Ask Victoria | After 12 Years Working with Whales, How to Transition?

Hi Idealist Careers,

After 12 years of training beluga whales, I’m looking for a new career. It wasn’t that I fell out of love with whales. They are what introduced me to my husband and are responsible for our two beautiful children. It was, in fact, those kiddos that are the impetus behind my career search. I couldn’t be a whale mom and a human mom at the same time and give everyone (myself included) all the attention that is required. But now what? My degree is in journalism (I stood out like a sore thumb around my biologist and ecologist and anything-ist coworkers), so I think grant writing is the perfect way to combine my writing skills and my love for nonprofits.

I’m just having a little difficulty getting started, stuck in the paradoxical loop of needing a job to gain experience, but needing experience to get a job. I have spent the last year and a half volunteering on a grant writing committee for a one-time project in my small town, but I never authored a grant on my own.

I was drawn to your website because I want to change the world, even if it is just a small part of it. And I want to do it while juggling two small kids and a fledgling small business (my husband’s dream was to open a coffee shop, so, BAM, now we have two). I also recall reading a headline on your website that read something like, “Are you a ballerina trading in your rehearsal time for team meetings?” and I feel like I’m in a similar boat. What do you do with your life when you stop working with belugas?

Thank you for existing. I look forward to reading your blog and to finding how to impact the world next.

Dear Monica,

Sounds like you’ve had an exciting and interesting career! I’m sure your note will inspire many of our readers to research jobs they can do with whales and other wildlife also.

I understand wanting to use your talents in writing, and I have some ideas for expanding your reach in the grant-writing world. In fact, it sounds like you’re already there! I see you’ve been volunteering on a grant-writing committee, so let’s explore that a bit.

But first, if you have not already done so, I’d encourage you to look at job descriptions for grant-writing jobs (just don’t put your focus on the “qualifications” section yet). Be on the lookout for common themes in the listings. Which job responsibilities are included in almost all those descriptions? These are the responsibilities you should target your skills and experience to on your resume and during your interviews. You can use these details to make a solid match between your experience and the job at hand. You may even find that when you get to the heart of the job functions, you actually have the skills necessary to do the work.

Let’s take this position at the New York Foundling Hospital as an example. The person who is hired for this job will do the following:

  • Prepare proposals, reports, letters and budgets for funders.
  • Identify funding needs and opportunities, and collaborate on grant reporting requirements.
  • Manage prospect research, assist in institutional funder cultivation and stewardship, maintain an accurate grants calendar, and track grant deliverables and timelines.

As you can see, after taking out a few words regarding the specifics (funders, “grant” reporting, stewardship, “prospect” research, etc), the tasks themselves probably sound very much like ones you’ve already done in previous roles. Perhaps you’ve even engaged in the more specific activities as a volunteer.

Rather than focusing on not having the experience as a paid professional in this type of role, reflect on the responsibilities you’ve had that are similar and relate to the work described. And remember that by gaining exposure on the grant-writing committee, you are building your vocabulary in this area of work. It seems like you’re in a good place to start in building your case as a viable candidate for the job.

Beyond that, I would say that you can also position yourself to leverage your volunteer gig in other ways. Think about it: you’re right there in the trenches with a committee. Start asking questions. Who has the most experience with grant writing? Where have they worked? What was their biggest grant-writing success? Develop a rapport with your colleagues (they are colleagues, even if you are all volunteers) and see what insights you can glean from them.

Once you have the run-down on their grants experience, branch out a bit more. Find out where they work. is it a nonprofit? Does the work they do sound interesting to you? How did they get to where they are today? What tips and suggestions might they have that can propel you to your next step? Who might they be able to introduce you to?

As you start getting to know other people in the field, ask more questions:

  • If I want to write my own grant, what should I do to get started?
  • These are my current skills and the experience I gained on this committee– how do you think this can translate to a grant-writing job? Which of my skills do you think would be most appealing to a potential employer?
  • If your organization was hiring, what type of job would you recommend me for, based on what you know about my skills and experience?
  • Do you know of other organizations where my skills might be a good fit?
  • Should I take a class or enroll in a program and if so, which do you recommend?

After doing this research and reflection, ask yourself how qualified you now feel to take on this type of role. Did anything shift? These exercises will hopefully have helped you gain more self-assurance in your abilities and greater confidence when you present yourself to potential employers. To your success, Victoria

Readers: What are your tips for breaking into the grant-writing field? Post in the comments below!

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I became acquainted with Idealist in late 2000 while working in the career development office at a private liberal arts college in NYC. I used it almost daily to help students and alumni find meaningful careers. After a 12-year stint in higher education, I worked as a career coach for professionals in various industries (and still used Idealist). During one of those many searches, a listing really caught my eye- the one for the newly-created position, Careers Program Coordinator. So... I jumped at the opportunity. Since then, I took on the role of Manager of Career Content for Idealist Careers, creating career content for job seekers, leaders, and other nonprofit professionals. Understanding the roles that a positive outlook and holistic self-care play in career success, I've shared with our readers time-honored methods for improving confidence and productivity. Now, as Manager of College and Professional Development, my focus is on lifting the advice from Idealist Careers "off the page". Drawing from my experience in career development, I propel job seekers and career changers towards taking control of their searches with confidence and removing fear, uncertainty, and other blocks to success via in-person workshops and seminars, webinars, and conference programming. My great loves are cooking (preferably without a recipe, otherwise I doctor it up), dancing, live cultural performances, identifying the tasting notes in a good cup of coffee, exploring neighborhoods for hidden gems, and anything else that sparks the senses and allows me to experience all the beauty, dynamism, and intrigue that vivaciously living in a remarkable world offers.


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