you still need to eat. Also, it’s a lot more rewarding if you receive monetary and social benefits from your work.

    During this process, it’s important to get out there and talk to people. They can tell you about opportunities and give you feedback on your ideas. If you want to be successful, tell as many people as you can about what you want to do, before you do it. This aspect is very different from grad school.

    Good luck! It’s an exciting journey. My story is still unfolding, but I’m happy with how it’s progressing.

  4. LLLLL

    I know it’s not quite the same, but I’ve actually been working on activism work within physics. I’m also a trans grad student who has a touch of the activism, and have been working on changing the culture in physics to make it better for LGBT+ people in general. If you get APS News, my group was the one featured on the front page in April about LGBT Issues at the March Meeting. We have an active group and website that you can find us through here:

    If you have any questions about it, please feel free to email me ( lgbt.physicists at, especially if you think there might be a possibility of you staying in the field.

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