Sunday, November 13, 2011

Yale scientists explore science policy career opportunities

Last month a group of 23 enthusiastic wannabe policy wonks [otherwise known as your lovable lab rats - current graduate students (like me!) and postdoctoral fellows] went on a two-day science policy careers field trip to Washington, D.C. The goal of this trip was to give science Ph.D. holders a glimpse of the various job opportunities available in the government that do not involve research at the bench. We attended a series of panels representing certain areas of policy in which scientists have successfully made an impact.

The first session took place at the Department of the Interior and was geared towards those with an ecology/zoology background. The panel included the Executive Director of the National Invasive Species Council, an ecologist at the US Environmental Protection Agency, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute and former Science Adviser to Clinton’s Secretary of the Interior, and the senior manager at the Brookings institute for cross-program initiatives.  (Just a note about the Brookings Institute – it is a think tank with core research programs focusing on economy and foreign policy, but biologists could find a role there with regard to health policy and climate change). The highly qualified panelists described their career lifestyle, which involved a lot of writing, e-mailing, attending meetings, lobbying, editing reports, and ultimately persuading their political counterparts on the Hill to get certain acts and bills passed.  They stressed that fact that you’re in the big leagues at the Hill and offered the following advice on how to get the right job and succeed as a scientist in the political world.  

  • One must have an “in” to be even considered for a position.  If you just apply online on the USgov website, you can count on your application to not even make it past Human Resources. Also, when applying for jobs, don’t limit yourself to your subject area. You have a Ph.D. – you should be able to pick up things quickly! Most of the panelists said they underwent on-the-job training, but they did warn that some jobs do require a Ph.D. in a specific subject – just read the application carefully.
We eventually went to panels that addressed these fellowships later in the afternoon.
  • As a policy analyst, you are responsible for getting your agency’s name out there and convincing a committee to allocate a budget for your agency. Thus, with regard to job applications, selling yourself as a “people person” with the ability to work in a team is key.  
  • Effective communication with the media is also a very important aspect of a science policy analyst’s job. To help with this, the panel suggested taking media and lecture training classes and even videotaping yourself to improve your speech skills. 
We departed the Department of the Interior, grabbed a quick bite to eat, and then headed over to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). The panel there consisted of former AAAS and Mirzayan fellows who are now working at the Policy and Global Affairs (PGA) division at the NAS. I was really interested in this panel, as it involved dealing with international science diplomacy as well as promoting science education. I was fascinated with one panelist’s account of establishing science doctoral programs in developing countries. Just as the earlier panel at the Interior noted, policy jobs at the NAS involve lots of writing via compiling briefing books to inform various committees on the topic. The panel concluded by giving us three pieces of advice in order to successfully land and retain a job in science policy: 
  1. Practice writing, especially writing policy briefs
  2. Practice distilling interesting information into 1-2 pages
  3. Find out as much as you can about the Agency you’re applying to. 
This was a really engaging and informative panel, and I thoroughly enjoyed it!

The final session for the day involved panelists who had been AAAS fellows. I won’t go much into detail about this, as most of the information is on the website, but it was interesting to hear about how the experience as a Congressional fellow (the most competitive position), differed from that of an Executive fellow.  The former is more of a generalist position and focuses on legislation while an Executive fellow may have more specific projects in the Departments of Health and Human Services (community and federal health, budgeting grants for biomedical research), State (opportunities to travel abroad), Education (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics [STEM] initiative), etc (for a complete listing, please click here). The AAAS fellowship is intended for someone who hasn’t had any prior formal policy training but has demonstrated a strong interest for science policy in their recent work/studies.  To apply, you must be a U.S. citizen and have defended your Ph.D. thesis before the application deadline.  The panelists seemed to have suggested that there is no preference for a fresh vs. a veteran Ph.D. applicant. Also present was a AAAS Mass Media fellow and a program coordinator. The 10-week summer program for anyone who is currently doing their graduate studies or has already graduated and who has previously not had extensive journalism experience. Pretty much you are assigned to a newspaper and have the position of a science staff writer. You work with a mentor, writing articles weekly; many fellows have generated front page articles!  This internship definitely sounds valuable for any scientist – honing those communication skills is vital for not only the political arena, but in academia as well (re: grant-writing)! However, the panelists advised us that writing in political world differs immensely from academia in that the conclusion is always stated first, which is what the politicians only care about, while the supporting evidence comes later. People just care about the sound bites and don’t have patience for the details, as is the case in academia. Time doesn’t stop in D.C., where changes are implemented everyday! 

In the evening we had a cocktail part with two AAAS fellows. One of them was my TA for my Virology class while I was an undergrad at Princeton! It was great catching up with him, and he offered a lot of great advice. Overall, it was a tiring but very informative day. 

The next morning we took the Metro to the Pentagon to visit some former AAAS fellows who are now working in the Department of Defense (DoD). Our contact is a former Yale graduate student, who gave us a casual tour around the Pentagon and then introduced us to the panelists. Although these jobs require more analytical skills such as crunching data for predicting the future usage of technology, practice of local and global diplomacy is still essential in relaying the analysis to both officials in the U.S. and foreign countries. The former scientists said they viewed their jobs as a way to bring a rational thought process to someone with a specific point of view and that the means of influence should be made on the premise of unbiased, observational assumptions. Additionally, they informed us that the DoD also has plenty of science and technology research lab positions that are poorly advertised in case one still wanted to do bench work research.

After the Pentagon session, we headed back to New Haven. I must admit, I wasn’t ready to part with D.C. – I loved the clean, uncrowded, and sophisticated vibe of the Federal district. There are many beautiful areas in this historic city, not to mention a medley of restaurants to whet your appetite during any part of the day! One can definitely sense the cultural and intellectual ambience (our cocktail party was at a bar called the Science Club!). Overall, I had a great time on this trip, and the panels definitely opened my eyes to an eclectic array of careers for Ph.Ds.  I definitely encourage every scientist to consider becoming a policy wonk. It’s so important to educate politicians as well as their constituents about the importance of science research because science can’t progress without the help of government funding and legislation. Ultimately, it is up to us to effectively bridge the gap between the lab and the Hill.

-Keerthi Shetty
3rd year Immunobiology Ph.D. candidate
If you're interested in learning about the science behind everyday stuff, be sure to check out my personal photo blog, A License to Science!

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