Monday, June 17, 2013

Ph.D. to D.C.

“A good taste of everything” was the resounding enthusiasm heard after April’s Yale PhD student trek to Washington DC. A large group of graduate students (in fields ranging from Pharmacology to Astronomy to Microbiology) enjoyed a two-day trip to explore some career opportunities away from the bench. The Science Policy career options were ubiquitous, with a touch of risk management and research scientist jobs thrown in for good measure. The trip was generously organized by two enthusiastic members of the Yale Student Science Diplomats and Yale's office of Graduate Career Services members.

Day 1:

First stop on the tour was the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) head-quarters. There, we were given the ins and outs of the coveted AAAS Science Policy fellowships. For a career in Science Policy, this stop was an informational bonanza, courtesy of the Director of the AAAS Center for Careers in Science and Technology and the Project Director of Outreach/Recruitment, Professional Development and Alumni Engagement for AAAS. As well as plenty of reading material, we were bombarded with more career suggestions than we could chew on – in a mere two hours, at least. We were advised to use to find the careers what suit us best. More information can also be found at We also listened to talks from a couple of Science Policy Fellows, one of whom works for the Cancer Genome Atlas, National Institutes of Health. Her job allows her to have one foot in science and the other in policy -an ideal scenario for those of us who don’t want to be too far away from the actual science.

The need for scientific writing experience was stressed and would, unbeknownst to us, be a recurring theme throughout the trip. The take home message was that a career in science policy requires a science PhD, most likely followed by a postdoc and a AAAS fellowship. The main caveat was that Non-US citizens are ineligible for the fellowships and should look elsewhere e.g. the Christine Mirzayan Science and Technology Policy Graduate Fellowship Program. Also, for those not interested in policy, the AAAS Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellows Program may be just the thing.

After a busy morning and rushed lunch, we scrambled back onto the Metro to the U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Crystal Drive. Here, we met a group led by a Yale Alumni. The Senior Biologist for the Environmental Fate and Effects Division, explained that her role mostly involved checking that newly patented pesticides meet EPA regulations. We also met a Toxicologist of Health Effects Division who assesses the long-term effects of certain pesticides while the short and long-term risk is calculated by the Risk Assessment and Regulation members of the Biopesticides division. Truly fascinating and informative stuff, even if they spend all day talking about various weed-killer! There appeared to be a lot of fluidity within the department – one could change roles with relative ease and this was commonplace. There was more emphasis on the use of scientific writing experience and the need to present complex data in a simplified way for these jobs. Most of the employees with PhDs had previously worked in academia or industry. That said, there was no indicator they won’t hire PhD graduates.

Day 2:

The next day, we made our way to the National Institute of Health (NIH). We were greeted by a panel of Yale Alumni. One was a Genetic Counselor with the Human Genome Institute and described how she helps and advises people living with genetic-defects. She explained that she felt she was close enough to the science and was really making an impact on patient’s lives. This was in contrast to Research Fellow in the for the Cell Biology and Metabolism program, this was very much a research and benchwork job. Another panel member was a Scientific Review Officer in the Mental Health and was largely responsible for accepting and rejecting various research funding applications. All members of the panel agreed that a postdoc was crucial – for all the aforementioned jobs. We were encouraged to apply for postdocs at the NIH as there is plenty of research funding and they can be 2 years long, not 5 years. The panel reminded us about importance of networking and having some scientific writing and leadership experience.

Following the panel, members of the NIH HR team provided some incredibly useful insight into the world of USAjobs. The website is used by anyone who wishes to apply for any jobs in the US government. However, non-US citizens need not bother – but are eligible for the postdoc positions. There appear to be many tricks of the trade when it comes to the application, so it is advisable to look up the job you want in advance and spend a few months molding your resume to match the criteria. Easy, right?

State Dept:
The next stop was the US State Dept. Here a panel of Yale and non-Yale PhD alumni literally WOW-ed us with their career path escapades. Their respective jobs in Science Policy did seem exciting and all carried various responsibilities depending on what department they were in. One common task was to turn complex data into a simple and palatable form for non-experts. This was true for the fellows in State for Oceans, Environment and Sciences and the Foreign Affairs Office. All the fellows admitted to working 10-12 hours a day and sleeping with their Blackberries. They had all done the AAAS Science Policy Fellowship and expressed that it was key to their current policy positions. However, it was encouraging to hear that most of the panel members were not offered the AAAS fellowship the first year they applied. So, there is hope for those who are persistent. The people we met at the State Department all had similar personalities but very varied backgrounds. Perhaps it takes a certain ‘type’ of person to work there…someone without children, maybe.

After an amazing dinner at a local Spanish restaurant in the Federal district, we ended the trip in the bar called the ‘Science Club’ for drinks and hors d’oeuvres while listening to a few talks from the Food and Drug Administration. Although this was a brief glimpse into a life at the FDA, the Associate Director for Research at Center for Biologics Research (CBER) and the Deputy Director for Research at CBER, told us about the many fellowships and training opportunities we could apply for. They did not go into much detail about what their jobs actually entail but did encourage us to look up the training programs. For more details, see the Commissioners Fellowship Program and the ORISE Fellowships at

Overall, the experience was invaluable – from a networking and informational gathering perspective. 1 in 8 PhD students stays in academia – so it appears these agencies and the work they provide is only the tip of the iceberg. I hope the trip will continue to be an annual event.  For those of you who are not hell-bent on a career in academia should definitely attend. Even just to window-shop for a career. No purchasing required.

Olivia Kelada
Medical Physics PhD Candidate