From a Ph.D. in Music to Director of Development: Alumna Brooke Bryant on Pivoting in a Downturn

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Brooke Bryant (Ph.D. ’09, Music) is the director of development at the Kaufman Music Center, a music performance and education venue in New York City. She manages a five-person team that raises about $3.4 million dollars a year — roughly a third of Kaufman’s budget. She’s also a professional singer. 

She calls her role at Kaufman “her professional calling,” as it brings together her interest in development and nonprofit administration with her love of music. 

On a recent episode of Alumni Aloud, a podcast from The Graduate Center’s Office of Career Planning & Professional Development, she spoke about graduating and finding a job during a recession, how she got her start in fundraising, and the practices that can make job hunting within and beyond academia successful. 

She spoke with Graduate Center Ph.D. candidate Sarah Hildebrand (English), a fellow at the career planning center. We excerpt their conversation here. (A full transcript is available on the podcast website.) 

Hildebrand: What got you interested in the field of development? How did you make that switch from musicology to nonprofits?

Bryant: Great question. And to be candid, economic necessity was part of it. I was applying for jobs in 2008 and 2009. And I empathize with people who are doing that right now because I think a lot of the challenges that people are facing on the job market in COVID really echo the economic crisis of 2008, because at that time when the economy crashed, the academic job market really changed. 

I applied to 50 or 60 musicology jobs. I got three calls for more materials and no interviews. 

I’d been really lucky to have done some grant writing both for my own research and for a small, independent nonprofit while I was in school at the Grad Center. And as I was thinking about alternative career paths, realized that fundraising was something that people could get full-time jobs doing, with benefits. I was really lucky in that I was able to transition into a full-time grant writing job right after I finished. 

Hildebrand: How did you find that very first job?

Bryant: In 2008–2009, it was a bad job market year for everyone, including the nonprofit sector. But one thing that people always need is money and so there’s never a shortage of development jobs. There might be certain organizations that aren’t hiring or certain sectors where there are few jobs, but there are never not development jobs because organizations need revenue to exist. 

I looked at as many job descriptions as possible. I looked at where skillsets aligned with my own. I tailored my résumé to highlight those skillsets. And then I just applied. I also just did the networking, the talking to people in my college alumni network — just to do informational interviews to get advice from them as to how to tailor my résumé, how to present myself. 

Hildebrand: Have you been in charge of hiring processes before?

Bryant: Yes. Everybody on my team currently I’ve hired.

Hildebrand: What does your ideal candidate look like?

Bryant: I will say that the person, they don’t have to hold all the skillsets for the role, and I would encourage you to apply to things even if you don’t check every box on the job description. But they would hold a great deal of the skillsets required for the role, combined with a keen interest in learning, a sense of humility to kind of know what they don’t know, and a willingness or receptiveness to be coached or to learn, and patience with themselves to learn what they don’t know. And then they need to be someone who works hard, is super organized and knows how to get things done.

In development, you are juggling a lot of balls. This is another skill I think grad students especially at the Grad Center possess in spades. The ability that students at the Grad Center have to teach and adjunct at multiple places and hold multiple jobs and while you’re taking coursework and while you’re working on your dissertation proposal. The ability to be organized about all that stuff and still just work forward is something that’s applicable to any role. And, finally, just nice people with good people skills. Because again, development is about relationships. We’re the ones answering the phone to talk to people when they have questions or concerns. 

Hildebrand: So even if you don’t have a background in development yet, you can still pivot there using your graduate-level studies.

Bryant: Yes, absolutely. And I will say, well, it’s a fun story here — one of the superstars on my team who’s the manager of institutional giving is a Grad Center alum. I connected with her a few years ago because we were looking for somebody part-time. I reached out to someone in the music department, she connected me with a few different people who were interested in arts admin, and so I hired her on the spot, mostly because of her interest, her ability to project-manage and multitask. 

She worked with us for a year. She took a year off to do some heavy teaching and research, but we had a grant-writing position come open and we hired her to come back. She’s done a phenomenal job. You know, she never had a full-time position in development before. She’d only done a little bit of grant writing. But because of those research skills and really those project management skills, she’s been able to dive in.

Hildebrand: Do you have any tips for how to best go about networking?

Bryant: For me, networking has worked best — again I’m a doer — so I volunteer for things and I get to know people organically. But that’s not the only way to network and I realize time is limited. So I would say, think about what those areas are in your life that you have overlapping interests with people who can help you. And reach out. But reach out to people who could help you in ways that are polite and actionable. 

People are genuinely willing if you don’t know them if you’re part of a network to take the time for an informational interview to tell you a little bit more about what they do. I know if somebody from The Graduate Center ever called me and said, “Hey, you know, could I talk to you for 20 or 30 minutes about development?” if I didn’t know them, I’d be happy to connect with them. There may not be a job opportunity open, but it’s a great way to connect with someone and they may remember you in two months when there is.

Submitted on: MAR 22, 2021

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