Science graduate students mostly learn about careers in academia or laboratory research during their training. This may be frustrating for students who enjoy science but do not enjoy benchwork, or perhaps do not want a PhD. Thankfully, there are a variety of science careers that do not involve laboratory research. This blog series covers five different career fields: patent law, science policy, science communication, scientific consulting, and clinical research.
Part 2: Science Policy
What is Science Policy?
Science policy is a multidisciplinary field that spans science, politics, communication and advocacy. Individuals who work in science policy may be part of a government agency and work on policy writing or implementation. Others may be involved in communicating science to the public. Because science policy is such a diverse field, the career opportunities are practically endless. To give you an illustration of the potential career opportunities, Dr. Steph Guerra created a science policy career map. This map is a wonderful resource that may help you decide which branches of science policy you want to explore further, as well as different organizations to contact about open positions.
Interview with Dr. Arielle Baker
To learn more about a day in the life of a science policy professional, I interviewed Dr. Arielle Baker, who works at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM). Below is a summary of what I learned.
In their fourth year of Ph.D. training, Dr. Baker began investigating career opportunities outside of academia. A thesis committee member suggested that they look into science policy, so Dr. Baker reached out to their National Institutes of Health (NIH) Program Officer for an informational interview to learn more about their science policy career. Interviews like these helped Dr. Baker realize that they might be interested in pursuing a career in this space, so they subsequently learned about, applied, and was granted a fellowship designed for students new to science policy: The Mirzayan Fellowship. This prestigious fellowship led Dr. Baker to their position at NASEM.
NASEM is a non-profit and non-partisan organization that was established in 1863. You are probably familiar with the National Academy of Science’s scientific journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS). NASEM has broad goals in science policy that extend beyond PNAS, with a two-fold purpose-driven mission:
- Provide independent objective information to the general public about science and technology.
- Help solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions.
Much of NASEM’s activities are carried out by staff members helping to manage committees of experts on specific policy issues. Committee members discuss research applicable to their issue, and in the case of the NASEM’s most common activity, must come to a consensus of the evidence pertinent to the topic. Once consensus is reached, the committee writes a report detailing findings and recommendations on the subject, including any advised action steps for addressing the issue. You can learn more about their recent reports on their website (https://www.nationalacademies.org) and download these reports and other publications for free from their publisher (https://www.nap.edu).
Dr. Baker is a Program Officer at NASEM. They work on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion in higher education – an area of interest they indicated when applying to the Mirzayan Fellowship. Dr. Baker’s favorite part about working at NASEM is the people they work with. They appreciate the supportive, respectful work environment and that their coworkers are passionate about making science a better place. Some of their responsibilities include bringing together committee members and organizing meetings, reading scientific articles, and writing consensus reports.
Being a Program Officer does not require a Ph.D., but it does usually require some level of post-baccalaureate education. Dr. Baker highlighted some skills they developed during their Ph.D. training that they utilize regularly as part of this career:
- Presentation skills – every graduate student has plenty of presentation opportunities during their training, including lab meetings, journal clubs, seminars, and conferences. It is important to use these opportunities to refine your presentation abilities. Dr. Baker uses this skill regularly for presentations at colleges and universities.
- Critically analyzing data – this skill is key when reading research articles and helping the committee coming to consensus on the evidence on a particular issue.
- Managing and communicating with people – this is essential when organizing committees and interacting with researchers and other stakeholders.
- Writing skills – Dr. Baker wrote grants, scientific papers, and articles for the graduate studies office during their Ph.D. training (not to mention their own thesis and first-author papers!). These experiences helped them develop their writing skills that they use regularly, especially when writing reports.
Check out some of the great things Dr. Baker is working on by following them on Twitter!
Am I Qualified for a Career in Science Policy?
There are opportunities for individuals of all levels of college education (bachelor’s, master’s, or PhD) and of various academic backgrounds in science policy. While a science or engineering degree is helpful for many positions, they are not required for all of them. Having a degree in the following can also qualify you for a career in science policy:
- Public Health
- Political Science
- Public Policy
Of note, if you currently enrolled in a graduate or professional program in any of the above fields, or if you have recently graduated, you qualify for the Mirzayan Fellowship!
If you are interested in delving deeper into the world of science policy, below are some great links that can help you get started (big thank you to Dr. Baker for providing me with many of these awesome resources!):
- Engaging Scientists & Engineers in Policy (ESEP) Coalition Resource Database: Contains programs, fellowships, teaching resources, conferences, networking opportunities, toolkits, and more!
- ESEP Happy Hour (NC): The ESEP also holds monthly happy hours for individuals interested in science policy. This link is specific to the North Carolina happy hour, but they hold these all over the US.
- American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science and Technology Policy Fellowships: Requires a master’s in engineering or a doctoral level science degree.
- Christine Mirzayan Science and Technology Policy Graduate Fellowship Program: Must be either a current graduate/professional school student or have graduated within the last 5 years (see description above). This fellowship is also open to DACA recipients!
- 10 Science Policy Fellowships for Scientists and Science Advocates
Science policy is a fascinating career path, providing opportunities to impact the public perception of science, science education, funding, and much more. Thank you to Dr. Baker for taking the time to speak to me about their career and the options available in this field.
Next time, I will be writing about science communication– stay tuned for the next article soon!