My lab mates used to tease me about my tables and charts pinned haphazardly around my desk. They belied my dedication to organization, a skill I applied to my lab work as well as to exploring career options beyond the bench.
With a sense that any task could be accomplished given sufficient organization of mind, I approached choosing a career away from the bench in a logical, organized way. One book in particular, So What are you Going to Do With That? by Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius, aided me in my quest. The authors urge PhD’s to consider how their work in the lab, as teaching assistants, and in various student organizations have given them tools that are transferable to other fields. Though this book now appears to be out of print, similar resources are available in the Bio Career Center bookstore.
For example, a skill that many of us hone during graduate school, and that is indispensable at the bench, is multitasking. Running a gel while reading the latest articles related to your project while monitoring a long-term project that you started a month ago trains you to execute multiple projects, each with its own time line, all progressing simultaneously.
Likewise, working away from the bench in government and non-profit sectors, the ability to juggle various projects simultaneously is invaluable. In the quest to translate science to the non-scientific audience, relevance of the information is paramount. This means that short deadlines dominate and that items that are late are useless. Overlaid on these short fuse projects are longer–term projects such as strategic planning for the next quarter or even the next year. It is crucial to continue to make incremental progress on the longer-term projects while still putting out the fire of the day.
A second example of a scientific skill that translates to life away from the lab is the ability to communicate clearly and concisely. At scientific meetings, department retreats and student seminars we are trained to explain our research program to an audience of our peers. Those within and outside our field must be able to understand what we do in order to evaluate our progress and collaborate effectively.
The skill of communicating clearly and with concision is equally applicable to work in policy, particularly in the federal government. It is not uncommon to pack the pertinent details about an issue into less than one page for someone at the level of assistant secretary or above to read. Similarly, if you are asked to verbally summarize your department, or even your country’s position on an issue, your answer must be logical, clear and concise or you will fail to convince those listening.
Given that so much that we learn at the bench is translatable to a career outside the lab, I now urge recovering bench scientists to think of their ability to run PCR, care for cell lines, flies, worms or mice and read the latest e-table of contents as multi-tasking. The discipline required to complete a PhD is indispensable for completing projects on time in the world outside academia. Learning how to express yourself clearly and succinctly, especially to non-scientists, is crucial to a successful career in science policy.
This ability to communicate science to non-scientists was what first made me consider science policy as a career. I was further inspired to pursue science policy when, as I finished graduate school, the U.S. invaded Iraq and it became clear that, because of military spending, the NIH research budget would not continue to grow at anywhere near the rapid pace it had enjoyed during over the past 5 years. I joined the Joint Steering Committee for Public Policy – a coalition of three biomedical research societies and a science education advocacy organization. It was during one of JSCPP’s Capitol Hill Days that I first got to explain the importance of basic biomedical research to non-scientist policy makers.
The experience both educated and humbled me as I came to realize that biomedical research funding was one of a myriad of complicated issues the talented hill staffers dealt with every day. And while it was an issue of central importance to me and to the other scientists who met with staffers on the hill that day, it was one of many moving pieces of the budgetary puzzle that had to come together to keep the federal government running.
For me, the first and most-important step to moving to a career outside the lab was to conduct informational interviews with people working in science policy. To be clear, the purpose of an informational interview is not to get a job but to get information about the job. It is customary to meet for coffee or for lunch (the interviewer pays) or to talk over the phone for no more than 20 minutes (unless the interviewee encourages further discussion). A typical informational interview should answer general questions such as how the person got their job, what is most challenging about the job, what the possibilities for advancement are and who else do they know in this field that you might talk to. Remember that most jobs off the academic track are gotten through networking, not through submitting a resume to HR, so building your network is essential. Bio Career Center and The New York Academy of Science Science Alliance have more tips on effective networking. Always thank the interviewees for their time in an email afterward.
In my search for options outside the lab, I spoke to a number of people who were working in science policy and came to the conclusion that, for me, the most expeditious way to gain experience in the field would be to do a fellowship. There are two well-known organizations that sponsor science policy fellows: the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the National Academies of Science (NAS).
The main differences between the two programs lie in their length and eligibility requirements. The AAAS Fellowships, of which there are many scattered throughout the legislative and executive branches, requires applicants to have received doctoral level degree or Masters in Engineering plus 3 years of experience before applying. The NAS Fellowship, centered at the National Academies, is open to graduate students, postdoctoral scholars and those who have completed graduate studies or postdoctoral research within the last 5 years. For those individuals who wish to test the water before plunging in to a career in science policy, this 10-week option may be more attractive.
To start with, I did a two year fellowship at the U.S. Department of State through the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship. It made more sense to me than doing a 10-week fellowship at the National Academies, given that I had almost completed my PhD and was eligible for the AAAS fellowship program. Having met participants in both programs, I believe that either fellowship offers a fantastic opportunity to transition to a career in science policy.
Lisa Sproul Hoverman, PhD has a BS from Carlow University and a graduate degree from the University of Pittsburgh on the kinetics of Kinesin motor proteins. In her Postdoc at Penn State University, she examined the kinetics of DNA polymerases. She has since formed her own company in scientific and medical writing services. Dr. Hoverman’s largest long-term Client is the Microsoft Health Solutions Group where she serves as one of three Senior Grant and Proposal Specialists as part of the Business Desk in Sales.
Copyright Lisa Sproul Hoverman, PhD
Published with permission